An Interview with Sarah Matthias

The author answers some frequently asked questions


What books did you enjoy as a child?

When I was young I always had my nose in a book and I still do now! My favourite novels were The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Gouge and Five Children and It by E. Nesbit. I can still remember the atmosphere of those stories and the warm fizzy feeling of excitement they gave me inside. I also liked Enid Blyton’s mystery stories, especially the ones about the Five Find-outers and their dog, Buster. I enjoyed these more than the Famous Five. My other favourites were books by Rosemary Sutcliffe such as Warrior Scarlet, The Lantern Bearers and The Eagle of the Ninth.

Who is your favourite author now?

My favourite author is Charles Dickens. I have read everything he has written. I love his characters and his sense of humour. I am also a great fan of the Bronte sisters: novels like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and I also admire George Eliot, especially Middlemarch and Wilkie Collins. His mystery stories, The Moonstone and The Woman in White were probably the first detective stories ever written. I enjoy anything that is packed with atmosphere and mystery. My favourite contemporary writer is Rose Tremain. I admire her books enormously. They are so poignant and full of pathos and I am always impressed by her ability to write about anything and everything. She writes both historical novels and novels set in the present day. My favourites are Restoration, Merivel and The Road Home, although it is difficult to choose from her work as the stories are all so marvellous.

Where do you like to read?

I read in the bath, in bed, on the train and when I am out walking my three dogs, Ruby and Bella who are Working Cocker Spaniels and Poppy, a Cardiganshire Corgi. They love to run off chasing squirrels. They don’t come back for ages so I always take a book. I also read when I am walking along the street, which is a bit of a foolish thing to do. I once badly sprained my ankle falling down a kerb when I was walking along with my nose in a book. Some men who were mending the road rushed over to pick me up. I felt very embarrassed and stupid!

What made you want to be a writer?

I did not set out to become a writer. My first job after leaving university was as a journalist for the BBC. One of my best memories from that time is going to interview John Betjeman, the poet laureate at that time, for a programme I was involved in. He gave us all champagne for breakfast and I thought it was very eccentric and grand! After that I trained as a Barrister and when my four children were small I used to teach Law in a university. Both these jobs involved writing but we weren’t supposed to make the stories up!

I wrote my first published book, The Riddle of the Poisoned Monk, as a bedtime story for my four children, Mary, James, Charlie and Tom. I used to write the next chapter sitting in my car outside the school gates. I had to write very fast so I did not disappoint them at bedtime! I found that there was nothing I liked better than writing stories, so when I had finished that one, I began another, which is called Tom Fletcher and the Angel of Death. I have now written four books. The others are called Tom Fletcher and the Three Wise Men and A Berlin Love Song.

Where do you write?

I write in my bedroom. I have a desk there and shelves full of reference books for my historical research. I walk my dogs first thing in the morning and then get straight down to it. My best times for writing are when I am alone in my house, it is cold and gloomy outside, and I sit at my desk with my dogs lying on my feet, snoring gently (and dreaming of catching squirrels!) Suddenly my husband and my grown up children are home from work and the day has flown by too fast.

Why do you write historical mystery stories?

I love history so it seems natural for me to write about it. I enjoy researching my books almost as much as writing them. The great thing about mystery stories is that they have a natural beginning, middle and end. I am a tidy person and I enjoy tying up all the loose ends and making sure there are no stray threads dangling! My latest book is not a mystery but a love story set in Germany in the Second World War. I really enjoyed researching this book. I visited Berlin lots of times. I love the German Christmas markets and so I pretend to my husband that there is a vital piece of information I need to find out. I make sure that this happens in December so I can visit Berlin in the snow and have a look around the lovely Christmas stalls in Gendarmenmarkt – my favourite square in Berlin. And of course, find out about that vital piece of missing research!

Do you enjoy meeting children?

I have four children myself so I must think there is something good about them, although my children are now young adults! I really love going into schools and talking about history and creative writing. I talk about death and disease in medieval times and in Elizabethan times and exotic cures for various ailments. These can range from herbal medicine to cockerels’ windpipes for a sore throat to hedgehogs testicles for bedwetting! I also give talks about sixteenth century witch trials and witch hunts. I even have some medieval urine for school children to taste as the doctors did in those days. Nobody has been sick yet I am pleased to say! My new book A Berlin Love Song is for young adults/adults and I am working on a new talk for young adults about Germany in the Second World War and what inspired me to write it.

What advice would you give to a child who wants to be a writer?

Read, read, read! Then pick up a pen and have a go! A short story is a good place to start. Writing a good short story is not easy, but it is a bit less daunting to begin with than launching into a full-length novel! These have to be carefully plotted and take a long time to write. Remember to think about all your five senses, and even your sixth! Imagine what you or your character would taste, smell, touch and hear as well as what he/she would see. And don’t forget poetry. That’s fun to write too.