I just finished The Sin Eater’s Daughter recently and was blown away with the scope of the story, pacing and the amount of anxiety I felt as the story progressed. This book delved so much darker than I expected and I loved it. Not only did it grip my heart it also introduced a world with wonderfully unique and vivid customs and traditions. I’m thrilled to have the author, Melinda Salisbury, here on the blog today answering questions.
About the Book
She’s the executioner.
As the Goddess embodied, Twylla instantly kills anyone she touches. Each month she’s taken to the prison and forced to lay her hands on those accused of treason. No one will ever love a girl with murder in her veins. Even the prince, whose royal blood supposedly makes him immune to Twylla’s fatal touch, avoids her company.
But then a new guard arrives, a boy whose easy smile belies his deadly swordsmanship. And unlike the others, he’s able to look past Twylla’s executioner robes and see the girl, not the Goddess. Yet Twylla’s been promised to the prince, and knows what happens to people who cross the queen.
However, a treasonous secret is the least of Twylla’s problems. The queen has a plan to destroy her enemies, a plan that requires a stomach-churning, unthinkable sacrifice. Will Twylla do what it takes to protect her kingdom? Or will she abandon her duty in favor of a doomed love?
One of my favorite aspects of your book was that you gave your fantasy world its own legends and myths. One of your characters tells the myth of The Sleeping Prince which seemed to draw upon The Pied Piper of Hamelin—could you talk a little about incorporating your own myths and drawing from our own?
I love myths and legends, especially the older, darker fairy stories. There‘s the old saying that in every fairytale there is a kernel of truth, and I love that, the uncertainty of it, because we can never be too sure what the truthful part is. We can speculate, but I think it’s subjective and that people find their own truths in fairytales. For some their truth will be that of the conquering hero, for some the rescue from a life they despise. Others will identify with rags to riches quests, and then there are those for whom it is the darkness, the beasts and the monsters. That was something I wanted to play with, and draw on in my writing, so I re-read a lot of my old favourites and drew on the themes that stood out for me. All worlds and cultures have stories, it’s how people made sense of the world around them before science and technology gave us solid explanations for things.
So in The Sin Eater’s Daughter, we have themes from Sleeping Beauty, and the idea of a kingdom allowed to stagnate and fester. We have the Pied Piper, and broken promises leading to disaster. The original concept of the story took a lot of the motifs of Little Red Riding Hood and moved them to a castle setting; dangerous, unknowable territory; an innocent young woman trying to navigate it. I plan to introduce more fairytales as the trilogy progresses, blurring the lines between their reality and fiction, in the way that it sometimes happens in our world, and absolutely does in Twylla’s.
Your main character, Twylla, can kill with a single touch. This adds such a powerful element and angst to your story. How did you get in the mind space to create a realistic depiction of how that might be for your MC?
I’d like to say it was hard, but it wasn’t. I think everyone has times when they feel alone, and isolated from everything around them. There are just some times when you can’t quite make the connection, when it feels as though you’re looking at life through a window. They were the feelings I tried to bring out when writing Twylla, that hopelessness and numbness of not quite being involved. It’s not nice, in fact it’s wretched, but it’s real and it happens, probably more often than people let on. To create Twylla’s mindset, I imagined those feelings, combined with a heavy, heavy guilt. She doesn’t want to be alone, but she feels it’s the only way she can be, for the sakes of everyone around her. And it suits the queen to have her feel this way, so she plays on it.
A major aspect of TSED is the religious duty some are called to perform. Your main character is one example as well as the Sin Eater. Where did you come up with the idea of a person eating the food representation of a person’s sins after their death?
Sin Eating was a real practice, carried out by men in the 18th and 19th century. In true Sin Eating, the food was a standard representation of sins in general, a hunk of bread and some ale. I wanted to elaborate on that and began to toy with the idea of the Sin Eater standing as judge over the deceased, not just as absolution. The idea of the family having to confess the sins of the dead using food was just too delicious to ignore. And the idea of the Sin Eater being able to read the character of a dead person from their sins was incredibly alluring too. I’d like to think it accounts somewhat for Twylla’s mother’s bitterness – her job is to take on board the very worst of humanity. Little wonder she is the way she is, or that Twylla rejected that life.
How did you assign which food would represent which sin?
I tried to match the food to the qualities that embody the sins. So, peppers were an obvious choice for anger, because of the heat – anger is a hot hot emotion, it burns and consumes, so I chose peppers to represent that. Strawberries have always been associated with love and lust and seduction, so that was an easy choice too. It was fun thinking about sins and trying to deconstruct them down to their roots, and then find a food that matched. Crow is the only one that didn’t work that way, for the sin of murder, crow was chosen as a play on ‘murder of crows’.
I’m always interested in the research that goes along with creating a world and writing a book. What was one of the strangest things you learned?
That Sin Eating was real. I first read about it a few years ago in a Margaret Atwood short story and the idea of it stayed with me, because it was just so awful to me; this literal pawning of a soul, of a person consuming and carrying sins they hasn’t committed, all to earn money. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I spent a lot of time looking it up, so when it came to Twylla wanting to leave a horrible life for a glorious one at the castle, I knew it had to be Sin Eating, because nothing else made me react quite so violently to it. I have repurposed a lot of the traditions though; so in my world it’s a female occupation, because of the way religion works in it. And food all has meaning, instead of being a token representation.
In reality, Sin Eaters were seen as outcasts, because of the nature of their role but I wanted to take it further than that, so I made the Sin Eater a woman of great power. Her role is revolting, and she knows it, but at the same time she has ultimate control over whether a soul sleeps peacefully in the afterworld and that’s a big thing.
My biggest surprise in reading The Sin Eater’s Daughter was how dark it went and how evil some of the characters were—what did you draw on for this darkness? Were any historical aspects brought in?
A lot of it is based in real medieval practices, particularly Twylla’s attitude and behavior. During medieval times, young women had almost no say over the paths their lives took, particularly noblewomen, they were brought up to not expect a say; it was indoctrinated in them. Where sons inherited titles and property, a daughter was only as good as the man she could be married off to, or if there were some other way she could be used for the good of the family. In those days, girls were chess pieces, to be played as strategically as possible. Worse, the people that designed their paths were the people closest to them, and yet the choices they made very rarely had the girls’ wishes at heart and for so many falling in love was a storybook dream, not a viable option. For me, I think the darkness comes from the fact this isn’t a historical problem, but one that millions of girls outside of the western world still face today. Girls are denied an education, bartered for marriage, are brutalized because of crimes committed against them. The darkness in the Sin Eater’s Daughter doesn’t come from the historical aspects, but the parts that aren’t history, the parts that are real and present and now. Where falling in love with the wrong man means death, or banishment. Where choice is a fairytale. Where a good girl does as she’s told. How evil are the queen’s actions, compared to some of the brutality and horror we live alongside in the real world?
I know some people will be puzzled by Twylla because she’s not as proactive or strong as some recent, and also much-needed, literary heroines and some people will find her a challenge to identify with, because her life will be so different to their own experiences. I think it’s worth remembering, though, that it’s not always possible for a person to speak their mind, or to fight. It takes great courage to be able to do it, great strength of character. And that’s not something Twylla has at the beginning of the story. It’s something she has to try and find in herself.
When beginning this series, did the characters or story come to you first?
The story came first, this idea of a young woman being plucked from one life and transplanted into another, a proper rags-to-riches story. I imagined a young woman being taken from a very dark life and thrust into one that was seemingly much more beautiful, only to find in many ways it was worse. Then Twylla came and I had a core idea of who she was from the moment I imagined her. I knew she was isolated, and that she felt it, because of her past and the future before her. I knew that she was a very inward-facing character, and that she’d stopped hoping, because every hope she’d had was dashed. I also knew that by the time the story ended she would have learned to hope, and to trust herself too. The rest of the characters came around her; the queen as her nemesis; the prince as her destiny. Lief, the guard came later, I had no idea he was going to end up being as important to Twylla as he was, until he was. Then he became the grenade in the mix, and the catalyst for Twylla facing up to her life, instead of shying away from it.
Do you think you’ll ever embark on writing a novella from another character’s point of view? I’d love to read from the queen’s perspective.
Interestingly, I have already written short stories set in this world, in which two other characters tell their tales, and I’m planning a third. I don’t know if they’ll ever see the light of day, but they were very useful for me to write to help expand on the mythology of the world. I don’t think I could handle writing from the queen’s point of view, she’s so poisonous and damaged. Though she’s my favourite character to write, if I wrote her from her point of view, I’d have to be a lot more sympathetic, because the villain is always the hero of their own story. And I know her backstory, she has very little reason for being as cruel as she is. I wish there was some tragic event in her past that turned her dark, but there isn’t. She’s just power-hungry and arrogant, a natural bad seed. It would make for a brutally interesting story, but I think it would make me sick to write it.
Melinda Salisbury lives by the sea, somewhere in the south of England. As a child she genuinely thought Roald Dahl’s Matilda was her biography, in part helped byher grandfather often mistakenly calling her Matilda, and the local library having a pretty cavalier attitude to the books she borrowed. Sadly she never manifested telekinetic powers. She likes to travel, and have adventures. She also likes medieval castles, non-medieval aquariums, Richard III, and all things Scandinavian. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is her first novel, and will be published by Scholastic in 2015. She is represented by the amazing Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge and White.
The Sin Eater’s Daughter is available from Scholastic Press February 5th (UK) February 24th (US)
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