Exclusive Interview: “Sundial” Author Catriona Ward


Having recently set her novel The Last House On Needless Street in the lush greenery that is the Pacific Northwest, writer Catriona Ward is going somewhere very different for her new thriller Sundial (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Ward discusses what inspired and influenced this somewhat fuzzy tale.

Catriona Ward Sundial

To start, what is Sundial about, and when and where does it take place?

Sundial is set in the Mojave desert. A traumatic event forces Rob to take her twelve year old daughter Callie on a bonding trip to her old childhood home: a research facility in the California desert, Sundial. Rob and Callie’s relationship is badly fractured. They mistrust one another, and each has a suspicion that the other means her harm. Rob’s parents were scientists who carried out dubious experiments at Sundial during her childhood — and she realizes that this past might have implications for Callie’s future.

Where did you get the idea for Sundial?

I’m fascinated by the MK Ultra experiments that were performed by the CIA during the 1960s and ’70s, and some time ago I came across a particularly bizarre one.

In the 1960s, CIA scientists in Langley, Virginia implanted electrodes in dogs brains. The aim was to stimulate the reward centers — the dogs eventually learned to seek out the pleasurable feelings, and so could be asked to change direction and perform simple actions at the prompting of a handheld controller. Effectively, the CIA succeeded in creating six remote control dogs — after some grisly trial and error.

The Langley dog experiments were discontinued after a few years because there was no practical application. I find this particularly abhorrent — the greed, and egregious pain suffered by living beings, for the sake of innovation. I thought, I have to write about this.

Dogs and humans, it was recently discovered, have lived together for longer than previously thought — over 11,000 years. We domesticated dogs, brought them into our homes and lives and families before any other animal, including the arguably more useful ones like livestock for meat, pelt, and wool. These early dogs were valued for hunting and defense, undoubtedly, but also undoubtedly for companionship. Perhaps the Langley dog experiments strike me as particularly appalling because they violate this — our first, most ancient covenant with another species.

The Langley dog experiment was part of the MK Ultra Behavior Modification program, which famously included human experimentation. It led me naturally to questions of nature and nurture — those age-old questions that have haunted us throughout our species’ existence. How much of me is me? How much is predetermined by genetics, how much dictated by environment? It led me to write about mothers and daughter, about women’s relationships in families — those powerful, often complicated bonds of love.

So is there a reason why you set it in the Mojave Desert as opposed to somewhere more populated? Or, for that matter, a different kind of barren place, like, say, the wilds of Alaska?

I was lucky enough to visit the Mojave a few years ago. I was struck by its drama, it’s bleakness — the number of ways there are to die, out there. The desert is very deceptive, because it looks like an expanse of space, but it’s as good a trap as a cage.

Also, I wanted work with a new landscape, a completely different one to the backdrop of The Last House On Needless Street, which was all about the lush, roiling dripping woods of the Pacific Northwest.

People in the desert are on the edge of things, in a lot of ways. It can be a wild, ungovernable place. It’s difficult to imagine a whole scientific facility, Sundial, existing without attracting attention — except in the desert. People go there to get lost, to let the land swallow them.

I was originally thinking that Sundial was a horror story, but now I’m not so sure…

I think Sundial contains more thriller elements than my previous work. There are some speculative elements. On the other hand, it has a sense of domestic noir, especially at the beginning. And on yet another level, it’s arguably a kind of ghost story.

Callie has a very special relationship with some imaginary friends — a little silver dog she calls Dumpster Puppy, and a girl she calls Pale Callie. I loved exploring her anarchic imagination.

Finally, it is a family saga. I loved writing about mothers and daughters in a way that seemed almost dangerous, that summoned the strength of that bond, without perhaps sentimentalizing it.

Sundial is your fourth novel after The Girl From Rawblood, Little Eve, and The Last House On Needless Street. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Sundial but not on anything else you’ve written?

I love Elizabeth Strout’s writing. Her characters are so surprising, and psychologically nuanced. They make decisions and say things that are almost shocking in their realism. I wanted Sundial to be grounded in character, and the reveals and turns to emerge from their complex wants, fears and desires.

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was also an inspiration. That book is so wonderful on the intersection of science and human nature.

How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Was Sundial influenced by any of those things.

The film of Winter’s Bone fed into this book. It’s cold where this book is set in the scorching heat, but the sense of family, of the burden of heritage, all against the backdrop of remote community… It felt relevant.

Now, in an earlier interview we did about The Last House On Needless Street, you said that while that book was a stand-alone novel, and that, “I’d love to do a series at some point,” you also said, “but the right idea hasn’t quite emerged yet.” I assume, given that we did that interview just a few months ago, that Sundial isn’t that “right idea,” and that it’s a stand-alone book as well, yes?

Yes, it’s a stand-alone. I’m still turning that idea for a series over and over in my head. It’s a vastly ambitious project…

While we’re on the subject, what is The Last House On Needless Street about, and when and where does it take place?

The Last House On Needless Street takes place now. It’s about Ted, a lonely reclusive man who lives in a boarded up house at the end of Needless Street, on the edge of the great roiling Pacific Northwest forests of Washington State. He lives with his twelve year old daughter Lauren, and his disapproving, Bible reading, talking gay cat, Olivia. Children have been going missing in the area for some time — disappearances that have never been solved. A young woman named Dee, whose little sister disappeared at a nearby lake some years ago, has come to believe that Ted is responsible. So, she moves into the house next door to him and starts surveillance on him, to try and establish whether he’s culpable — and whether Lauren, Ted’s daughter, is in fact all she seems. But when Lauren herself goes missing, suspicion turns to terror.

In that earlier interview, we talked about how The Last House On Needless Street was being made into a movie by The Imaginarium, which is Andy Serkis’ production company. Have they or anyone else expressed interest in doing the same with Sundial?

There is some progress on that front but frustratingly, I can’t say anything about it just yet. Soon, I hope.

Catriona Ward Sundial

Finally, if someone enjoys Sundial, what novel of someone else’s that’s set in a desert, or some similarly barren kind of place, would you recommend they read next?

Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is dark and wonderful. Though not set in the Mojave, it has the same feel of human struggle for survival against a vast canvas of America. It’s a modern retelling of King Lear, a family saga set of Iowa farmland.



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