So Sarah, tell us a little bit about your work.
At the moment, I’m just finishing editing my third novel which is due to come out with Random House in the States next year. It’s called Getting the Picture, and I’m waiting to see the cover right now. That’s always exciting, if nerve-wracking. I’ve also been moving back to journalism recently, and rediscovering my love for that. And then there’s teaching, of course. I really do feel lucky.
What do you hope readers get from your stories?
Hah, I wrote a short story this year called ‘Instructions for Reading this Story’ about just this! In reality, I’m not sure I’d be presumptuous to hope for anything, so it’s lovely when people enjoy my work and want to discuss it.
You’re a poet, a writer of short stories, a novelist and a teacher (and a princess, or so I’ve heard); which, if any, of these comes the most naturally to you?
Princess, of course.
Although, if I can remove the tiara for a minute, I would say I was a natural short story writer, if anything. There’s a rhythm to writing a short story that I’m aware of breaking if I write a poem or am in the middle of a novel. When I’m writing a short story, I don’t have to think about that side at all. Does that make sense?
And which demands the hardest work?
Probably the novels, in that you have to create and stay with your characters for a long long time. There are such highs and lows along the way – this is awful, this is amazing, oh no this is really awful, although maybe it could work… sometimes all of these on the same day, and then you still have to get up the next morning and carry on with it. On your own. I have great admiration for everyone who has finished a novel at all, no matter whether it’s been published or not.
Doing all you do, how do you manage to keep the writing process feeling fresh?
I think I’ve just come out of a stage when it definitely hasn’t been fresh, so this is an interesting question. However, I was a fellow at the Virginia Centre for Creative Arts (http://www.vcca.com/
) this January, and will be going back next year too. This helped me think about my process a lot. I realized that I was inspired by other arts – music, paintings, sculpture – as well as by being in nature. But also that I needed to be around other people a bit more. Real people, not just ‘computer friends’, however important they may be. I was spending a lot of time sitting staring at my computer and worrying, spiraling inwards as it were. So I’ve made an effort to get out a bit and that’s helped.
How did it all start? Was there ever an I can do this moment?
I’m lucky in that both my parents wrote and published books – non-fiction, but proper books – so I grew up surrounded by it all. However, I don’t think I felt entitled to write fiction, so I studied writing at the London College of Fashion and worked in PR and journalism. That ‘aha’ moment came when I started going to a beginners fiction class at Edinburgh University’s extra mural department, although even then, I told everyone that it was just to help my journalism.
I still wonder if ‘I can do this’ though all the time. I’m sure all writers do. Some just might not say it out loud.
Your short stories are incredibly good. What do you think makes a great short story?
Aw, thank you. I like the idea of a short story as a ‘glimpse’ so there’s a feeling of something going on before and after the page. I’m disappointed when I read one that’s all wrapped up too easily. I like to keep on wondering.
Neil Gaiman complimented you on the structure of Something Beginning With (he said on his blog “Currently reading Sarah Salway’s Tell Me Everything, because I really enjoyed her novel Something Beginning With, the kind of idea for book’s structure I wish I’d had, and written in a way that kept up with the structural conceit.”) – how did the idea for the structure come about?
Wasn’t that amazing? And it was you, Nik, I think who alerted me to that. He’s a really lovely man, and although I wouldn’t go as far as calling him a fan – I wish – he’s given me a quote I can use (as he said Stephen King did for him) and his continued support means an awful lot to me. He’s so busy, and yet he still finds time to help other writers. Wow. Now, where were we … I’m easily distracted when it comes to Neil Gaiman! Ah yes, the alphabet structure. This came about for two reasons. Firstly, I used to love those stories I read as a kid where you got to a point in the story and it said, if you want this to happen, turn to page 60, but if you want this, then turn to page 44. So I wanted to write a book that could be read in many different ways and still make some kind of sense. It felt like a really really hard jigsaw puzzle when I was putting it all together. Also, it started as a short story, and I felt the narrator, Verity, was someone who would say things like ‘it’s as easy as abc’ to describe the sometimes awful things she does. The trouble was she kept talking, and the short story turned into a novel, so I really had to work the alphabet format!
Lynne Rees aside, who would be your ideal writing partner and what would you write?
Lynne is indeed ideal. I’m working with several other people as well now, and each one feels like a different adventure. Carlos Ferguson, the artist behind the tiny circus concept (www.tinycircus.org) is pretty inspirational and has made me think a lot. When we were working on the narrative structures of some of the animations, he kept asking ‘why would this happen?’ or ‘why do they do this?’. It was infuriating at the time, but seeing how easy it would have been to drift into making a series of pretty images instead of a real story was thought-provoking. Anne Kelly, the textile artist, has helped me think in terms of collages and recycling, and I’m also working with the playwright, Jerome Vincent. We’ve been very good at bouncing ideas of each other so far, and that’s been fun so I’m excited about what we’ll do when we finally get our big commission, fingers crossed.
Absolutely ideal though, in a dream world, would be the American writer, Alice Duer Miller. She’s been dead about forty years so it might get a little surreal, but she was so smart, sharp and funny. I’ve just written about her on Vulpes Libris – http://www.vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/ [click here for the link- Nik]. Anyway, I would have loved to write and produce an evening event with her – reading poems and short dramas based on empowering women, and hopefully making both men and women laugh. Perhaps I should do it by myself… now you’ve got me thinking.
As a writer myself, I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is that I’m always learning. Who, or what, do you learn from? Or do you disagree?
Oh no, I agree. It’s one of the things I love about teaching too. Now, don’t laugh, but I think I’ve learnt a lot from watching live music. While a band is playing, nothing else matters. Everything they have is poured into that moment and you feel they are completely open to it. I do wonder if, as writers, we can be too polite. Perhaps we need more hair swinging and sweat dripping off us. What do you think, Nik? [Um, I think you’re right. Let me come back to you with an answer another day when I’m feeling more intelligent. And when I do, I’ve a feeling I’ll be talking about rehearsing in writing. Or something. – Nik.]
Is there a downside to doing what you do?
I don’t know if this is a downside really, but I was very aware when my first novel was coming out, that everyone expected me to be punching the air with delight the whole time. And I was of course, but if I could have afforded to buy the whole print run up so it never came out, then there were times when I would have done exactly that. Getting published is more complicated emotionally than I’d dreamt it would be, and when you get a book deal, somehow you can’t talk about these kind of feelings because you’re aware of how many other people would like to be in your position.
‘Sarah Salway’ is going to be entered into the OED and you can write its definition. What does it say?
Anything but quirky, please.
If there was a Miracle-Gro for writers, what would it do?
I think we have it right now, and it’s called blogging.
If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?
Is there anything you’ve read that you wish you’d written?
Oh so so so much. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve put a book down, thinking that there’s no point in me writing anything now because I’ll never be as good. But then I listen to the advice I give others which is just to keep writing the world as you see it. At the moment, I’m really enjoying Rebecca Solnit
and her combination of personal and public narratives about subjects I’m really interested in. She tackles her own curiosity with a courage I envy.
If you were queen of all the land, what law would you pass?
I would make everyone do something creative every day. I really believe we have a need to make things, and the ‘how to’ bits are getting lost. Also my friend, Paul, who is looking over my shoulder right now, has just told me to say, ‘do a good deed every day’. That’s a good one. Am I allowed two laws? I am a princess, after all….
I know a good many writers read this blog, anything you’d like to say to them? Any tips?
It’s patronizing to say ‘read’ because I’m sure all writers do. But yes, read read read. Also when I was whining once about how hard it was to write, Kate Long
– I know you and I are both fans of hers – reminded me that in the overall scheme of things, and the other jobs I might be doing, I wasn’t exactly risking life and limb. She said it a bit nicer than that, but the sentiment’s stuck with me. It’s made me more conscious of acknowledging the fun, enjoyable bits – although (I’ll say it quietly, in case she reads this) it is hard work sometimes!
What’s next for you?
Well right now, I’m starting a course in Garden History in London tomorrow and I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks. I’ve got myself a special new notebook (bliss!) and I’ve read the course book and I’ve already got my train ticket – it feels like the first day at school. Also, I’m starting to do a bit more private mentoring work.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. It’s been a real pleasure and a super treat. Anything you’d like to add?
Just to thank you, Nik. You are a prince!
I’m sure you’ll all join me in saying thanks to Sarah, and wishing her all the best with her Garden History Course.
And Sarah, if you ever do put on that Alice Duer Miller show, you must let us know.