As a child, I decided early on that I preferred animals to people, and spent as much time in their company as I could. This lifelong attraction to animals and the outdoors led me to work with apes in my school holidays and, later, to a ranch in Montana, where I pretended to be a cowgirl. This experience never quite left me, hence the American West becoming the setting for my novel The Brittle Star.
I studied Zoology at Bristol University, and then went to work with 93 chimpanzees and a hippo in Northern Zambia. I loved the wilderness but the nights were long and I had a lot of time on my hands once the sun went down. I read an enormous amount and somehow the words took on even more meaning in that great silence. I began to wonder whether words were not, after all, what mattered to me most. By the light of a paraffin lamp, in a haze of mosquitos, I began to make tentative notes for a story of my own.
I returned to the UK and took a postgraduate diploma in journalism. I freelanced for various publications but deep down I knew that this was not the kind of writing I wanted to be doing. I retrained as a private tutor in English and the Sciences, which allowed me more time for writing fiction.
In 2012 I had retreated from London to the countryside, to Dorset, to think about what sort of book I wanted to write. Whatever the question, I find that spending time in nature always provides the answer. It was while in Dorset that I watched a film adaptation of Thomas Eidson’s book, The Last Ride, called The Missing. It was my lightbulb moment: I had always identified strongly with the work of Cormac McCarthy and somehow I suddenly knew that the American West was where I should set my story.
I returned to London, secluded myself in the London Library in St James’s, where I do most of my writing, and began to research the American West. However, all the available texts seemed quite dry and none of them provided the intangible thread that I was looking for. At one point, I was in the Biography stacks, looking for something else altogether, when the gold lettering on a green leather spine caught my eye: Reminiscences of a Ranger by Major Horace Bell. It proved to be the first-hand experiences of a ranger in California during the 1850-60s. It was written in a wildly enthusiastic, old-fashioned style – every sentence ended with an exclamation mark – but the characters and descriptions of Los Angeles life within it were terrific. The “exaggerated life” that the author described, in which life was cheap and where the lines between good and bad were heavily blurred, fascinated me. One line in the book struck me particularly:
“During these hot times, the robbers made a raid on the Mission San Gabriel… they were gallantly repulsed and driven away by Evert, a boy of fourteen years.”
This is the only mention of this boy in the book, but it was as though he had walked up next to me, taken off his hat, sat down and began to talk. I opened the first chapter of The Brittle Star, with this boy – whom I named John Evert Burn – as the narrator, and built his world, as I imagined it might be, around him.
The Brittle Star is a coming-of-age story that details the exploits of a boy who grows to be a man during a violent and vivid period of history. It is a story of loss, survival and redemption, which sweeps John Evert from the California wilderness to a Los Angeles courtroom, to the front lines of the American Civil War and home again, as he fights to retrieve what is his.
Thank you for visiting my website and I hope you enjoy the book.