Do you know those people who go around dismissing writers' sites and blogs, for the sterile page that publishers put up and update every fifteen years must surely suffice? When such people are publishers themselves I always wonder whether their nuts and bolts are screwed in the right places. If authors never bothered to maintain their online presence, I wouldn't know who Sarah Salway is.
It was November and I was procrastinating like a maggot, happily surfing like an Australian dude in high summer. In the midst of my search for stationery porn, I had to stop for Letter Porn. I was soon hooked, especially as the posts about Christmas, which I love dearly, started coming thick and fast (here, here and here, list not exhaustive). Sarah's site is a great place to hang out not only if you like Crimbo, but also if you love success stories of the writing variety, tips about writing, info about competitions and lots of writing prompts which, as you know, I am myself a bit crazy about (the full list of Try This is here).
In April, Getting The Picture came out. Publishers Weekly said: 'Salway (Tell Me Everything) refutes the adage about old dogs and new tricks in this breezy epistolary novel set in a British retirement home. Not that the residents of Pilgrim House don't know plenty of old tricks already: Salway's appreciation of her characters is refreshingly non-patronizing—her oldsters have rich and naughty pasts, but live in the present, very much alive and eager to gossip, conspire, and seduce. George Griffiths is the archetypal stuffy widower, determined to control the behavior of anyone near him. He's also the only male resident of Pilgrim House until Martin Morris, a photographer who specializes in female nudes, moves in with his cameras and his photo collection. Martin's a schemer who, unbeknownst to George, had an affair with George's wife decades earlier and has been obsessed with her since; he saved all the letters he wrote her but never sent, and continues to write to her about his increasingly menacing plans. Although the epistolary device requires that some key revelations are reported from a distance, relationships and characters evolve nicely in this lighthearted novel about family and lovers and the not-so-lighthearted secrets that separate them'.
And so as I wait for Amazon to deliver my copy, I am very thrilled to have Sarah answering The Creative Identity Questionnaire for our enjoyment!
What is your idea of perfect writing?
Wow, straight in with the biggie. I love writing that takes risks so I can feel a real connection between the writer and the writing. It doesn’t have to be autobiographical, and it can be funny, tragic, clever, loud, quiet, but it does have to be authentic. The writer has opened himself or herself up to the page, and I can feel them speaking to me, ‘listen, I’ve got something worth saying’. So I suppose my idea of perfect writing is that which NEEDED to be written. This is both what I like to read, and what I like to write.
What is your greatest writing fear?
I am possibly the world’s biggest worrier, so fear plays a huge part in every part of my life. I wish it didn’t, but there you go. So how can I pick just one writing fear out? I’m writing more memoir and personal essays now so I’m conscious about the possibility of my writing hurting someone I love. However, I’ve learnt that all I can do is to tell my side of the story and take responsibility for the truth as I see it. It’s a question of integrity; I keep asking myself ‘does this need to be in here’, ‘am I taking over someone else’s story here?’. More generally, a lot of my initial fears – bad reviews, rejections, my mother-in-law not approving, etc etc – have happened and, do you know what, I’ve survived. And I’m still writing. That’s a good thing.
What do you consider your greatest writing achievement?
My husband read my new novel, Getting the Picture, when we were on holiday recently and I couldn’t stop watching him, wanting to find out why he was laughing, where he was in the story etc. It annoyed him very much, but when he cried at the ending, I felt very happy! Not least because he had forgotten I had written the book, and had become involved with the story. I also loved the collaborative spirit of the Messages project, and the subsequent Your Messages internet project.
What is the writing tendency you most deplore in yourself?
Dilly-dallying. This partly comes from wanting to do too many projects at the same time so none of them get finished. Or even started sometimes. I am trying to train myself to do just one thing at a time and trust that there will be time later for other projects.
Which living writer do you most admire?
Do they have to be living? Or can they just be living through their work? There’s an American writer called Alice Duer Miller who died in 1942 but I still love her with a passion. She was a suffrage poet, who wrote novels and then went to work in. I really admire her sense of humour and love of practical jokes. My first novel was dedicated to her, and she continues to inspire me. As for really living writers – I would have to say Margaret Atwood. Is there anything she hasn’t tried? And now I hear she’s just sung in an ice hockey film. There’s hope for me and my ukulele yet.
What is your greatest writing extravagance?
Books. But they are also my greatest writing asset too. I will never have enough. My husband despairs, so I now have to sneak them into the house. This old book… I’ve had it for years.
When and where were you happiest with your writing?
I loved doing my MA at the University of Glamorgan. I had trained and worked as a journalist from school, so writing fiction felt like a bit of a dirty habit. It was so liberating to be among all these people who were all pushing themselves in different directions too. There was a tremendous respect for everyone’s separate journeys on that course – no one was trying to push anyone else to follow a particular writing path. But now, if having one of those ‘I can’t do it’ days I take myself off to a library to work and it makes me feel happy again. Recently I’ve been trying out all these amazing libraries in London – the National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the RIBA library, the Wellcome Institute library. They are all free, and each has a different energy, a different atmosphere to soak in. What a gift.
If you could change a thing about your writing, what would it be?
I find this question almost impossible to answer, and now I’m wondering why. I suppose it’s because I’m not ever completely satisfied with my writing so with each piece, I’m trying to achieve something new. It’s all about developing as a craftsperson. I would hate to think I’d ever stopped learning. Or testing different skills.
What is the most marked characteristic of your writing?
I am particularly interested in what is invisible in our lives, and in what we take for granted. Part of showing this comes through using different stylistic devices, so the form becomes part of the story – an invisible thread that of course is often highly visible to other people. So I guess marked characteristics might be the use of secrets in the subject matter, and experimentation in the structure.
Who are your writing heroes?
I love Carol Shields for structure, Gary Lightbody (from Snow Patrol) for getting his timing so right, Raymond Carver for showing the pain and bravery in everyday life, Sarah Waters for plotting, Marilyn Hacker for inventiveness, Alain de Botton for making me feel I can understand, Diane Ackerman for sensousness, Kim Addonizio for sexiness, Neil Gaiman for storytelling and making ‘nice’ so very interesting, David Mitchell for continually pushing himself further with every book, Hilary Mantel for holding me spellbound. I could go on and on. I have a LOT of writing crushes.
How do you hope your writing will be referred to as long after you've gone?
I’ve been called quirky a lot, and to be honest, I don’t really like that. On the other hand, I do like the term ‘different’ a lot. The review I cut out and kept on my wall for a bit said I was ‘fearless’ and that my writing was ‘ripe with menace and wit’. That made me so happy I nearly cried.
What is your writing motto?
I love what Ray Bradbury said, 'Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories'. But 'Remember to Play' is probably my writing motto, which is why I spend some time every morning writing to a prompt I give myself – for no other reason than to enjoy myself and get the writing muscles working. I put these up on Twitter daily and once a week on the blog.