In conversation with... Lydia Syson

Hi Lydia! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of Mr Peacock’s Possessions. Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you, Silvia! I’m so glad you enjoyed it so much. 

Mr Peacock’s Possessions is about an iron-willed Victorian patriarch from England who settles an uninhabited South Sea island hundreds of miles from anywhere. His young family face endless setbacks -- one disaster after another thwarts their ambition of creating a paradise of their own -- but at last hope arrives in the form of a work-gang of missionary-educated Pacific Islanders. At that moment, young Albert Peacock goes missing. Refusing to abandon what seems at first a fruitless search, his sister Lizzie enlists the help of newcomer Kalala and as the island reveals its terrible secrets, the certainties on which the two migrant groups have built their lives begin to unravel, with unimaginable consequences.   

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?

A: I only had the past story strand completely figured out – which was the easiest bit because the Peacock’s first few years on the island closely follow the real life experiences of distant relatives of my husband: his great-uncle ‘King’ Bell was born in the Kermadecs, half-way between New Zealand and Tonga, in the late 19th century. I had a sense of where I was aiming, and how I might get there, and something like a climax, if not an ending, but all the different twists and turns in the plot developed as the characters revealed themselves to me, and I understood better how they would react to each other and various situations as they arose. 

What kind of research did you carry out before and/or during the writing process? Which aspect of this activity did you enjoy the most?

A: Huge amounts, but luckily I’m very happy buried in archives and libraries. It was something of a jigsaw puzzle and readers can get a sense of my approach to this from my website. There are very few books entirely about either the Kermadecs or Niue, the coral island in Polynesia where Kalala comes from, so I spent a lot of time tracking down articles and chapters in academic journals – historical, literary, geographical, anthropological, linguistic, theological. I read psychology books. I found blogs written by volunteer weeders who had lived on my island. I poured over hand-written letters and reports by Victorian missionaries, documents which had travelled thousands of miles before ending up at the School of Oriental and African Studies library in London. I had email correspondences with a New Zealand historian and a geologist who’d surveyed Raoul – the model for my Monday Island – in the 1970s. I talked to my husband’s aunt about her memories of her uncle’s family and stared at sepia photographs of them.

And then – to my utter amazement and delight – I was invited to join a full-scale scientific expedition to the Kermadecs with the Sir Peter Blake Trust and the New Zealand Navy, travelling on the HMNZS Canterbury. This was all thanks to the Pew Charitable Trusts who have been campaigning for years for a huge Ocean Sanctuary in the Kermadecs, one of the world’s most pristine marine environments, which is in urgent need of protection. They had sent me material setting me on the right track in the very early days of my research.

What a contrast this voyage was to my other research! It was like finding myself in an episode of Blue Planet. Suddenly I was clambering in and out of speed boats, zooming over ultramarine waves, looking down at a volcano crater lake from a Navy helicopter, examining plankton and algae through a microscope, snorkelling with sharks, and seeing all the birds and sea creatures I had written about in my novel – including a turtle and flying fish. The scientists opened my eyes to contemporary concerns which have parallels with themes in my novel, and the student voyagers were so enthusiastic and impressive. 

If this novel could be turned into a film, who would you cast in the roles of Lizzie and Kalala?

A: Such a tricky question, not least because I’m not that familiar with the New Zealand feature film industry and I’d definitely want an actor with Niuean heritage to play Kalala. I think I’d want a big name for Mr Peacock – somebody like Ralph Fiennes perhaps? – and a startling newcomer for Lizzie, capable of climbing up and down cliff faces. Or maybe Philippa Coulthard, who was such a wonderful Helen Schlegel in the BBC adaptation of Howards End. I love her mobile face. 

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: Hmmm. . . There’s certainly one striking scene which meant a lot to me for lots of reasons and which I can also discuss without spoilers because it’s clear Mrs Peacock is pregnant from the earliest chapters, and there’s only one way that can go! I’m often frustrated by depictions of birth in fiction and what they leave out. And it’s surprising how rare they are. I wanted to convey the nitty-gritty of labour alongside the beauty and fear and danger and triumph involved in the whole process – all of which are of course hugely intensified when a mother is giving birth on a remote island, assisted only by her two eldest daughters. 

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: Lots! My wonderful editor Eleanor Dryden was brilliant at asking the right questions, encouraging me to write into my characters, fleshing out a great deal that was missing from the very first draft, and then being absolutely ruthless about using what I’d learned from that process but only keeping what was absolutely necessary. So much material then lies in invisible layers beneath the surface – like a volcanic island, you might say. After the first draft, the word count went from about 90,000 words up to 135,00, there was a lot of rearranging (the book follows three different narrative strands), and then I probably cut another 40,000 words.  But obviously they were all different words! No writing is ever wasted, and the words you take away are as important as the ones that stay. 

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I’m still working this out – not least whether it should be fictional or biographical - but it will definitely be historical – a little later in the nineteenth century – it will involve more research into my mother’s side of the family, and visits to Dublin. I’m very lucky to have rather a good collection of ancestors to explore. I’m also working on some picture book texts for under-fives.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: Social media channels can be a terrible distraction, and bring equal amounts of anxiety and reward, but it’s always a huge pleasure to be able to communicate directly with readers, and get such an immediate response to your writing. I really enjoy taking part in Twitter Q and As for example. We’ve all heard so many doom-mongering prophecies about the death of the book for the last ten years, but actually readers are devouring books in new ways like never before. And authors (whose lives are traditionally rather solitary) now have new opportunities to form supportive online communities with no geographical boundaries. 

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: Be patient. It’s not the first draft that matters but what you do with it.

Thank you for your time!

Please click here to read my thoughts on this book and to find out how you can win a copy for yourself!

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