Sarah’s short fiction has been published by The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Cinnamon Press, Mslexia, the Momaya Annual Review, Hysteria 2, and on the web. Her work was shortlisted for the 2016 Fish Short Story Prize and the 2014 Bridport Prize. She is currently working on her second novel, The Leopard’s Daughter, set in the Congo Free State in 1908. She is writer in residence at the George Abbot School in Guildford.
1. You have said that, ‘some stories will feel more precious.’ Which of your stories hold that place for you and why?
It’s a combination of the time and effort involved, and if a story taps into something difficult and personal. (Those are the best ones, obviously). My story ‘Something Hidden’ is dedicated to my sister, who died when she was a baby. Writing it was a way of remembering her and celebrating her life, which I was unable to do at the time. It was a long, slow process to uncover the shape of it, and to understand what I was trying to do. I love Stephen King’s quote – from his brilliant book, ‘On Writing’ – that ‘stories are relics […] the writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible’. Writing is definitely excavating for me. My story ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’, recently published in the MIR #14 anthology, is precious for a different reason: I wanted to show life in Beijing in 1980 – a world that has vanished. I also hope it gives voice to people whose stories have rarely been heard, particularly in the West. It took me years to wrestle onto the page, so I’m pleased it’s found such a good home.
2. How did you end up becoming a reader for The Brighton Prize, and what are you looking for in a good piece of writing?
I submitted a story, which didn’t make it, but was asked the following year to be a reader.
I’m looking for voice, first of all. A character I want to spend time with, who pulls me in, and makes me forget I’m reading: I’m just listening. I want to be in the story. Show me what your characters can see. Let me feel what they feel. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to be curious about them. Keep the pace moving. And then – let’s have a satisfying ending. Not twisty – but an ending that illuminates what’s come before, and makes you feel, yes: that’s how it should be. Beyond that, I love to see that the writer has cared enough about the work to check for spelling errors or typos. Of course, this answer is much easier to produce than a piece of original, engaging writing! That comes from endless reading, and endless practice. So the other thing I’m looking for is evidence that the writer is a reader, who has absorbed the shape of a story through reading other writers’ work.
3. How do you adjust to the changes between the long haul of the novel writing process and short fiction?
Badly! When I’m mired in editing and re-drafting, there’s nothing more tempting than the idea of a 2,000-word story, neat and perfectly formed (at least in my head). Being able to work on the arc of a short story in one go is hugely satisfying. One way I keep going with the novel (apart from searching out deadlines that make me sit on my chair) is to see each chapter as a short piece. I keep endless lists, and charts, and tick things off as I go, to give an illusion of progress… I’m always curious to see what my characters are up to, but I’m very bad at giving myself time to sink into the world of the book. It was a brilliant boost recently to be longlisted for the Mslexia Novel competition. That’s been a great incentive to keep working on the draft.
4. How did you feel to be shortlisted for the inaugural Bridport Prize First Novel Award and how has it impacted your work?
It was a great feeling. I entered on the off-chance, and was thrilled to get down to the final five, out of over 1200. It gave me a huge confidence boost, and the impetus to get on and finish the manuscript. I was lucky enough to meet some lovely people at the prize-giving whose feedback also encouraged me to keep at it.
5. You manage to create great tension in your writing. How do you capture the reader’s attention in just a few short paragraphs?
Thank you. By endless re-writing! I have a terrible tendency towards throat-clearing although I’m getting better at cutting to the chase. Before writing fiction I worked as a journalist, and I try to report what’s happening so that the reader can be in the story; in the moment. ‘Keep Moving’ is a useful motto. But it’s all down to re-drafting; trying to be clear about the focus of the story; and giving it time to cook.
6. You run creative writing workshops for students. What do you enjoy teaching and what do you use as inspiration?
I love the whole process of engaging with students and hearing their work. I always enjoy workshops on character, but I’m happy to teach viewpoint, dialogue – whatever might be useful. I love being able to talk about the technical process of writing – the tools at the writer’s disposal, if you like – and then handing the toolkit over to the students and hearing what they come up with. It’s always interesting, and unexpected. I feel privileged when they share it with me.
For inspiration – all sorts of prompts, word games, challenges. I love using physical objects, as well as newspaper and magazine cuttings – anything that catches my eye. My stories have often been prompted by a visual clue, and I hope that works for my students too.
7. Who are your favourite writers or inspiring quotes?
Too many to mention! I love Lucia Berlin’s short stories. Sebastian Barry’s prose is perfect. One of the best books I’ve read this year was ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain: a fascinating and poignant imagining of Ernest Hemingway’s life with his first wife, Hadley. It sent me back to his work with new eyes. I’m currently reading VS Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ about his Indian heritage and his life as a writer. And I’ve just started ‘The Dawn Watch’, Maya Jasanoff’s biography of Joseph Conrad.
The quote I keep on my desk is, ‘You get knocked down, you get up again. I also think writers must have great courage, the courage to trust your own life and your own voice.’ It’s from screenwriter Ashley Pharaoh, who co-wrote ‘Life on Mars’ (as well as many other things). It inspires me.
8. Can you tell us about the Mechanics’ Institute Review ‘Reading Allowed’ workshop?
It was organized by the editorial team at MIR, as part of the preparations for MIR Live, events around the UK where the MIR#14 authors read extracts from our stories. We learned how important it is to relax before reading. One of the ways to ‘loosen up’ was to lie on the floor, humming – a good ice breaker! We looked at the kind of extract that works well, read aloud: short, simple and clear. And we practiced reading – and breathing in the right places. It was a fun evening that gave me lots of useful ideas. I’ve written about it in more detail on my blog: www.sarahhegarty.co.uk The next MIRLive events are in London (November 17) Birmingham (November 23) and Manchester (January 12). It would be great to see you at one of them!
9. If you had an opportunity to ghost write, whose biography would you choose to write and why?
I hate the idea of ghost writing. Each person’s voice is unique. I would much rather teach someone how to find that voice, and trust it – and then hear what they have to say.
10. Where and how do you write best, are there better times of the day, or helpful locations?
I spend a lot of time in coffee shops with a pen and notebook, and the intention to write, but I find other people too fascinating and distracting. I can really only write at my desk, surrounded by photos, and cards from friends, inspiring quotes (see above!) and towering piles of books. The other place is Arvon. I’ve been lucky enough to go on an Arvon course, and it’s exhilarating and inspiring to sit at a desk overlooking a peaceful garden, mug of tea to hand – and nothing to do but write until the next meal!
I used to love working late into the night but reality kicked in with family life, and I tend to keep office hours. If I’ve got a deadline I still might creep back to my desk after dark. While the family sleeps I’ll drink endless cups of tea and stare in panic at the screen, and feel like a student again.