‘I would feel I have succeeded if people can become more comfortable to talk about their own death and that of others.’
Written on the Bone: Hidden Stories in What We Leave Behind
By Sue Black
Published by Doubleday
Congratulations on the publication of Written on the Bone. Reading your work, you clearly relish your experiences as an expert forensic anthropologist. Do you remember when you first started to be fascinated by the stories our bodies tell us?
I was always interested in biology from school days and in school found the lessons on human anatomy particularly interesting as they related to me and the others around me. At university, it was always the human element of study that appealed the most and when in my third year of undergraduate studies I was given the opportunity to dissect a human cadaver from the top of the head to the bottom of the toes – I was hooked for life. My research project in my fourth year looked at identification from the human skeleton and so the dye was set.
And has this fascination deepened with time? Is that what drew you to writing about your life’s work?
The honesty about my writing is that I wanted to leave a legacy in my own words about my life so that my girls might understand me better when I am no longer here. Somebody asked me which book I would like to read the most and I realised that it was one that would never be written. It would be about my grandmother’s life but she never wrote it down and now there is nobody left to tell it. I wanted to leave something for my children and their children and beyond. I was truly astounded by how much the public took to my writing and that has been an incredibly humbling process. I love my job now as much as I ever have and feel blessed that I have been able to do something so interesting. been reasonably good at it, and got paid for the privilege.
Your job has taken you to many interesting places. What has been the most unexpected aspect to your job?
It would seem terribly trite to say that everything in the job is unexpected and much of the time it is. No two cases are ever the same and no two disasters are ever the same. I am always astounded by how much kindness there is and how willing people usually are to help you do your job.
What story can you get from someone who, luckily like BooksfromScotland, has never broken a bone?
This is an essay question and in fact I wrote a whole book about it 🙂 The minimum you hope to recover is: Are the remains human? Who were they? How long have they been dead? Are there clues about the way they lived and the way they died. Then within each of these sections there are different subsets such as: Were they male or female? How old were they when they died? Always lots and lots of questions and you don’t know which ones will have answers until you start the investigation of the remains.
Your experiences are a gift to a novelist! Are you constantly battling off requests from crime writers for help?
There are a few. Of those I help it is either because they are new to the field and are desperate for realistic help or they are friends who I have assisted for a number of years.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books, especially during a year where health and death have been so present?
Health and death are always present and we don’t talk about death anywhere near enough. It is an inevitability but we postpone discussions often until it is too late. I would feel I have succeeded if people can become more comfortable to talk about their own death and that of others. Also I am aware that many of us know very little about our own anatomy and so I wanted to be able to start that conversation. It is one that we have at the GP or in the hospital, but much of the time people have limited anatomical language or understanding of their own bodies.
What do you like to do when you’re not studying bodies and bones?
I am the Pro Vice Chancellor for Engagement at Lancaster University and so with my research, my forensic case work, senior management responsibilities and writing – there isn’t a lot of spare time.
Which writers inspire you?
I like all sorts of authors. I am a Ken Follett fan but I also love Rachel Joyce and have just finished her latest. I love the way Sarah Langford write with her honesty and I am a huge Tolkein fan.
What books have you particularly enjoyed reading recently?
I have just finished Rachel’s Miss Benson’s Beetle and my next one is about the history of the sugarhouses in Lancashire.
Written on the Bone: Hidden Stories in What We Leave Behind, by Sue Black is published by Doubleday, priced £18.99.