Sylvia Bishop's new book, On Silver Tides, is her first novel for teenagers. Sylvia spent an entire childhood reading fiction, dreaming up stories and pretending. She then tried very hard to get to grips with the real world by studying politics and going in to social science research. Thankfully, she discovered improvised comedy at university, which allowed her to carry on making up stories for at least 30% of her waking hours. Now she writes her stories down. Her books have included Erica's Elephant and The Bookshop Girl, The Secret of the Night Train and Trouble in New York.
On Silver Tides (Andersen Press)
On Silver Tides is an extraordinary fantasy adventure, set in the real world of the UK's rivers and streams, which are peopled by the 'silvermen', those who can live in both air and water. The novel has a strong environmental theme but is focused on family, forgiveness and the myths that we live by. We asked author Sylvia Bishop to tell us more about On Silver Tides, her first novel for teenage readers.
Review: 'I was swept away by this fantasy adventure; it felt like a complete escape from real life.'
Q&A with Sylvia Bishop
"I find rivers and the sea other-worldly and magical in a way I could never quite put into words
- so I guess this book is my best attempt to do just that."
1. Can you tell us about yourself - your loves and loathings? How did you become a writer and what kinds of stories do you enjoy writing?
I love writing, but I also love structure, routine and company. This is a bit of a problem, because writers work alone, at any time of day, and it's hard to make an unpredictable book stick to the structured work plan you devised... To deal with this, I've set up a fairly unusual writing life: I run an online writing group in the mornings, and a local in-person group in the afternoons, where people can come and write at a set time all together. This has been transformative.
As for things I loathe: leaving the house first thing in the morning, and answering the phone, and being told how to work and what to do. All of this makes writing ideal.
I became a writer almost despite myself. I wanted to be a writer when I was young, but then as a teenager I became concerned with politics, and went to study that at university. I stayed on for a masters, and it wasn't until I was cracking under the pressure of writing a thesis that I wrote a children's book on the side, to cheer myself up - and that became my first book. So writing found me again in the end, and I'm very glad it did. I enjoy writing all sorts of stories, but I am always more interested in the people in the stories than in what happens to them. Stuff has to happen to them, because it's a story - but what I want to know is, how will they respond? What will they feel about it? What is it like to be other people?
2. What is your new book, On Silver Tides, about? Is it very different from other books you've written?
Yes, it is quite different! On Silver Tides is about a secretive amphibious community, silvermen, living on the rivers and waterways of Britain. Our hero Kelda's little sister can't breathe underwater, which means her presence on the family boat is forbidden, and she is blamed when the rivers start to sicken. This is the story of their escape, and the discoveries and dilemmas along the way.
There's a lot of old water mythology in there from British folklore - old jenny greenteeth, hinkypunks, fuathan, lavellans, kelpies, wyrms - and a lot of real river ecology too. Hopefully the two blend together a little, so that the real-but-hidden blurs with the imaginary...
"Silvermen might be imaginary, but their world is real, and it gives you a whole other way
of seeing Britain that is hiding in plain sight."
3. What gave you the spark of the idea for this book?
There are so many things that I care about in this book, it's hard to isolate the inspiration! The idea hit me quite suddenly on a train one day, and I wrote the opening almost in its final form. I still don't know why the idea popped up in that particular way, on that particular morning. But I know that I have always loved the sensation of swimming, and I find rivers and the sea other-worldly and magical in a way I could never quite put into words - so I guess this book is my best attempt to do just that.
And once I began my research, I loved discovering a whole secret world existing just alongside our own. Silvermen might be imaginary, but their world is real, and it gives you a whole other way of seeing Britain that is hiding in plain sight.
Along the way, various other inspirations creep in. One character, Firth, is more or less a direct cameo from younger-me, for example. And the mythology I discovered in my research gave me lots more to play with.
4. How did you develop your world for this story, with a people, the silvermen, who can breathe on land and air?
I have an extremely unromantic spreadsheet, with the locations, lengths, depths, velocity, acidity and flora/fauna of all the candidate rivers that could have appeared in this story. And a folder full of endless partial-maps. It's so difficult to find a map of all the waterways in one place! Wading through all this information, I had to think about what a non-scientist who just inhabited this world would know by instinct, and how they would view it. That began to open up a lot of possibilities for the world-building, and ultimately for elements of the plot, as I thought more about the difficulties of starved summer rivers - and the ultimate dangers of salt water, for people who take in oxygen through their skin.
I had fun rounding this out by dreaming up the food, medicine, materials and so on that you might have if your world was made up of river flora and fauna. Vole skin and eel skin, caddisfly silk, willow and poplar, woundwort and aster and duckweed...
"It was really important to me that these were real world settings - I like fantasy books that
make us see our own world with fresh eyes."
5. How did you 'map' your book with the rivers the silvermen live on, and in. Are these rivers you know and have swum in? Is it important for you to know your settings?
I wanted to walk the route of the book, but I had the idea just before the 2020 lockdowns, so I ended up doing desk research instead. The requirements of the story meant that none ended up being on the rivers I know, round Oxfordshire and Bristol! Distances were the hardest thing to calculate - rivers wiggle around so much that you cannot simply take the distance from A to B, and I had to carefully draw around them to take measurements on google maps. Silvermen do now move at a consistent speed throughout the book, and things take the right amount of time!
It was really important to me that these were real world settings - I like fantasy books that make us see our own world with fresh eyes, and I wanted to introduce readers to a real route through Britain. It's less important that I personally know them well. Firstly, the book is set in 1904, so they've changed. But more importantly, Kelda is seeing most of these places for the first time, and the landman towns are very alien to her - so it can sometimes hinder more than help if you know the place intimately yourself. The real question was always, how would Kelda see this?
Sometimes, a single detail is the touch you need to bring it to life. I owe the passage on Carlisle, for example, to Rebecca Freeman, who drew the map in the book. She knew it well, and I said, "What's the one thing you'd notice about Carlisle?". And she told me, there's a biscuit factory there, and her overwhelming memory of Carlisle is the smell of biscuits. I went straight to google to check if the factory had been there in 1904, and to my delight, it had. Kelda, of course, would never have had a biscuit - so in the book, she marvels at the smell, and tries one for the first time.
6. Why did you put Isla's difference - that she can't breath underwater - at the heart of this story? What would you like your readers to take from Isla and her family's experiences?
The idea of Isla's difference came at the same time as the idea for the world, and the first thing I ever wrote of the book was the opening lines - "Kelda's little sister seemed like a perfectly normal baby until her seventh day, when the time came to throw her in the river. That's when they found out she couldn't breathe underwater." So I really can't imagine writing this world without Isla's difference.
Looking back on it, there's a few things that gripped me about this idea. I'm interested in how humans behave, in groups, when times are hard - and how we scapegoat people, with awful consequences. I'm also interested in how we deal with uncertainty and mystery, and how the different personalities in the family would cope with having to accept Isla's strangeness. I was immediately drawn to the idea of this fierce girl, Kelda, dedicating herself to the defence of her sister.
And I liked having a central character who was never fully part of the fantasy world - who was always in danger of having to leave, and always curious about our world. It feels like she stands for us landmen readers, in some sense: she is a sign to say that our world is magical and strange and desirable, too.
"While I haven't written a book about it here, I will be very happy if the story points people
towards an interest in our waterways and their health."
7. You also explore the environmental impact that 'landmen' have on our waterways. Did you always plan to bring the issue of pollution into your story? What are your own concerns about our waterways, particularly as a swimmer yourself?
It was not so much that I planned to bring this in, as that it was unavoidable, because the damage to our waterways has been relentless now for so long. I actually set the story in a very brief time of almost-reprieve, when the problems of sewage were being partially addressed, and the problems of pesticides were not yet underway. I had to do this, because at any other time, the lives of an amphibious community would be totally dominated by the poisons - they'd be hugely sick in our waterways today - and this wasn't the story I had set out to tell, but I couldn't possibly have just left that information out.
There have been great efforts since the low-point of the 1950s, but the health of our rivers is still very poor. You notice it quickly if you like to swim in rivers: you can find out, with careful effort, just how far out of the city you need to drive to find water it's advisable to swim in, and the news is bleak. It's a quiet, ongoing, crucially important problem, and while I haven't written a book about it here, I will be very happy if the story points people towards an interest in our waterways and their health.
8. You intersperse the story with short sections explaining the Lore about this alternate world. Why did you decide to do this, and is there much more to know about the Lore that you haven't used in the book?
Again, this arose in that first frantic writing-session on a train, which I ended with my first explanatory section. Honestly, they are in there because it's easier! I want readers to be able to relax and enjoy the story with all the information they needed clearly laid out, and I like being able to give tidbits of extra information too, to round out the world. It wasn't until after I'd finished the whole novel that I realised where those explanatory extracts might have come from - which is now revealed in the book.
There's almost nothing about the Lore that isn't in the book, because I don't like doing a lot of invention on the side - if I know lots of extra information that I've withheld, then it becomes hard to see what's really there on the page for the reader and what's only in my head. I like feeling that the edges of my own story are a mystery to me too - it leaves lots of room to surprise myself!
9. Would you love to be like a silverman - someone who can breathe in land and water? Where would you choose to swim, if you could breathe underwater?
Yes, yes please, yes! I would love that more than anything! This book is really one big dream for me.
There's a gorgeous swimming spot round Port Meadows in Oxford. If I could breathe underwater, I'd love to swim the Scottish lochs. I'd love to see the sea, too, which isn't possible for silverman because of the salt water - but the sea is coming up in my next book...
10. Would you ever revisit the world of the silvermen? What are you writing currently?
Yes, that's what I'm working on now! Although, as I hinted, it's not quite in the silvermen's world - it's in the inter-locking world of the sea. It's not finished yet, so I can't answer everything about it - but I'm hugely enjoying the discovery!