Men and Flowers: The inspiration for ‘The Priest and the Lily’

Many of our most common and beautiful garden plants have come from far-flung locations throughout the world, brought to us by intrepid explorers who have literally risked life and limb in their search for the rare and exotic. Our gladioli originally came from South Africa, rhododendrons from the Himalayas, the monkey puzzle tree is indigenous to Chile, the regal lily was discovered in China and many of our most exquisite orchids originate in the Amazon. The stories of some of these men – for they were mostly men – who travelled the world in search of flowers, and got themselves into scrapes – attacked by bandits, gored by a bull, capsized from a canoe, fell off a cliff – inspired my story, The Priest and the Lily.

Set in 1865, just after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, on his radical theory of evolution, The Priest and the Lily is about a Jesuit priest, Joseph Jacobs, who sets sail from Bristol for Outer Mongolia. Joseph, passionate, idealistic and driven, wants to discover rare plants and animals and make a name for himself in scientific circles back in Britain. The young priest is accompanied a Buddhist monk and a horseman; as they travel across the steppes, he hears stories of an astonishingly beautiful white lily. Finding this lily becomes his dream. But to discover where it grows, he will encounter many dangers, for he will have to face the savagery of the White Warlord, a Chinese General intent on seizing power in Mongolia, as well as the far more powerful Yolros lama, the living incarnation of the Buddha. And in his quest for the lily, Joseph will meet a woman who will show him something far more precious than a flower. 

I spent years researching my story – and travelled to Outer Mongolia, where I had my own mini adventure. We were due to spend three weeks travelling by jeep and horseback in order to meet the tribe I was going to write about in my novel. Unfortunately, my luggage ended up in Russia, and I had to set off in just the clothes I was wearing! Thankfully I was wearing my walking boots!

Mongolia is stunning: it is a country of seemingly endless skies and steppes, with incredibly hospitable people. At the time of writing this blog, we’re in the grip of COVID-19, and everyone in the UK as well as many other countries, is currently in lockdown at home. I hope that my novel can, in some small way, help take our minds off this situation, transporting us to a country and a time far from own immediate experience, and perhaps, too, allow us appreciate what Joseph comes to realise – that it is love, which is more important than anything else on this earth. 

 

Thank you to Victoria Goldman for hosting this blog on her website: Off-the-Shelf Books.

 

The Priest and the Lily – out now!


Really excited to share my new novel with you – The Priest and the Lily. It’s now available to buy from Amazon as an ebook. The paperback is coming soon.

Here’s what it’s about:

 

In 1865, Joseph, a young Jesuit priest and plant-hunter, sets out on a dangerous journey through Outer Mongolia, a land virtually unknown to the Western world. Charles Darwin’s radical theory of evolution has just been published, and Joseph is driven by his passion for science and his love of God. As he crosses the Mongolia Steppes with a Buddhist monk and a local horseman, he hears rumours of a rare and beautiful white lily. He believes that if he finds this flower, his fame and fortune will be assured.

But then Joseph meets Namuunaa, a shaman and the chief of her tribe.

And it is Namuunaa who will teach him the true meaning of his desire…

‘You will journey far beyond the boundaries of your imagination. You will meet and seize your heart’s desire.
It will be the death of your soul.’


An epic journey, a story of East meeting West, and of a love that transcends culture, faith and ultimately tragedy.

 

Let me know what you think!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life-changing literature

When I was a rebellious teenager, I thought the ‘classics’ would be boring…and then I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

In these troubling and heart-breaking times, I think we could all draw comfort and solace from immersing ourselves in classical literature.

I talk to the Royal Literary Fund about life-changing literature. 

I feared these books would be dull, staid and part of the establishment that I was so busy rebelling against; and then I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/sanjida-oconnell-lcl/

What have you read that’s changed your life?

 

Coming soon – The Priest and the Lily

 

I’m really excited to announce that my novel, The Priest and the Lily, will be published soon as an ebook, and then in paperback. This is an epic, historical tale, for fans of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.

Set in 1865, it’s about Joseph, a young Jesuit priest and plant-hunter, who sets out on a dangerous journey through Outer Mongolia, a land virtually unknown to the Western world. Charles Darwin’s radical theory of evolution has just been published, and Joseph is driven by his passion for science and his love of God. As he crosses the Mongolia Steppes with a Buddhist monk and a local horseman, he hears rumours of a rare and beautiful white lily. He believes that if he finds this flower, his fame and fortune will be assured. 

You will journey far beyond the boundaries of your imagination. You will meet and seize your heart’s desire. It will be the death of your soul.

But then Joseph meets Namuunaa, a shaman and the chief of her tribe. 

And it is Namuunaa who will teach him the true meaning of his desire… 

This novel was originally published in 2009 as The Naked Name of Love, by John Murray, who also published Darwin’s The Origin of Species! It was such an honour to be published by the same publisher!

The rights have now reverted back to me, so I’m publishing it on KPD, with my original title. I’m looking forward to sharing the new cover with you and seeing what you think…

 

 

The Bristol Short Story Prize

Imagecategory_icons03THE BRISTOL SHORT STORY PRIZE – We’ve just had the award ceremony for the Bristol Short Story prize where the winning entrants were announced! The winner was Canadian writer, Brent vanStaalduinen for A Week on the Water, second place was J.R.McConvey, also from Canada, for a wonderful political satire, Between the Pickles. Australian writer, Magdalena McGuire won 3rd prize for her story Birthday Bones, which has a brilliant opening line: ‘It was the day before castration day.’ The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 8, featuring the 3 winning stories, plus the 17 other shortlisted stories, is available to order here.

Continue reading

Ten tips for cutting out sugar

category_iconsTEN TIPS FOR CUTTING OUT SUGARYou know how when you really want some chocolate, or a stack of biscuits, the lifestyle columnists’ advice is to, ‘go for a walk,’ ‘drink a glass of water’ or ‘distract yourself’? Frankly, if you want a piece of chocolate, or maybe the whole bar, that kind of notion just isn’t going to cut it. So I thought I’d share with you my top ten tips for cutting down on eating sugar.

IMG_1580

It’s more than a decade since I first started researching sugar for my book, ‘Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World’. I realised back then that I needed to eat less sugar – but it’s an uphill task (‘give it 20 min, then see if you still want that chocolate.’ Er, yes.). What’s going to work longterm is retraining your tastebuds so I’m going to share with you some of the things that worked for me.

Continue reading

Seeds of Change

IMG_2283category_diary80SEEDS OF CHANGE – Many of our most beautiful plants have come from far-flung lands, brought to us by intrepid Victorian explorers. It was their dare-devil stories that inspired me to write my third novel, The Naked Name of Love, about a Jesuit priest in pursuit of a rare lily in Outer Mongolia.

But I never considered that many of our most brilliant botanical finds made their way here in the hulls of ships as ballast. Ballast – the mud used to weigh down trading vessels when they docked – was picked up from countries all over the world and then dumped near Bristol’s Floating Harbour. And so we ended up with seeds from Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean sprouting here in the south-west. Artist, Maria Thereza Alves, has created a a floral tribute to our city’s trading history: on an old concrete barge floating off Castle Park in the heart of the city, she’s planted seeds that reflect the global routes travelled by Bristol merchants.

Continue reading

Writing Short Stories

category_icons03WRITING SHORT STORIES – I judged the Bristol Short Story Prize for the second year running. This year there were 2,420 entries from all over the world. My fellow judges – agent, Rowan Lawton, radio producer, Sara Davies and writer, Nikesh Shukla – and I read forty stories and chose the twenty that will feature in the next anthology as well as the winner, second and third place.

And today the short list of those twenty stories we chose has been announced!

Bristol Short Story Prize, Spike Island, Bristol; Saturday 25th October 2014; ©Barbara Evripidou/2014
Bristol Short Story Prize, Spike Island, Bristol; Saturday 25th October 2014; ©Barbara Evripidou/2014

Continue reading

Hiking for Writing

category_diary80HIKING FOR WRITING

All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.

Friedrich Nietzsche

DSCN7158

I’ve just got back from a long weekend hiking in the Lake District. We were blessed with amazingly beautiful weather for the start of April and climbed Scafell Pike. Not content with that challenge, we zipped up Scafell…and then had quite a long walk with achey knees down a scree slope to get back to Wast Water.

DSCN7161I love walking – whether it’s up a mountain, round a lake, popping to the shops, or up and down Bristol’s steepest hills. So I was interested to read Mark’s Daily Apple blog on Why These Nine Famous Thinkers Walked So Much. William Wordsworth, who famously climbed many of the hills in the Lakes, used his walks to compose his poems – the act of walking was ‘indivisible’ from the act of writing. Charles Dickens found writing quite difficult and used to walk 20-30 miles a day to get some relief from his work. Soren Kierkegaard deliberately used walking to help him mentally compose paragraphs and think through new ideas. He said:

Continue reading

What I think about when I think about holidays…

category_diary80WHAT I THINK ABOUT WHEN I THINK ABOUT HOLIDAYS … – We’ve just got back from our annual spring holiday in Trelowarren, Cornwall. I love holidays! I believe they’re absolutely crucial for boosting creativity. To be honest, I didn’t once think about the thriller I’m writing at the moment – but I hope I’ll approach it with vim and vigour and some fresh ideas when I get back to working on it. What the holiday allowed me to do – by stepping away from my daily routines, minor stresses and familiar environment – was to give me the space and time to think about the Bigger Picture.IMG_1752

Normally I try and read as many novels as possible when I’m away (although that can feel like work!) but this time I read some non-fiction books. I started off with Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin, which is about how to be more productive and happier by changing your habits. I loved it so much, I read Rubin’s first book in this series – The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. So now I have a list of new habits to help me Be More Productive and Have More Fun!

Continue reading

Back to Work

category_diary80BACK TO WORK – The school term has well and truly started. Instead of buying new pencils and a satchel, I’ve redecorated my office. I’m lucky enough to write at home and have my own room: where you work has an enormous effect on your productivity and creativity.Office orchid

These days the trend is towards open-plan offices but research shows that they have an adverse impact on your output. It sounds obvious, but the best office is one where you are physically and psychologically comfortable and which functions well for all the tasks you’re assigned. Dr Craig Knight, a psychologist from the University of Exeter, says that designing your own workspace can increase health, happiness and productivity. He adds that plants boost creativity by 45% and productivity by 38%. Fortunately, I love plants!

Continue reading

Sarah Hilary on her debut crime novel

category_diary80SARAH HILARY ON HER DEBUT CRIME NOVEL – Sarah Hilary is having a moment, or rather several, rather fantastic moments. Her debut crime novel, Someone Else’s Skin, published by Headline in the UK, and seven other countries worldwide, has been chosen for Richard and Judy’s autumn Book Club. Her second novel in the Detective Inspector Marnie Rome series is due out in spring 2015 and Image 1Sarah is currently working on her third and fourth novels.

The Times describes Someone Else’s Skin as:

Continue reading

Sugar: The Book I Wish had Changed the World

category_diary80SUGAR: THE BOOK I WISH HAD CHANGED THE WORLD – There is something sweet and sickly in the air.

It’s ten years since my book on sugar, Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World, was published. Next week I’ve been asked to sugar copyopen a conference at Bristol University on sugar – covering many of the topics I wrote about, from the evolution of sugar cane through to its effect on our health – although I’m expecting the academics at Bristol, a decade since I researched the subject, to have far more insightful things to say.

Continue reading

How to write dialogue II

category_diary80HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE II – If writing dialogue set right now in the real world is difficult, writing historical dialogue is even harder. Surprising as it sounds, you don’t want absolute accuracy. The deeper into the past you go, the less likely it is that anyone living today actually knows how anyone spoke and the chances are, we wouldn’t understand them anyway.

What you do want is readable dialogue that carries information, advances the sugar isalndplot, indicates relationships, conveys character, mood AND is authentic. My fourth novel, Sugar Island, is set around 1860 on an island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, where my English protagonist, Emily Harris, has been forced to live by her American husband on a slave plantation. Emily is based on the real life actress, Fanny Kemble, who wrote a diary of her experience on St Simons Island.

Continue reading

How to write dialogue

category_diary80HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE – Walter: Castor beans.

Jesse: So, what are we going to do with them? Are we just gonna grow a magic beanstalk? Huh? Climb it and escape?

Walter: We are going to process them into ricin.

Jesse: Rice ’n Beans?

Walter: Ricin. It’s an extremely effective poison.

Breaking Bad

Dialogue is something that many writers struggle with. If you sit in a cafe and transcribe a tumblr_mok20qnBPE1qzpxx1o1_1280conversation you’ll see that people don’t talk the way they do in books and films. They are not eloquent, they have accents or dialects, they use slang, jargon; their speech is repetitive, circular, they stick in redundant words like like, you know, I mean; frequently they don’t say what they mean or what they truly want to say. Quite often they’re not listening but waiting for a gap in the conversation to speak or are simply talking over the other person. Equally, you don’t want to write dialogue that’s stilted or reads as if it has been written down, rather than spoken but you do want to capture the essence of how a particular character speaks. It’s tricky! Continue reading

Does the Tracy Anderson Method work?

category_dress80DOES THE TRACY ANDERSON METHOD WORK? – It was 10 am in Brazil and a sweet voice thick with sleep answered. It sounded as if I had woken her up after a hard night and, of course, I had. As Madonna’s  personal trainer on the star’s Hard Candy tour, Tracy Anderson had probably had a late one. This was 2008.

Now the trainer is a star in her own right. I was supposed to be interviewing her image-4-for-cos-tracy-anderson-gallery-882137510for The Independent newspaper, but even back then my editor declined because she was too much of a celeb. Shooting to fame after she sculpted Gwyneth Paltrow’s body, she now owns a chain of gyms, has designed a line of workout gear, masterminded a food programme and produced a fitness programme (The Tracy Anderson Method) followed by millions. She’s developed a workout machine, a workout for men, teenagers and pregnant women; there’s a juice line in the pipes, detox weeks, hair salons, wellness shakes; she’s far too busy to actually train celebrities herself. Continue reading

Working with a freelance editor

category_icons03WORKING WITH A FREELANCE EDITOR – I’ve been the fortunate recipient of an Arts Council grant to fund me whilst I write my fifth novel. One of the brilliant aspects of the grant is that I have been able to hire a freelance editor to read the latest draft of my work in progress. I was lucky enough to work with Ali Reynolds, who was an editor at Vintage, Random House, before moving to Bristol and starting up her own company, Arc Editorial, which specialises in freelance editing and mentoring.

You might think there isn’t much need for an editor prior to getting your book published Arc_Blueand it is not cheap (although it’s incredibly good value for the amount of time and expertise you receive) – but in my experience, it’s invaluable.  I’ve had two 2 book deals with publishers (John Murray and Black Swan) and am now between contracts – so I don’t have the luxury of working with an in-house editor.  As Ali says:

Continue reading

Good Reads 2013

category_icons03GOOD READS 2013 – When I was the TV reviewer for BBC Wildlife magazine, the editor would not let me write a review about a bad programme. It was less than honest and made for duller copy. However, I am taking a leaf out of her book as I’d love you to spend the Christmas period being transported by wonderful books and giving them as gifts to others. Here is my selection of the books I’ve liked best this year.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey has to be the perfect winter present with its hauntingly snow-childbeautiful descriptions – ‘She could not fathom the hexagonal miracle of snowflakes formed from clouds, crystallized fern and feather that tumble down to light on a coat sleeve, white stars melting…’ – and its poignant relationship between Jack, Mabel and the child they believe they have created out of grief and longing and snow.

Continue reading

Science in Fiction

category_icons03It’s not done well. In fact, it’s done infrequently and frequently badly. Science in fiction. I’m not talking about non-fiction books dealing with science or science fiction, which has to have, at least, a modicum of science as a given, but science in your common or garden novel.

Science has a lot to offer: we are talking subjects as diverse as environmental destruction,
quantum physics, particle physics, nanotechnology, neurosurgery, psychopathy and molecular gastronomy – all at your disposal as a writer. We are talking of characters who
Gravity-2013-full-leaked-movie-1could be Brian Cox, Robert Winston, Craig Venter or Bill Gates. Maybe even, dare I say it, a female scientist. So you could have scientists as characters, science as a theme, science as the subject of the novel – and this is at a time when science in movies is big business (Another Earth, After Earth, Gravity, Contagion).

Continue reading