Having read her debut psychological thriller, Bone by Bone, I was delighted when Sanjida suggested we meet for coffee in Waterstones, Bath, earlier this year. I thoroughly enjoyed our chat and tentatively enquired if she would be willing to be interviewed for my blog. We agreed to make this happen around the time of the paperback publication this month.
In preparation I bought a couple of her previous works and read other interviews she has given. I hope that the questions I have asked offer some insight into the thinking behind the writing of a very intelligent and personable author, who I hope to have the opportunity to meet up with again.
The central theme of Bone by Bone is childhood bullying. You have admitted that you were bullied as a child at many of the schools you attended. Did your parents ever try to get involved?
First, let me say how lovely it was to meet you in person, not just virtually! Thank you for having me on your blog. You’re right – I went to ten different schools and I was bullied at nine of them. I hated school! My parents didn’t get involved, and at quite a young age, I stopped telling them about it. My cousin’s husband was a police officer, and one time, when he was over from Ireland, he had a ‘word’ with some boys who used to throw bottles at me on the way to school. Thankfully times have changed: parents are more willing to speak up and bullying is far less tolerated. I think the key message for children today is to tell a trusted adult. Bullying, no matter how embarrassed or ashamed you might feel about it, is not acceptable. It’s far more likely to stop if you get help.
You have spoken publicly of identity, how it is formed and how it changes as you grow. How has your experience of being bullied affected what you have become?
I recently gave the keynote speech at Sidcot Quaker School’s first Peace Festival, which focused on the nature of identity. Many young people don’t know who they are yet (probably something we all struggle with a bit!). I feel that identity is partly formed by who you love and who loves you – your family and friends – as well as your culture and environment. But it does change and you can shape your own identity yourself. I love this quote by Dr Seuss, the well-known author of books like, ‘The Cat in the Hat:’
“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
I don’t believe that bullying makes you a stronger individual in the end. It is psychologically damaging. Being bullied changed me for the worse and for years affected my relationships, particularly with men. I always chose the wrong guy! But then I had a couple of years of therapy, and now I’m married to a kind, gentle, strong person.
For Bone by Bone you changed your author name. What prompted this?
My previous books are more literary and the last two are also historical. My publishers asked me to change my name to separate those novels and my non-fiction books from my thrillers (the next one, ‘The Stolen Child’, is due out in spring 2017). They wanted me to keep my first name, though and since there aren’t many British novelists called Sanjida, it’s relatively easy to work out who I really am!
You are a science writer who presents and directed science and wildlife documentaries for the BBC. Your previous books included a great deal of scientific content. Was it an active choice to tone down the science when writing Bone by Bone?
I’m fascinated by science, particularly the natural world. My first degree is in zoology and my second was a PhD on chimpanzees. The main character in three of my previous novels is a scientist. But I chose not to have a science theme running through my thrillers, mainly to make them more accessible. That’s not to say that I won’t return to science at some point or that science can’t be exciting or mainstream. Even in Bone by Bone bits are inspired by my background and love of nature – Laura’s mum, for instance, is an anthropologist based in Namibia, and that came out of field work I carried out on baboons!
You have set the book close to where you live, painting the nature reserve in particular as oozing menace. Do you feel safe when, for instance, out running in your neighbourhood?
That’s good, that’s what I was aiming for! The urban nature reserve near where I live feels like a lovely oasis to me but I do feel unsafe running in the city, particularly when it’s dark. What frightens me are out of control dogs and dangerous humans.
In Bone by Bone, Autumn and her mother have recently moved cities and are still trying to settle. You were moved around a great deal as a child. Do you look back on this as a positive experience or would you have preferred more stability?
I’ve reacted against being moved around so much as a child by desperately searching for somewhere to put down roots! I’ve lived in or near Bristol almost my entire adult life. But I have itchy feet. I’m always planning to move house (maybe I could go to LA? Or Cornwall?) or thinking of my next holiday!
And finally, you are donating a percentage of your profits from Bone by Bone to the charity Kidscape, which works to promote the anti-bullying message and shine a spotlight on child protection issues. What made you choose that particular anti-bullying charity to support?
Some of the other charities around support adults who are bullied too, and whilst that’s worthy, I wanted a percentage of any money Bone by Bone makes, to go directly towards helping children. I approached Kidscape because I like their ethos: the charity seems to me very much about empowering young people and giving them concrete tools and the support they need.
My thanks to Sanjida for answering these questions. I eagerly await the chance to read ‘The Stolen Child’ in 2017.
‘Bone by Bone’ is published by Corvus and is now available in paperback. You may read my review here.