About The Author
Jess Richards was born in Wales and grew up in south-west Scotland. She left home at 17, going to live in Carlisle before moving to Devon. After obtaining a first-class degree from Dartington College of Arts, she spent a year busking in Leeds and London, before moving to Brighton where she has since lived.
She studied Creative Writing at Sussex University and had a number of short stories published before landing a publishing deal with Sceptre.
Snakes Ropes is set on an unnamed island off the edge of the map. The islanders live by their own creeds, trade with the tall men their only contact with the mainland. Just one family has travelled to settle there, but eldest daughter Morgan must wait until she's twenty-one to learn the secrets told only in the women's sanctum, the Weaving Rooms. Meanwhile, Mary's little brother Barney has disappeared, like other boys before. The island women seek justice from the Thrashing House, a mysterious place said to have grown from the island's last tree.
With its startling story, its mesmerising language and its vivid vision of unknown lands, Snake Ropes brings to mind writers such as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. From the islanders' subtle creole to their myths of sea and sky and earth, Jess Richards has nurtured a remarkable community, their home glimpsed in the sea-mist like a new Avalon, and this novel of dark secrets and lost innocence stands out as one of the most stunningly original debuts in many years.
Snake Ropes was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Green Carnation Prize.
Below, Jess writes exclusively for Foyles on the genesis of Snake Ropes as an evening class exercise and how Mary arrived in her mind with a story that needed to be told.
Underneath, you can read the opening pages of Snake Ropes.
And click here to read 'Indigo Runaway', a short story by Jess originally published in The Grist Anthology of New Writing (2009), edited by Michael Stewart.
Find out more about her Jess and her work on her official website.
The Author At Foyles
The origins of Snake Ropes
Snake Ropes started as a writing exercise after an evening class, one night over a faded yellow kitchen table. It goes like this - someone asks you questions, and you answer as a character. Close your eyes and imagine someone: what they look like and how they sound. Do you have a problem, what's your earliest memory, what do you keep in your pockets?
This is how Mary arrived, with her mouth full of secrets. She was carrying keys in her pockets and wouldn't show me them. Her dialect was strange and her mother was dead. There was something saddening her, but I couldn't guess what it was, and she wouldn't speak of it. She wore no watch and liked pink thrift flowers. She lived on an island and had never seen a map. She said that the tall men came every month and took her 'broideries' away. She told me everyone said the tall men had 'took' her little brother Barney, the person she loved the most, but she knew they hadn't.
Mary's voice is hers, the way it's written is mine. It took time to make the language accessible enough and yet write her as she sounded. The short story I believed I was writing, grew. I had to keep writing till Mary told me what had happened to her brother. After 200,000 words, I found out. And realised that I'd written a very rough first draft of a novel.
That was the easy part. There was much that needed to be edited out and woven in. There was the history and folklore of the island to explore, unruly dark tales to be told, and 100,000 words to axe. The structure of Snake Ropes became a rope - it has many strands and stories woven all the way through. The re-writing process was much like untangling hair, starting with a strand at the beginning, making sure it held firm. Then going back to the beginning and working though the next strand and the next....
Snake Ropes is a book that wanted to be written. It is full of many stories, but the tale which runs though the core of all the strands is Mary's. She's given it to me because she has no real voice of her own. Through writing her voice, I've found mine.
The opening pages of Snake Ropes
The tall men in boats are coming. I see them through the window, close to the beach. My little brother is sat on my lap. Him puts hims hands on the table, leans round and looks up at me. Hims brown eyes have my reflection inside.
I smile at him, stroke the curls on the back of hims head where them need a wash. I say, 'Sorry Barney. I've got to get you hid, them're coming.' Him grips on my neck hard, buries hims face in my hair and I carry him across the room. Him is so warm and I want to hang on to him, but I put him down by the cupboard door, and hims face trying to look all angered makes me want to laugh, but I dun.
I hide him in the cupboard behind the boxes. Give him a blanket to keep him warm. Tell him, 'Shush now, and dun even breathe if them opens the cupboard door.'
The tall men are all skinny and pale, with long dark coats and black hats with big brims on them. Them give us goods for our stuff. Trade them calls it. Da says it be more like theft and if we lived on a main land we'd get a lot more than what them give us. We've got to survive on what we can get. No one here goes to the main land, and no one wants to. Our boats aren't strong enough, we dun know the way, them can't understand us, we're fine as we are. We have so many reasons; them stretch as wide as the distance to cross to take us there.
I stand at the window watching. Nine boats long and thin, like the men. Two in each one, rowing with long oars. I sort the piles of broiderie, put the ones them will like best on top. Da's left the fish out in the cold room, ready for the tall men.
Barney grumbles loud in the cupboard so I call out, 'Now dun fret, you'll not be shut in the dark for long, it's just till them've gone.'
The tall men dun move to speak to one another. Silent as shadows, everyone says, but when the tall men do speak, them pick the words what'll get what them most want. Not like us folks what live here, we sometimes chatter out whole bunches of tattle. Perhaps we should lock just a little behind our lips, then we'd get more back.
I've got to be watchful with Barney. Three boys on the island were took in the last three months. Three men what go drinking with Da, each of thems sons are gone. Dun think them've got blown off the cliffs, we all think it were the tall men what took them.
Since our Mam died we struggle to get by. Da gets fish from out the sea and I do broideries for selling to the tall men. My broideries are lovely, everyone who sees them says so. I do all the flowers what grow in the summer before the wind sweeps them away, and all the butterflies. Mam left boxes and baskets full of threads and linens. Them said at her funeral that she were the best broiderer this island's ever seen. She taught me some before she died but I got better quick; Da said we'd be eating grass and drinking air if we were to live off just hims fishing. Him says now I'm sixteen, I'm old enough to trade with the tall men alone.
I did well last month - the batch I'd stitched raised the tall men's eyebrows and got us more goods from them than the month before. The colours sang in the sunlight on this table, as if my hands had stroked them into the fabric, rather than jabbed them through with the needle. Some pictures are more difficult to bring to life than others, pulling and drawing, pulling and drawing.
Not a sound from the cupboard. For a three-year-old, Barney is good and quiet for me, when him knows I mean it. I cross the room, whisper at the door, 'Them're coming. Keep quiet, good boy.'
'Dun like it in here, is dark and smelly.' Him snuffles.
Hims bunny doll lies on the floor next to the cupboard door. I scoop it up, open the door a crack; hims brown eyes are all teary behind the baskets of linens. Him reaches out hims hands.
'Here's your moppet. Just stay put. I'll cradle you when we're done.' I close up the door.
A few women have brought thems trade down to the beach, and are handing over woven rugs and baskets to a pair of tall men what're stood by the boats. Fourteen of the tall men walk up the beach in pairs, them head to the path what leads up the cliffs, to other homes of folk what do trade. One pair of tall men come towards this row of cottages. Them need the agreement of two to make the decision of one. Just as we're suspicious of them, them dun trust us not to argue, especially where thems goods are concerned. Thems coats might be covered in seaspray and salt when them have crossed the surging waves to get here, but them are well stitched, as if somewhere on the main land there's a great old woman who sits there with needles for fingertips, stitching in straight perfect lines, with the threads tucked away so them will never escape.
The knock, four raps on the door. Four raps again.
I open the front door.
You can read the rest of the first chapter here (Adobe Reader required).
Snake Ropes, 'Moppet' image and 'The origins of Snake Ropes' © Jess Richards 2012