Inspirational Woman, Witch or Bitch? Sara Sheridan

I first met Sara via Twitter what seems like ages ago. In fact it was in 2011 and I interviewed her when she had just had her 8th book published. Her writing canon has grown in leaps and bounds since then and she has now published 14 books, both fiction and fact with more on the way.

However, I got ‘scent’ (sorry) of a new, exciting venture for Sara which gave me the excuse to get back in touch. She’s branched out into the world of perfumes. But being Sara she is not taking the usual route.

More of that anon. First, I want to find out what Sara has been doing with her writing.

Jane: So, Sara, what have you been up to this year?
Sara: Well, it’s been an incredible 12 months. I have already written two books so far as well as two short stories, and another in the Mirabelle Bevan series. I really seem to have hit my rhythm with writing and am enjoying it immensely.

That is impressive. Why do you think that is?
It’s like I’m addicted to writing. I don’t want to stop. I think it’s because I’m not writing the same type of thing all the time. I have diversified and have also written a factual book. For me, if like some writers, I was being continually commissioned to write the same sort of thing, I think it would become less fun. I have just been commissioned to write another Mirabelle but it’s all the more enjoyable because of the other work I have been doing. In fact, going back to Mirabelle was like cycling downhill!

What are some of these other writing projects?
Have you seen Victoria on ITV? (Me, Yes, I love it!) I was asked by Harper Collins if I would write a background book to accompany it. To air some of the real history as well as a behind the scenes look. I was thrilled. The only drawback was the 5 week deadline – I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I’d read this article about gender differences in taking on jobs – men think ‘I can do 70% of this, I’ll go for it’ and women think ‘I can’t do 100% of this – I can’t go for it’. So I decided I had to ‘think bloke’ and say yes, whatever my misgivings. In the end I submitted my copy within two days of the deadline! It was a lot of hard work but the finished book is great. It is full of beautiful illustrations and I am so proud of it.

Victoria is very popular in the US so it will be published there, too. Mirabelle was also launched in America 2 years ago. One of the things I love about Americans is that they like to engage with you as a writer.

Onto the perfume. This is a whole new venture for you, and not one you normally associate with writers. How did it come about?
Well, initially it was the 2014 referendum in Scotland! I was part of the yes campaign, and I got very involved. I suppose, it helped me to ‘find my voice’. Before getting involved with the campaign I had tended to play safe and always used my characters to speak for me. That meant I could always say ‘Oh that wasn’t me, it was a character in the book’. I was asked to do a lot of radio and TV work during the referendum and it really allowed me to grow.

I have always felt that women are not memorialised properly. For example, in the UK 85% of our statues are of men and the 15% that are of women are not always of true life women anyway. Queen Victoria had a penchant for them so many of them are of her. I really wanted to see more women commemorated for their achievements but I wasn’t sure statues were the best way. How many times do you pass a statue without knowing who it is?

I’d also found some papers in the Scottish National Archive about a woman called Maria Graham. She was born in 1785 and was one of the reading travel writers of the 19th century. She figured out a groundbreaking formula to calculate the force of earthquakes but being a woman, her research was not fully acknowledged by the Royal Geological Society, although she was championed by Charles Darwin. She was an important person but you can’t find much about her. So I wrote On Starlit Seas, a dramatised account of her story. It’s just been shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing prize.

And all of this coalesced into your idea for a new perfume range?
Yes, along with seeing barely any women acknowledged for their considerable accomplishments, I was also fed up of being sold beauty products through the medium of tiny blondes (not that there is anything wrong with slim, blonde women, but there are lots of us who aren’t – whose physical looks are never represented within the industry). I am so interested in the idea of artefacts, of what we leave behind. So I thought about what was most experiential, what was really female and what could we leave behind – an object. And it was perfume. One sniff of a smell from your childhood and it takes you right back – so why not use that to commemorate women? Now when I wear the scent it’s like a secret form of rebellion.

So just how do you start up a new perfume range?
I had an idea of what I wanted and I got in touch with independent, award-winning perfumer, Sarah McCartney and we discussed making something that really linked women to their history. My first thought was to celebrate some of the Jacobite women. I’d heard their stories – both at home and also reading historian, Maggie Craig’s book Damn Rebel Bitches about them. My favourite is definitely Lady Nithsdale. She broke her husband out of the Tower of London by dressing him in drag. Quite a woman. These firebrands were called “Thoset damn rebel bitches” by the Duke of Cumberland. Which made me think about the paucity of words for women, unless they are meant to be derogatory, like bitch. So I thought, I’ll take that name back. I’ll own that insult. And so Damn Rebel Bitches eau de parfum was born.

I funded the project myself which has been a huge responsibility but to go with the perfume, which is made from ingredients the Jacobite women would have recognised, l also wanted to use the opportunity to challenge the beauty industry. I put together a feminist team – art director, photographer and make up artist. Not one of the models on our website has been airbrushed. They range in age from 79 to 18. The only images that get a bit of photoshopping are the perfume bottles! I want to reclaim the language around women and show that it’s possible to have beautiful images of ordinary women – some of them models, others activists, creatives.

We had a pop up at the Edinburgh Festival last year and women just loved it. We thought we had produced enough to last until Christmas but we were virtually sold out by the end of August.

This year we made a sister scent for the Bitches – Damn Rebel Witches. It’s darker!

I’m not surprised you sold out. The scents are gorgeous. I think I am a witch, although I do like the idea of being a bitch. They are both gorgeous, too hard to choose. So, what’s next, Sara? I know you well enough now to know you will have the plans afoot.
Thank you. I wear them together sometimes! Well, there’s lots going on. We have a blog on the site which is not just about perfume but features posts from a range of people, men as well as women (Me: my favourite is the article called ‘Period Poverty’. It’s probably the only time you will see perfume bottles adorned with tampons. An excellent juxtaposition). I’ve more books commissioned too. Eyes down, specs on – best get on with it!

I’ve already spoken to quite a few women about your perfume range and they absolutely love the idea. I will definitely be buying some for Christmas gifts! And maybe one of your novels to accompany the perfume…? Thank you, Sara, for talking with us. I wish you huge success with the new venture, it’s a truly original idea.

PS Photo is of Sara who sent this note with it. “Is this too cheeky a pic of me? We practice what we preach here – if we are asking models to do implied nudity we have to get our kit off too.” Answer, No, a perfect picture!

You can find out more about Sara’s books here, (and see her face). The perfume web pages, Reek.com are here. Do sign up for their blog, it’s excellent!

I am personally running two courses for women in Bristol this Autumn, Speak Up and RenewYou.

Check out which one is best for you!

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Posted on September 4th, 2017 by

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