Prehistories are very excited to invite author Sally Prue onto the blog to discuss Neanderthals, archaeology, art and writing.
Sally’s book Song Hunter centres on a Neanderthal girl, Mica, whose world changes when she encounters a human.
It’s a beautifully written and compelling story.
Sally has very kindly agreed to answer some questions put to her by Dr H.
Ask an Author: Sally Prue
1. Have you always been interested in archaeology, or is it a recent interest?
It all started with The Flintstones, of course (yabba dabba doo!) but my dad was always turning up neolithic hand-axes and arrow heads in our garden, some of which are now in the British Museum. The only problem was that our garden ran alongside a footpath close to Sir John Evans’ old house, and we never quite sure whether we were living on an ancient site, or whether Sir John used to chuck his rejects over the hedge as he went along.
John Evans – untidy archaeologist?
2. What made you decide to focus on Neanderthals in Song Hunter?
I started off wanting to explore the idea of the first human. The most interesting way to do that was to have a outsider watch him, and that’s where the Neanderthals came in. Then they went and took over the book.
3. It looks like you did a lot of research for the book. Did you find any particular books or papers enlightening/ inspiring/ useful? Did you come across anything you disagreed with?
The main areas I looked at were Inuit culture (because the Inuit have had to face similar problems of living in a cold climate that Neanderthals did), the great apes (because I made the assumption that Neanderthals were at least as intelligent as they are), American hunters (who know how to cure pelts and cook their prey without modern chemicals and technology) and of course archaeological writing. Svante Pääbo’s research into Neanderthal DNA was a real jolt of inspiration, and so was Mark J White’s paper Things To Do In Doggerland When You’re Dead, which gave me an essential overview of the climate and ecology of England about 40,000 years ago.
I found lots of things I disagreed with! To give just one example, I wasn’t that convinced by a chapter I came across about the content of Neanderthal dreams.
4. I feel that politicians view the arts as a luxury – something that can only be funded in times of affluence, something that is not really necessary. In Song Hunter you seem to be arguing that imagination, creativity and invention are intrinsic to being human, and that we sheer away these aspects of ourselves at our own peril. Have I read this right? How important is writing and imagination to your own engagement with the world?
No one can exist normally without an imagination. The reason people don’t always appreciate this is because sometimes imagination is called by different names, eg empathy, or innovation, or even logic.
To answer your other question, it’s only when I begin writing things down that I start to think properly.
5. One of my favourite sections in the book is when Mica finds the mammoth ivory carving dropped by the human:
“She turned it wonderingly in her fingers.
No, not a pebble. A piece of mammoth ivory.
But…it was a reindeer at the same time.”
How hard/ easy was it for you to see the carving as Mica might have seen it? Did you read work on the anthropology/ archaeology of art, or did this understanding come from your own imaginative engagement with the past?
What helped, in an odd way, was that when I was a child the rest of my family saw no point at all in art. This meant that it was quite natural to me that the main questions the Neanderthals ask about art is, firstly, what is it? and then, at least as importantly, what is it for?
I did do some reading about art and archaeology, but archaeologists tend to deal with large principles and I was interested in individual reactions. As my childhood proves, even members of the same species living in the same house at the same time can have entirely different reactions to art.
6. You mention in your blog the difficulty you sometimes had finding the right words to describe Mica’s prehistoric world (restricting yourself to Mica’s reference points and knowledge of the world). Poets sometimes put limitations on themselves to encourage creativity with language. Did these limitations lead to a new way of writing for you?
In some ways every book leads to a new way of writing because each book involves seeing the world through a different pair of eyes. That’s exciting and scary, and always challenging. But the only formal limitation I gave myself in Song Hunter was that the Neanderthals have no concept of colour. Any other limitations came naturally, through the filter of the Neanderthals’ own minds.
7. I read on your blog that you visited the Ice Age Art exhibition (which is where I discovered your book). Do you have a favourite/ selection of favourite objects from the exhibition?
That exhibition blew me away! It’s hard to choose, but I think my very favourite things might be the Venus figures because they were such a surprise. In reproductions they come over as brash and even comic, but in real life they’re private and tender and inward-looking. But the quality of just about all the objects on display – the delicacy of the observation and execution – was utterly amazing. I loved the depictions of animals. I think I really loved it all.
8. What are you working on at the moment?
Children’s book publishers seem to be only interested in producing popular fiction at the moment, so I’m writing a whodunnit for adults called DEATH STITCH about a murder investigation by the members of a WI. But I’ve just written two short plays for children set in Roman Britain, and will have a comedy out next year called CLASS SIX AND THE NITS OF DOOM.
You can find out more about Sally and her work on her Song Hunter and Word Den blogs.
Thanks again to Sally for answering my questions.