In A Very British Disaster, S. J. Butler brings to life the bumbling leaders of Britain’s first invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 and its deadly ending three years later. She also celebrates the courageous hostages of the Afghan hero, Akbar Khan, among them the stoic and forthright Lady Sale, the pragmatic, self-deprecating Captain Mackenzie, and the well-meaning but dithering General Elphinstone. Interlaced with the story of the hostages are the combative goings-on in Calcutta between the waspish and sharp-witted Emily Eden, her silly sister, Hetty, and their exalted brother George, the Governor-General of India and the instigator of the catastrophe.
Amongst the accounts of great loss, based on real events, S. J. Butler weaves in humour and creates an enthralling narrative of ordinary people who find themselves in an extraordinary situation. A Very British Disaster is a story of folly, incompetence and arrogance, but also of endurance, desperate hope and survival against impossible odds.
Let's talk about it
Tell us something about yourself that not many people know.
As a child I wanted to be an astronaut.
Why did you choose the themes in your book and were you aware of them from the start?
I didn’t choose the themes – they developed over time.
How difficult was it for you to write this book? Did you face any obstacles?
Looking back, very difficult. At the outset I didn’t appreciate the work involved, as I had not done any creative writing courses and do not have any formal qualifications in the field. The main obstacles were finding time to write as I worked full time, and obtaining the source material for the book. Additionally, I wanted to ensure small details about living in the 1840s were correct, for example, the types of firearms used, the furniture, clothing, medicines and so on. This required a lot of research. Publishing the book was more complex and expensive than I anticipated.
Do you always write in this genre or do you like to break out of the box?
This is my first book. I am planning another in the same genre.
What would you do differently next time?
I would ensure I planned out the novel and developed plot lines before I started. This would save some time.
With hindsight, what would you say to yourself as a fledgling writer?
Are you sure you want to do this?
If you worked with a professional editor, what was the experience like?
I worked with Bernadette Foley (Broadcast Books). The experience was very positive and I learnt a lot about the writing/editing process, in particular the POV issue. (There are at least 10 POVs in my book.)
What’s next for your writing?
I am planning another historical fiction work.
I was born in London and grew up near Chelmsford, Essex. I have always loved writing. By age ten I was turning out science fiction stories and around age 15 I found I had a talent for writing angst-filled poetry on a cheap blue typewriter. After leaving school I turned down a place at uni and instead bought a ticket to Australia. I met and married my husband shortly after arriving, and after raising three children and working in the fields of education and human resources management, I graduated from uni in my fifties but my dream was always to become a published author. A Very British Disaster is a realisation of that dream.