Five Questions with… S.J. Parris

(c) The Portrait Company

(c) The Portrait Company

Journalist and author of SacrilegeS.J. Parris (the pseudonym of Stephanie Merritt) answered our five questions.

IFOA: You’re both a novelist and a journalist. How does your journalistic work inform or impact your fiction?

Parris: I’ve been a journalist for 15 years and in that time I’ve been privileged to interview a great many creative artists in all disciplines. More than anything, I think that has given me an appreciation for the sheer hard graft that goes into the creative process. When I feel I’m flagging with my own novels, I think of all the authors, playwrights, actors, directors and musicians I’ve talked to over the years and how every one of them that has enjoyed some success had to put in hours, sometimes years, of often lonely hard work – I do find that inspiring on the off days!

Being a journalist also taught me how to research thoroughly, which is very useful with historical fiction, though the great joy of writing novels is that you are free to stray away from the facts.

I think that writing fiction of my own has made me a more generous book reviewer, because I know what it’s like to be on the other side.

IFOA: Tell us about a book you read in the past few years that had a lasting impact on you.

Parris: The books that have had by far the greatest impact on me in recent years are Hilary Mantel’s two Booker-winning novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that these books have changed our perception of what the historical novel can do. She has given muscle and weight to a genre that can often be perceived as rather twee; these books are visceral and immediate, you live through every scene with the characters. And the repercussions of what went on in the reign of Henry VIII are still being felt during the period I’m writing about, so it’s interesting to me from that point of view as well.

IFOA: The series of books you are currently working on, including Sacrilege, are set in England in the 1580s. What is it about this period that appeals to you?

Parris: The 1580s, halfway through Elizabeth I’s reign, are a fascinating moment in English and European history. England is very new as a Protestant nation and the great Catholic powers in Europe, France and Spain, don’t really expect it to last; there are constant threats of invasion. It’s a period rich in intrigue, which saw the beginnings of modern espionage; Catholic spies and secret priests are all over the country and there are countless assassination plots against the Queen. There’s plenty of scope in such an atmosphere of paranoia and treason for novels that draw on murder and spy plots. My main character, Giordano Bruno, is himself a strange hybrid: he’s an ex-monk, excommunicated by the Catholic Church for heresy, working as a spy in England, so this gives him an unusual perspective on both sides.

IFOA: What is your idea of a perfect day?

Parris: A perfect day for me would involve a walk in the countryside with my 11-year-old son, a pub lunch with friends, a lazy afternoon reading in the sun and a good film in the evening. It’s the small things that really make us happy – I’m figuring this out as I get older…

IFOA: Finish this sentence: They keep telling me that…

Parris: They keep telling me that… the novel is a dying form, but I don’t believe it. People may be experimenting with different ways to access stories – ebooks, audiobook downloads etc – but it’s clear to me that there’s still an enormous appetite for good storytelling in whatever form, and more ways for people to get their stories to connect with readers, which can only be a good thing.

Parris will appear at Authors at Harbourfront Centre as part of the Crime Showcase on March 20.

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