Six Questions with Sian Brighal
Author of Water Over the Tunnel
What inspired you to write ‘Water Over the Tunnel’?
I was suddenly made aware that many things we make use of on a daily basis have a history. When I read about the deaths and the struggles—physically, mentally, emotionally and financially—in building the Thames Tunnel, I wanted to remind myself and others of the history and story behind something that is often so overlooked, almost taken for granted, to try and build a renewed sense of wonder and pride in what we have.
What are your favourite pieces of historical flash, poetry or hybrid work?
Ozymandias is one of my favourite poems, as it combines a sense of majesty and mystery with a haunting feel of things lost and the impermanence of structures. Although, this may not be of itself a historical poem, it does highlight what I enjoy in reading pieces devoted to history: the invitation to experience the past. In the same vein, I’m enjoying reading Hawaii, by James Michener, as it does just that, drawing me in and carrying me along as though I were there. I also enjoy reading steampunk, as it delves into our history, diverting down alternate paths.
Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you while writing this story?
I did include a reference to canaries, which were used to warn miners of the presence of the various poisonous or flammable chokes and damps, but they were introduced as an early warning system much later than the story’s setting. At the time of the Thames Tunnel, Davy lamps were in use, and these had been designed to help reduce the chance of igniting methane and other flammable gases that could gather in tunnels; they also were good indicators of the build-up of gases (methane, carbon dioxide, for example) as the flame’s height or colour changed if such gases were present, giving miners the chance to escape before suffocating. Unfortunately and ironically, due to various factors, their use led to an increase in accidents and mine deaths.
I love researching, and I tend to meander quite a way. I would say that for this piece, I researched for a couple of months, as one snippet lead to another: Thames tunnel to Cornish men to Knockers, for example. I was surprised just how rich the history of the tunnel is and how the local community used it in so many ways, where we know it only as a tunnel. I liked that feel of it keeping secrets.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
Sometimes a story develops a writer as it develops. I enjoy that synergistic growth, where I feel ‘improved’ by writing, sharing and editing a piece. Least favourite is where a story stagnates or gets bogged down and I can’t seem to find a way out for it.
The challenge is to make sure writing does history justice. It’s a strange form of archaeology, using fossils and relics to bring history out into the open, and I think being able to do that and enrich the present is a great reward for an author and a reader.
What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?
I don’t have much in common with the character in this story. The closest I can come to is that we both lived in an area with close links to a mining industry: tin for him, coal for me.
How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?
I like to be as accurate as research makes possible for details such as dates, names, locations, etc. Beyond that I see history in fiction as being a framework on which other fiction can be built. For example, as in steampunk.
Sian Brighal moved from teaching science to writing fiction along with a move to Germany, where she now lives with her family. Writing has become a significant part of her day, as she continues to learn and volunteers as an editor. A few of her short stories can be found in The Infernal Clock: CalenDark, and The Infernal Clock: DeadCades; and Ellipsis Zine Online’s anthologies One and Four. In her free time, she tries to master crocheting, cooking, and dabbles in drawing. Find her on Twitter @sian_ink.
Illustration of Thames Tunnel Construction circa 1830, by an unknown artist, in the public domain.