An interview with Melinda Salisbury author of The Sin Eater’s Daughter

Book cover for Melinda Salisbury's The Sleeping PrinceI interviewed Melinda Salisbury author of The Sin Eater’s Daughter. Melinda (Mel) likes to travel, and have adventures. She also likes medieval castles, non-medieval aquariums, Richard III, and all things Scandinavian. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is her first novel. Mel has recently announced the second book in the series: The Sleeping Prince.

Does being a feminist affect your writing or the way you read books?

Mel: Yes, it does, with regards to both. As far as reading goes, it’s made me very aware that sexism is still an internalised and inherent problem, though I think (or at least I hope) that authors don’t realise some of the things they’re writing are problematic. I’ve read books where female characters are treated badly by their partners or love interests, threatened/stalked/assaulted even, and it’s deemed romantic, passionate, aspirational. True love. I’ve seen young women I follow on Twitter talk about hot these characters are, and that scares me, because if they’re ever in a real-world situation where they’re being pinned against a wall by their partner, there’s the risk they’ll think that it’s ok. That it means they’re wanted, and loved. The romanticisation/fetisization of sexual and physical abuse in relationships is the tip of the feminist iceberg for me, with regards to fiction, especially YA. When you add into that the backlash against female characters who display perceived weaknesses or vulnerability, and the way readers are so much harder on female characters, it starts to become apparent we still have a long way to go.

I try to address that in my writing. I don’t want my heroines to be – to all intents and purposes – traditionally male characters but with boobs. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we identify ‘strong female characters’ as being those that have traits that are traditionally male badges of honour. They’re ruthless, stoic, often cruel or rude, repress their emotions, have excellent physical prowess, happy to kill if needed and don’t feel bad about it, but hey it’s ok because they wear dresses so they’re like, totally empowering women. No they’re not. They’re perpetuating the idea that traditional female characteristics are automatic weaknesses: women stuff = lesser. Characteristics like empathy, compassion, nurturing, openly expressing emotion, being physically weaker, all fall by the wayside or worse are considered negative behaviours, and that damages everyone. We’ve spent years telling our boys that crying is for girls, and that feeling is bad, I don’t want us to say it to our girls too. It binds men to gendered expectations as much as it does women and hurts all of us.

It’s something I was very conscious of with Twylla. There’s a push to make female characters likeable, and I don’t even know what that means. Or relatable. Who the hell is universally relatable? I opted to make her real. She’s a female fantasy character, so it would have been so easy to commit to type and have her be formidable and feisty, especially given the fact she has power. It’s what’s expected in that genre, particularly. But for me it would have been a betrayal of my feminist ideals, to perpetuate that trope. I wanted to write a character who was sweet and lost, vulnerable, and naïve, and not very strong, but also stubborn, and hot-tempered and impulsive. She makes bad decisions, she isn’t three steps ahead of everyone, but she’s far from stupid. She’s blinkered by her own experiences, she learns as she goes along and it doesn’t come easy, there’s no deus ex machina for her in the end. She’s a real person. I owed her that. I owed readers that. I owed everyone that.

Is there a reason we don’t see Twylla stray outside the castle ground until the very of the The Sin Eater’s Daughter? Is the castle a metaphor for her internal confinement?

Mel: It does work as a metaphor, but the actual reason is a lot less nuanced. It’s simply because the Queen couldn’t control her outside the castle. Leaving it would expose Twylla to new people, new places, and new ideas, and that would cause Twylla to ask questions, or begin to push back against her (indeed, as does happen when she is exposed to change). Twylla’s life lacks diversity in any form purely because the Queen needs her to believe the castle is all, that she is all. It’s having Twylla and her abilities that give the Queen a lot of her standing. Twylla is a hotline to the Gods of life and death. The Queen needs to keep her on a short leash to keep the castle, and the kingdom, constant. She can’t afford for Twylla to change. But of course the introduction of Merek and Lief – and especially the eye-opener of Lief’s attitude towards the Queen, and Merek’s plans for reformation – is what sparks Twylla to start looking more closely at things, and ask questions. They are the new thing in a world unchanging so they become the catalyst for her changes. It’s when Merek returns, and the Queen realises that things are going to change, that she launches her horrific plan to make sure things stay the same.

If there was one lesson you could have conveyed to a reader through The Sin Eater’s Daughter what do you hope it would be?

Mel: That there are lots of different ways to be strong. Sometimes being strong means fighting a dragon. Sometimes it means tricking it. Sometimes it means running, and to keep on running. And sometimes just staying alive is the strongest thing of all. And the bravest.

When I reviewed your book on my blog I discussed the theme of identity in The Sin Eater’s Daughter and how Twylla struggles to be her own person, was this your intention?

Mel: Yes. Very much yes. It takes a lot for Twylla to stand up for herself. I was beginning to feel quite jaded with the whole “I woke up this morning and realised the corrupt system I have lived under my entire life is wrong and I am going to say so” trope. In books heroines and heroes would suddenly find this magical hidden reservoir of strength inside themselves, or they’d know with blinding clarity who they truly were and step up to the plate and it never chimed with me. I’m an adult and have a lot more freedom and resources than a typical teen and I still haven’t got a clue who I am. I was asked on Tumblr why Twylla didn’t just leave the castle, and I was baffled by the question. Because she’s seventeen, because her family disowned her and she has nowhere to go; no house, no money, no job, no friends. She’s not prepared in any way for life outside the castle, how could she leave? Leave and do what? There is no social housing or job-seekers allowance in Lormere, the Queen is the authority. Twylla can’t even read, she never needed to with her mother and the Queen doesn’t want Twylla to have any power. She’d die in the streets. Are we suggesting that’s better than living unhappily?

Of course she has a limited sense of self; she’s never had room to form one. She has been told all her life what she is, and that’s been backed up time and time again by reminding her she’s special and different. She’s distanced from anything that might influence her, first by the circumstances of her mother’s role and then, at the castle, by the Queen’s design. She doesn’t want to hurt people. She has to tell herself all the time it’s for the Gods, that she is their tool and her actions therefore aren’t really hers. She has to make herself believe it because the alternative is unbearable.

People form identities when they’re exposed to change and have to react. When they meet new people, when they learn new things, see new things, try new things. All of these experiences shape you and make you. And then of course, there’s the influence of what’s around you. Twylla’s mother was dedicated to her role, as the Queen is hers; so Twylla mimics that because it’s what she knows. She clings to the Gods because they’re what she knows. She begins to learn more about who she truly is once her boundaries start to change and her world opens up. And it scares her. Change is scary and she’s frightened because the stakes are so high for her, and because she doesn’t know what happens next, and she doesn’t have the love and support a lot of us take for granted to guide her through. But she does begin to know herself. She starts to act against the queen, she disobeys orders, she follows her instincts. But naturally. And slowly. It’s hard to change your behaviour. The second I get a lightning bolt personality makeover, I’ll give my characters one. Until then they’re going to do it the real way. Slowly, painfully. With mistakes.

Going off topic a bit, I did a panel once and someone asked if I’d made her deliberately ‘unlikeable’ and I asked what they meant. They said ‘because she doesn’t stand up for herself, she lets everyone walk all over her and she’s just miserable about it’ and I had to really bite my tongue and not call the girl out for victim blaming. I think people, especially in the democratic west, underestimate what a privilege it is to be able to know your mind and speak it and not worry about the consequences. For a lot of people – a lot of women, across the world – that is not an option.

That people seem unaware, or unconcerned or unmoved by that, is terrifying. She’s so blatantly abused, and yet what some people seem to take away from that is she’s unlikeable because she doesn’t do anything about it for a long time.In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about Carrie, and how he found her so hard to write because she “was thick and passive, a ready-made victim”. I don’t think we’ve much moved on from that mentality in a lot of ways. That victims must be asking for it. For all the Tumblr rants and awareness days on Twitter, there is still a massive resistance to the idea that victims of abuse aren’t somehow responsible for it.

Much of The Sin Eater’s Daughter is based around Twylla’s internal struggle. Why did you take this approach?

Mel: I wonder sometimes if I’d written the book in contemporary setting would there still be as much bewilderment that the story is actually about Twylla’s emotional journey? In a modern day setting, the castle could be a commune for a religious cult, the queen could obviously be a cult leader, and I wonder if that would make it easier for some readers to relate to her struggles. To allow her to have them, and for them to be small, everyday struggles.

Or if it was a high school and she was the star student with an abusive, pushy mother, who felt she had to do what was expected of her?

But because it’s a fantasy, the trope insists her journey should be very action-filled and she should behave in a way that’s empowered and brave. Her struggles should be a small part of her character arc while she’s actually saving the kingdom from the big bad, and not vice-versa. But that’s not the case.

Her struggles are the main story. They’re not a character trait; she is the story.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter is the story of a girl who’s been systematically and consistently emotionally abused her entire life, by both of the dominant figures in it. Everyone has an agenda for her. She was tremendously neglected by her mother, and because of her mother she was ostracised by her peers. At thirteen she takes the opportunity to change that, albeit for shallow reasons, she believes she can get something better by leaving her mother’s home so she does. Only to find it’s not better at all.

The Queen controls every aspect of her life. She allows Twylla to sing for the king, knowing singing makes her happy, because that small, insignificant act is enough to make Twylla think the Queen has her best intentions at heart. She makes a point of letting Twylla know that she gets nothing from it, but will allow it to happen despite that. She says it, explicitly, that everything she does is because she cares for Twylla, even as she twists the knife. It’s the worst kind of insidious abuse, because Twylla has no idea she’s being abused. That’s the story. I wrote a book about a young woman learning to free herself from a life of systematic dogma and abuse, but because I set it in a fantasy world with some other fantasy stuff, I’ve apparently foxed a lot of people.

Your writing has been described as dark. Do you feel that it encourages hopelessness or is it a refreshingly accurate representation of reality?

Mel: Both. Neither. I don’t know! I’d like to think it’s realistic, even though it’s set in a fantasy world. There are no easy answers, there are no shortcuts. People in my world are petty, and jealous, and cruel, and selfish, and ignorant, and wilful, as they are in our world. Some of them are also good, and noble, and honourable, and idealistic. Maybe it’s the realism that makes it dark? I don’t think it encourages hopelessness though.

If you could resurrect any character from the Harry Potter series – who would it be and why?

Mel: Finally we get to the good stuff! I should say Fred Weasley, or Tonks, or Lily Potter because of all of the reasons. But it’d be Sirius Black. Because I love him and because he had no chance at a life at all and it makes me tremendously sad. He was twenty one when he went to prison, and thirty six when he died, after spending 12 years doing a sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. And before he went to prison he was fighting a war. I’d like him to just have a nice bit of life. Instead he had Azkaban and getting drunk with Buckbeak in the childhood home he hated.

This is my first author interview. So, thank you Mel, your answers have been so amazing. It has made me appreciate The Sin Eater’s Daughter very much and I look forward to reading The Sleeping Prince.

An announcement: YAShot

This year I will be attending YAShot. YAShot is a one-day Young Adult and Middle Grade festival taking place in the centre of Uxbridge on Wednesday 28 October 2015 the event will have 69 authors who will be doing many panels, talks, workshops and signings. Melinda Salisbury will also be attending this event and so this post fits in nicely with the YAShot blog tour.