Simon Sylvester’s The Visitors, just came out, and he kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about The Visitors and what inspired you to write it?
The Visitors is a murder mystery and a story about stories. Tendrils of the idea took root in my head while I was walking the coast of Scotland with my wife and baby daughter. Our holiday cottage was right on the shore, looking across the sea, and every night we watched the seals and otters hunting. We glimpsed porpoises cruising just beyond the bay. A kestrel perched in the garden, glaring back at us. I was overwhelmed by the sense of all the life and death that occurred when no one was there to see it—and the sea at dawn, a mirror broken into blue and silver, all of it teeming with energy. When we left for home, those slivers of Scotland needled in my brain. I had a first draft within six months.
What makes Flora such a compelling character? Why do you think readers connect with her?
I hope Flora’s compelling because she believes in wonder. Or wants to, anyway. She believes in stories as an act of magic, she believes in escape—she believes there’s more to the world than the snow globe of her own island. She’s curious, I suppose, and I found myself sad that her world has boundaries for so long. I wanted the story to be her story, not mine—for her to find something that makes her happy. You lovely readers can decide whether she finds it.
What kind of research did you do for the book, and what is your writing process like?
I don’t really do a huge amount of focused research. For The Visitors, I did a little reading on selkies, which taught me a few new things—like that aching idea that selkies are born from the souls of drowned sailors—but I’ve always known selkie stories, in the same way I’ve always known Hansel and Gretel. I can’t remember not knowing about selkies. Immersing myself in a landscape tends to be most of the research I do. I like to walk around the spaces I’m writing about, or something very like them. Location is an integral part of how my work has evolved over the years. I sometimes think of stories as drops of water, filtering through a landscape as best they can—but that only works if I know the feel of the land. In exploring the islands of Jura, Islay and Gigha for The Visitors, I sought the hollow bounce of the peat beneath my feet and listened, really listened, to the gulls as they hawked and squabbled. The dust of sea salt on my lip—the texture of the pebbles. Sometimes I walked barefoot. That’s the heart of my research. I get two days a week to write, sometimes one, sometimes none, and I tend to cram as much as I can into those windows—2,000 words is a good day, 5,000 words is a great day. I try to plan, sometimes, but things tend to run away from me, so my plans become redundant pretty quickly. I tend to write endings early on, though. The plot inevitably evolves but I know, emotionally, how I want the story to finish. That gives me something to work towards. It doesn’t change from the moment I have the first spark of an idea to the moment I finish, though the characters, plot and place go through carousels of changes.
You have a journalism background, but have you always wanted to write fiction? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
It was journalism that led me to fiction. As a staff writer for a couple of magazines, I churned out everything from hotel reviews to the history of tea. Working within the confines of a house style was the trigger—I increasingly found myself resenting the binds of formal, conventional writing expected in my articles, and so took to writing wild prose poems in a notebook. It all flowed from there. I spent years working in a very experimental style, and even wrote a 100,000 word novel as something like a prose-poem. A lot of my short stories were accepted by magazines and literary journals, but I started longing for something more satisfying in my writing—something simpler—and I found it in stories. I became obsessed with folktales and traditional storytelling and that, in another year or so, brought me to writing The Visitors.
What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?
As an adult, I wrote my first short story at the age of 26. It was only a few hundred words long. From the top deck of a bus, I noticed that someone had graffitied their name on a lamppost. They must have shinned up and clung on with their legs while writing. I wrote a story about that kid, and the places he wrote his name, and why. My uncle suggested I send it to Smoke (an amazing quarterly of London-based stories and essays, now sadly defunct) and I was astonished when they accepted it. That gave me the confidence to submit more work.
What are some of your favorite authors? Is there anyone that has particularly influenced you?
This is a tricky question to answer, because influence is a constant force, right? I’m influenced by walking to work. I’m influenced by the evening news, and by my daughter drawing pictures in window condensation. So, that said, my influences include Anne Rice, Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde, Jess Richards, Roberto Bolano, Sarah Waters, Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman. My biggest influence is Hunter S. Thompson—I used to write very much in his footsteps, in the same way he wrote in Fitzgerald’s—copying pages of his prose and studying his sentences. But then a friend pointed out that I needed to make my own way, and I started experimenting. Open mic nights have been a gigantic influence—performing my words has shaped how I write them in the first place. It’s a cycle. My writing has also been hugely influenced by my work as a filmmaker and film tutor. I often think in cameras when I write. The process of setting up a shoot is very similar to setting up a scene, considering sounds, smells, colours, space, light.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Great question! Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. It’s a wonder—a rollicking ride through a Victorian London of lowlives, pickpockets and petty thieves with the single most masterful twist I’ve ever experienced in a book. It’s perfect. I envy anyone reading it for the first time.
What are you currently reading?
I tend to read several books at once—at the moment, I’m reading Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, which is an annotated glossary of archaic landscape terminology; The Trees by Ali Shaw, an extraordinary contemporary fantasy about rewilding the land and rewilding the heart; Under The Northern Lights by Alan Sullivan, which is a 1929 collection of Alaskan short stories I found in a thrift store; and The Incarnations by Susan Barker, which interweaves the reincarnated relationships of two tortured souls through centuries of Chinese history. They’re all very, very good.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I working on a new draft of my next book, which is called The Hollows. Without saying too much, it’s about memories—what it means to forget something important, and what it takes to remember. It’s been a challenge, as I’m aiming for something really specific with the more magical elements of the book, and it’s not there yet. I’ve had loads of film work lately, and after a couple of months of breathing space, I’m almost ready to go back and get lost in it: a hidden world of herons and tarot, foxfire and reeds.
About The Visitors:
In the tradition of Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks, Simon Sylvester brings an ancient myth to life with this lush, atmospheric coming-of-age tale
Nobody comes to the remote Scottish island of Bancree, and seventeen-year-old Flora can’t wait to move to the mainland when she finishes school. So when a mysterious man and his daughter move into isolated Dog Cottage, Flora is curious. What could have brought these strangers to the island? The man is seductive but radiates menace, while Flo finds a kindred spirit in his daughter, Ailsa.
Meanwhile, several of the men on Bancree have disappeared, unnerving the community. When a body washes ashore, suspicion turns to the newcomers. But Flo suspects something else, even though it seems impossible: She asks local residents for anything they know about”selkies,” the mythical women who can turn from seal to human and back again.
Convinced of her new neighbors’ innocence, Flo is fiercely determined to protect her friend Ailsa. Can the answer to the disappearances, and to the pull of her own heart, lie out there, beyond the waves?