Over to you Holly & Sanjida ...
Q&A with Sanjida Kay by Holly Seddon
Holly Seddon: I downloaded Bone by Bone shortly after it was published, and found myself sinking back into it at every opportunity. It’s beautifully written, artfully plotted and will send a shiver down the spine of every adult who has ever cared for a child. It was therefore a real pleasure to pick the brain of author Sanjida Kay.
Q. Bone by Bone hinges around recently-divorced Laura and her nine-year-old daughter Autumn. They live alone in a large house and you capture the terror of being the only adult in the family home perfectly. Are you someone who gets spooked easily?
Thank you! I don’t think I’m easily spooked, but I’ve always had terrible nightmares. I realised recently that I would be very weird to play a word association game with. So if you were to say, sweet, I’d say, choke; car - crash, wood - wolf…okay I’ll stop there! Maybe I’m meant to be a thriller writer!
Q. Before I was a parent, I found it easier to write about devastating things happening to children. Now I have certain ‘limits’ that I can’t cross. How did you cope with writing the scenes involving nine-year-old Autumn, did it effect you outside of writing time?
I agree. There are things I don’t want to write about now, much less think about. I used to cry when I read early drafts of Bone by Bone. With my second thriller, The Stolen Child (out next April) I avoided some research. It was only once I’d finished and was pretty close to sending it to my publishers (yours too!), that I forced myself to read Kate McCann’s book about Madeleine.
Q. I think even the most mild mannered pacifists have one red line where, if it were crossed, they could see themselves reacting with violence. And for me, as for many, it’s my children. The idea of acting to protect your children, and that leading to dark consequences feels very real and very close to home. Are we all one rash move from disaster? Was it hard putting yourself into that situation, albeit it in your imagination?
I know what you mean! I find confrontation difficult, but I know I could be very fierce on behalf of my daughter. Even watching kids pushing her out of the way on the slide in the park is tricky! Maybe it’s our generation though? Perhaps we’ve become pushy, overprotective parents in opposition to our more laissez-faire mothers and fathers. And then that begets the moral question - how acceptable is violence if we can understand, and would maybe even react in a similar way in the same circumstances?
Q. Bone by Bone is absolutely a thriller, with suspense, twists and jumpy bits. But I thought it was also a really beautiful examination of how it feels to be part of the sandwich: The adult daughter critiquing her own mother while feeling critiqued (and criticised) by her, and the single parent feeling powerless and alone in supporting and nurturing her own daughter. Did you consciously want to look at those grandmother/mother/daughter relationships or was that something that just developed naturally?
Oh I’m so glad you noticed that and it resonated with you too! I always like to have a theme going on in my work and that was one of my mine in Bone by Bone. I’m interested in the intensity of the relationship women have with their mothers and their daughters; the idea that you are always a daughter, and once you have a child, you will never stop being a mother.
I’m also fascinated by how a mother raises a child in one way, and she will rebel - or attempt to rebel, but in doing so, will both make her own mistakes, and turn into a version of her mother anyway. The book that had the most impact on me when I was researching Bone by Bone was, You’re Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen, in which she analyses how mothers and daughters seek approval from each other, but misread one another - seeing care as criticism. She describes how horrible she was to her mother because her mum was a little plump, and Deborah was skinny (even though Deborah knew her mum weighed 99 pounds when she got married). Later in life, her mum poked her finger into Deborah’s not-so-flat mid-riff and, whilst she was hurt, she felt it was payback for her behaviour as a teenager. How amazing it would be to get out of this vicious cycle but I’m not sure it’s so easy.
Q. You mention British Military Fitness classes in Bone by Bone a few times. I’ve done these (brutal!) classes a few times and they’re awesome – are you a fan?
I’m a big fan of British Military Fitness and you’re right, it’s brutal! It’s actually where I met my husband! After my daughter was born, I downloaded the BMF app and I used to go to the park and do a workout next to the buggy while she was sleeping. I figured if anyone tried to snatch my daughter when I was doing my sprints, I’d sprint back faster! (Darn it, that was a nice scene in a park and I had to turn it into child abduction.)
Q. I love that you have a PhD in chimpanzees. Do you still do any academic work in this field and are there any other ambitions you have outside of writing?
I still work as a wildlife presenter now and again, mainly for Countryfile. I like making films about British wildlife - I’m passionate about our countryside. I’d love to film in a jungle or up a mountain, but I don’t want to leave my family for too long. I did a shoot in Australia and that was the longest I’ve been away from them. It was only a week so I spent half the time on the plane!
Q. Bristol is the backdrop for the action in Bone by Bone and we see its dark corners and its fancy bits. Was it a pleasure to showcase your city? Did you feel any pressure to get it spot on knowing your fellow Bristolians would read the book?
I partly set Bone by Bone where I live because my daughter was tiny when I was writing it, so I didn’t have to go anywhere or do any research, and I was out pounding the streets with the buggy every day anyhow! But I do love Bristol; I like the juxtaposition between urban and wild, between rich and poor and black and white in this city of mine. Although the descriptions are accurate, the geography is not - I moved chunks around to make my plot work. So far no-one has complained. Maybe readers were just glad to see somewhere other than London in a thriller!!
Q. As a writer, I’m really interested to know how you found switching from historical fiction to thrillers? Was this an itch you always wanted to scratch?
For me, it’s always about the story - as I’m sure it is with you too. So my third novel happened to be historical. But then my publishers wanted another historical novel, when my inclination had been to go off in a different direction. I had the idea for Bone by Bone and then realised it was a psychological thriller. At that point I decided to do some research so I’d know what I was letting myself in for! I didn’t want to be one of those novelists who thinks writing in a genre is easy - and then makes a ton of mistakes! I’m not saying I’ve cracked it, but I hope I’ll always push myself and keep learning throughout my writing life.
Q. Are there any other genres you’d love to try? I have to admit to harbouring dreams of writing an old manor house murder mystery myself!
Oooh, that sounds Agatha Christie meets Barbara Vine! I’d read it! I’d like to write science fiction (I’m a mad Margaret Atwood fan) and thrillers - I like the way you can get drama and big issues into a thriller, whereas with domestic noir, the focus is almost laser-like in its intensity on the family.
Thank you so much for your insightful answers, Sanjida, and I for one am relieved not to be the only person who always sees the potential darkness on even the sunniest day!
About Sanjida Kay
Sanjida Kay has a PhD on chimpanzees and has had nine books published. She has also written features and columns for national newspapers and magazines about science and the environment, directed science documentaries and presented wildlife programmes for the BBC.
Four of her books are novels and she’s won some awards for her writing. Her fifth novel, Bone by Bone, is a psychological thriller published by Corvus Books. It went straight into the Amazon kindle best-selling list. Sanjida is writing a second thriller at the moment.
She lives in Bristol with her husband, Jaimie, and her daughter, who is five and wants to be a writer-palaeontologist.
Bone by Bone
Published by Corvus (Paperback - 1 September 2016)
Laura loves her daughter more than anything in the world.
But nine-year-old Autumn is being bullied. Laura feels helpless.
When Autumn fails to return home from school one day, Laura goes looking for her. She finds a crowd of older children taunting her little girl.
In the heat of the moment, Laura makes a terrible choice. A choice that will have devastating consequences for her and her daughter...