Sara Sheridan Novelist, in Conversation

If you love a good yarn the chances are you’ve already come across the novelist Sara Sheridan. You may already have read about her in my Inspirational Women section too (if you missed that you can catch it here)

She has a new book out which is a great excuse to have another conversation.

Jane: Sara, since we last spoke you have brought out another really successful book with Brighton Belle featuring the feisty Mirabelle. (I really love her by the way) which prompted me to ask you a few more questions, if you don’t mind?

In your previous books there have been strong women but also very strong male leads (and we’ve had fun discussing who might play them in the film versions-my money is still on David Tennant) but this time your two main characters are female. Is that just how the story unfolded in your head or did you make a conscious decision to introduce some strong women?
: I love strong female characters. Mary Penney in The Secret Mandarin is formidable, really (she’s effectively the protagonist of the novel) and I think the minor character in Secret of the Sands, Farida, is also a toughie! So I’d written strong female parts before, but Brighton Belle started with a story my father told me. He’d been down in Brighton visiting his grandmother in the summer when he was a kid (in the 1950s) and he saw a woman on a beach. She was well-dressed, clearly had money, but she was dodging the deck chair attendant trying not to pay for her seat. He said he always wondered why she did that – I wondered too. So I started to write. That’s where it came from. As I went on, I realised one of the strong interests for me in the period was the women – for a whole host of reasons.

It’s strange, though, I bet not one single interviewer has ever asked Ian Rankin for example or Will Self or any male novelist, why they’re so focussed on male characters. That’s the interesting thing…

Jane: Absolutely true! The period of time you have chosen (post 2nd World War) was an interesting time for women, though, as they’d had a taste of freedom in the war only to be reigned in again to leave room for the returning men. In your research for this period (and I know you are meticulous) did you come across any interesting stories?
Sara: There was a wealth of material but what came over to me most of all was how damaged everyone was. The war had been very difficult and people were facing not only financial and practical difficulties (there was a huge homeless population after the Blitz). People were hungry – rationing was still in place – but the big thing they had to live through was this absolutely devastated emotional landscape. Almost everyone had been bereaved of someone they loved. People were jumpy.

I watched amazing video footage of the women who had operated the morse machines in the War Rooms. They were interviewed much later, when they were very old, and said they still got upset if they heard morse code. It was a conditioned response. Some people were ashamed of what they’d done (the war wasn’t won by good guys who behaved always like good guys – and that goes for the women too).

And then there were the secrets. The 1950s just drips with intrigue. People really took seriously the Loose Lips Sinks Ships philosophy of the war. Many had signed the Official Secrets Act and couldn’t speak about what they had done and many more simply didn’t want to. On top of that there were personal secrets – and those resided often with the women. Hushed up affairs. Babies fathered by men who weren’t the woman’s husband. It was an extraordinary emotional landscape. That really attracted me.

Jane: Mirabelle and Vesta are both interesting female leads with a strong hinterland. I was particularly struck by the almost naive racism you describe with people in the cinema queue surreptitiously touching Vesta’s black skin. It reminded me forcibly of an aunt of mine, herself black, who told me how people used to touch her skin to see if the colour came off, and stared at her all the time, not in a friendly way. Did you find many such accounts?
Sara: Yes. The racism and the sexism of the period was breathtaking by modern standards. I wanted to write about that. I wanted to show in part how far we’d come. I said to my mother, ‘Did Dad used to talk to you that way – like these men in the old film reels talk about women?’ ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘it took me till 1972 to train him out of it!’ It was normal.

There is an assumption that a cosy crime is, well, a bit lame. That because the violence isn’t graphic that nothing much happens. But I dispute that. If you look at Agatha Christie for example she covered topics that were very taboo in her day. She has lesbian characters. She has divorces (which to us is commonplace but in the 1930s/40s/50s when she was writing were considered shameful). That stuff just washes off us now, of course but the atmosphere of the time – the landscape of it – is shocking and utterly riveting. So yes, I found lots of accounts that were both racist and sexist. I didn’t pull my punches – I put them in.

The next book in the series is set in seedy jazz clubs in Soho in 1952 – so there’ll be plenty more. You can imagine the trouble Mirabelle and Vesta (in particular) are going to get into there…

Jane: What do you think makes for a really good female character in a novel?
Sara: To be honest, Jane, the same as makes for a good male character. For me any character has to work well within the plot. They’ve got to become alive in the reader’s mind. It’s a strange thing that people pick up a novel (which they know isn’t true) and then want to believe it. I recognise that feeling – I love it actually. That trip into another world – all good characters take you there.

Jane: In terms of writers, who else do you admire for their written creations of strong role model type women?
Sara: The mainstay has to be Agatha Christie of course! Her Miss Marple is just legendary. But there are also lots of contemporary chicklit writers who I think create strong and interesting female leads. Marian Keyes springs to mind. I also think it’s something US writers are very good at. TC Boyle is my personal hero for that – great characters! And some historical writers (like me) really focus on that – Philippa Gregory is a good example.

Jane: And finally, I think ‘they’d’ be mad not to turn Brighton Belle in a TV series or film. Who would you love to see playing Mirabelle?
: I’ve always thought Hermione Norris would be great! She’s slim enough – Mirabelle is off her food – and has the right air of elegance and reserve. She’d have to dye her hair though! Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Thanks for chatting to me – I LOVE talking about books (especially mine!)

Jane: It was lovely to talk with you, as it always is. Yes, Hermione would be a brilliant choice! Good luck with the book, Sara, it’s a really good read and kept me captivated to the end. 

You can check out Sara’s latest creation here on Amazon books or get a copy from any good bookseller.

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Posted on September 28th, 2012 by

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