Interview - Sanjida O'Connell: Slave trade diaries that haunted novelist

Her latest novel began in America's Deep South, but Sanjida O'Connell tells Sarah Freeman why it was Yorkshire which first inspired her.

When Sanjida O'Connell was researching a book on the history of sugar, there was one story which struck a particular chord.

It was the diary of Fanny Kemble, the British actress who married Pierce Butler, a charming American from the Deep South only to later discover he was part of the slave trade. Appalled by her husband's involvement in the brutal regime, Fanny left, knowing that with Pierce likely to be granted custody of their two young daughters, she wouldn't see them again until adulthood.

Kemble's story didn't make it into Sanjida's factual book, Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World, but six years on it has become the basis for her fourth novel.

In Sugar Island, Kemble is recast as Emily Harris, a glamorous young English actress, who arrives in the US in the mid 19th century. There she meets and falls in love with Charles Earl Brook. But shortly after they are married, Emily discovers that Charles has kept a terrible secret from her. The Brooks are slave-owners and Emily is forced to travel to the Deep South where Charles keeps seven hundred men, women and children in abject poverty.

As civil war breaks out, Emily's world becomes increasingly dangerous and she realises that her growing friendship with the slaves could cost her everything she has ever loved.

"Reading about slavery is harrowing; there are always more heart rending accounts of cruelty than you can possibly imagine," says Sanjida, who grew up near Ilkley, having moved to Yorkshire when she was eight years old. "When Fanny realised she had married an unethical man, who was not particularly bright and who wanted her to give up her independence, she had to choose between her own morality and her family.

"Fanny's diaries haunted me and I really thought her tale would lend itself to a fictional version. I think all of us can relate to making the wrong choice in the name of love, although few of us have to live with such extreme consequences as she did."

During the course of her research Sanjida travelled to St Simons Island off the south coast of Georgia. Today, it is one of the wealthiest places in America. However, a century and a half or so ago, things couldn't have been more different.

"One day I cycled through the rain to the far end of the plantation where Fanny had lived for those brief months all those years ago," she says. "Now it's a suburb of enormous houses set back from the road. And then I saw something curious. A ruin on the lawn in front of the holiday condos. It was surrounded by railings and I peered through them in the drizzle. There, crumbling to dust, trees and creepers growing through their midst, were the remains of Pierce Butler's slave cabins."

Sugar Island may be set across the other side of the Atlantic, but Sanjida, who as well as being an author has also worked as a presenter making a series of wildlife films for the BBC, alongside Chris Packham, admits it was her early years in Yorkshire which first inspired her to put pen to paper.

"Yorkshire has had a big impact on me and it's where my parents still live," she says. "I grew up next to Ilkley Moor and there is something about that bleak and rugged landscape which gets into the blood. My favourite book is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bront. Her descriptions of the moors above Haworth are incredibly evocative.

"I think my novels are very descriptive in terms of the landscape and they have at their heart some kind of tortured love affair, which I have no doubt has been inspired by Yorkshire's epic scenery and Bront's beautiful and savage writing."

Sugar Island, by Sanjida O'Connell, published by

John Murray , priced 17.99 is out on January 20.

The diaries of Fanny Kemble

Born in 1809 into a famous theatrical family, Fanny Kemble followed her parents onto the stage. After winning fame in her home country, she went with her father on a tour of the US where she met her husband, Pierce Butler, who later inherited various plantations and the slaves who worked on them. Shocked by the conditions in which they were kept, Fanny left Pierce and wasn't reunited with her two daughters until they were 21. An outspoken advocate for the abolition of slavery, her diaries about the time she spent on the plantations made uncomfortable reading for those who had profited from the trade.