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Talking to Sarah Stovell

Part of Mother’s Day Week on Vulpes: a week of items on the themes of mothers and motherhood

Sarah Stovell‘s debut novel, Mothernight, has just been published by Snowbooks. Eve and Emily were delighted to interview her recently on Skype, and this is a potted version of a great virtual evening, minus the rude bits.

Sarah Stovell: Hi! I’m here. Am I very late? Only just got in.

EG: You are one minute early.

EH: We’ve been killing time.

Sarah Stovell: Phew!

EH: OK, I’ll start. Sarah, can you tell us why you became a writer? What gave you the bug?

Sarah Stovell: Weirdly, I didn’t see it so much as a deliberate choice as just something I had to do. I’ve always written, all my life, and just didn’t stop, although I suppose I had a creative writing pause while I was at university so I could write all those essays instead, but as soon as I graduated, I was back again. I was very lucky, because the first thing I wrote when I decided to take it a bit seriously in my early twenties was shortlisted in a competition, and that validation was all I needed to keep going.

EG: You began Mothernight as part of your MA at Lancaster – did you complete the novel during the course, and how do you think the course contributed to the book Mothernight is today?

Sarah Stovell: I started the MA in September 2004. I spent the whole time between then and September 2005 working on a chunk of messy pages that did eventually become Mothernight. I think MA’s can be very valuable spaces in which to devote time to writing, perhaps especially if you are a poet or short story writer. The trouble with writing longer fiction in that environment is that, at such an early stage of writing process – when even you don’t know what the book is really about – people are reading odd chunks of your work and making suggestions, and it can be hard to decipher which are ‘good’ suggestions and which aren’t. My experience on the MA was fantastic and I would always recommend it, but for me, I only began to really find my way with Mothernight once the course was over and I was working in solitude. Only 6,000 words of the 30,000 I handed in that year are in the finished book. But what I did learn on the MA was how to be my own editor, how to listen to my instincts, how not to write rubbish . . . all of which are invaluable tools when you are just left alone with a laptop.

EH: What inspired Mothernight?

Sarah Stovell: I have always been interested in family relationships, particularly in those families that just seem so dysfunctional you wonder why they haven’t all shot each other. One of my major bugbears in life is the issue of maternal guilt, and how blame is always placed with the mother if their children go off the rails, even if the children are now in their forties. I also think guilt is a part of motherhood in a way that – dare I say it – it isn’t for fathers. So I initially wanted to explore all these issues. Back when I started writing on the MA, the idea of writing a novel was completely daunting, and I had no trust in my own imagination, so I hunted out plots in other places. An obvious place to start was the Bible, and the book I aimed to write – and started writing – was a re-telling of Genesis from the viewpoint of Eve. I felt that – as she is blamed for the imperfection of the whole of mankind because of that bloody apple – it was a classic example of the sort of guilt I’m on about, and yet nowhere in the Bible is her story told, other than as the sinner who succumbed to temptation. So initially, I wanted to tell her story – how this woman felt to have been such a useless specimen that her own son killed his brother. But as I went along, I found more and more Genesis myths, particularly the one of Lilith, where Adam is said to have had a previous who died and who spawned evil children, and so that, in the end was where Leila came in. And maternal guilt was lost along the way somewhere. . . . So I ended up writing a completely different book to the one I set out to write.

EG: The concepts of blame and guilt are the overwhelming messages in Mothernight. While I was reading I wanted to blame anyone but the person I thought might have actually killed the baby. Did you wrestle with who would commit the act itself?

Sarah Stovell: Yes, in the end I made the decision based on what I thought would make the best story. When you’ve grown attached to someone, you refuse to believe that they could do something so dreadful. I wanted to put the reader through that. But I was at pains all the way through to maintain moral ambiguity. I suppose my philosophy in life is simply, ‘Most of us are just well-meaning people doing our well-meaning best, and sometimes, it just goes wrong.’ And that was the message I wanted to put in Mothernight.

EG: Did you feel more emotionally attached to Leila, more than Katherine who lost her baby? And Olivia, who gets tangled up in the whole mess?

Sarah Stovell: Katherine is defined completely by her loss and by what she has left – her surviving children. I can’t imagine how life can be any other way for someone who has suffered such a profound loss. But I suppose, of all the characters, Katherine is the one I had to imagine hardest – she is older than me, a mother, a bereaved mother. So yes, I suppose I was more attached to Leila and Olivia than Katherine, because I have more in common with them.

EH: Did you learn anything about yourself through writing this book?

Sarah Stovell: Only that I never want to stop writing.

EG: Can you tell us a little about how you write? And has your way of writing changed at all now that you’re nearing the completion of your second novel?

Sarah Stovell: I’m not one of those people who do first drafts. I am a dreadful perfectionist. I don’t move on to the next sentence until the one I’m on is perfect. With Mothernight, I wrote until I had the beginnings of a story. Then I went back to the beginning and re-wrote. I kept doing that for a year until I’d written 84 pages about six times. Then it just took off and I wrote the rest in four months. It was a very organic process. I took out main characters and replaced them with others, changed the plot, did all sorts of things as I went along because I was just learning how to tell a story.Now, with my second, I know how to tell a story and I plan far more meticulously. There have still been a couple of surprises along the way, but it has been far less chaotic and taken half the time.I only write in the mornings because that’s when I’m most alert – when my head is clear and the world hasn’t yet invaded. And I can’t be doing with longhand.

EH: Pink laptop, right?

Sarah Stovell: Yes, I love it.

EG: You are writing about a very different time and place in your second novel, but are you dealing with the same gigantic themes of blame and punishment etc?

Sarah Stovell: My second novel is set between 1845 and 1854. The main character is a female slave, taken from Africa when she was twelve and sold to a Missouri farmer. So yes, the time and place are very different, but I am still dealing with the issues of familial loss and also of blame. At the beginning of the novel, my main character is in prison awaiting the death sentence, as she has been convicted of murdering her master. The main issue I’m covering is whether murder can be justified, and who, actually, was the most morally wrong – the slave-owner, the society that sanctioned slavery, or the slave who finally went crazy?

EG: What can you tell us about being published by a hip indie outfit like Snowbooks? Is it nice being part of a small team rather than getting lost in a huge corporation, do you think?

Sarah Stovell: I love being published by Snowbooks. I don’t have anything to compare it to, as I don’t know what it is like to be published by a major publisher, but at Snowbooks one person takes your book and sees it from initial acceptance to life on the bookshelf – they have to love it, as they have to devote nine months of their life to it. They edit, design the cover, market it, get the booksellers fired up about it, etc etc. It’s very, very genuine, which might be something you get less of at a major publisher when the time comes for the sales team to push it top the buyer at Waterstone’s. Also, Snowbooks is very informal and friendly, which suits my personality exactly, and they do mad stuff like email me the cover design for my novel on a Saturday. A Saturday! I’m proud to be a part of Snowbooks. They have been passionate about Mothernight from start to finish and I can’t imagine the book being more effectively sold by a major publisher.

EH: Which book do you wish you had written?

Sarah Stovell: I wish I’d written Wuthering Heights, because it’s about eternal love and about people feeling so passionate about each other that they’ll starve themselves to death and bite the bark off tree trunks.

EG: Apart from Wuthering Heights, what would be your three Desert Island books?

Sarah Stovell: King Lear – one of my all-time favourites. I love tragedy, and I think this is the tragediest of all. In the final scene, where you think it cannot possibly be worse or more heartbreaking, Shakespeare pushes you to your limits and makes it worse, and more heartbreaking. Erm . . . I love that sort of thing. Beloved – This is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read. It’s brilliantly structured – a story told in fragments. You could say, I suppose, that it’s ‘broken’, in the way Morrison’s characters are. I also love the poetry, the stream-of-consciousness. It staggers me every time I read it. Crime and Punishment, because I haven’t read it yet and I feel I really should.

EH: Time to lighten up the proceedings. What’s your favourite flavour of ice-cream?

Sarah Stovell: Coffee.

EG: If you had to give up tea or cheese, which would you choose?

Sarah Stovell: Cheese. No, tea. That’s the hardest question yet. Tea. I think. Cheese.

Mothernight, published by Snowbooks 2008, PB, 300pp, ISBN 978-1905005

13 comments on “Talking to Sarah Stovell

  1. Luisa
    March 5, 2008

    Brilliant interview, Sarah and the two Es! That was fascinating. And I see what you mean about the tough questioning. (Surely it would have to be cheese? Or tea. No, cheese!)


  2. rosyb
    March 5, 2008

    Well as everyone knows, I enjoyed Mothernight immensely. I liked the questions it raised, I liked the fact the characters weren’t a hundred per cent sympathetic, the sense of galloping tension…

    Interesting what you say here about identification with characters as, whilst I liked Leila and Olivia, the one I had the most trouble liking/identifying with/understanding was Katherine – although she should, perhaps, have been the most obviously sympathetic. Perhaps there is something about her obsessive quality and also the corrosive nature of bitterness that made her character less easy to like. This is interesting to me, actually, as sometimes we have our idea of perfect “victims” and when the “victim” doesn’t act in a nice way we can empathise with we often don’t want to know….so that was something I felt the book put its finger on.

    But what I REALLY liked was the moral questions and ambiguities. The idea of something being so enormous can it ever be resolved?…Territory recently covered by Boy A, where you ended up rooting for the character and wanting him to move on, but where it was obvious that he, society and the people around had enormous difficulty ever moving on from such a horrendous event and where you as an audience member find it pretty hard to see how anyone can…

    I wonder, though, how the moral ambiguities Sarah describes will work in the new book, because, in Mothernight ,at the centre was something totally unjustified in a societal sense whereas it would be hard to see a slave finally going crazy and committing a crime are removed from the context of slavery, no? Hence surely not morally equivalent to the owner or condoning society around?…Or am I just lacking imagination here? (Probably I am. I’m sure you’ve thought this through far more subtlely than I am managing to, so I’ll look forward to seeing how you solve this and other questions in the new one.)

    Looking forward to getting my hands on a proper copy of MN now. Hope it does well.

    Anyway I’ll shut up now. Thanks all. 😉

  3. Emily
    March 5, 2008

    Yes, we did talk more about Katherine and sympathy but I felt we were wandering into spoiler territory. Personally, I easily identified with Katherine, and we wondered if this were a mother-thing. But she’s not a straightforward victim, and you are so right, Rosy, about “the idea of something being so enormous it can never be resolved”, which worked so well inside this very ‘neat’ book, which is so carefully contained but asks such big questions.

    Gawd, read it, everyone 🙂

  4. rosyb
    March 5, 2008

    I’m worried I’ve wandered into spoiler territory now. Tell me if I have and I’ll remove any offending comments.

    Just thinking on the “mother” theme, I was wondering if mother love CAN be quite alienating in books. I remember a discussion on WW ages ago about how rarely such love is really depicted or explored in comparison to romantic love, and yet how it is often more consuming and overwhelming (according to a lot of the people discussing it at the time.) But perhaps romantic love can become a blue-print understood by everyone whereas the obsessional nature of mother love is harder to totally understand unless you are a mother. Maybe? Or maybe it is too specific whereas romantic love can stand in for pretty well anything. Of course, I think everyone can feel the protectiveness and the enormity of losing a child – even if they can never know the true extent through personal experience – which is why the papers always focus on this area so much. Err. I’m waffling unhelpfully now.

  5. Emily
    March 5, 2008

    I think you make a lot of sense there, Rosy. Of course, the author of Mothernight isn’t a mother, so yes of course you’re right that these feelings are not exclusive.

  6. Charlieduck
    March 5, 2008

    Great interview girls!

    How do we get to read the rude bits? 😉

  7. Anne Brooke
    March 5, 2008

    Great stuff! And well done to Sarah of course!



  8. Jackie
    March 5, 2008

    This was an intriguing interview, I liked the exploration of the Big Topics in both her books and the conversation. Ms. Stovell is brave to tackle such ambiguous, ethical issues. As always, I enjoyed hearing about the actual creative process, I had no idea laptops came in pink! Loved the “Wuthering Heights” comments. lol Good job, everyone!

  9. Eve Harvey
    March 6, 2008

    We did have a long discussion about the ‘mother love’ theme but it was too much of a spoiler to include, I’m afraid.

    Just picking up on your point Rosy. I too identified most with Katherine and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m a mother. I don’t find mother love at all alienating in books, in fact I find it quite cathartic. To be able to read about Katherine’s experience and think ‘yes, I would feel that way too’. I would be bitter and I would be hurtful and I would want to protect my children above everything else in the world. And I wouldn’t care how much it hurt anyone outside that circle.

    I would say though that romantic love can be equally as obsessive and sometimes more so than mother love – for instance the bunny boiler of Fatal Attraction, it would be a rare thing for a mother to hurt a child like that in the name of love. But I believe the mother love obsessiveness comes from a deep, almost primeval need to protect and to do so at all costs. And I think that’s why I saw Katherine as the character I most identified with because I saw the same obsession in myself.

    Anyway, waffling too…

    The rude bits will never see the light of day (I hope!!!!) and it’s cheese for me, undoubtedly. Couldn’t give up tea for all the tea in China 🙂

  10. ariadne
    March 6, 2008

    Someone stole my proof copy so I never got to finish reading it 😦 I will have to buy a proper copy when I get back to Brussels.

  11. litlove
    March 6, 2008

    What a fantastic interview! I’d really like to read this novel and must get hold of it.

  12. Leena
    March 14, 2008

    Great interview – thank you, Sarah, Eve, and Emily!

    Don’t forget to read Rosy’s review of Mothernight here:

    And another review here:

  13. Pingback: Mothernight, Sarah Stovell « Jenny's Books

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