The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Sarah Bourne

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Sarah Bourne


Summary: When she read Two Lives Rebecca thought that author Sarah Bourne was definitely going to be one to follow. They had a lot to chat about when Sarah popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 9 July 2015
Interviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

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When she read Two Lives Rebecca thought that author Sarah Bourne was definitely going to be one to follow. They had a lot to chat about when Sarah popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Sarah Bourne: What a terrifying thought! If I imagine anyone else reading my writing, I get so nervous that I can't get the words out! But I suppose I write for people who want a strong story, and something that will draw them into a series of issues that they might not have considered before, experienced by characters they can identify with in some way, and care about. I know I only keep reading a book if I'm invested in the characters and care what happens to them.

  • BB: Fictional car accidents seem to provide great opportunities for coincidental meetings (e.g. the film Crash or Harriet Lane's novel Alys, Always). What appealed to you about this particular setup?

SB: I wanted a strong, visceral start to the book, and since two lives were colliding metaphorically, it seemed a good idea to throw them together literally too. And we hear about car accidents almost daily in the news, so it's something that everyone can imagine to some extent at least, so that meant that I didn't have to go into too much detail about the actual accident – I could leave it to the readers imaginations and therefore keep the opening really punchy.

  • BB: What made you choose third-person over first-person narration for getting into the heads of your two characters?

SB: The idea for the book came to me almost complete, so the work was in creating the characters and finding my way in to the story. I knew I wanted to write it from the two women's perspectives, and that their stories had to work in parallel, so I tried writing it in two first person narratives and kept getting bogged down in the emotion. Third person gave me, and the reader, that little bit of distance from the raw feelings I tried to capture.

  • BB: 'Most of the time Derek was kind, generous, attentive. The man she had fallen in love with was not the man who lost his temper sometimes or expected her to do things she didn't want to do,' Emma thinks. People always wonder why women stay with men who hurt them. What are some of the main reasons, and how do you explore these through Emma's experience?

SB: Domestic abuse is a huge and distressing problem. One of the main issues is that no-one falls in love with someone who is abusive – they fall in love with someone who is kind, loving and loveable. It is only when the relationship is cemented that the abuse starts, usually slowly, intermittently. And the perpetrator is so apologetic, so remorseful at first. And of course, abuse is never just physical, it's emotional, social, financial, possibly sexual too. But as Loretta discusses with Emma, it's like a frog boiling in water – at first you don't notice what's happening.

By the time Emma realizes that she's in a cycle of abuse, she is more or less cut off from family and friends, and is confused because she loves the Derek she fell in love with, and he is still that person at times. Perpetrators are good at making the victim feel responsible for the violence too, so for many women, that's a hook: 'if only I could be better, keep him calmer' etc becomes the abused woman's mantra. It certainly became Emma's. And because Emma felt partly responsible, she also expected people to judge her for what happened, so leaving and admitting that Derek had become abusive was, for her, like stepping into a courtroom, knowing, as she did, that her parents had never liked him anyway.

Emma was luckier than many other abused women in that she still had a family to go to, but even then, it wasn't easy.

  • BB: Motherhood, wanted or unwanted, is a strong theme. How do your main characters' experiences of motherhood compare, and what messages did you hope to convey?

SB: Oh, motherhood! Such a big question. I'll take Loretta first. She had a difficult relationship with her own mother, and worked with teenage mums, supporting them through pregnancy and beyond, passionate about giving the girls and their babies the best she could. And then she finds she can't get pregnant and starts resenting these same young women for their lack of planning and the thoughtless way most of them approach parenthood. When she finally gets pregnant she is the opposite, planning everything to the finest detail, trying to ensure the best for her son and convinced that she will make a more loving mother than her own was. We see Loretta as tenacious, determined and rather controlling.

Emma is happy to be pregnant the first time, hoping that having a family will mean the end of Derek's violence (she is rather naïve), and also an end to her working in her boring job. Cut off from her own family, she looks forward to having a child on which to lavish her attention and love. She is rather like one of Loretta's clients in her lack of forethought. Unlike Loretta, she had a warm, loving family, and so in a way, didn't have to think about being a mother – she assumed it would come naturally. When the two women meet and Loretta learns that Emma is pregnant, the character traits that helped her plan for her own child come to the fore again as she helps Emma through her pregnancy.

I wasn't trying to make any statement about the 'right' way to approach parenthood, but rather to write about two of the many faces of motherhood, and how our own experiences as children, and also as adults, help shape the parents we become.

  • BB: Both of your published novels (Never Laugh at Shadows came out in 2014) deal with women's mental health, a subject on which you have significant professional experience. Have you noticed a difference between how mental health issues are treated in the UK and Australia, your adopted home?

SB: When I first came to Australia I was amazed at how far ahead this country was in terms of community care for people with Mental Health issues. It seemed that the move to empty the large Psychiatric Hospitals that was also happening in the UK was decades ahead here. There was funding, there were programmes, housing, plenty of support. But there were also gaps. The funding was for the long term mentally ill and was often linked to getting back to work or into training of some sort, even though, realistically, some of our clients were never going to get a job. I had worked in Psychiatric Day Hospitals in London where the treatment was for a wider range of clients, the emphasis on therapy, helping our clients understand and manage their illness if it couldn't be overcome completely, rather than a specific work outcome. I've been away from England for too long now to compare how things are today, but I hope that at least the stigma of having a mental illness has been reduced, because that is such a heavy load to bear. There is still a lack of understanding here which leads to discrimination and disadvantage. And there is never enough funding – I suspect that's true everywhere.

  • BB: Emma feels 'there was a meat grinder at work in her tummy, churning all her feelings into a riot of pain and loss.' You paint such a vivid picture of grief here. What were some of your strategies for imagining yourself into your characters' emotional lives?

SB: We've all suffered loss of some sort, haven't we? I use my own experience as much as possible when writing emotional content, because otherwise it wouldn't sound authentic. That isn't to say that I've experienced everything I write about, of course, but I have touched the edges of similar things. I have also worked with a lot of people who have experienced grief – I used to work for CRUSE, a bereavement counseling service, in London, and working in Mental Health you're always working with people and their losses, whether that's loss of health, status or people. I replay conversations I've had with clients over time and recall how they sat with their pain and slowly found a way through it. I have tremendous respect for those people.

  • BB: Who are some of the authors you admire and seek to emulate in your work?

SB: I love Kate Atkinson, William Nicholson, Kamila Shamsie, Rohinton Mystry, Anne Enright, Siri Hustvedt, Salley Vickers, Jhumpa Lahiri – the list goes on and on. I like a book with strong, well drawn characters that I can cheer for, cry for, hold my breath for, be happy for.

As to emulating someone, I'm not so sure. I don't consciously try and write like anyone else – I hope that doesn't sound arrogant! I think most people who write try to find their own voice – I know I've spent a lot of time working on my style as a writer, and finding my own voice. Which isn't to say that if someone said that I wrote like one of my heroes, I wouldn't be as chuffed as hell!

  • BB: Without giving away the ending, what might you imagine happening next for your characters? Can you see things ending happily for either or both of them?

SB: I'd like to think that they both find a degree of happiness. I know what I think happens to them, and I did write past where the book actually ends, but it became a bit clichéd, so I decided to let the reader decide what happens to Emma and Loretta in the long run. I know some people find that rather frustrating, but I like a book that keeps me thinking after I've finished it, and some of the best discussions we've had in my Book Club have been about what happens after a book ends.

  • BB: What's next for Sarah Bourne?

SB: I'm working on a number of ideas at the moment. I tend to get hooked by an idea or an issue that I find interesting, and do some research. If it's still interesting, I begin to imagine characters and how they would respond to the issue. If the characters come to life for me, then I start writing and see where it goes. The main idea at the moment is about a woman detained on suspicion of terrorism after the London bombings in 2005 and how the experience affects her life and the choices she makes after her release.

  • BB: Thanks for chatting to us, Sarah. Like your book, you've left us with plenty to think about.

You can read more about Sarah Bourne here.

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