Sanctuary – V.V. James

Today I’m here to talk to you about one of my favourite books of last year, Sanctuary by V.V. James. While it came out in a beautiful hardback last summer, it is being re-released in a shiny new paperback and Orion are celebrating with a full fledged blog tour (and obviously, saving the best for last!). I am very excited to share my first ever author interview with you all, and I’m very happy that it gets to be with one of the loveliest authors I know.

A genre-defying gem of a story, Sanctuary is the story of a murder in a small town, with all the drama and social implications that brings with it. However, in the world of Sanctuary, witches are a part of society, and this murder seems to have been committed through magic… Outsider Maggie Knight is brought in to investigate, and the young cop has her work cut out for her: the blame gets assigned quickly and factions built, murder becoming more of a social game rather than an objective investigation.

The story is intricately crafted, and reveals are written in the magical way where the balance between ‘I did not see this coming’ and seeing all the little hints dropped on the way build to the logical conclusion once you have gone past the point of the reveal. When I finished Sanctuary, I immediately wanted to reread it – apart from its unique approach to magic, it is the first book I’ve ever read that included tweets from the president. It is a great book, and we need more of them! Order yourself a copy of the shiny new paperback via Hive or Waterstones.

What was your inspiration behind the concept of having witches as a known, but strictly regulated part of society?

I’ve always loved writing worlds that are recognizably our own, but off-tilt by five or ten degrees. My first trilogy is recognizably modern Britain, with the tweak that the elite 1% who have all the wealth and power also have magic. SANCTUARY sprang from a world rocked by the Women’s Marches, and Me Too, and is about many things, but certainly women’s anger and disenfranchisement, yet also their strength. It seemed possible to embody those qualities within witchcraft.

Our whole notion of what it is to ‘be a woman’ has been created within a patriarchal culture that polices the boundaries and acceptable forms of women’s existence. So a policed and regulated witchcraft is my expression of that in the world of SANCTUARY’s alt-America.

Which character did you enjoy writing the most, and why?

Maggie. I love her humour and pragmatism, and the way she listens to both her heart and her brain. The way she respects but challenges her boss, and teaches and supports her assistant. The way she constantly strives to determine the right thing, on a case where nothing is simple or easy. The fact that she loves doughnuts. (I can’t tell you how many gratuitous doughnut moments were struck out by the editor’s red pen! I was definitely projecting…) Maggie is a good, decent human navigating a complicated world – like Luke in my first trilogy. I love inhabiting characters like that.

What was the biggest challenge writing SANCTUARY after your initial fantasy trilogy?

My trilogy used multiple narrators – my brain is really drawn to 360-degree storytelling – and is also very ‘plotty’, but one huge change was switching from writing in the close-third person to first person. Also, in SANCTUARY, our three key narrators are adult women, whereas in the trilogy we heard from both adults and teens, male and female. I knew it was vital that cop Maggie, bereaved mother Abigail, and witch Sarah were clearly distinguished, so I worked hard on their language and interior thought patterns, as well as their very divergent outward behavior. I was absolutely thrilled when the audiobook was cast with three different narrators, rather than one narrator varying her delivery. Go have a listen!

One of the central elements of SANCTUARY is fear and mass hysteria – do you see any parallels between the threat of Sanctuary’s witches and how we are dealing with the current pandemic?

It’s ironic, when I was writing SANCTUARY the one plot element I worried might strain the reader’s willing belief was the quarantine at the end, when Sanctuary is locked down by local authorities. And here we are in the time of Covid-19. I’m writing these answers in my London flat which I only leave for an hour a day to go for a run, and by the time you read this I maybe won’t even be able to do that. You’re absolutely right, the book is about what fear does to a community – and sadly we’ve seen plenty of examples recently, most shamefully in the panic buying of the first weeks of lockdown. And it is about how a frightened population can turn against individuals and the group they represent – just look at the boycotting of Chinese restaurants at the first whispers of Covid-19, the awful hostility endured by people of East Asian appearance, and the persisting narrative of the ‘Chinese virus’ that’s still coming down from the highest levels. Hatred is never the correct expression of fear. Community is the only answer.

As an aspiring editor, I am always curious about the author/editor relationship. What can you tell us about working with the fabulous Rachel Winterbottom?

Rachel is the person responsible for SANCTUARY existing in the first place! We were having coffee when she talked about how much she’d love to see a ‘Big Little Lies with witches’ book – and I just knew the right person to write it was me! We talked then about how I’d been in the US making documentaries during the time of the Women’s Marches after the Trump election, the national mood, Lana del Rey’s apparent call for witches to hex the new president … and the sinkhole that subsequently opened up in the White House lawn! SANCTUARY is really tightly plotted, and again, Rachel was pivotal – we kicked an outline back and forth, finessing twists. And then I went away and wrote it, and it all just flowed. The first thing you learn when your debut gets bought by a publisher is how close and collaborative the writer-editor relationship is. Usually that input comes after you’ve finished the first draft. In this case, it was front-loaded – Rachel literally waved a wand and magicked SANCTUARY into being, championing it within Hachette at acquisition. We were a coven of two!

What are some books you are excited to read in the upcoming weeks or that you have loved recently?

I just binged Jay Kristoff’s NEVERNIGHT – wow wow wow. Possibly the best fantasy trilogy of the past ten years? GIDEON THE NINTH by Taz Muir was a wild ride and I am desperate for the sequel. And I am loving that we’re seeing more of the feminist fantastical, from Samantha Shannon’s magisterial PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE to Mel Salisbury’s slender-but-devastating HOLD BACK THE TIDE, to the otherworldly SISTERSONG coming next year from Lucy Holland, which I was lucky enough to read in draft.

Thank you, Vic, for your wonderful answers!

Leave a Reply