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.

 

One Year Later – Bethany

I recently saw a set of three mugs in one of my favourite shops. They read:

I’m the oldest child – I make the rules.

I’m the middle child – I’m the reason we have rules.

I’m the youngest child – the rules don’t apply to me.

I had great fun creating Bethany’s character. She’s the middle child in the Flowers family in my psychological thriller, One Year Later. She’s a TV presenter – which was also my former career (this is a picture of me at the start of my TV career as a wildlife presenter for the BBC).

One of the producers I worked with was talking about another presenter and said, ‘He’d stab his grandmother to get ahead.’ I had to put that quote in my novel!

Bethany is feisty, fiery, independent, driven and ambitious. She’s also a victim of  TV culture where women have to look young and sexy no matter what show they’re presenting, whereas men are allowed to be on our screens at any age, looking, frankly, a bit dishevelled. Bethany is also a victim of the casual sexual discrimination and abuse against women that still exists in this industry.

He said, “Bethany, your problem is you’re smart without being intelligent,  good looking without being pretty, and approachable in a girl-next-door-way, but no one in their right fucking mind would want to be your neighbour.”

Bethany talking to Nick about her TV producer in One Year Later.

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?

 

Labyrinth – the setting

Setting is so important to me. It’s almost like another character, setting the tone and the mood as well, as obviously, the location. My last four psychological thrillers, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, My Mother’s Secret and One Year Later, are all, or partially set in Bristol, where I lived for many years. 

The novel I’m currently writing, Labyrinth, is set in London. I wanted a bigger, better-known backdrop, grittier and more urban. But, what I’m obsessed with (as anyone who’s read anything I’ve written will know!) is nature. I’m interested in the interstices between the suburbs and ghettoised wildlife; how nature creeps in, even to the grimiest, grittiest streets, and how we carry a love and fear of the wild within us all.

So what better place to set Labyrinth than Hackney! It’s pretty darn urban, but encompasses Hackney Marsh, Walthamstow Nature Reserve, the Lee Valley, and pockets of reed beds in the recently completely Olympic Park. Parakeets fly through the ash trees bordering the River Lee and coots stride across the tow path. 

Cue a number of research trips! The latest one was this week – I sneaked a quick walk along the Lee with my mum before I met up with my publishers.

New book – Labyrinth!

My exciting news is that I’m working on a new book. Provisionally called Labyrinth, it’s a re-imagining of Vertigo, the movie directed by Hitchcock. It’s a slight departure for me, as it’s less psychological thriller / family drama and more of a crime thriller. It’s set in Hackney in London, and as you’d imagine, from a re-take of Vertigo, there’s a lot about heights…

My story is about ex-cop, Maddison Jones, who suffers from vertigo. She fails to save a young woman from committing suicide, The girl falls to her death from the twelfth floor of a block of flats. The stress pushes Maddison’s vertigo to Meniere’s Disease, which is vertigo combined with tinnitus and she ends up on sick leave, struggling to leave the house.

(The picture of the double rainbow over an apartment block in Hackney Wick is by my talented sister, Emma O’Connell.)

More soon!

 

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…

 

 

One Year Later – Dante

I did not die and yet I lost life’s breath…

I always like to have a theme or a leitmotif running through my novels and in this one, One Year Later, it’s Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

There’s the obvious aspects – it’s set in Italy, it’s hot as hell, but it’s about a young man’s journey through nine circles of hell; it’s about salvation and redemption, as one lovely, astute reviewer pointed out.

Above all, when one is grieving, it really can feel that you are alive, but you have lost life’s breath and found yourself within ‘a forest dark’.

Happy new year!

 

Happy New Year! The snowdrops are out in the garden, looking lovely.

Thinking about this year – I’d really appreciate your feedback on what you would like to hear more about. I’m working on a couple of exciting book projects – more on them soon – but in the meantime, what would  you like to hear more of? Please could you complete this short survey (takes 2 minutes, promise!).

Everyone who completes the  survey  will be eligible to WIN one of my thrillers of their choice.

A winner will be chosen at random on MARCH 1st.

 

 

How I write

The Royal Literary Fund has recorded a mini -podcast with me on how I write – with a black coffee, and some dark chocolate and then I begin!

‘Writing a novel feels like being an ultra-marathon runner, it’s going to be a gruelling slog to reach 90,000 words and I will be unable to pause, to breathe properly, to take in the view until then.’

You can listen here:

Sanjida O’Connell

 

What do you think? Let me know how you write.