In this guest post ninevoices talks to Tunbridge Wells author Sarah Salway
First of all, tell us about what you are writing now?
I’m writing what I hope will be my fourth novel. It’s provisionally called ‘There Was Nobody There’, and is a detective story – but with a difference. It’s told over a week, and from a series of first person voices. Everyone sees a little bit of what happens but a) doesn’t realise or b) has their own reasons for keeping quiet. I was inspired by how the police put out that rather plaintive request sometimes: ‘surely someone must have seen something’! We’re all so tied up with our own lives and stories that sometimes we miss the huge things going on around us.
This is traditionally published – were you still able to choose the title and cover and other aspects of the design? What about the blurb?
Actually, this is the only novel I’ve written that hasn’t been already signed up by a publisher. Even my first was under contract to Bloomsbury before it was finished. I deliberately haven’t tried to sell this one although my agent has seen it. There’s something liberating about writing it while thinking it may never be published. It has allowed me to really play with the format and the story, although I’ve realised that I do need a deadline!
With the others it was a mixture, really. I’ve been published in both the US and the UK, and Something Beginning With was called The ABCs of Love in the States – this led to confusion with people complaining because they’d bought both thinking it was a different book. I haven’t been involved with choosing the covers of my novels – the big publishers have experts on hand so it seemed better to leave it to them. I have been involved with choosing the covers of my poetry and short story collections though, and have really enjoyed that. There’s something satisfying about getting stuck into all aspects of the book.
I love the physicality of books anyway – I’m often to be found stroking beautiful covers in bookshops!
Tell us how you first became a published writer?
I was a journalist, and studied fashion journalism at the London College of Fashion. I have worked in fashion PR, for Cosmopolitan, the Scotsman and Time Out magazine. We were living in Edinburgh when I had children, and I found a morning drop in class in creative writing. I’d always loved to read, but at school we mostly studied dead male writers so I didn’t think it was something someone like me could do. After the first class, I was hooked. I started writing short stories, and one of those stories was on the internet where it was found by my first agent who asked me if I would turn it into a novel. This became Something Beginning With, my first novel.
What have you published since?
I’ve published two more novels, Tell Me Everything and Getting the Picture, a collection of short stories, Leading the Dance, two poetry collections, You Do Not Need Another Self-Help Book and Digging Up Paradise, and a collaboration of short pieces with Lynne Rees, called Messages.
How difficult is it to get your books into bookshops? Do you have to do a lot of marketing yourself?
It depends on the genre, I think. And also the publisher. I was lucky with my novels in that Bloomsbury had very strong links already, although there was one instance when my book was placed on a table right at the front of the Waterstone’s near where my father lived. He very carefully moved all the copies to the shelf under ‘S’. He was very proud of himself, so I didn’t tell him that it had actually been a coup to have been so prominently displayed! Luckily, my publishers saw the funny side.
Contemporary poetry doesn’t tend to have a big space in bookshops – I think I’ve sold more copies online and at readings.
More and more though writers are expected to do their own marketing. It’s difficult because it feels a completely different set of skills is needed from the actual writing. Many of us write because we are happy pottering around on our own, making up stories and sometimes spending days searching for the perfect sentence. The real world can be a shock – not just because you have to get dressed! I’ve often talked with other writers about forming a co-operative where we promote each other’s books – somehow that’s an easier thought than selling our own. I don’t know if this is different in other cultures, but I was always told not to talk about myself because nobody would be interested.
But then here I am… right now… talking about myself!
How do you use social media to promote yourself?
I’m a big fan of social media, but more to find out about other people, other books, other worlds than promoting myself. It works best for me when it is a conversation – I love how generous other people are. I tend to stay away from the trolls and the haters – although recently there seem to be more and more of them.
Where do you find inspiration?
What a question! All over, really. There are times when I have to consciously turn myself off because there are too many stories coming at me. I love history, strange facts, old books, snippets of conversation, people’s faces. I often have to stop myself staring but I’m sure most people don’t realise how beautiful they are. The trick, I’ve found, is to put two things together. Often I’ll get inspired by one thing but it isn’t enough to sustain a story. Add something else into the mix – especially if doesn’t immediately seem to connect – and I have a more interesting story.
Do you belong to writing organisations?
I’ve taught creative writing for many years now so I suppose I’m making my own organisation! I’m very proud of my students who have been published widely over the years, and I’m gradually curating a bookshelf of their work. As well as classes in my own home, I teach at the University of Kent’s Tonbridge centre, and with the Freestyle Yoga Project in Tunbridge Wells. I keep a list of classes and events on my website, http://www.sarahsalway.co.uk.
I have a special interest in working with groups and individuals for writing for wellbeing, and was co-founder, along with Victoria Field, of the Kent Writing and Wellbeing Network. It is now being ably run by Nicky Thompson. I’m also a member of Lapidus and National Association of Writers in Education. Part of my day job is to be the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Kent, and although it’s not an official organisation, we have a busy Fellows forum which I find very useful.
Which authors have influenced your writing?
There are so many, but three I’d particularly like to mention. Denton Welch was a writer from Kent who wrote so beautifully and with so much attention that he can make three pages of description about one plate completely thrilling. From him, I learnt to slow down and allow the reader to breathe. Then, one rainy holiday in a rented cottage in the Lake District, I discovered an American writer called Alice Duer Miller. She wrote in many different genres – poetry, novels, even silent movies – and I absolutely loved her sly wit and playfulness. Lastly, Carol Shields is such an elegant writer and what she does with structure blows me away. Reading her gave me a real feeling of permission. I’ve just realised I’ve nominated no living writers, so I’m going to add Margaret Atwood here too – not just because of her words but because she is always pushing the limits of what people expect her to be doing. I take courage from that.
What would you like to do next?
Last year I worked on so many projects that – although busy and stimulating – meant that I didn’t feel I was finishing anything. SO… this year I have made a resolution to work on one thing at a time. I’d like to finish my novel before doing anything else, although I have a list of things I want to do. It seems to be the way of it that when we’re working on anything for a long time, there are always ideas that seem so much better waving at us from across the desk!
I’d like to get the final draft of the novel finished by the summer though, so I can carry on with my writing blog, writerinthegarden.com. I studied garden history relatively recently and am now obsessed – there are so many stories, so many eccentric gardeners, and so many dreams involved in gardens throughout history.
Tanya van Hasselt said:
How I like your idea about writers forming a cooperative to promote each other’s work! Talking about wonderful books written by other people is such a happy-making, life-affirming thing, but marketing one’s own novel feels like hours in the dentist’s chair …