Jane Urquhart on writing Sanctuary Line

One of the things that has always delighted me about writing novels is how astonished the author herself can sometimes be by the way a novel is conceived or by the way it ends. In an early novel, The Underpainter, for example, I was completely surprised and taken aback toward the conclusion of the first draft by what my male protagonist ultimately decided to do. And, yet, once I got over the shock, I realized that his act of unkindness was completely in character. It was about this time that I began to understand that I was writing about the world the way it is, not the way I want it to be, and that I would have to allow my characters to be themselves… not just an extensions of my own personality.

Once again in Sanctuary Line the end of the book was initially as much a surprise to me, the writer, as it has been for many readers. Writing is a very visual experience for me; I actually “see” what is going on while I am working. I knew that one more character would be entering the book in the final section , but the man I visualized stepping out of the car and walking down the lane was very different from the man my narrator had been building in her imagination, and different, therefore, from the man I had been expecting. This, of course, speaks to the unreliability of narrative, and especially the unrealistic and often negative fantasy dramas that we watch in our own inner theatres when we, like Liz my main character, are unhappy. Liz has just lost her beloved cousin Mandy in Afghanistan. Mandy was an officer and military strategist who was involved in a difficult love affair, and Liz, who has never met Mandy’s lover, begins to believe that he is the full personification of everything cruel, rigid, and brutal about military life. She quotes Sylvia Plath in her mind --- “the brute, brute, heart of a brute like you” --- and interprets his reported magnetism as the behaviour of a manipulator. In the end, she is surprised to discover that the actual man is utterly unlike her own demonized version.

Sometimes it seems that the whole world is devoted to the creation of one’s novel. I knew that one arm of Liz’s ancestral family, the Butlers, were going to be Irish lighthouse keepers. What I did not know was that in the midst of the first draft of the novel during a visit to Florida, I would come across Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, and how that lighthouse eventually would work its way into the book. It is a long way from Ireland to Florida and I had a fascinating time taking my characters there, and while I was taking them there, it seemed to me that the real reason I had come to Florida in the first place was to discover the lighthouse and create a story about it.

But the outside world had made contributions to Sanctuary Line from the beginning. I can recall with great clarity the day in late August when Sanctuary Line began to take shape. I was driving along the shore of Lake Ontario on a dusty rural road when I spotted a bright orange tree and pulled over the verge to examine it more carefully. What appeared to be a plethora of vibrantly coloured leaves was in fact a gathering of hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies banding together in order to prepare for their annual migration to Mexico. During my childhood there had been a “butterfly tree” just like this on my family’s property, and each year we looked forward to the moment at the end of the summer when it was transformed by the monarchs. Both the tree and the butterflies had disappeared in recent years, so it was a great pleasure to know that elsewhere this miracle was still taking place.

I eventually pulled away from the tree and began to drive home. About two miles further down the road I noticed a field in which a number of seasonal migrant workers were harvesting strawberries. I realized that they too would be returning to Mexico in a week or so. By the time I got back to my office that afternoon, I knew a novel had been conceived. This was a surprise and a gift to me. I had not consciously been looking for a subject, but, once I started writing, it felt, somehow, as if the subject had been looking for me.

Jane Urquhart will be discussing her latest novel, Sanctuary Line, published by MacLehose Press, on Thursday 26th January from 10:30 – 12:00. For more details, please click here.


  1. Excellent article, I'm always fascinated by the way that real life can affect fictional narrative! I also really enjoy Jane Urquhart's fiction so this is definitely a book I'll look out for!

  2. This sounds just my cup of tea, so have entered the competition and added title to my wishlist.


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