Sugar Money by Jane Harris is one of six novels shortlisted for this year's Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. No stranger to award nominations, Jane has been a script-editor, a reader for film companies and The Literary Consultancy, as well as teaching Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. We asked Jane to tell us more about the books and travels behind Sugar Money:
WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the Prize?
Jane: This question makes me think back to the adventure stories that I loved when I was a child, stories like Huckleberry Finn, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Moonfleet, Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Swiss Family Robinson - and so on. Adventure writing, for me - in those days - meant adventure reading. I became so absorbed in my books that I used to get up early to fit in more reading time before school. I’d put on my uniform in the morning then sneak back into bed for extra minutes with my current book. Most things frighten me, so it’s wonderful to be able to take on the world by reading a tale of adventure – or by writing one.
From the start, I knew that Sugar Money would definitely have elements of adventure - though I never imagined that it would be shortlisted for an Adventure Prize. The book is based on a true story and, as I got to grips with what my characters had done in real life, I began to appreciate how challenging and dangerous their journey had been. The distressing nature of what ultimately happened in reality was always in my mind, however. Thus, although this book has an adventure narrative at heart, the story is underpinned by tragedy.
WNSF: Sugar Money is set in the 18th Century West Indies – a very different setting from your previous novels, yet you create such a wonderful sense of place. What role does research play in your writing?
Jane: For me, research is addictive. I always spend hours poring over maps, paintings, photographs, documents, diaries, books, the internet and so on. I try to immerse myself.
Since Sugar Money is based on a true story, I wanted to find out as much as possible about what had actually happened back then, as well as researching the locations. That quest took me to archives in the south of France and at Kew, London, and to museums in the Caribbean.
To help me feel confident in creating a believable tropical setting, I spent several weeks in the West Indies, continuing my research, soaking up the atmosphere, and recording details of the senses: sights, sounds, smells and tastes.
While in Grenada, I was able to pinpoint the location of the hospital in the story, and to stand where my characters might once have stood, looking out at the ocean. In real life, these people had to make a perilous journey across the island and so I undertook that trip with a local hiking guide. Most of the trek was cross-country, through forest and long grasses and we often had to hack a path through the undergrowth with a machete. Even in daylight, it wasn’t an easy journey and my characters would have embarked upon it under cover of darkness. This trek across Grenada helped me towards some appreciation of what they may have experienced.
WNSF: Sugar Money is one of two novels on this shortlist that revolves around the relationship between two brothers. It’s clear Lucien adores his older brother Emile but how did you go about making their relationship feel so real?
Jane: The sibling relationship is the most autobiographical element of Sugar Money. When creating these central characters, I drew on my relationship with my sister and also on two of my cousins, who are brothers. Fundamentally, Lucien and Emile do adore each other but it’s complicated. They can be competitive. They irritate each other, especially when they have to spend a lot of time together. I also wanted them to have banter, to mock one another, and make jokes at each others’ expense, the way that brothers and sisters often do.
That felt real to me and I hoped that the sibling rivalry would help to undercut and highlight the more tragic elements of the story.
WNSF: Talking of Lucien, in him you have succeeded in creating an utterly distinctive voice. Despite living a life of slavery, he is hopeful, thoughtful and finds the time for humour – how did you find his voice?
Jane: Lucien is writing the narrative of Sugar Money in later life, as an older man, by which time he is the product of his various environments. I had to build his voice according to his life experiences. Firstly, since he was born an enslaved person in Grenada and raised there and in Martinique, I knew that the foundation of his language would have been French Creole. On top of that, I added a layer of French, since he spends most of his time with French monks and would have picked up their language. In addition, he was taught to speak English by a Scottish male-nurse from whom he would have learned various Scotticisms. All those influences would have had an effect on how he uses language. Then, in later life (without giving too much away), Lucien travels widely with the result that another layer of language, sophistication and experience had to be added to the voice.
However, fundamental to it all was the creole and I spent a lot of time listening to Creole speakers - mostly online - and reading Creole dictionaries. I speak a little French, so that helped, and I tried to give Lucien’s prose French sentence structure, here and there, even though he writes mostly in English.
I deliberately made Lucien the way he is in the hope that readers would willingly go on this journey with him. And I used humour because, despite the gravity of events in the book, it’s my experience that - even in the worst of circumstances - the best of people hang on to their gallows humour.
WNSF: We know about your love for Robert Louis Stevenson, one of the classic adventure writers. Are there other authors or books who have inspired you as a writer? Tell us more!
Jane: RL Stevenson is brilliant not just at story but at voice and his novels - particularly The Beach at Falesa - were indispensible to me in writing Sugar Money. The other great writing influence in all my novels - both in terms of voice and narrative - is Mark Twain, especially Huckleberry Finn.
Of course, reading the work of African and Caribbean writers played a huge part in my research for Sugar Money. The Book of Night Women, by Marlon James was a key influence, as were Full Things Spill by Chinua Achebe and the works of Jacob Ross, Patrick Chamoiseau and Jean Rhys.
Also, I found western quest stories helpful, particularly Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, True Grit by Charles Portis, and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. In addition, I was reading a fair bit of Cormac McCarthy, Dumas, Melville, Conrad, Defoe and Eco. This is a very masculine list, I realise, but these are the novels that I immersed myself in and I have not a single regret!
The winner of this year's Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize will be revealed at a special ceremony in London on 20th September 2018.