Author, Stephanie Bretherton, has recently published her first novel Bone Lines, a story that not only talks about the expectations that the modern world has on our lives but intertwines it with a wonderful historical twist. The product is a touching story about how love and loss, the strive for better continues to drive us, thousands of years on.
You can check out my review of Bone Lines here!
Here’s a Q&A with Stephanie, all about her release of Bone Lines, what she has planned for the future of her writing and her experiences with publishing a novel!
Congratulations on the publication of Bone Lines, back in September 2018! This book fits well into the genre of historical fiction. What was it that made you want to write in this genre?
Thank you so much, Hannah! I didn’t set out to write in any particular genre but decided I wanted to write a book about the things that interested me most, because I knew that publishing was a long shot for an unknown under any circumstances, so if I was going to put all that (spare) time, love and energy into it, I needed to stay motivated. Of course, I also hoped that it would engage others, whether they initially had similar interests or not, but there were never any guarantees.
I have always enjoyed history, particularly the study of our human journey and what makes us who we are. On the other hand I’ve always been interested in where we’re going and what we will become and I enjoy sci-fi, particularly when it’s a deep exploration of human nature, past, present and possible. I think curiosity is one of our most significant human traits and this both drove me as a writer – as it does my characters. I studied science at school only up until the age of 16 (and I loved Biology) but I was encouraged to choose the door marked ‘Arts’ instead. Even so, I have maintained an interest bubbling away in the background – and the great thing about our ‘connected’ world these days is that science has become so much more accessible and open.
As someone who has studied history, I really love when a book with a historical storyline sounds legitimate and plausible. Did writing this book require a lot of historical research for writing Sarah’s point of view?
I didn’t do any specific study before I began (or rather before ‘Sarah’ appeared and demanded to be written about!) but I had already done a fair amount of reading (and ‘watching’ – television documentaries can be a valuable source of inspiration) around the subject whenever it crossed my path, as ancient history has always fascinated to me. The interesting thing about Sarah, however, is that she arrived almost fully formed and then told me where she would go, what she would do and how she would survive.
When I needed to do a bit of specific research to check plausibility or understand how she might do something, or what her landscape might look like, then I did so – but this also worked the other way. If, in the general course of reading, I came across something I felt might be useful or relevant to Sarah’s journey then I might find a way to incorporate it. There remain some living ‘archives’ of our human story in the form of certain isolated hunter gatherer tribes in various parts of the world today, that suggest how we might have survived – and related to each other – in very ancient times, periods when our founding populations would have been greatly reduced. I also drew from my own culture’s history and traditions. But what I felt I was really drawing on, and hopefully honouring, was the deepest and more universal aspects of human nature. The things that still bind and connect us all.
As well as that, Elouise often talks with a very intellectual air when it comes to her work with DNA. Did you do research on this field before you began writing or did you pick it up along the way?
Again, genetics is a subject that has always fascinated me, as has neuroscience, and it does come back to that same question of what makes us who we are? I do read popular science journals and watch a lot of documentaries and whenever I see an interesting link somewhere on relevant social media channels I follow them – and then tend to be sucked down all kinds of wormholes! Some of it can be useful to the writing directly, most the time it works as a kind of background motivation and inspiration, especially if it confirms that I’m on the right track.
For Eloise, there were certain aspects of her work and professional life that I had to do specific research about – and I did talk to a Professor of genetics at UCL to ask certain key questions, which was hugely helpful – but Eloise also needed to be a complex character, with both strengths and weaknesses, passions, confusions and driving objectives, and a lot of the way she thinks or acts emerged naturally as her character developed.
I’m sure real-world scientists would find the occasional fault with the actualities of her life and work, or even personality – and with the way she stays open to explore the more esoteric ideas (although hopefully not the science itself, as I have been assured!) but I had to take a certain amount of fictional license – and to combine and composite certain roles and aspects – in order to keep the plot moving alongside all the ‘ideas’ and to add a touch of drama, emotion or tension. While Sarah’s challenges and sufferings are more external, Eloise’s are more internalised – although she too faces certain real dangers.
Is the study of history and human evolution something that you’ve been interested in for a while or just something that you thought would make an enjoyable read?
I really wasn’t sure if anyone else would be as interested, in terms of fiction anyway, but of course, there is a big audience for these subjects now in non-fiction, and that was an encouragement because I felt that it wasn’t necessarily too much of a stretch to pull those audiences across? However, I did realise quite early on that what I was developing was a novel of ideas as much as the story of two women. I knew this was risky and I knew it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea – and that it might be a challenge to refine all those ideas – but I thought it had to be worth a try. It’s been gratifying to have my book (even when occasionally criticised) at least be referred to as ‘brave’ or ‘fascinating’ or ‘ambitious’. I would rather have written a ‘brave’ book than one that was cynically commercial and into which I could not authentically throw my heart, mind and soul.
I really loved Elouise’s tone throughout the book. She came across as someone who was comfortable enough with herself not to care about other people’s thoughts, someone who was a proud intellectual who had her life together. Obviously, despite the hang-ups that we all have from time to time, I really love the strong nature of this character. Was it a conscious decision to make her this way?
Thank you, that is really lovely to hear, as I know Eloise is the type of character that not everybody will love or understand! Not everyone may feel that it is possible to be both independent, professional and ambitious, to be fully prepared make some tough decisions and sacrifices in your life – and yet still nurture a longing for love, and yes for sex too! (Any younger women out there, I’m quite happy to tell you that these things do not subside with middle-age and in some ways only get better 😊).
Yes it was absolutely a conscious decision to make Eloise this way, and also to make one of her primary faults a tendency to overthinking, and the fact that she can wrap herself up in mental knots, sometimes to the point where it paralyses her personal decision making. And yet her deep thinking is also part of her strength, it’s what allows her the leaps of imagination and problem solving, it’s part of the understanding and ultimate compassion that motivate her and make her good at her job. I understood that all her ‘reflection’ would occasionally slow down the narrative, but I felt it was crucial to the truth of Eloise as a character.
I also loved the theme of relationships in this book. The way that Elouise and Darius were most definitely no longer romantically involved but could still rely on each other, the way that Elouise just couldn’t stop her feelings for Tom – it all felt so real. That and Elouise’s crushes made her feel more realistic as I’m sure we’ll all had those moments. Are these relationships based on anyone? Or what made you write them this way?
Thank you again, yes I wanted to make these relationships feel real and complex (which means occasionally messy and contradictory – even bordering on ‘inappropriate’) and the places where Eloise – as tough as she can be – allows herself to be vulnerable. Eloise is overly cerebral sometimes, but also a creature of passion. While her relationships and drives might not ring true to everybody who has not experienced a complicated or even occasionally ‘foolish’ love life in this way, in their nature if not actuality they are certainly drawn (or composited from) either observed, overheard or experienced truths! And yes, it was important to me that Eloise and Darius could work towards a form of reconciliation, as forgiveness is one of the key themes of the book, as is the notion that it doesn’t have to be religiously inspired but that, in general, if put into practice it can make life significantly better and more productive for everyone.
The characters in this book all have wonderfully different voices and personalities, as well as coming from different time periods. Did you have a favourite character to write?
Thank you! Well clearly Sarah is, in many ways, the more exciting character as she lives in the moment and is a creature of action, dynamism and visible courage, while she also is a ‘thinker’ – or a ‘wandering wonderer’ if you like! As I was writing her I began to feel that perhaps the earliest shamans were also our earliest scientists in that they watched and observed and measured everything around them carefully in order to fully understand their environments and how best to survive in them – and so to explore new solutions, ideas, and even ‘inventions.’
Sarah was also the easier character to write as she had more freedom because her ‘world’ could be largely imagined. Eloise being a contemporary character in a recognisable world was more restricted in that sense, but I also have a deep fondness for her, and she allowed me to explore philosophy as well as science. While she can sometimes despair, like Sarah she never gives hope up – and wishes the best for humanity. She is courageous and pioneering too, in her own way.
In some ways Sarah was perhaps the best version of myself that I could imagine in those circumstances, despite her tendency to anger and impatience, while Eloise was allowed to have a few more faults. The relative comfort of her life and time period allows her the indulgence of those, whereas Sarah has to live moment by moment, and by her instincts and reflexes as much as her wits.
So, Stephanie, Bone Lines is the first novel that you’ve published. What was it like finally getting your hard work out there?
It was an extraordinary journey and one for which I will always be so grateful, but that’s not to say it wasn’t incredibly hard – very taxing on time, and on mental and emotional energy because like many first time authors (indeed like very many fiction writers) I still have to work full time. It took me eight years of weekends to research, write and edit Bone Lines. In a strange way writing the book was the easiest part because you are doing what you love, but then comes some of the real graft from the editing stages to the production stages to the promotion – and finally the terror of launching your baby into what can be a rather casually cruel world! The whole process is deeply exposing and exhausting, but I wouldn’t change a thing – it’s been an adventure that has taught me so much. There have been such memorable joys, from wonderful events and book signings to the simplest and most moving of moments, when you know that you have touched someone with your work.
There really is nothing better than when you get some lovely feedback from someone who has truly got what you have been trying to do. There are two sides to every coin, however, and it’s impossible as a writer to harden your heart to the rougher stuff because you have to remain sensitive and empathetic in order to write. But you know that there will occasionally be the odd sting and even in paradise you have to put up with storm clouds and mosquito bites. The trick is to feel it all but to learn not to mind either the rain or the sting. It’s a form of author Zen, I suppose! The real learning, however, comes from the actual doing. From getting on and writing, from reading great books, and from working with professional editors.
Is there anything in this book something that you’d like to revisit in the future? Or are you wanting to branch out into other plots?
Yes I definitely want to revisit both a few of the characters and the themes, and there is a series planned. They won’t always necessarily be books with all the same characters, or even in the same time periods, but I do like the idea of dual narratives and exploring how history has made us who we are. In fact, I heard an extraordinary true story over Christmas dinner that I would like to develop into a fictionalised account – but that will take some time.
I know that you have more planned for this series, Children of Sarah, what can we expect from this?
Aha! Well, Eloise will be there but taking more of a back seat as some of the other minor characters that were introduced in the first book come to the fore. And that’s really all I can say for now, without giving away spoilers for the first book, or the second…
Do you have another novel in the works at the moment? Is there anything that you can tell us about it?
As I mentioned above I do have a potential piece of fiction based on a true story to explore, but that requires a lot of research, so as I’ve already had some requests from a few readers, I must crack on with getting Book 2 in the ‘Children of Sarah’ series out there.
Bone Lines was published via Unbound. What’s your experience with this process been like?
Again the key words would be both extraordinary and exhausting. Crowdfunding the production costs of your novel is not for the faint-hearted and it can mean you take your energy away from writing and editing (hence there may be a bit of delay on those next books.) It’s painful for most artists to ‘ask’ for things and even harder, I think, for people who have always been very independent to suddenly be the one saying, “hey, come on, I need you to help me out here and show some faith in advance, in order for this project to happen.” But Unbound is a wonderful publisher with a very innovative and creative model which is still developing as it goes along, and it’s fantastic the way it gives opportunities for the more unusual books to come to life.
They do have a strict selection process, so that stage is akin to traditional publishing, even though you can submit to them directly, but then you have this weird ‘pre-selling’ bit in the middle which is a form of limbo as you watch your percentages creep up. After that, however, they kick in once more like a traditional publisher, from editing to design to distribution, though of course with nothing like the marketing budget of the big players.
Having said that, they have a great reputation for producing really interesting books so most retailers are happy to take them, and bloggers such as yourself are fortunately very keen to read our work. The very best thing about Unbound, however, is the extraordinary family of other authors, all in the same boat. We have a kind of private support network on social media in which we can share ideas and thoughts, moans and worries and I have learnt so much and made friends for life there – even though some of them I have never met! But we do really network to help each other and make things happen. The book community is a lovely world, for the most part.
Would you recommend this method to other aspiring authors?
I absolutely would but with the caveat that it isn’t for everyone, and that it’s sometimes soul destroying work to raise the money. You are, in effect, pre-selling your book – a concept which has a fine history in publishing (for example, Samuel Johnson made his dictionary in this way) but which many people struggle with. And you have to be very proactive, positive and self-reliant at every stage of the process. However, if your book is something that you’re passionate about and believe in but which you have a feeling might be a hard sell down the traditional routes of publishing then it’s definitely worth a try.