Interview: Sandra Arnold talks about The Ash, The Well and The Bluebell
Sandra Arnold lives in rural Canterbury. She has a MLitt (High Distinction) and PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia and is the author of five books, her latest the novel The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ, 2019). She talks to NZ Booklovers about her new novel.
Tell us a little about your The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell.
The novel explores the lives of four friends, Lily, Francine, Christine and Israel. They grow up in the post-war era in a village in England called Eshwell Bridge. Israel’s synaesthesia and poverty-stricken background have made him a target for bullying. Christine, as a mixed-race child, is also ostracised by her peers. Despite the fact that Lily is clever the class teacher places her with children who are not expected to pass the eleven-plus exam. Francine’s mother has secrets that could destroy her. The three girls work on a school project about a woman called Nancy who lived in the village in the 17thCentury and who was drowned as a witch in her own well. This project leads to a tragedy for Christine who is found drowned in the same well and changes the course of their lives for the others. Israel is sent to New Zealand on the Child Migrant scheme which had been set up by the British government to help orphans and children from poor backgrounds. Lily leaves the village as a young adult to work in a kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee in the belief she will find a society based on social justice and equality. There, she finds that the stories she carries inside herself parallel the stories the kibbutzniks tell of racial and class intolerance and alienation from roots and identity. In the kibbutz she meets a New Zealander called Seb and goes to New Zealand to live with him until the Christchurch 2011 earthquake. When her daughter dies in the earthquake Lily returns with her ashes to Eshwell Bridge. There, as memories from the past surface, she determines to find the truth about Christine’s drowning.
What inspired you to write this book?
In 2013 I started playing around with the idea of writing a novel after I’d read some documents on the British Child Migrant scheme. Around the same time I was in Sydney and saw a photographic exhibition about child migrants and I corresponded with someone who had been a child migrant at the age of eight. While I was reading about this topic I wrote a short story about two characters, Lily and her daughter Charlie, who were caught up in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. The story raised many questions about Lily’s past and it wasn’t long before I knew there was enough material for a novel that could also include child migrants.
What research was involved?
Because of my work commitments writing crept along at a glacial speed, but in 2014 I was awarded the Seresin/Landfall/ Otago University Press Writing Residency. This gave me the impetus to resign from my teaching job and focus on the novel. I travelled back to the UK for three months to do background research on the area in which I had set the fictional Eshwell Bridge, a village in the north-east of England near where I grew up. The name Eshwell Bridge derives from the fictional River Esh and an old well dating from the 17th century. Esh is also the Anglo-Saxon name for ash. There is a village green which in the 17thcentury used to be a pond and was sometimes used for ducking women accused of witchcraft. These women were then buried in an unconsecrated part of the cemetery. I read documents about the history of the area and talked to locals. An old man I met in the churchyard showed me photographs of the house he’d lived in as a child along with other impoverished families and told me where to find his room in the house which is now a museum. He also told me stories of a ‘white lady’ he’d seen drifting through the rooms. This house and some of the other historic buildings in the village served as models for Eshwell Bridge, along with the ‘white lady’.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
After my return from England I spent a month in the Seresin residency house in the beautiful secluded Waterfall Bay in the Marlborough Sounds. I used the bay as the setting for the fictional Weka Bay where Israel is sent to live with a foster family. Without any distractions I worked on an early draft of the novel and kept to a disciplined writing routine every day for the next few years until the novel was finished.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
I enjoyed the research and also making the characters live on the page. The writing of The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell occupied all my time and thoughts for almost six years.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
I went for long walks with my husband and our dog, visited friends, went to the movies and read books that were not part of research.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
Auē by Becky Manawatu, a novel about gang violence in New Zealand. It is raw and honest and beautifully written.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
In 2019 I had a book of flash fiction Soul Etchings published in the UK a few months before The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell was published in New Zealand. After both books were out I finished writing a collection of short stories that had been percolating for a long time and now I’m working on another collection of flash fiction.