I'm thrilled to be sharing interview no. 3 in my Creative Life series today ~ author, poet and journalist Sarah Salway has always been on my word-radar ever since I discovered she read my blog, way back in the early days. To me this was a great honour – a published author and poet reading my words? Not only that but she teaches creative writing too, so i figured i must've been doing something right (something a writer needs to know once in a while) – her students are very lucky to have such a gifted teacher. Alongside writing stories filled with wit, warmth and acute observations on life, Sarah has an inspiring blog where she shares writing prompts; lately she's been posting 50-word photo-stories and readers have been sharing their own in the comments (such a great idea!).
So without further ado, grab a coffee and sink into the words of the lovely Sarah Salway…
SC: Did you always know you'd write? How did this path begin for you?
SS: My parents were both writers so I grew up in a house where it was quite normal. Before she had us four kids, my mother used to work for the women’s editor of Farmers Weekly. Then when I was growing up, she researched and wrote books about monastery gardens and herbs. I’m very sad that I never told her how proud I am of her for that, but she died before my first book (Something Beginning With, also called The ABCs of Love in the USA) came out and it was only then I realised how lightly we’d always treated her achievements. Being kids, we were more interested in what she was cooking us for tea than her writing and research, but I guess that’s a healthy sign for a child! My dad was a journalist too. He is still writing and publishing at the grand age of 80, so both parents were, and continue to be, an inspiration.
When I was about eight, I started writing a whole library of novels with my friend, Heidi. I used to write these very dramatic stories about orphans who had lots and lots of horses, I remember, but somewhere along the way I stopped thinking creatively. I studied journalism at the London College of Fashion after school, and then worked in PR and journalism for several years, both in London and Edinburgh.
But then one day, I found a two-hour weekly women’s creative writing course run through Edinburgh University. I was so nervous the first time I went, but it quickly became the most important part of my week. I loved it so much and thought the teacher so amazing that I drove past her house one day, just to see where someone who could write stories and poems would live. It’s funny to think I’m that person now, and I’m really happy that I’m inspiring people as much as she did me. (I did tell her about the stalking btw much later when we became friends, but I think even then she was a little bit worried!)
I still feel lucky that I could get back in touch with my creative side through that class. Although at the time I was a successful journalist, I always thought that writing fiction and poetry was something that other, not necessarily better but certainly different, people did, and that I would make a fool of myself if I tried to join that secret club. Now I’m totally convinced that everybody can be creative. Actually more than can, we NEED to be creative! And we need to make fools of ourselves more often too. I wish I hadn’t been so scared about it all for so long.
How did the publication of your first book come about? and how long did it take to write?
It was a fairy story, and I still can’t really believe it. A short story of mine went up on an internet site (east of the web) and I got several emails about it straight away. One was from a publisher, and two were from agents, all asking if I was writing a novel. I signed up with one of the agents and six months later, I had a two book deal. It’s been a bit harder since, but it did prove to me that agents and publishers are actually searching for new authors. It’s not the closed shop that we can sometimes imagine and that’s very encouraging.
Something Beginning With came out of that short story, which was originally called ‘A Girl’s Alphabet’. It was supposed to be one story in a themed collection about a love triangle, and the only one narrated by my main character, Verity. However, her voice kept on nagging away at me, so I expanded the story even after it had been accepted for publication. When I got those emails, I had written nearly the whole novel, and that’s why it felt so special to have someone ask if I’d thought about turning it into something longer. I think they were surprised when I handed them a nearly finished manuscript straight away! It does make me think that getting the voice of your character right is really important, perhaps more even than plot. As a reader, I lose interest straight away if a character starts to behave in what I consider an unnatural way just to keep the plot going. I feel manipulated. I want real characters! As writers, we need to listen to our characters. I will even sometimes write letters to mine, and write letters back from them. It’s amazing what comes out from that. (I don’t post them though, or not yet!)
The wannabe author dreams of publication so i have to ask: how does it really feel being a published author? Did you linger in bookshops looking at the spines on the shelf?
It takes a long long time for a book to actually be published once it’s been accepted, so I did go into bookshops to see exactly where my book would be. Once I even made a little gap for it! Getting published was very special, and I still hug it to myself as it’s something that can never get taken away from me. That there are people out there who enjoyed my story so much that they invested in me like that is amazing. And the launch party for my book was very special. I invited as many of my friends as I could and we drank the bar dry. My best friend tells me I smiled all night long! But there’s so much pressure about being published, and I wanted it so badly that I got worried too much might change and that was hugely frightening. But hey, I woke up the next morning and the kids still wanted their breakfast, and where were their socks for school? That’s when I thought of Mum. I would have loved to have shared the joke with her.
But when someone I don’t know – or indeed someone I know – tells me they’ve read my work, I feel really lucky. I have learnt not to frighten them with a barrage of questions about what they thought about it, did they like it etc etc, not least because publication made me realise that as wonderful as it is to have a book out there, it’s the writing of it that I really love. You always have to be more passionate about the process more than the product. It’s the doing that matters.
What comes first – the character or the story idea?
It depends. I write across the genres – poetry, short stories, novels and non-fiction, and I think the only common ground is that there will be an image I can’t let go of. It may just be a fragment, or a whole picture, bu
t I start to build stories around that image. And then, as I said above, I start to listen for the voice of the character. And structure is important for me too. I will spend a lot of time searching for the form that feels the most authentic for what I want to write. I really believe that imposing some kind of constraint on my writing makes me freer. It’s as if the censor part of my brain is happy puzzling out the rules, and the rest of me can get on with writing what I want!
Where do you write? Do you need a special room or pen…. a certain of time of day? A quiet corner of Cafe Rouge? Kids in bed?
Well, my kids are big now so I normally go to bed before them! I write morning pages every day before I even get out of bed. It sets me up, even if I have to put on the alarm clock. Who knows what I write, I rarely read back! My writing room is a little room at the top of the house – it has everything I need: fairy lights, a disco ball, books and a sofa to curl up on. My desk is second-hand. When I first sat at it, I wrote a poem to the woman who had owned it before me. I have no idea who she was, but I had fun building up a picture of her and what she had kept in the drawers. I don’t have a particular routine, although I am finding that I need to switch off the internet now in order to concentrate. It’s too tempting just to see what is happening on Twitter or Facebook, and I need to be able to sink into my work. I always start writing with a pen and notebook, but then when the story starts moving faster, I switch to computer. I can type faster than I write.
What book do you wish you had written?
I think for any writer, there’s always the hope that it’s going to be the next one. That’s what keeps us going! But a book I really admire is The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen. The structure was simple based around four meals, and yet it was so well researched, passionately written and made me think about how I lived. I would love to write something that had so much impact and was needed so badly. I am sure that journalists are respected more in America. It made me proud to be one, and I’m not always so!
Poems… short stories… novels… teaching… you do it all, but which makes your heart race the most?
Impossible to answer, because they all do in different ways. Writing poetry is such an intense experience that it often feels like the only way I can express some things. Short stories allow me to try on many different masks and have fun. My novels let me enter different worlds and are totally absorbing. And I have learnt so much from my teaching. Seeing a student shrug off a whole lot of bad teaching and engrained criticism so they really take risks on the page is just the best thing ever.
What 3 pieces of advice would you give an aspiring writer?
There are a number of questions that get asked in class, normally ‘are we really allowed to break rules like this?’ when I tell them to write without worrying about grammar or nice handwriting, but I would say these are my three key pieces of advice:
1) Practice making stories all the time in your notebook. Jot down three different scenarios for what a lamppost might be thinking; where that man is going on the train; what would happen if the sun didn’t stop shining? Be as mad as you like. Just keep asking ‘what if?’ Stories create stories – and students who do this regularly never have to worry they don’t have enough to write about!
2) Read. And read, and read. And if you can do so, support independent and small publishers by buying their books and magazines. These are the people who publish most aspiring writers so not only will you be financing them, you may also discover some unexpected new talents. It’s fun to take risks in reading.
3) Write what you would like to read, not what you think you should write, or what everybody else is telling you to write, or what you think will get published. You have to be authentic to yourself otherwise you’re just not going to enjoy it. And that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. How amazingly lucky we are to be doing what we love.
What and who inspires you?
Oh music definitely. I love watching musicians live because for the moment they are performing they give everything they have of themselves. Nothing else matters, because they are feeling the music with their whole body. It takes great discipline and courage to do that, I think, and if I could write like that regularly, I’d be very happy.
Music that I love to write to:
Ben's Brother, TV On the Radio,
Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Joan as Policewoman, Blitzen Trapper, Nick
Drake, Saint Etienne, Nina Simone, Ellis Paul, Amos Lee, Laura Marling.
There's a mixed CD I've just bought and haven't stopped playing since – Dark Was the Night – it's BRILLIANT. Thoroughly recommend it. I get the NPR song of the day too.
I remember when I was starting I was hungry for people's 'how to' lists so here's mine, the books I keep keep turning back to:
Kim Addonizio: Ordinary Genius – one of my writing role models; she's a great poet too
Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit – probably one of the best for me; got me thinking about the body and writing
Julia Cameron: The Vein of Gold and The Artist's Way – half way through TAW – again – at the moment with an internet group I set up
Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones and maybe even better, Wild Mind – she's my best friend!
Carol Bly, The Passionate Accurate Story – like a very welcome wake-up call about conscience etc.
Tristine Rainer: The New Diary – a classic, but really good for journal writing. Lots of revelations with this one!
Steve Kowit: In the Palm of Your Hand – really good for sparking poetry ideas
Judy Reeves: A Writer's Book of Days – very useful daily prompts and lots of trivia about writers that is somehow inspiring! Did you know, for instance, that Virginia Woolf wrote standing up, and Amy Lowell smoked cigars when she wrote; Dame Edith Sitwell, however, wrote after she'd been lying down in an open coffin!
Do you have a motto?
I am slightly obsessed with a dead American poet called Alice Duer Miller, but no one else has heard of her. Anyway, she said, 'If it's very painful for you to criticize your friends, you're safe in doing it. But if you take the slightest pleasure in it, that's the time to hold your tongue.' I always try to remember this, because it feels like wise advice. I also use this line from Colette for my writing classes: ‘We will do foolish things, but we will do them with enthusiasm.’ I love the joy and confidence implicit in that!
You're having a dinner party and can choose 6 famous people from the past or present – who would you invite?
Brilliant question. Okay, I’m going to take it as a given that the dead people will be at their most sparkling not smelly. I only want people at my table who are passionate about things I care about, who will not be cynical, who will listen to others without talking about themselves the whole time, and who will definitely not be boring. So I would invite:
1. Alice Duer Miller (as above) not least because she likes practical jokes and would make me laugh.
2. Marco Pierre White – because I was addicted to Hell’s Kitchen recently and I feel he would be prepared to talk quite deeply about lots of subjects. Also he’s gorgeous, but he will have to take the tablecloth off his head.
3. Lynne Franks – I worked for her after college and she was just inspirational. I want to find out about all the work she’s doing for women in third-world countries.
4. John Peel – I miss his voice and his humour and his kindness. He can bring the music.
5. Roger Deakin, who wrote Waterlog and Wildwood. He had such an adventurous spirit and this huge love of nature. I’d love to hear his stories.
6. You! I have been enjoying your blog for so long that I feel I know you already but we’ve never met. Yet…
What are you working on next?
I have just had some very exciting news which is that I will be the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences from this September. It’s a great opportunity, and will fit very well with my current work-in-progress which is a non-fiction look at role models for women. I want to find out who inspires women, and why, and how important role models can be. I’m in the planning stages at the moment, but I’m already thinking about who has had an impact on me over the years – my big sister, Jo in Little Women, Kathryn Hepburn, Coco Chanel, my mum, Chrissie Hynde… the list goes on and on. And all so different too!
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Thank you so much for sharing your words with us, Sarah! Isn't she fabulous?
(photo credit: Ellen Montellius)