An Interview with Susan Price


Author of The Sterkarm Trilogy


How did you get the idea for the Sterkarms?


I had no idea of writing anything remotely like it. Then I went on a walking holiday in the Scottish Borders. The guides kept saying, 'This is an old Reiver's trail,' or pointing to a tower and saying, 'That's an old Reiver's tower.' I was intrigued and bought George MacDonald Fraser's book, THE STEEL BONNETS, read it, and was absolutely fascinated. I got that feeling - 'I want to write about these people!'


The obvious thing was to write an historical novel, set in the reivers' time, but my gut-feeling said no to that. I felt that the present day had to be in the book too. So I played about with various ways of transferring characters from one time to another - the knock on the head and waking up in another century, the mystical time-slip, the dream. None of these ideas satisfied me. They all seemed too fussy, and all would involve the present-day character wondering, 'How do I come to be here?' and trying to hide the fact that they came from another time.


I wanted something much more straight-forward. I came up with the time-machine when I read, in the newspapers, an account of a scientific tiff. One group of scientists was saying that it would be possible to build a real, working time-machine. Another group was saying cobblers to that. The time-machine appealed to me as a solution of my problem because it was in plain view, so to speak. There was no need to evoke supernatural or extra-sensory powers of any kind. The 21st Century characters would accept it naturally as technology and use it like a bus. The 16th Century characters would accept it - because it was operating right in front of their eyes - but would understand it differently.


I started thinking: Who would put up the billions needed to develop a working time-machine? Not Governments, not these days. It would be Business, the multi-nationals. Why would they do it? For profit, of course, the only reason they do anything. Where would their profit come from? At first I thought of opening the past up as a sort of holiday theme-park, but soon concluded that there wouldn't be enough money in that. Then it occurred to me that we are running out of fossil-fuel, and there's hardly a source of food that we haven't poisoned. But back in the 16th century, there was untouched coal, untouched gas and oil, and every crop grown and every animal butchered was one hundred per cent organic. If that could be brought back to the present, the Company that did it could charge their own price.


As soon as I thought of this, the light-bulb above my head lit up and I knew I would write the book. I started thinking about the characters, and wondering, what would the Sterkarms make of the 21st Century people, with their strange clothes and their strange gadgets? When I imagined the round mouth of the Time Tube opening on a hillside, it reminded me of the border legends of the Elves who live under the hill. The Sterkarms, I thought, would understand the 21st Century people as Elves, and the Time Tube as a gate into Elf-Land. Another light-bulb lit up. I was definitely going to write this book.


How much historical truth is there in the book?


Well, I wouldn't like anyone to use it as a text-book. The border between Scotland and England was a dangerous, lawless place for three or four hundred years, and the 'riding-families' or reivers did exist. My description of their way of life is, I think, fairly accurate, but I used my imagination a lot too. The book is fiction, not history.


One historical family, the Kerrs, (pronounced 'Cars') really were supposed to have a greater than usual number of left-handed people among them -- and the winding-stairs in their towers were supposed to wind the opposite way to everyone else's, so they could be defended by a left-handed swordsman. I took this legend and gave it to my Sterkarms.


The Sterkarms are loosely -- very loosely -- based on the historical Armstrong family, who were possibly the most notorious of the reivers. But I translated 'Armstrong' into Danish and made it 'Sterkarm' partly to show that I wasn't writing an historical account, and that the Sterkarms are not meant to be a portrait of the Armstrongs. That said, the Armstrong badge did show a hand holding a dagger. But I invented the detail of the hand being a left hand, and the legend of 'the Sterkarm handshake' is also my invention -- and applies only to the Sterkarms!


In the book I also concentrated on the petty warfare between the raiding families and left out the broader politics of the struggle between England and Scotland, and the way both countries used the rievers. (They both covertly encouraged the raiding across the border, because they were happy to see their enemy's resources occupied). Both countries also recruited the rievers for their endless wars against each other, as the raiding families bred superb light cavalry.


Interesting Historical Note


The raiding families plagued the borders for about 400 years. There were several reasons why they were never put down. As mentioned above, both Scotland and England found their raiding politically useful. And then, their country was so rough that -- especially in the Western March (Cumbria) -- it proved impossible to drag heavy artillery within range of their strongholds in order to destroy them.


They were eventually put out of business when James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England from Elizabeth I, and united the crowns. There was no longer any political advantage in suffering the raiders. James attacked them from both Scotland and England and hung many. The mere possession of one of the strong, fast little horses became cause to summarily hang its owner -- the reasoning being that there was no reason to own one of these expensive little beasts unless you were a raider. Hundreds of them were sold -- and they became one of the breeds from which the American quarter-horse was bred.


Many of the reivers themselves were transported too, some to Northern Ireland, from where many of them speedily returned and took up their old way of life again. So many were transported to the American Colonies, to the South. It was harder to get back from there. Which is why there is a tradition of feuding in the Carolinas and Appalachians, and why some of the most complete and beautiful versions of old Scots ballads were collected in America and not in Scotland.


I've got ask -- how do you pronounce the name 'Per'?


 I've been asked that a lot! People also seem to think that I made it up. I didn't. It's the northern version of 'Peter.'


I sometimes tell people to pronounce it 'Pear.' But you could also try imagining that you're a Geordie and are saying 'Peter' while choking off or skipping over the 't' in the middle -- 'Pay-er.'


And while we're on the subject, I'm often asked about 'Sterkarm' too. You can say it, 'Stark-arm.' But the Sterkarms would have pronounced it something like: Shtair-r-r-ck--air-r-rm. Roll those 'r's!


Many people have commented on how vividly you brought the past to life. How did you research it?


I did research the subject -- I recommend an invaluable book, 'The Border Reivers' by Godfrey Watson, which gives lots of information about the reivers' way of life and customs.


I visited the Border Country, to get an idea of the landscape. But you bring the past to life by injecting personal experience. So, for instance, when writing of rooms lit by wood-fires, I remembered standing by bonfires, and the throat-catching quality of the smoke. I remembered how coal and wood fires tend to roast one side of you while leaving the other cold, and how they dirty everything with smoke. I spent a couple of evenings by candlelight, so that I would know the quality of candlelight, and it reminded me of the smell of a just snuffed candle. I knew that cheap, homemade candles were often made of tallow -- mutton fat. So they would smell of burning meat-fat.


I have spent a lot of time trudging across moorland, through rain and mud, ducking under low-growing trees and scrambling over ditches and under fences. I bore that in mind while writing about others doing it, and remembered that it isn't the same as strolling along a pavement.


For many years a hobby of mine was archery -- I own a longbow. So when I describe Per and his cousins shooting with longbows, I know exactly how it feels to draw and aim a longbow. I also know that it's nonsense when films show archers releasing bowstrings with almighty twangs, followed by a great whoosh of arrows through the air. Archers spend hours trying to master the proper release of the bowstring -- the whole point is NOT to pluck it, not to make a twang. They're not concerned about the noise, but if a bowstring is plucked, the arrow is deflected and you miss your target. Properly released, a bowstring is almost silent. The arrow, too, is silent as it travels. When it hits target or ground, it makes a quiet 'tuk'.


I've stood near the targets and seen how arrows seem to vanish a few feet after leaving the bow, as they soar into the air, only to reappear again moments before impact. And, after hours of searching for lost arrows, I know only too well how an arrow can skitter into the grass and disappear. These experiences were invaluable when I came to write the scene where Per and his cousins shoot at the 21st Century men. It allowed me to understand what a silent and almost undetectable weapon the longbow could be.


Scores of little details helped me to build up the picture of 16th Century life in the book. I visited Norway, where I saw and tasted the popular 'flat-bread', which is like a circular crispbread. I learned that this used to be made in the farmhouses because it could be stored for ages. It was made round, with a hole in the centre, so that masses of it could be strung on cords and hung from the ceilings - as I describe it in the book. I also visited an old farm museum where I saw outhouses like the ones where the Sterkarms sleep (and bashed my head on several of the low beams). In this museum, and a similar farm museum in Orkney, I tried out the very comfortable old closet beds, with their rope supports and straw-stuffed mattresses. I noticed that every slight movement roused the smell of old, dried grass.


A lot of people have told me that they enjoyed the scene in Handshake where Windsor is entertained to lunch by the Sterkarms. Well, I ate most of that meal in Norway. I stayed in a family-owned hotel, and the very friendly owner asked me if I would like to try some of the traditional Norwegian dishes that were being served that day for the locals -- it being a local festival. I was more than keen. That's how I came to eat a dish of groats served with raw smoked lamb and raw, smoked tongue.


As described in the book, the groats looked like a bowl of wallpaper paste. It's made from very finely ground oats, cooked very slowly with lots and lots of butter -- it became a traditional dish because it was something that could be left to simmer all day in the kitchen while everyone worked in the fields to gather the harvest during Norway's brief summer. As I report in the book, though it looked disgusting, it was very tasty. I think I preferred it as a savoury, although it was also served as a pudding, with honey and berries rather than raw meat.


The Sterkarm's main course, the meat-pudding, is, of course, a haggis -- a sheep's stomach, stuffed with oats and the sheep's own liver, lungs, heart and kidneys. Except that, this being a special occasion, the Sterkarms have made the haggis from a deer's offal. I have often eaten haggis, with chips, while in Scotland. If you remember not to think too much about what it's made from, it's very tasty -- most of the taste seems to be sage, anyway.


Probably the most arduous research I undertook was learning to ride. I know dogs and how they behave, so the dogs in the book were convincing enough -- but I've had almost nothing to do with horses, and I realised that the horses in the book might as well have been bikes. So when I saw an advert for a residential riding school on the Scottish borders, which promised to teach you to ride in a week, I booked up.


On the first day I was introduced to my mount. He was a Northumberland cob -- quite close to the kind of horse the reivers used to ride. He looked the part, too, with his uncut mane and tail hanging to the ground. He was barrel-bodied, stumpy-legged, thick-necked, and a dusty black in colour. His name was, 'Misty.' You'd be looking at him a long, long time before anything about him made you think of mist.


Clambering on board him wasn't as difficult as I'd feared. There was nothing mettlesome -- thank God -- about Misty. He stood there stolidly while I clambered on. Once up there, it was like sitting astride a kitchen table, his body was so wide. With three other beginners, I spent the first day learning how to hold the reins, and how to walk and trot. Misty, of course, knew exactly what he was going to be asked to do next, and went ahead and did it, without bothering to wait for any signal from me -- which rather hindered my progress.


Over the next few days we learned how to saddle up and how to canter. We cantered over moorland which luckily supplied deep, thick, soft turf to fall into. Misty, knowing that cantering came next, didn't bother to wait for me to get ready, or to signal him to go -- he just went. I lost a stirrup and then my seat. Falling onto the turf wasn't too bad -- no worse than falling heavily onto a mattress. But the riding helmet that was supposed to protect me from head injuries gave me a painful crack on the back of the head with its hard plastic lining.


The last day of the course -- when I was already stiff and bruised -- had us beginners taking the horses over low jumps. This was madness. I actually stayed in the saddle for one jump. At the second I thumped onto the sandy ground of the training arena, which was a lot harder than the moorland turf. At the third attempt, Misty stopped abruptly, and I shot forward, thumping my nose on his neck -- which was as hard as an iron bar -- and then went backwards and landed on my back in the sand. Again. I hold this against Misty. He knew what he was doing. He could have gone over that jump if he'd wanted to. But you know what it was? I'd run out of polo-mints.


I sat up in the sand and said emphatically, "Enough!" So emphatic was I that the instructress meekly agreed and didn't even try to persuade me to get back on. I had learned about head-gear and saddles, and that horses love to come up and shove you over with their noses while frisking you for polo-mints. Most of all I'd learned that with horses, it's a toss-up as to whether staying on or falling off is more uncomfortable.


When I woke up the next morning, my glasses felt odd when I put them on. They seemed to be lop-sided. So I went into my bathroom and discovered that I had a swollen nose and a black-eye, courtesy of Misty.


What I do in the interests of research. Some day I may tell you how I was dragged across the snow behind a husky-sled in Finland's arctic circle, as my alarmed friend and publisher watched, composing obituaries in her head.


Where did the idea of using aspirins to trade with the Sterkarms come from?


When European traders first contacted Native Americans, they exchanged cheap, mass-produced beads and hatchets for valuable furs. It's a principle of capitalism never to pay the true value for goods. So it was obvious that FUP would pay the Sterkarms in something virtually valueless.


I spent some time thinking. What would be almost worthless to FUP, but would appear valuable to the Sterkarms? It happened that, at the time of the Solidarity troubles, some relatives had been sending food parcels to relatives of theirs in Poland. One item that was desperately wanted in Poland, but impossible to get, was aspirin. That gave me the idea. Generic aspirin costs almost nothing to produce -- but to the Sterkarms, who had no really effective painkiller for all their aches and pains, it would seem like a magical, Elvish potion.



Where does the Sterkarm language come from?


When I started thinking about 21st Century people meeting 16th Century people, one of the first problems that occurred to me was that they wouldn't be able to understand each other's speech. After all, even today, with television eroding our accents, southerners can barely understand Glaswegians or Geordies. So was it likely that someone from the present day could step out of their time-machine and hold a conversation with a reiver from nearly five hundred years ago? Not a chance.


So how was I going to deal with problem? I could ignore it -- taking the line that it was an unimportant part of the story. But I couldn't do that. It fretted me. I considered other solutions. Could I do a sort of pastiche of Chaucerian English? Not really -- not within my powers -- and, anyway, Chaucer was a bit too early.

Elsdon Pele Tower, Phil Tirkell
Elsdon Pele Tower, Phil Tirkell

How about having the Sterkarms speak English, but an antiquated English, full of dialect words? I didn't like that idea either. For one thing, all of these solutions seemed to draw attention to the trickery involved. I always favour being really straightforward. The most straightforward way of solving the problem was actually to have the Sterkarms speak -- at least some of the time -- in a way that was close to English, but quite obviously hard to understand. And Danish, in some ways, is quite close to English. I happen to know a very little Danish. I'm not claiming to be any sort of linguist. Far from it. I'm a hopeless linguist. But I do know a very little, basic Danish. So would it, I wondered, be possible to base the Sterkarm's speech on Danish?


Once this had occurred to me, I remembered that the Sterkarms were supposed to come from the borders of Scotland and England -- a district where the dialect and landscape are littered with Danish words. For instance: the Danish for church is kirke; the Scots is kirk. The Scots for a child is bairn; the Danish for child is barne. A Scots dialect word for 'woman' is 'quean' or 'quine'; the Danish for women is 'kvenna'. The Danish for 'home' is hjemme (hyemma); and in Northern England, home is often pronounced 'hyem'. Many northern villages and towns are called 'Kirkby', which is Danish for 'Church Town', and 'Snaefell' translates as 'Snow Mountain'.


I thought if I had the Sterkarms speak a sort of dog-Danish -- it would have to be dog-Danish because of my own failures as a linguist -- then I might be able to come up with a convincing northern dialect for them -- something that an English reader might be able to read with a bit of concentration, but which wouldn't be English.


I soon realised that I would have to spell it phonetically. The Danish for 'I' is jeg, which an English speaker with no knowledge of Danish would quite reasonably pronounce to rhyme with 'leg' In fact, it's pronounced 'yi'. Writing it phonetically, as 'yi' not only allowed an English speaker to pronounce it more or less correctly, but made clear how close it is to the English word.


Why did you make Andrea fat?


People have asked me many questions about this. Did I make Andrea fat to strike a blow against the body fascism of the fashion industry? To declare that Big is Beautiful? Did I make her a big hefty girl because I am myself big and hefty?


None of the above.


Rather, I was thinking about the ways in which the Sterkarms would differ from our society. They would have different attitudes, different ways of thinking. I always try to find something real that I can firmly base such speculation on, so I thought, what were the Sterkarms?


Answer: they were a close-knit agricultural community -- cattle-farmers. They had banditry as a side-line, but they were farmers. So, did I know anyone from a close-knit agricultural community that would give me some clues?

Diana Dors (Wikimedia, Koch, Eric/ Anefo
Diana Dors (Wikimedia, Koch, Eric/ Anefo

I thought of my uncle, who was Polish, and actually came from a close-knit, agricultural community. Okay -- so what attitudes did he have that differed from the norm of English behaviour in the 20th-21st century? Well, for one thing, he was much more demonstrative -- always hugging and kissing people. (My uptight English grandparents used to run away and hide when they knew he was coming on a visit).


It seems that in the past, the English were more continental. I've read extracts from letters written by 16th century foreigners who complained that the English were always hugging and kissing you. So I made the Sterkarms very touchy-feely too. (Assuming, it's true, that this was also true in the North. The reivers were as English as they were Scots. Most of the riding-families lived on both sides of a border that barely existed at the time and had little loyalty to any national identity.)


Another thing about my Polish uncle was that he liked big women. His pin-up was Diana Dors in her later years. ('That is a woman! Not a skinny stick!') He would have loved Dawn French. When I give talks and mention this, it always gets a big laugh -- but, in fact, there's a serious side to it. My uncle lived in a peasant community where hunger was much closer than we, in 21st century Britain, can imagine. His family were comfortably off, and he didn't experience it, but often, when you see something like hunger threaten your neighbours, it frightens you as much, or more, than when it threatens you yourself.


To be portly, in my Uncle's world, was a status symbol -- it meant you had enough and more to eat. If your wife and children were fat, that meant you had more than enough not only to feed yourself, but them too.


To my uncle, to be fat also meant to be healthy, which seems bizarre to us, when we're constantly nagged about the health risks of overweight. But, in fact, it is healthier to be slightly overweight than to be underweight. If you're a little overweight, you probably have a thoroughly nourished body -- a healthy skin, healthy hair, strong bones and a fully functioning immune system. Go to any famine area of the world, and ask them which is more unhealthy -- to be well-fed and a bit overweight, or undernourished and thin.


Then, too, in my uncle's youth, in Poland, consumption or tuberculosis, was rife. The first symptom of this fatal disease was loss of weight. In my uncle's mind thinness was linked, not only with poverty, but with sickness and death.


It made sense to me that the Sterkarms would look at things in the same way. Living was hard in their time and country. Bad weather and a bad harvest, a few too many raids, or a sickness in the flocks, could all mean starvation for them. They would probably have been a little healthier than townsfolk, but they nevertheless lived crowded together in far from hygienic conditions. Any sickness would quickly infect the whole clan.


So, to the Sterkarms, our fashionable, thin models would not seem attractive. The poor things obviously can't afford to feed themselves, so they must be without family connections or wealth. They're very likely sickening for something too. Get too close and you might catch it. And they're unlikely to breed strong children, because they don't look well-fed or strong enough to be sexually mature. So what have you got to gain by being attracted to one? (The thought of gain, of status, has a lot more to do with who we're attracted to than we like to admit).


Andrea, on the other hand, being tall and plump and rosy, is obviously glowing with health. She must have been well-fed all through her childhood -- which means she has a wealthy family, with plenty of cattle, and land to grow crops. Being strong and healthy, she'd breed strong children. She's a real catch, a real babe.


Of course, having arrived at this conclusion, I was delighted that Andrea wouldn't be the usual skinny, waifish heroine. If she's considered to be a role model for big girls and a blow against body fascism, then good-oh. But that's not why I made her a big bonny lass.


How long did it take you to write 'The Sterkarm Handshake'?


It went through many changes of plot and many rewrites. In one version, Toorkild was killed. For a while Andrea had the new-age name of 'Leaf', but then I reverted to Andrea.


In the final version Bryce was written into a more important character than he had been in previous ones. But, throughout, I always had the idea that the 16th Century would raid the 21st at the end. Altogether, it took me about two years to re-write it into the book as it now stands.


Has it done well?


It's been the most successful of all my books, with great critical success in Britain, America and Germany, where it's already appeared. It's sold well in these countries too.


It's also been published in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia and Japan. And, despite being marketed as a 'children's book' or a 'young adult's' book, it seems to have a healthy adult readership. At one bookstore where I made an appearance, the children were shoved out of the way by big men in rugby shirts, each with their copy of HANDSHAKE that they wanted signed.


There have also been several film options taken out on it, but I'm not holding my breath while I wait for a film contract to arrive! -- And I wouldn't like to see Andrea played by some hungry, zero-sized actress!