Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Sanjida. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Priest and the Lily.
Thank you so much for having me, Erin! I love historical fiction too; an early inspiration for me, was Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain. The Priest and the Lily is the story of a young Jesuit priest, Joseph Jacobs, who sets out on a dangerous journey through Outer Mongolia, a land virtually unknown to the Western world. It’s 1865 and Charles Darwin’s radical theory of evolution has just been published. Joseph is driven by his passion for science and his love of God. As he crosses the Mongolian 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 she’ll test Joseph’s beliefs and values to the limit.
Where did the idea for this story originate?
I used to be a TV producer/director and I had an idea for a series about plant hunters. These were (almost exclusively) men who travelled the world in search of rare plants, and had incredible and risky adventures. I couldn’t persuade the BBC to make the series, but I ended up using my research as the inspiration for The Priest and the Lily.
On a more personal note, my step-father, James O’Connell, was a priest, and he left the priesthood to marry my mother when I was a small child. The idea of a priest leaving his profession (if not his faith) and suddenly being immersed in family life has always intrigued me.
What historical resources helped you bring Joseph and Namuunaa’s world to life on the page?
Joseph’s character and his journey is informed by two Jesuit priests, who luckily for me, left diaries! Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit, palaeontologist, biologist and geologist, who struggled to integrate his religious beliefs with his knowledge of biology and, in particular, evolutionary theory. He travelled to China several times, as well as visiting Mongolia, to carry out geological excavations. He discovered ‘Peking Man’, a relative of Pithecanthropus. Père Armand David was a French Lazarist Missionary, a zoologist and a botanist. He brought back the handkerchief tree, a clematis, and Père David’s deer, as well as numerous other plants that grace our gardens today.
Tribal people leave far less evidence of their thoughts and deeds, but there are still shamans, and tribes who hunt with wolves and eagles in Mongolia today - and when I travelled to the country, I visited one such tribe.
Which character in The Priest and the Lily do you feel you have the most in common with?
That’s a tricky one! I’m not like Joseph, but I share his passionate love of biology. I studied zoology, went on to do a PhD on chimpanzees, and spent much of my adult life writing about nature and producing and presenting wildlife documentaries. I love flowers!
Which character do you feel you have the least in common which?
Probably Tsem, the Mongolia horseman that Joseph travels across Mongolia with! He’s pretty happy-go-lucky, and I definitely am not! They’re accompanied by a Buddhist monk, Mendo, and I wish I were more like him. I’m doing my best to channel mindfulness at the moment. And who wouldn’t want to be as beautiful as Namuunaa and ride across the mountains with a wolf and an eagle?!
Did any scene in The Priest and the Lily challenge you as a writer?
Okay, spoiler alert, look away now! I found the sex scenes challenging because I wanted to get across the other-worldly nature of what was happening (I’ll let you read them to work out why!), as well as the feelings of transgression, and still keep them beautiful and engaging.
Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Priest and the Lily?
Originally the novel started with Joseph travelling from Bristol to Outer Mongolia by ship, and then struggling to get his small expedition together. Now we begin at the Great Wall of China with a savage incident where soldiers threaten to attack Joseph. It’s much faster and more immersive, but one of the scenes I lost, which I pine for, is where Joseph is in a small canoe, floating down a river lined with boats full of orchids that are for sale.
If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of The Priest and the Lily, who would you cast?
I’m not sure who would play them now, as the actors are too old for the characters’ ages, but I imagine Joseph like Jean-Marc Barr in The Big Blue; Ziyi Zhang, in House of Flying Daggers, playing Namuunaa; Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as Mendo.
What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Priest and the Lily?
I would love The Priest and the Lily to be an immersive experience, transporting readers to a distant land and culture, and taking their minds off their current troubles, if only for a short time.
I think the novel, whilst hopefully a good read, will also throw up some questions about cultural appropriation.
What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?
My exciting news is that The Priest and the Lily will shortly be released as an audiobook, narrated by Mike Jaimes. I’m hoping to re-release another historical novel, Sugar Island, which is set on a slave plantation in America and based on the real life story of actress, Fanny Kemble. I also write thrillers, as Sanjida Kay, and I’m working on my fifth. It’s called Labyrinth, and is about a young cop with vertigo. It’s set in Hackney, a world away from Outer Mongolia!
About Sanjida O'Connell:
I've had twelve books published, four novels (The Priest and the Lily, Sugar Island, Angel Bird and Theory of Mind) and four works of non-fiction (Mindreading: How we Learn to Love and Lie, Sugar: The Grass the Changed the World, Nature's Calendar, Chimpanzee: The Making of the Film) as well as contributing to the encyclopaedia, Animal Life.
I've been shortlisted for the BBC Asia Awards, was one of the winners of the Betty Trask Award for Romantic Fiction, shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Science writer's award, and highly commended for BBC Wildlife magazine's award for nature writing.
I wrote features and columns for national newspapers and magazines about science and the environment, directed science documentaries and presented wildlife programmes for the BBC.
I've also had four psychological thrillers published by Corvus Books under my pen name of Sanjida Kay: Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, My Mother's Secret and One Year Later.