Thursday, January 19, 2006

An Interview with Sarah Salway

Sarah Salway is the author of SOMETHING BEGINNING WITH... (THE ABCS OF LOVE in the US) which has been translated into several different languages. In fact I came across the Italian translation in the front window of a book shop when I happened to be strolling through Milan on holiday last year. It follows a few months in the life of twenty-something girl told in short snatches - one for each letter of the alphabet - and I enjoyed it very much when I read it when it first came out in 2004. She has also won prizes for her poetry and short stories, has an MA with distinction in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan and has recently completed her thesis for her PhD in Creative Writing at John Moores University, Liverpool. Before this she was a journalist with a degree in journalism from the London School of Fashion and has worked for the PR company that was the inspiration for the comedy Ab Fab starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanne Lumley.

Sarah Salway's prose is witty and light but there is a darker deeper undercurrent to her work which creeps up on you as you read - which also comes through very well in her response to my seven questions. She has another novel coming out this year called TELL ME EVERYTHING (which I haven't seen yet but looks, from the blurb, to contain the ultimate 'unreliable narrator') and, apparently, another book coming out in March which sounds greatly intriguing and which she describes very well in her answers to my 'further questions'.


“There are moments when you really can stop time. Make a decision to go one way, and not the other. There's just a sense, a prickle on the skin, that tells you you're at the crossroads. But it's only when you're too far along to change direction, you realise you ever had a choice.

She didn't mean to tell the story, or have it end that way. She just got a little … carried away.
It has been several years since she confided in a teacher, and Molly Drayton is still feeling the aftershocks. But when a chance meeting with a stranger leads to an offer of a room in exchange for telling her stories, she jumps at the chance. Slowly she builds a new, eccentric family around herself: Tim, her secretive boyfriend, who just might be a spy; Miranda, the lovelorn hair stylist; Liz, the lusty librarian; Mr Roberts, landlord and listener; and his wife, Mrs Roberts, who is that very wonderful thing, French.
Much to Molly's surprise, she finds the stories she tells now are her key to creating a completely different life. Suddenly, her future is full of endless possibilities. The trouble is, Molly's not the only one telling tales. And the truth is always stranger than fiction.

Sarah Salway's witty, finely-tuned and poignant story of many stories is a uniquely entrancing chronicle of a very different coming-of-age.”


1. Do you have any connection with snails?

I think the first snail I fell in love with was that giant one that Dr Doolittle sailed home in. I must have been a very domestic child because I can remember how excited I was about it. It just seemed like such a perfect house, all smooth curved walls and that silky pink colour. Did it even have a staircase, or am I being weird now? Anyway I dreamt about it for years; actually I'd still like to live in it. And then of course, there was Brian in the Magic Roundabout. Now, he was cool. Other kids liked Dougal, but he was always too hairy for me. I like my snails smooth, although Dougal was a dog. I do realise that.

2. What is your proudest moment?

My kids make me pretty proud - not for anything they achieve, but when they make me laugh or question myself, and I think, I did that - I helped make someone that I actually enjoy being with! But my single proudest moment might have been the launch of Something Beginning With. The room was full of people I loved, who were all there to wish me well. My publisher gave me a bag full of all these little presents connected with the book, including these very sexy knickers which made me blush, and everyone was talking so easily to everyone else. It was a brilliant party - we ran out of drink, and I think I smiled for about a month after.

3. Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?

I've just finished my Phd, well all but the viva, which is on how we are influenced by our family stories, and the whole experience has been pretty life-changing. Before I set out, I always thought my family stories were pretty negative, but as I read more theory, not only did I come to the conclusion I'd been too harsh, I also realised that I had to grow up and stop blaming other people for who I am. It sounds a bit self-helpy and obvious, but it was a startling insight at the time. I think it's changed my writing too because I'm more careful to write things I really believe in. Publishing my novel was also life-changing, in that for years before I'd been building up to it as the ultimate goal, but once I got the contract, it felt like a real anti-climax when I realised that life just went on in the same way. But then I felt an enormous overwhelming relief. Phew, I DON'T have to change and be a Writer with a capital W!

4. What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?

It seems so trivial to talk about personal sadness when we're surrounded by tragedy all round the world, and I cry far too often watching the news. But I do get terribly sad when I see how brave old people are and how hard their life can be. I hate how we just hurry by and take for granted how we can do even simple things like just crossing a road without thinking too much. I witnessed an awful scene in the supermarket recently when an old woman was struggling with her purse and the assistant was laughing at her, but perhaps I felt more angry than sad about that.

5. If there was one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?

I wish I could always think the best of people, and stop being cynical about their motives. I've come to the conclusion that it's better to be open and risk getting hurt, but it's hard sometimes. One of the reasons I love the internet is because people can be remarkably honest and generous, and I find that inspirational. One site I'm addicted to is because you get to cheer people on for doing the weirdest things like learning to cartwheel, starting a fan club or building a boat, as well as the really big life goals. I don't think I've gone on that site once without laughing out loud at something someone's written, and that's pretty good. I've just got to try to transfer that feeling into real life, and stop scowling at strangers.

6. What is happiness?

Red shoes? That was the first thing I thought about when I read this question, so I think I'll have to seriously consider buying them. Once in Ireland too, we were staying in a tiny cottage by the sea, my kids were playing on the beach, my husband was swimming, and I was sitting on some rocks in the sun, watching them and writing a story I was really engrossed in, and I can remember thinking at the time how happy I was. I'm a lot happier now than I used to be because I can accept being sad as part of life. I'm actually not sure I'd want to be happy all the time, because I'd be scared I'd forget how to feel.

7. What is the first thing you do when you get up?

I'm very very horrible in the morning. I walk downstairs like a zombie, make myself a cup of coffee and take it straight up to bed, talking to no one, looking at no one. Then I read until my daughter's alarm clock goes off, and it's time to try to make myself into some kind of human being. She got a clock that moos like a cow for Christmas so I look forward to that because it's like living on a farm. I've a pile of books by my bed, and having finished my dissertation, I can now read books I like rather than ones that 'have a purpose'. At the moment I'm reading Michelle Lovric's The Remedy. It's completely gorgeous and set in Venice. A joyous way to wake up.


1. I believe you started as a prize-winning short story writer, is the way you write a short story different from how you write a novel - in terms of structure, planning and voice, for example.

I actually started writing as a novelist and then when I did my MA, I was encouraged to read more short stories, and from that to write them. It's a brilliant way to learn and practice different techniques - to see how the second person works, for example, as I don't think a whole novel could take the claustrophobic feel 'you' brings. Both Something Beginning With and Tell Me Everything have their genesis in short stories, so I suppose I can directly answer your question. Writing them as novels was much more than just expanding a structure. It was as if the characters were released to breathe and play, and the voice became less mine, more of the narrator's voice. For the time I was writing the two novels, I had to keep the whole structure like a balloon up in the air around me, and my job was not to try too much to contain the chaos. I had to trust I would get there, and at some stage in the writing process I did get a real feel of the shape of the novel. It made me think that my short stories were more akin to my poems - I'm much more aware of the emotional response from the reader I hope I'll achieve. With the novels though, I try to let go and actually enter the world I create.

2. You are also a prize winning poet - does poetry influence your prose or do you tend to keep them separate?

Well, I keep getting the comment that my poetry is actually very prosaic, and I do think I keep to a strong narrative line in my poetry. I find it hard to leave something just as an image, although there's no doubt that thinking and making imagery work has helped my prose. As does thinking about the rhythm of the words. I now read my prose out a lot more than I used to, and really try to hear it in my head. And boy, do I cut out unnecessary words, and also think of the overall look of the piece. More chapter and paragraph endings, than line endings, but it's a similar approach. I'm just so pleased to have got over a really powerful fear I had of poetry though - the thought of writing one, let alone have someone read it, would make me feel physically sick. I know I'm not alone here. I guess it comes down to rules, and getting things wrong!

3. Do you use any of your experience as a journalist in your writing?

Oh that's an interesting question. When I was a journalist I was interviewing lots of people for many different things, and some of the stories they told me, I've well not stolen but maybe poached! One of the things being a journalist taught me was that words had to come easily and quickly, and that actually held me up at the beginning. I would write something very quickly and it would be OK - that was my job! - so it was difficult to go back and edit. I really had to re-learn to write from the beginning, and that was sometimes painful. Poetry helped me in this, and also realising I wasn't just conveying information - that the gaps, what I wasn't writing about, were equally important. I do worry sometimes I've now gone the other way!

4. Would you recommend doing a PhD in creative writing to aspiring novelists?

I've loved it, but I've been very lucky with my tutors and the support I've received. I'm not sure though, to be honest, how much it's helped my creative writing (and this will probably get me into trouble with said tutors!) It's been an excellent workshop, but I could have got that elsewhere. It's my research project - looking at the storied self and relating this to my writing process - that has been fantastically exciting. I spent three years feeling as if I'd won the lottery, and it's helped me a lot. As much in giving me space to think about these things as anything else. Now I teach I always try to eek out what really gets students on fire, and tell them to go with that. Sometimes there's a resistance. We seem to think we shouldn't be enjoying these things, but need to take the diligent, dutiful route. Boo to that, much better to have fun surely?

5. Before that you got an MA with distinction - also in creative writing - were the things that you learnt on this course different from those you learn while working towards your PhD ?

Yep, I think so. The MA was much more orientated towards moving away from this fact-driven journalistic style to something creative so there was a lot of experimentation. It made me go into the PhD more confident that I knew what was working about my writing. But it was on the Masters that I learnt how much I loved research - something that I'd considered the downside of studying before - and so the PhD was a chance to take this further.

6. You have a new novel coming out this year - is there anything you'd like to say about this?

I have a novel - Tell Me Everything - coming out in November, which is based on my research. The heroine is a 16 year old girl who leaves home, meets an old man and just answers yes to every question he asks. So she recreates herself and loses all her old stories. It's about the effect this has on her, and also the people she meets. It made me realise how much we rely on our history, and also our future when we're talking to people - most conversations are more about what we've done and what we're going to do, than what we're doing! Hopefully it's funny, but it's mostly dark. Bloomsbury have done a wonderful cover which will make small children cry. I love it!!!
BUT I have another book coming out in March - don't know if I'm allowed to mention that? It's very interesting - it's a collaboration with the poet, Lynne Rees, and we exchanged 300 pieces of 300 words by email with each other over a six month period. The only rules were there had to be some link between the pieces - a word, emotion, theme - and they had to be returned within 72 hours. It was a really energetic project, and the book is called Messages, and is being published by Bluechrome. I'm excited about this - we've been asked to give papers at various conferences coming up because collaboration brings up all sorts of writing issues around voice, ownership, creativity, which we're going to be addressing.


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