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In the video, Sarah speaks about writing from personal trauma while not getting lost in that personal trauma, and using subtlety in one’s writing.
The most important thing is to truly become the character you’re writing. Understand their trauma and don’t merge it with your own, even if your trauma and theirs are similar. This separation is harder to achieve when you are similar to your character, but it’s not impossible.
Sarah tells us it’s often easier to write characters that are different to us. When you write a character that’s similar to yourself, there are aspects of them that you may be blind to because there are parts of ourselves we sometimes can’t see. If you choose to write a character similar to yourself, know them very well. Ensure you write through the voice of the character, not your voice as the author, passing through the character.
It’s a quest and you are the knight, or the heroine in shining armour or bling. You need to put on your armour and your bling and keep at it. It’s not possible or realistic for some to write everyday (we have other lives too!), and sometimes it’s good to put a book down for a while and return to it with fresh eyes.
What’s most important is passion, commitment and stamina – that’s what keeps you going with a novel. And if you believe in a novel enough, you’re going to be riddled with doubt. But there should be something within you that believes in the novel, so you just keep returning to that place. Sarah finds that when a novel wants to be written, there’s something that keeps pushing her back to the blank page.
So just show up at the blank page again and again and again. And sometimes you might write, ‘I don’t know what to write’, and if you keep writing that, maybe something else will reveal itself…
The Silk Pavilion opens with a disturbing dream. It is the first of many throughout the novel. In this clip, Sarah Walton talks about the inclusion of dreams, and how to avoid the pitfalls of this controversial literary device.
Sarah is personally interested in dreams. She has trained in Tibetan Buddhist meditation and undertaken a lucid dreaming course. As she takes value from dreams in real life, it’s no surprise that she believes dreams can be powerful tools in novels.
For Sarah, dreams are a place where the hidden parts of our psyche can emerge from the shadows. In The Silk Pavilion, they’re opportunities for analysis. The protagonist Lucy is an active explorer of her own mind, and the mystery afoot is central to the story: why does she choose to be with Miguel, an unpleasant, abusive man. The dreams reveal that Lucy still confuses abuse and love, and this is rooted in repressed memories from her early childhood. Her dreams bring the darkest parts of her into the light. Another benefit of these dreams are that they’re great for establishing a sense of foreboding regarding Lucy’s trauma.
Dreams also allowed Sarah to make Karl Jung a real character. He was interested in the hidden value of dreams himself and so dispenses his wisdom to Lucy – ‘When an inner situation is not made conscious it happens outside as fate’ – it is a distinctive, meta moment in The Silk Pavilion, because this quote is at the start of the book.
Sarah wrote the dream sequences of The Silk Pavilion with apprehension; her editor does not easily accept dreams in novels. There was a subsequent back-and-forth, where some dreams were cut or the nature of them were altered.
A clear highlight of our online launch of The Silk Pavilion was Sarah’s powerful reading of The Letter of Forgiveness. Lucy makes it her mission to translate this mysterious scrap of paper, written by the grandmother of Miguel.
Thanks to Keith Waithe, who’s composition for The Silk Pavilion begins and ends this clip. The extract is included in full below.
Content Warning: Sexual Assault.
To those I forgive,
The others I forgave years ago, nameless faces, disembodied members. They saw only a leftist widow, a leftist whore. The enemy. You, I have struggled to forgive. I have tried many times to write this letter, but failed. Today is my 87th birthday. A decade since The Pact of Forgetting silenced Spain. But the inside of a human mind is never silenced. Marta Alma Llobet (may your sweet soul rest in peace) – I try to remember you prancing around the olive trees in the garden before the war – but I cannot push away the image of your face, a crushed paper ball of pain, hair pulled back and used like the reins of a horse as those men raped your sweet innocent soul, one by one, in the cellar that stormy night.
It was a night when the Sirocco had blown in with such hot fury and those Saharan winds snatched away our screams for help and pleas for mercy. But who would have come? Who remained to hear them? They’d taken the men. They, Franco’s men. And marched them to the mirador. We knew what fate awaited them. We knew that in the morning we would go with baskets like our neighbours had done, to collect what was left of them on the rocks. I secretly wished that if we women made it through the night alive that the sea would give their bodies a grave, so sick was I of the flesh.
When they arrived, I’d been with my husband, Mateo Julio Nadal. The house was different then. What is now the library was an attic and I told my daughter to hide there, shooed her up the ladder. We’d heard them in their truck pass the road by the house before they came down the lane. There was time to hide her. Up she went on her father’s strong shoulders.
Brave, they called him. Foolish, I’d said, when he refused to follow orders, spoke out against Franco’s bidding. A hero, some still say now. But where did his loyalty lie? With his politics or protecting his wife and child? I was angry too with you for many years, my dear, darling washed away husband. I forgive you. And although I raged at you for decades for speaking your truth, for standing up for all that is right in this god-forsaken country, for fearlessly facing those young, directionless fascist thugs that night, I would not respect you more than any man who has walked the earth if you had not. You spoke for me too, and for the millions too afraid to speak out against the Falange. I forgive you, my husband. May your soul rest in peace. For the peace of my own soul is why I write this letter. How my shoulders yearn for your strong arms around me, just once more as I sit on the floor of this cellar. Now a storage space for summer patio furniture, hats and the junk of our daughter’s young family. You would love Miguel, thoughtful, just like you.
This is my second attempt at this Letter of Forgiveness. The first time was the winter of 1977, just after The Pact of Forgetting was passed. Miguel was in his early twenties; he’d come down here into the cellar for something and disturbed me. But it was still too raw. Now the wound is old and callused over. Now I have the strength for it, dear, brave, foolish husband. I feel you by my side now as I hold this pen steady in my aged hand. How cheated I feel that we did not watch the wrinkles etch deeper year on year in each other’s faces. At least our daughter was spared. I could not have watched her as I was forced to watch Marta Alma Llobet (bless her soul). Here they come again, the tears. I thought there were none left. Maybe after I write this letter the old wound will heal once and for all. They had their fill with us, drank what wine they found down here, stole what food we had left for the winter and drove off singing,
He’s Franco, Franco, Franco
We have a leader
The passages of honour
We will deliver
With no fear of adventure
The mandates of your voice
Maker of our new history
He’s Franco, Franco, Franco
That song, the light tone of their slurred words (like school children singing Christmas carols) still wheels in my mind. At least your brother was not among them. Although I might have forgiven him sooner had he not hidden behind his words and come to take you to the mirador himself.
Franco, I forgive him for unleashing his monstrous shadow over our country. Fascism is the shadow-half of Spain’s broken heart, the soul of our nation split, itself splitting souls as the war wheels rolled away from Villa Rosa.
Marta and I did not dare move for what seemed like a very long time. I see the exact spot, there, by the pipes of the old cistern. I remember the flick, flick, flick of a soldier’s pocketknife by my right ear. I still hear it sometimes, always in my right ear, when the Sirocco blows in from Africa. The Pact of Forgetting could not silence that. I thought he was going to slit my throat with it. When he was finished, I silently begged him to as the next one took his place. And the next. I do not remember how many there were. Maybe The Pact has started to do its work on my memory, but the flick of the knife in my ear, the pain on Marta’s face as she scrunched up her eyes, her mouth, as they pissed on her. And the rest.
You should have gone into hiding, held your tongue after your refusal to send those prisoners of Can Mir to the firing squad. That sealed your fate. A soldier, no matter his military status, has no say. What difference that your brother condemned you a traitor? What difference? You should not have fought with words, dear husband, for those who lack the skill of arming themselves with words will use cruder weapons. Marta and I paid for your clever rhetoric that night. Your appeal for leniency, for a fair trial for those men and women, your pleas for justice to General Franco and his baby snatching doctors became our pleas for mercy. I forgive you, my husband. And I thank you. Maybe one day when the people of Palma tell me that you were a brave man, I will not want to scream at them: In his bravery, he abandoned his wife and daughter to a lifetime of torture. For she may have escaped rape, but she suffered through me. Forgive me, my daughter, for every dark look and every harsh word. They were not aimed at you, but came from my own shame, my own hatred of those singing fascists.
I forgive each one of you. As I sit here now I force my heart to send you, my rapists, love. For that is the only thing I have found in this long, torturous life of mine that can dissolve the pain and the raging beast within me.
And you, Juan Pablo Llobet. Finally, I come to you. You who knew me as well as my brothers, all rounded up in the night, all dead by then too. You, who had laughed and played with us in the summers, who’d eaten at our table when the winters were harsh. You, who I had kissed, just an innocent kiss, just once beneath the two twisted olive trees, the Lovers (followed by a giggle) we called them as children. You must have hated my husband when I returned with that rich, educated Palma man, but could you not find it in your heart to be happy for me? I stared you in the eye afterwards and you kicked me in the stomach and told me never to look you at you again. All these years I never have. All these years you pass through my land with your rake in your hand. Do you think I’m afraid of you, you little man? You killed me a very long time ago. It was only my daughter and now my grandson that gave me the will to live. Otherwise I would have thrown myself off the mirador onto the rocks like your sister Marta did and gone to a watery grave with my husband and best friend.
You took a piece of my soul. And now I want it back.
I forgive you, Juan Pablo Llobet, most of all. For it is you I have hated all these years and in doing so I have been diminished.
I, Sofia Valentina Nadal, forgive you for raping me, and your sister, that night in the cellar and again and again with your eyes every time you passed my house. There is no such thing as forgetting. I will not forget. I do not accept what you did as acceptable, even in war. It was evil. And I, Sofia Valentina Nadal forgive you Juan Pablo Llobet because I will not go to my grave with this hatred in my heart. After all these years, I want peace more than I want revenge.
I forgive the tears I was made to shed.
I forgive the pain and the humiliation.
I forgive the betrayal and the lies.
I forgive the slander and the shroud of shame, under which I was forced to walk the streets of Deià.
I forgive the hatred and the torture.
I forgive the violation of my home and my sense of safety.
I forgive the punches, the beating, the branding and the raping.
I forgive the terrorising and emotional abuse that continues to this day every time you glare at me and rape me with your eyes, and smile with that toothless smile of yours that opens my scar afresh, again and again.
I forgive the wrecked dreams.
I forgive the stillborn hope.
I forgive the lust, envy and jealousy.
I forgive the injustice carried out in the name of war.
I forgive the cruelty and the aggression,
I forgive the rage and the contempt,
I forgive the world and its sins – for they are many.
I forgive Spain, El Padre, for forsaking its people,
I forgive the theft of my husband,
I forgive the destruction of my friend,
I forgive the loss of the sons and daughters I might have had,
I forgive the theft of my soul – and today I take back what is mine.
With these words, with the power of the truth of an individual soul, for an emotional truth resides inside me that no jury, historian or god can deny. I forgive you.
Sofia Valentina Nadal
Sarah Walton’s inspiration for The Silk Pavilion came from many sources: staying in an eerie villa during a thunderstorm in Mallorca; thoughts about the novel Rebecca under a modern lens; the concept of creating intrigue about serial killers and the history of the Spanish Civil War – these are but a few.
Sarah was staying at a house in Deià, not far from Robert Graves’ old home. Up late, she heard the horrible, sinister clanging of pipes from terrible plumbing. There was a storm that almost sounded like screaming. Sarah was terrified and her imagination began to spiral, thinking about serial killers. There was a knock at the door, but it was just a neighbour.
Sarah swam in the Cala at Deià, She knew it was a place where men were thrown off or forced to jump from the mirador during the war. The women would pick up what was left of them in the morning and bury what remained. She realised that she was swimming above a graveyard.
Beyond that, Sarah was very familiar with Spain. She was taken to Franco’s memorial outside of Madrid when she just fourteen. She’s studied Catalan and Castilian Spanish and went to Barcelona university. Ultimately, Sarah was steeped in Spanish culture, so aware of the rift between those speakers, and this too inspired the book.
Back in the villa, Sarah began to think about her relationships and her own trauma. She began to wonder what drove her to make the decisions she did. With Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in her mind, she began to think of trapped women, and examined her story with a modern lens. The Silk Pavilion was born.
The Silk Pavilion explores the buried trauma of a woman and Spain’s Civil War simultaneously. Here, Sarah speaks about their powerful thematic interplay.
Sarah aligns personal trauma and national trauma through language, particularly the language of torture and war. Sarah also used specific historical references. For example, during the Spanish Civil War, sugar was a luxury commodity that soldiers used to pay women into having sex with them. Lucy notes that Miguel fixates on sugar and adds it to everything. In The Silk Pavilion, sugar is a weapon of degradation that Miguel uses against a vulnerable Lucy just as soldiers used it against vulnerable women.
Beyond the book, personal and national trauma are intertwined for Sarah because she’s determined to break the silence on both. The atrocities of the Spanish Civil War are repressed by The Pact of Forgetting, which ensured any war crimes or human rights violations weren’t investigated once the war ended. The dedication of The Silk Pavilion reads ‘For abused children and the adults we become’, because this book reveals Sarah herself as a victim of abuse.
Ultimately, Sarah believes silence perpetuates abuse, so in speaking up she’s healing herself, and hopefully contributing to healing trauma from the Spanish Civil War.
Sarah Walton speaks about drawing on her own life material in her novel The Silk Pavilion, using emotions from lived experiences, and real life exercises to get into the psyche of her characters.
The Silk Pavilion was an especially intense emotional writing experience, but Sarah reminds us that a writer puts aspects of themselves and their emotions in all their characters – even the horrible Miguel. Sarah roleplayed as Miguel with a writing group. She acted and spoke like him to truly get inside his head. Although she had nothing in common with him, she tuned into emotions he felt that she also has experienced, for example anxiety or rage.
The protagonist Lucy is informed by Sarah’s lived experiences with therapy. In fact, Sarah creates a fictional version of her therapist in The Silk Pavilion (with their blessing, of course). Like Lucy, Sarah is a victim of abuse, so she was able to draw from her emotions – particularly feelings of shame and pain – to create Lucy. To Sarah, using your own life material isn’t necessarily about providing a character with your own experiences, it’s about connecting to them through shared emotion.
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