Q and A’s for ‘The Sun Sister’
1. Electra is very different to her sisters and has appeared the least in previous books in the series. Did you find it difficult to find her voice?
When I first started writing ‘The Sun Sister’, I began with the present section of the story, rather than with the past. I wanted to dive straight into Electra’s chaotic life and get a feel for her voice. I was worried that my readers would find her unsympathetic, given that we’ve only caught glimpses of her throughout the other books – all my readers knew of her was that she is quick to anger, has a drug and alcohol problem, and is an entitled super model. I didn’t want to hide any of these negative aspects of her – instead, I wanted to show her journey of self-discovery and rehabilitation, and I wanted her to gradually surround herself with people who cared about her. I think many of my readers will be able to empathise with her loneliness and her grief, and will understand that her alcohol and drug abuse was simply a way of coping – of muting the pain in her heart. I adore Electra – she is funny, flawed and fiercely passionate, and I do hope that my readers will come to love her as much as I do.
2. In what ways is Electra like her mythical counterpart?
Like her namesake, Electra was simply ‘electric’. I took her personality from her name, elektra, the word for amber and electricity, which was once believed to be the sun’s energy captured in stone. To me, that perfectly sums her up – fierce and powerful energy that is trapped. Energy that can give life but can also be self-destructive. Electra’s story is all about her overcoming that side of herself.
3. Did you know from the beginning of the series that Electra’s story would be partly based in Kenya? How did you approach your research there?
Africa was always a continent that I wanted to explore, and I was drawn to Kenya through the iconic film ‘White Mischief’ staring Greta Scacchi, John Hurt and Charles Dance. I was fascinated by the decadent life of the ‘Happy Valley’ set – the rich colonial settlers who made it their playground. I was also intrigued by the complex relationship between the many races that lived alongside each other: the white settlers, the Maasai, the Kikuyu, the Somalians, and the Indians.
The research into the Maasai was challenging, and I was determined to avoid a ‘tourist’ snapshot of their culture. I visited the School of African and Oriental Studies in London, and found accounts of their culture written by Maasai scholars rather than white colonialists.
I then went to Kenya myself, and through talking to the local population, began to understand their love and respect for the land, and their symbiotic relationship with it. I was fascinated by the Maasai’s dealings with individual white settlers, such as Lord Delamere in the early 1900s, who often invited Maasai chiefs to listen to the gramophone with him, and Gilbert Colville, who used his close relationship with the Maasai to become the richest cattle rancher in Kenya. He was the inspiration for my character Bill Forsythe.
4. What different kinds of research did you do on Kenya’s colonial era and how did you consolidate what you found into the story?
Before I went to Kenya, I read the biographies of many of the key people in the Happy Valley set, such as Idina Sackville and Alice de Janzé. I was particularly fascinated by Kiki Preston, clearly a very vibrant and dynamic woman of her time. I found there wasn’t a lot written about ‘The Woman with the Silver Needle’ and I had to scour all my books for glimpses of her.
When I arrived in Kenya and spoke to those who had stories of its colonial era, I was struck by how different many of the accounts were – history is truly subjective and often contradictory. It made writing the book difficult because I could never be sure which account was more accurate, but also easier because predominantly as a fiction author, it meant I could use my artistic license to fill in the blanks! Visiting Muthaiga Club was one of the highlights of my trip, and it was wonderful to be in the very place where all these larger than life characters had danced, partied, fought, and loved.
5. In ‘The Sun Sister’, there is an in depth portrayal of Electra’s journey and rehabilitation process. Is ‘The Ranch’ based on a real rehabilitation centre?
I wanted to portray Electra’s rehabilitation process as accurately and sensitively as possible. I was drawing on the personal experiences that some of my readers had shared with me, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart for being so honest about their experiences with addiction – either their own or those of family members. The Ranch is based on a US rehabilitation centre which I visited “undercover” to gain a feel for the structure of an in-patient’s daily life. I learned it is based on forming new positive habits, day by day, and understanding the root cause of what drives people to rely on substance abuse.
6. Did you find Electra’s story more challenging than the other books in the series?
I have tackled some “big” subjects in previous books – writing about Aboriginal Australians in ‘The Pearl Sister’ and Andalusian gypsies in ‘The Moon Sister’ was both eye-opening and heartbreaking as I learned about their persecution throughout history. In a similar way, ‘The Sun Sister’ deals with disenfranchised peoples such as the Maasai, who have had their land taken away from them, African Americans who have suffered so much inequality, and the plight of young drug users who are struggling to find support. My research inspired me to bring these stories to the fore. Of course, I struggled with myself too: is it my place to tell these stories, as a white Irish author? However, less than one hundred years ago, my own ancestors were seen as an ‘underclass’. We need to see more authors from these disenfranchised groups being published, but until then I can only hope I have made some constructive contribution to their causes by raising awareness.
7. Motherhood is one of the main themes of the Seven Sisters series, and in ‘The Sun Sister’ we see many kinds of mothers – do you think there is one ideal kind of mother?
In my opinion, “motherhood” has nothing to do with blood relations or being “perfect” because mothers are human and we all make mistakes as we bring our children up. To me, it is about loving a child more than yourself and wanting nothing but the best for them. Cecily is one of my favourite characters in the book, because it is through motherhood that she discovers her passion to better the world through education – she has someone to fight for.
Stella, on the other hand, is a very different kind of mother – she chooses to put her career over her own daughter’s well-being, partly out of financial necessity. Through her career, she helps thousands of people with her activism and civil rights campaigning, but ironically, it is her own daughter who suffers as a result.
8. Through Stella, the reader gets to know the struggles experienced by the African American community during the Civil Rights era. How did you approach writing this?
Without giving a history lesson, I wanted Electra – and my readers – to learn about the struggles her grandmother’s generation had gone through to secure her the civil rights she now enjoys. As Electra says, she had always felt that history was just knights and ladies jousting – she had never realised that history can be within living memory, and still directly affects one’s family. Our elders have so much to teach us, they were the real pioneers of feminism and the relative freedom we as women have today. And I hope that my readers will turn to their grandparents and ask them about their own journeys.
9. Zed reappears in ‘The Sun Sister’ and has a relationship with Electra – was this always the plan?
I know many of my readers dislike Zed – as do I, especially after ‘The Moon Sister’. And yes, I knew that he would be making appearances in Electra’s life. This has always been the plan, as Zed and his father Kreeg Eszu, both represent the Greek god Zeus, who had his wicked way with some of the sisters. In fact, in Greek myth, Zeus fathers quite a few of Electra’s children! But as Electra’s journey to sobriety continues, she finds herself pulling away from Zed, who brings out the worst in her… is this the last we have seen of Zed Eszu? Well, we’ll have to wait and see…
10. Do you feel that the global phenomenon that the Seven Sisters series has become has been much bigger than you originally anticipated?
Yes!! When I first had the idea and told my publishers I wanted to write a series of books based on The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades, they looked at me and thought I was totally mad. But they trusted me enough to let me write the first one and when that was a success, well the rest is history.
All the encouragement and excitement from readers really inspires me, and I am stunned and overwhelmed at how many people are reading the series worldwide. Many write to me about how much the series means to them, and I hope that the D’Aplièse sisters and their very different journeys are relatable in some way to all of us.
11. ‘The Sun Sister’ ends on a very dramatic note. What is in store for the D’Aplièse sisters in Book 7?
I have been itching to write the last sentence of ‘The Sun Sister’ since I began the series in 2013, so it was a very big moment for me. Writing the Seven Sisters series has been an amazing journey, and although the plot has developed, the overarching secret plot remains unchanged. I hope they will be excited to find out more about the mysteries of the missing sister in Book 7 and #whoispasalt …