Inspirational Women Writer – Sarah Haywood

Writer, Sarah Haywood

Sarah Haywood was one of the authors we read in our Women Writers’ Book Club and her book was (unusually for us) enjoyed and admired by the entire group. I am so pleased she made time in her busy schedule for this interview.

Jane: Sarah, you are now a full-time author earning great acclaim. I’d like to talk about your excellent debut novel The Cactus later. First though, can you share with us what your career aspirations were as a young girl? Did you in any respect envision the life you now have?
Sarah: When I was a girl, I did actually dream of being a published author. I was drawn to novels where the main protagonist aspired to be – or became – a writer, such as Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. When I was nine or ten, I set up a writers’ group with my sister and best friend. We’d take turns to write a short story and then discuss it over orange squash and Rich Tea biscuits. I still have some of the stories I wrote for that group. As I got older, reality kicked in and I came to the conclusion that mine was a dream that was unlikely to be fulfilled. My career aspirations became more pragmatic.

Was English Lit a favourite topic at school? Was there someone at that period of your life who had a particular influence on you?
I loved both English Language and Literature at school, and always read avidly. I was lucky to have a wonderful, inspirational English teacher, Mrs Conder, as well as a science teacher who recommended novels to me. When it came to choosing A’ levels, though, I plumped for Maths, Physics and Chemistry. In my Birmingham comprehensive school in the eighties, it was generally the case that girls chose to study the arts and boys the sciences. I’d just read The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer and was determined to thwart expectations. In fact, I was the only girl in a class of twenty-one children studying A’ level Maths. (Strangely, I was also the only child in the class who wasn’t given a textbook, as the school was one copy short!). My ambition at that stage was to become an astrophysicist, but after gaining a place to study Physics at university, I had a last-minute crisis of confidence and swapped to Law.

What was your career path before becoming a published author?
After University, I worked as a solicitor for a few years before deciding it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like the highly profit-oriented environment and the confrontational nature of the work in which I was engaged. After a year working in a Citizens Advice Bureau, I moved to the Legal Services Ombudsman’s office, where I investigated complaints about solicitors and barristers.

At the time you were involved with the law it was pretty much a male enclave (I am optimistically hoping it has changed…). Did you experience any discrimination?
Yes, the legal world was certainly male dominated when I started. That’s changing now, although those changes are still working their way through to the highest levels of the profession. There were many occasions when I was made to feel uncomfortable as a young female trainee solicitor working in a male environment. For example, I was asked by a senior partner to fetch something from a specific drawer in his desk. When I opened it, it was full of ‘top shelf’ magazines.

I also encountered several solicitors who viewed female trainees as little more than support staff. I was asked to run errands – even on one occasion being required to pick up a piece of jewellery from Cartier for someone’s girlfriend. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t make an official complaint about my treatment; I was young and naïve and didn’t want to jeopardise my career. Instead, I changed jobs. Fortunately, I found both the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Legal Services Ombudsman’s office to be very egalitarian places to work. Indeed, two of the three Ombudsmen for whom I worked were female. I still find the legal world fascinating, and the law often creeps into my writing. In fact, The Cactus centres on a dispute about a will.

How did you end up as a writer?
I took a career break when I had my sons. At the time, I lived in Liverpool but worked in Manchester. Such a lengthy daily commute wouldn’t have fitted well with looking after two very young children. When it came time to return to paid work, I decided that, if I really wanted to follow my childhood dream of becoming a writer, I should give it one serious shot before I became tied up with my career once again.

Other than journals and the odd short story, though, I hadn’t written ‘creatively’ for many years and lacked confidence in my abilities. I decided to enrol on an Open University creative writing course, which was a module in an English degree. I relished the assignments and found that other people enjoyed reading what I’d written. It was my Open University tutor who suggested that I apply for an MA in Creative Writing. At the time, Manchester Metropolitan University’s Creative Writing MA course required the completion of a full-length novel. I decided that that would be ideal for me, as, not only would it give me a deadline for which to aim, but I’d also be surrounded by fellow aspiring writers with whom I could share the ups and downs of the creative process. The Cactus was the result.

When we spoke, you mentioned you had a two-book deal. How different is it writing your second novel?
I’m finding writing the second novel tougher. When I was working on The Cactus, I had no realistic expectation that it would be published. I was writing what I wanted to write – what I thought was a good story –  without thinking too hard about how other people would respond to it. With a second novel, it’s hard not to keep asking yourself questions such as ‘What was it that people enjoyed about my first novel?’ and ‘What will readers be expecting from my second?’. It can sometimes feel as though there’s someone looking over your shoulder as you write, which tends to fetter creativity. I try very hard to banish such thoughts from my head.

The Cactus came out to great acclaim; we read it as part of our Women’s Writer’s Book Club. Possibly more influential than that was Reese Witherspoon’s endorsement. She loved it as you can see below.


June ’19 “The Cactus” by Sarah Haywood
“This title is a perfect metaphor for Susan who is a single, regimented woman faced with an unexpected pregnancy just as she navigates a difficult family inheritance issue at the same time. I found myself laughing out loud at Susan’s prickly character as she finds herself in a love triangle, navigating family ties and dealing with 9 months of pregnancy at the age of 45. Hope y’all love Susan as much as I do!”


I also loved The Cactus, as did many others. Casting aside modesty, please do share with us the awards and accolades you have garnered for The Cactus. It has been a huge success. What has life been like since its publication?
Thank you! The Cactus was chosen by WHSmith for their ‘Fresh Talent’ campaign and was subsequently selected by Richard and Judy for their Book Club. It’s also been shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. Being chosen by Reese Witherspoon for her Hello Sunshine Book Club was a huge honour. Reese and her team do wonderful work promoting women writers and sharing women’s stories, both in print and on screen. I was invited out to Los Angeles to meet the Hello Sunshine team and film an interview at the YouTube studios. It was incredibly surreal, and not something I ever imagined doing when I sat down at my laptop to start writing The Cactus. Life since publication has been a very odd mixture of the high excitement of positive reviews, news and accolades, with the mundane day-to-day work of labouring away at the keyboard.

Do you have any writing rituals, or can you settle to write anywhere?
I don’t like noise and hubbub when I’m writing, but neither do I like complete silence. For that reason, I often write in the library of my local university, which is only a ten-minute walk from where I live. There’s a beautiful ‘silent area’ overlooking a grassy courtyard, where you can hear the distant hum of voices from other parts of the library. When I started writing The Cactus, I had a tiny desk in the corner of the sitting room. I quickly realised that that wasn’t conducive to concentrated work, especially when my two boys were home from school, so I converted the spare bedroom into a study. Unlike some writers, I don’t listen to music when I’m working as I find my mood, and the tone of my writing, are easily influenced. I therefore use an app that plays muted coffee shop sounds to provide the aural ‘buzz’ that I need.

How much of a role has social media played? Do you think aspiring writers always need to cultivate a platform on social media?
Before my book was accepted by a publisher, I had no social media involvement, apart from a low-key personal Facebook page and an unused Twitter account. In the run-up to publication, I set up a professional Facebook page, an Instagram account, a website (now horribly out-of-date) and started using Twitter. Of these platforms, my favourite is Instagram. I love being tagged in posts about The Cactus, seeing where people are reading it and hearing their thoughts. My experience is that Instagram is a very friendly place for writers. I must admit, I’m not very proactive (read: lazy) about social media. I’m bad at remembering to ‘hash-tag’ my posts and do very little to increase my number of followers, so I’m not sure I’ve sold many – or indeed any – books as a result of my social media activity. I know it can be a very useful publicity tool for writers, though, if done properly.

What’s the worst question you get asked? (Fingers firmly crossed that I haven’t asked it!)
Ha ha, your questions have all been great, Jane! Fortunately, I’m rarely asked questions that I feel uncomfortable answering. I do, though, tend to dodge any that seek to dig deep down into the details of my work-in-progress (about which I don’t like to share too much too early) or that feel intrusive into the business side of being a writer.

Who has been the most influence on the development of your writing career? And who is the person that picks you up when you need a lift?
There are so many people who have helped me to gain in confidence about my writing and to shape my career, from tutors and fellow students on my creative writing courses to my agent and editors at the various publishers. The person who picks me up when I need a lift is my great friend Beth, whom I’ve known since our oldest children were new-borns. She’s working on her PhD at the moment, and we often write and study alongside each other.

Who is your favourite writer? Which book would you most like to have written?
I have a great long list of favourite writers and find it impossible to choose one. Of contemporary writers, my current favourite is Sally Rooney. If I’d written Conversations With Friends, I’d feel that my work was pretty much done. I reread Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier on holiday this year and would be rather delighted with myself if I’d written that too.

What is your favourite way to unwind?
Reading, of course!

Do you have a favourite quotation or saying that motivates you, that you’re happy to share?
There’s a saying that Hello Sunshine shared on their Instagram page recently, which I find empowering in situations where I’m feeling anxious: ‘Imagine your best self. Show up as her.’

Sarah, thank you. And wishing you huge success with that second novel. I for one can’t wait to read it.

If you’d like to see more about Sarah’s novel here is a link to her page on Amazon.


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Posted on September 5th, 2019 by

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