Interviews

Coming of Age in “Sin Eater”

An interview with Megan Campisi on her new novel, "Sin Eater."

Megan Campisi’s novel Sin Eater introduces us to an alternate universe, one reminiscent in many ways of Tudor England, in which certain food items are eaten for the symbolic absolution of a dying person’s sins (a practice not unknown to past Christian communities). For example, pickled cucumber for idleness, roast pigeon for thieving, a rabbit’s heart for murder (in defense). The untouchable class that performs this gustatory service disgusts their townsfolk; they are reliant on these eaters for relieving their loved ones’ spiritual burdens and aiding them in moving their souls to paradise. 

The hero of our tale, fourteen-year-old May Owens, is commanded by the royal court to be the local sin eater–for reasons less to do with gluttony or divine fitness than patriarchal cruelty—and thus has virtually everything good denied to her. She is forced to live a tightly circumscribed life as a non-being, one who may not be talked to, touched, or dealt with in any manner other than her profession. May comes into contact with many families in her area, eats with dignity and without complaint all the food she must, yet is still a pariah. When she stumbles upon a royal plot of the highest order, May’s intelligence and strength of character thrust her into an adventure that allows her, by its close, to regain her powers as a woman.

The circumstances in which May finds herself bring us sharply to the many oppressions facing women, then and now, and Campisi serves up this particular feminist dish with relish. Armed with a vivid historical imagination, she takes us on an adventure that is faithfully 16th century Britain in its broader brushstrokes but uniquely unsettling in its particulars. I had the opportunity to speak with Megan Campisi and learn a thing or two about historical research, the necessity of bodily unmentionables, the theater, and her winning new novel.

Ryan Asmussen

The concept of home is denied to May, again and again, throughout Sin Eater. She is forced out of her family, out of her own home; she is forced out of society; she is even forced out of her former ways of understanding herself as an Owens and as a “good girl”—not to mention the fact that her actual newfound home has been taken over by a crew of intransigents. What does this idea of homelessness hold for you?

Megan Campisi

May’s journey is about finding homewith all its connotations of comfort, sanctuary and identity. But she doesn’t just do this out in the world, she also finds a home within herself.  

To an extent, May’s homelessness is a metaphor for her evolving, unsettled sense of self. When I was May’s age, I know my own sense of self was changing dramatically. At fourteen, I chose to lapse as a Catholic. The decision was deeply considered, emotionally fraught, and very much based on my deepening understanding of both religion and my own identity. In many ways, May’s coming-of-age mirrors my own—except compressed, intensified, and with a leper. 

Ryan Asmussen

How conscious were you in the writing of May as a feminist symbol?

Megan Campisi

Very. Feminism, in the sense of advocating equality between genders, is such a deep part of who I am; it’s ingrained in all my writing. While Sin Eater has a powerful female monarch with the capacity, in theory, to radically transform her patriarchal society, the reality for most women is different. I chose to chart an individual revolution in the way one woman views herself and her situation—a seemingly isolated act of rebellion in an unjust world. Feminism starts at home, with yourself, and grows from there. Even if we aren’t queens and presidents, we can still make profound change in how we live our lives.

Ryan Asmussen

I’m curious as to why you decided to create a parallel universe in place of Tudor England. It’s without a doubt a strong part of the reader’s enjoyment factor. What narrative or stylistic motive did you have for this? 

Megan Campisi

When I encountered sin eating, I was fascinated by the syncretism of a Christian and pagan ritual, by the essential role played by a social pariah, and by how little we know about the custom. For the story I envisioned to work, I knew the world needed to be syncretic, too: part historical, part fictional. Sin eating couldn’t remain an eccentric post-mortem ritual (as it was historically), but needed to transform into a deep, necessary communion between two people that was woven into the fabric of everyday society. From there, an alternate history began to grow.

Ryan Asmussen

May’s sin-eating mentor, Brida, must remain silent in May’s presence, and vice versa, since sin eaters aren’t allowed to speak apart from their professional rituals. Did this necessary absence of dialogue create challenges for you during scene construction?

Megan Campisi

It was a delicious and familiar challenge. I teach physical theater, which is a branch of performance that considers physicality as a language and privileges visual storytelling over verbal. This background helped immensely in working out how to communicate information between characters and to the reader. 

Ryan Asmussen

The research into the food and medicine of this period must have been extensive. Was there a particular instance of fact-finding that was too strange for inclusion in the novel?

Megan Campisi

I am a history nerd, so my research was both extensive and a great pleasure. I dove into Tudor cookbooks and historical pamphlets about the criminal underworld. I particularly loved digging up information on the “unseen,” or social pariahs, of the time. One group I discovered (but barely touched on in Sin Eater) were woad dyers, who produced the valuable blue dye used and traded in Tudor times. The smell of the dye-making was evidently so horrific that Queen Elizabeth prohibited woad processing within city walls and mandated it be kept at a distance of at least five miles from any of her homes. Five miles—that’s a powerful stench. The smell has been described as somewhere between rotting cabbage, animal urine, and raw sewage.  

Ryan Asmussen

Were you consciously aware of any influences or forbearers as you were writing? Or any styles or genres of writing you didn’t want to be a part of this novel? Ones you wanted nothing to do with?

Megan Campisi

I am a huge fan of Peter Carey’s historical fiction and C.J. Sansom’s Tudor mysteries. When writing, I also read authors from the same historical era in which the book is set, particularly plays, because dialogue instantly immerses me in the time period’s syntax, vocabulary, and social dynamics. For Sin Eater, I read plays by Beaumont and Fletcher, Jonson, and, of course, Shakespeare. 

Ryan Asmussen

The act of eating is uniquely intimate. The early chapters in which May learns on the job and gets sick are really stomach-churning. You deeply feel for her, but you also really feel for yourself as you sympathetically move through these scenes with her! This must have also affected you while writing.

Megan Campisi

I love getting into the nitty-gritty, visceral details of the body. Living in a body is the only thing you can be sure you share with every reader. And it’s surprising how often female characters are still portrayed as magical creatures who never fart, bleed, or eliminate. I particularly enjoyed writing Brida, with her pus and mucus. The only scene that really gave me pause in the writing was Barnabas, the gallipot, poisoning the dogs. I found it wrenching to write and edit. 

Ryan Asmussen

You have a genuinely impressive theater life, apart from your writing. You’ve written plays, given workshops around the world on commedia dell’arte and Shakespeare. Tell me how this life has informed Sin Eater.

Megan Campisi

Theater is deeply collaborative and highly physical. Whether I’m writing, acting, or teaching, I’m in and out of rehearsal rooms, staging ideas, and sounding out my collaborators. The physical aspects of play-making frequently surface in my novel writing. One example is the visceral details in the book (eating, puking, stinking, dying). Another is the way I write: I unconsciously act out all the roles as I go. I even speak the characters’ lines aloud, so writing at a café can be awkward.

Ryan Asmussen

On your website you have the following quote by Schiller: “In every condition of humanity, it is precisely play, and play alone, that makes man complete.” What do these words mean to you?

Megan Campisi

In my theater training, one of the questions we ask students is: why do you get up in the morning? After all the alarm clock jokes, the students get to the philosophical heart of the question: given the difficulty of the human condition, why do we go on each day? Or even: what is the nature of the human spirit? Some students answer that what keeps us going is simply instinct, just as in other animals. Some answer that we persevere out of duty or obligation. Some answer faith or love. I believe we have an innate curiosity that inspires us to discover, explore, and connect. It’s imagination that goes beyond instinct. It’s the twinkle in the eye that makes work more than obligation. It’s the bond or camaraderie felt between two people in a single moment. In theater we call this play—the in-the-moment spirit of imagination, joy, and collaboration. To me, that’s what makes life worth living. 

FICTION
Sin Eater
By Megan Campisi
Atria
Published April 7, 2020

RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer and educator. He has published criticism in The Review Review and the film journal Kabinet, journalism in Bostonia and other Boston University publications, and two short stories in the Harvard Summer Review. His poetry has been published in The Newport Review, The Broad River Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Compass Rose, and Mandala Journal. Having earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Boston University, he is now pursuing a master’s in creative writing and literature from Harvard Extension School.

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