It was great to see a big author like Sharon Bolton come to a library like Ramsbottom for several reasons. For one, the library is not huge unlike many that would normally see Sharon. Another is that the library is absolutely gorgeous, in a picturesque Lancashire town very reminiscent of the area described in her book “The Craftsman”. And, finally, of course, this was the culmination of the Great North West Read, a regional promotion that was instrumental in having such an author in the region in the first place.
But what was she like?
Well, the intelligence shines off her for a start. This is someone who would be fascinating no matter what she was talking about and this talk, which she must have delivered several times at least before, was no exception.
It started off spooky. Her parents lived in a church. They had quiet neighbours, people joked. But it got the young Sharon thinking that the best place to bury someone you have murdered would be in a graveyard. After all, there’s so many there already, another one may not be noticed.
Her first book to sell was “Sacrifice” and she was thrilled to get it not just in bookshops in this country but also internationally. It’s a thriller with a slightly supernatural twist. But not too supernatural, for she is a Gothic writer and thing with those is that, however it may appear, there’s no magic involved. Sharon sees magic as, vaguely, like cheating. It’s just human wickedness. But that should be scary enough.
“From the very first page I want my readers to be scared. If they're reading in bed, I want them to want check underneath them." she days. You don't need gratuitous violence or ghosts to scare people, just hints and a good story will do it.
She then goes through her other books. Her next one was “Blood Harvest” which was rewritten from her very first big story idea which she never did get published, just with all the supernatural stuff taken out. There was a short trailer about the book which did, indeed, look very spooky.
Sharon used to live near where the Jack the Ripper murders took place so, Sharon being Sharon, this got her thinking. So she wrote a book partly inspired by the grisly Victorian events and produced “Now You See Me”. She did a ton of research for the book, including finding out that the lore around Jack is largely made up by detectives who worked on the case wanting to sell books. But one thing is clear: Jack was either very clever or very lucky, because he killed people in busy areas where it would have been easy for someone to have spotted him.
The book started a series featuring a young female police constable – also a feature of The Craftsman – called Lacy Flint, trying to hunt down a killer while keeping her own dark past a secret. . Sharon thinks it's one of her best and may bring her back.
The author was born in Lancashire and lived there for her first eighteen years, being raised amongst all the local traditions of ghosts and the Pendle Witches. But the latter were real people. Twelve men and women were executed for "murder by witchcraft", Mainly women. Sharon, being rational, discounts the magic aspect but also the criminal bit, saying at the very worst they were low level confidence tricksters.
What makes society turn on weakest, she asks. “"We don't hang people for witchcraft any more but there are still witch hunts".
So she knew she wanted to write about the area but, damn it, Jeanette Winterson got there first and, what is more, her book “Daylight Gate” was excellent. Sharon even read an extract of it approvingly, where it says "The North is a dark place ... Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.". She is constantly amused that Lancashire people don't feel indignant by that description, they feel proud.
"She’'d have been burned as a witch in those days, she says. And looking at that intelligence in her eyes, and from what I know of the intense sexism of the times, I’d say she’s probably right."
So now to Craftsman, where Florence is a senior police officer looking for closure over a murder decades before and wondering if she caught the right man. Foolishly, too, she has brought the son with her. "It's a book about me or a woman like me"
And then suddenly it was question time, which Sharon insisted on. She likes questions.
She says her characters are not always “nice”. They have dark sides and that Lacey evolves immensely over the series. Sharon is more interested in baddies
Why is Sharon no longer called SJ? Because men have got over not being comfortable reading women authors. When she started, it was thought being female would put off men. Not any more. Especially as being there is social media, everyone knows she’s a woman anyway. Moreover, there are quite a few “SJ” authors so it was getting confusing. So ... Sharon.
Why did she choose the Falklands as a setting for one of her books? She always thought islands are perfect for thrillers. But every Island in the UK has already been taken so she chose the Falklands, which are like the UK but decades ago. Also, she likes islands. And Pendle felt very island-like in the book.
Why has she not written about Salem? She’s interested but there’s more than enough material in England and Salem has been written about enough. Also, the same thing happened there than in Pendle. Driven like in America often by mercenary reasons.
But I suspect that Sharon is not driven by mercenary reasons, although she notes that as a professional writer she does not have the luxury of simply not writing. I suspect she writes because she has to write. And they can’t be kept in but burst out of her. Like a demon. A very rational, scientifically explainable one.
A video of the visit can be seen here.