A Tudor Banquet of a Novel: Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

When the cover of Megan Campisi’s novel Sin Eater (Atria, April 2020) first flashed across my consciousness, the title convinced me: I simply had to read this book. I became even more intrigued when I perused its beginning pages and discovered a handbook, outlining the foods a sin eater—always a woman—must devour in order to remove the evils a dying person brought into this world when he or she was alive. Soon I became engrossed in this sumptuous Tudor banquet of a novel, savouring its charming, fairytale-like language and complex narrative. I have always been greedy for delicious writing and here it was, served up to me in generous helpings.

The plot of Sin Eater rests on a compelling premise. Arrested for stealing, young May is condemned to attend the last minutes of the dying and to eat the foods that represent their crimes and transgressions. Over time, she comes to understand that this position renders her powerful, and she sets out to uncover a deadly intrigue that has its centre at the heart of the Elizabethan court.

In the days that followed, I pondered the notion that Elizabethan England had replaced the Catholic custom of the priestly confessional with the fleshly ritual of a woman who imbibes and internalizes another person’s wrongs. Thus, I could not wait to interview Megan Campisi in order to discover how she had happened upon the phenomenon of the sin eater.

In an eloquent reply, she told me, “To be honest, I am a history nerd. It’s in my genes. While most kids were being read your typical bedtime stories, my dad was regaling my sisters and me with tales from the Iliad. Big nerds, all of us. So, when I encountered sin eating, I was fascinated. Fascinated by the syncretism of Christian ritual and pagan, fascinated by the essential role played by a social pariah, fascinated by what you call wonderfully the “fleshly ritual” of it. But 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. All the other embellishments grew from this beginning.”

author photo by Gates Hurand

In addition to being enraptured with the sin eater, I fell in love with Campisi’s heroine. May is a wonderful character. Intelligent and embattled, she learns early how cruel a woman’s existence is, and we are invited inside her heart and mind in order to witness how she devises a way to transform herself from child-victim into mistress of her destiny. Although she loves her father and despises her mother’s family, she eventually understands that she has inherited their fierce fighting spirit.

In response to the question whether Sin Eater is a feminist work, Campisi stated, “It is definitely a feminist work—not because I set out specifically to write a feminist book, but because feminism is so deeply ingrained in me, I can’t write anything else. While the book doesn’t propose the radical transformation of a patriarchal society, what it does do—I hope—is chart a very tiny revolution in the way one woman views herself and her situation. A tiny act of rebellion within an unjust world.”

I found Sin Eater a very physical novel, its centre the desiring, devouring, life-giving, murdering, and dying female body. I delighted in the woman’s viewpoint, as well as in the novel’s rich language. Aware that Campisi is a successful playwright, I wondered whether her writing for the stage informs the composition of her novels.

“Regarding the physicality, I love getting into the nitty-gritty details of living when writing female characters,” Campisi said. “Women are still so often portrayed as creatures of air who don’t puke, poop, and bleed. As you mentioned, my background is in theatre. I’ve often worked as a playwright, occasionally as a performer, and many times as a deviser. “Devising” is a theatre term of art for a highly collaborative process of creating new plays. When I’m working on a devised project, I think of myself as “making” or “building” a play, rather than writing it. It’s a visceral process, and the resultant characters are visceral people. This experience heavily influences my novel writing.

“When writing a period piece, I read authors from the same era while I write. I like to read plays because dialogue instantly immerses me in the time period’s lexicon, social dynamics, and cultural milieus. For Sin Eater, I read plays by Beaumont and Fletcher, Udall, and, of course, Shakespeare.”

Campisi also shared some details on the historical background of the novel. “Elizabeth I was brilliant. She (and her advisors) parlayed her supposed weaknesses—being a female, being single, having no heirs—into strengths. What a coup! Of course, as a result, conspiracy theories abound regarding secret lovers, soiled virginity, and unrecognized bastards. I drew on one such theory for the central mystery in Sin Eater. The theory grew out of a Privy Council investigation in 1549 into Thomas Seymour’s actions toward the 14-year-old Elizabeth while she was living with him and her stepmother, Catherine Parr. From depositions of Elizabeth’s governess, Kat Ashley (or Astley), and others in the household, Seymour’s behavior toward Elizabeth would today be termed sexual abuse. (The Privy Council’s concern was that he was trying to marry Elizabeth without consent.) The conspiracy theory runs that an illegitimate child resulted from the abuse and was hidden away (or became Shakespeare!) I added the child swapping with Catherine Parr, but given the breadth and imagination of conspiracy theories, it has surely been suggested before!”

I ended with perhaps the most conventional of queries, ‘What is your ambition in Sin Eater, and what was your motivation for writing the novel?’ Campisi surprised me with what she told me then.

“Nursery rhymes appear in Sin Eater as part of the world-building, but to me they are more than that. Nursery rhymes are delicious snippets of cultural history passed down from generation to generation like a game of telephone. And like a game of telephone, over time the past contained within them becomes altered, enciphered. As a child, I loved puzzling them out to discover the “true meaning” within—the darker the better. My favourite historical novels contain the same mix of history, invention, and discovery. I like to think of Sin Eater as my own try at a“long-version” nursery rhyme.” 

Megan Campisi was a most gracious interviewee and proved reluctant to comment on only one occasion, when I asked her whether Sin Eater might be regarded as a murder mystery, with perhaps a sequel in the making. Given Campisi’s reserve, I have come to hope that I might have happened upon a future secret project. Needless to say, I would love for it to happen, since I would dearly like to read about May, the eater of sins, once again.


About the contributor: Dr Elisabeth Lenckos is on the Historical Novel Society’s social media team. She is at work on a novel about an adventuress in Jane Austen’s world and on a memoir of her Berlin grandmother.

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