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|Sarah Salway FAQ
Sarah Salway is the author of 'Quiet Hour' and 'A Girl's Alphabet'. A collection of her short stories is now available from East Of The Web. In this FAQ she provides answers to questions asked by readers from around the world.
I was wondering if you were writing from personal experience?
None of my stories are directly autobiographical. Although certain elements will, of course, be things that I have seen or have happened to me, I normally change them to fit in with the plot. Because I quite often work in first person, I like to put myself completely in my character's head and imagine how I would react if I were in their position which I hopes makes it more authentic. It's part of the fun of writing, too - playing at being different people -- even unpleasant ones, especially unpleasant ones -- for short periods of time. Mind you, other writers have said that you always write yourself into your stories. I think this may be true.
How did you become a writer?
When I was still at school, I set up a novel writing club with a friend called Heidi. We took ourselves very seriously and set out to write ourselves a whole library but luckily our books have been lost along the way! We were very influenced by whatever we were reading -- lots of smouldering on moors after reading Wuthering Heights! After school, I went into journalism although I always wrote fiction on the side -- normally revenge stories about people I was working with. Luckily these have also been lost! Then about six years ago, I joined a morning group at Edinburgh University for fun more than anything else and got hooked on writing fiction for other people to read. I took a Masters at the University of Glamorgan and am now studying for a PhD. It took a lot of courage for me to start sending out my work, especially after the first rejections. You have to keep persevering though, and to have confidence in your work.
Do you think it is possible to be taught writing?
There have been many arguments about this and there are always people who write wonderful stories without having any formal training. However, for me it gave me the confidence and the space in which to develop my own writing. I don't think anyone can be taught to write if they have no talent, but I do believe that you can learn the techniques and the discipline to improve. Writing, by its nature, is solitary so it's such a wonderful experience to be in the kind of environment a writing course offers -- with committed fellow students and tutors who are willing to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. I teach writing now, and while I hope I offer my students something, I'm also aware that they will always learn as much from talking to each other. I was particularly lucky to have the support of some brilliant and inspirational writing teachers at different stages, especially Anne Hay, Rob Middlehurst, Sheenagh Pugh, Jenny Newman and James Friel.
Do you have any routines before you start writing?
I've never found it easy just to sit down and write. However, when I first started, I was working full time and had young children, so I had to fight to get the time to be in front of the computer and routines were something of a luxury. Now, however, I'm very aware that I need space around my time for writing. Or at least that's what I tell myself when I play solitaire, check the fridge, look at my e-mails, play solitaire again! Seriously, I find that my motivation to write ebbs and flows; sometimes it's the only thing I want to do; other times I have to force myself. I am a great one for making lists, and I have devised a scheme with a friend who is also a writer to help us both get things done. She lives in Wales and we've only actually met once face to face but we e-mail each other every Monday with our targets for the week, and keep encouraging the other to achieve them -- sometimes with the threat of eating a pound of lard if we don't! She's very important to me and some of my biggest successes have come about because she's made me do things I would never normally have the courage to do.
How do you find the subjects to write about?
I think that the more people write, the more they come back to subjects that they need to explore for themselves. I am particularly interested in what have been called the 'small themes' of domesticity and personal relationships but I find them endlessly fascinating to read and write about. I think you have to notice what interests you in outside life and then write about it -- one of my students said that if he wrote for himself, at least he knew one person would enjoy it. There's a saying that there are no dull subjects, just dull writers and the author Colette was asked once "But why can't you write a book that isn't about love, adultery, semi-incestuous couplings, and separation? Aren't there other things in life?" She noted, cynically, that this comment was from a man about to go to a meeting with his mistress.
Yet, even though girls are sometimes cheap or get wrapped up with other people's husbands, why celebrate it? Why assume it's the norm?
The fact I'm writing a story about this actually assumes I don't think it's the norm. I am very interested in family break up as a subject, because like many of my generation I was brought up with books portraying a 'normal' family unit as two parents and two children. If the father wasn't present, getting him back was one of the main themes of the book -- The Railway Children and Little Women to name but two. However, we are now living in a society, in Britain, where a single parent heads more than quarter of our families. No one can be judgmental about this but I think it is important -- as a writer -- to explore the ramifications. It really is a case where the personal becomes the political. What is an intensely individual matter for one family ends up having tremendous effects on the balance of society.
Also, I find the self-destructive and self-deluding side of human nature obsessively interesting. What makes someone actively set out to destroy the personal security they have built up, sometimes just to see 'what will happen'? I believe we're all capable of this, at one time or another.
Quiet Hour: What is your story about?
I like to think it is about that defining moment when a child discovers he is not actually the centre of his world. However, I have had many different interpretations -- all of which make me seem cleverer than I am so it's always interesting to find out what other people think it's about. Although it's tempting, once you publish a story, you can't go round telling people how they should read it. It has to stand on its own.
Quiet Hour: I had a hard time understanding where and why did Malcolm's mother create a 'quiet hour'?
Well, If you don't know, I'm not going to let you into her secret just yet!
Do you just write short stories?
No, but it is the form I always come back to because I love the elegance of the form and the opportunity you have to play within it. Carol Shields is a writer I particularly admire for this. I get frustrated when people think it is an easy option because it is 'short' as in many ways it's technically difficult to get everything across in such a short space of time without confusing and getting too involved. If anything, I've noticed my stories are getting shorter. The last one I wrote was only 48 words!
I have however, just finished my second radio play -- another fantastic medium for a writer -- and am currently half-way through a novel about a woman who leaves her husband to design a historic garden which commemorates the life of an Anglo-Saxon saint. Hopefully, this will be completed next year.
Do you ever get Writer's Block?
Of course, but some of the best advice I was given was not to panic, but to treat it as a rest time and concentrate on administration and research. Virginia Woolf said: "It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top." Having said that, I try to write something every day, even if it's just a journal entry.
Who are your favourite short story writers?
Chekhov, Raymond Carver, William Trevor, Joyce Carol Oates, Carol Shields, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers and Alice Munro.
Are there any writing books you recommend?
I love reading books about writing, but I suspect it's because it allows me not to get on with it without feeling guilty! There are many on the market, and you have to find the right one for you. The three I go back to and still find something profound in them are -- Dorothea Brande, How to be a Writer; Nathalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones; Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners.
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