Sarah Franklin’s debut novel, Shelter, was published in 2017. Her latest novel, How to Belong, is published by Zaffre on 12 November 2020.
Sarah kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about How to Belong.
How to Belong is about two very different women, Jo and Tessa, who meet when they both move back to their small home town in the Forest of Dean. Jo’s a young lawyer who returns to run her family’s flagging butcher shop, and Tessa’s a farrier in her forties who self-sabotages a chance at happiness due to a secret she carries with her. The book’s about what happens to each of them because of their reluctant friendship, and how even a small community can look radically different depending on your starting point. And it’s about what it might take to feel that you belong, even in a life you’ve chosen.
2. What inspired the book?
Years ago I read a memoir by Margaret Forster in which she talked about buying a house with a sitting tenant and the issues that this raised. It got me thinking about how life might be if you lived with someone you didn’t mean to and whose own method of going about their lives might strongly impact your own. I’d always liked the idea of writing about a squeamish butcher because I think there’s a danger of romanticising the realities of manual labour.
I’m intrigued by what happens when people move back to where they started from, especially if they’d originally felt that in order to become themselves, they needed to leave home.
And I’m always very keen to write about the realities of rural life, which often gets represented as pastoral bliss when the truth is much more mundane and ordinary, but no less rewarding. I think that perhaps the media image of the countryside as somehow idyllic can lead people to move there when it really might not be the best thing for them.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?
A bit of both! I’ve never known the ending of a novel before I’ve started writing it, and I think it must be blissful to have that whole plan sorted out. But in my other life I’m an academic, and the habit of research definitely carries over into book planning. I read as much as I can find about the subject/s I’m going to write about, including newspaper archives where relevant. I’m also a huge believer in primary research and talk to as many people as I can. For this novel, I spent a day out with our local farrier and a morning in a butcher’s shop learning how to make sausages, which was brilliant fun.
Then at some point I start to write. That’s when I realise that actually, the story isn’t over here where I thought it was; it’s over there. For me at least, it takes a minimum of one draft to find the thing I’m writing about, despite all that research, and many, many more until I’m expressing things even close to the way I hope to.
4. Having been through the publishing process a couple of times, is there anything about the process of creating a novel that still surprised you?
The thing that surprised me perhaps the most, and still completely delighted me this time around, is just how collaborative it can be to write a novel. I have a close writer friend with whom I always swap material, and our conversations around our nascent work can be some of the most useful and helpful that I have. It’s like having a (much more incisive) brain outside my own head. I also love chatting with my brilliant agent and editors about the novel too – it’s so interesting to me how you can think you’ve got as far as you can go, and someone else’s insight can take you even further. It’s as if you think you’re going in a straight line and then they push you round the corner and suddenly you think, ‘Oh! THIS is where I wanted to go all along.’
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
When I’m not writing I’m often at my other day job, teaching at Oxford Brookes University with the fabulous team and students in the Oxford International Centre for Publishing.
But when I’m not there, I’m lucky enough to live very close to a woodland that’s big enough to get lost in. I know some people need the vast vista of the sea to relax, but I grew up in a forest and it’s still the landscape where I feel most like me. I try and get out into the woods a few times a week, either running or walking. I’ve got two teenage sons and they’re a fabulous distraction – sometimes I drag them out with me, and if not, we’ve been playing a lot of family games this year especially.
Since 2012 I’ve been running and hosting a monthly literary night, Short Stories Aloud, in Blackwell’s in Oxford. Professional actors read stories by published authors, then there’s a Q&A which can end up going in all sorts of odd directions. It’s a hugely fun night – there’s something so soothing about being in a bookshop after hours whilst people read you a story. We have cake and wine and the evening has inspired some amazing revelations from authors as well as countless friendships amongst the regular audience members, and even a couple of marriages! I’m really hoping we can get back to this next year.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
Oh blimey, this is going to be way harder than the other questions! The book that came first to mind is William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, which I read probably at least twice a year. Finnegan’s a New Yorker writer and an absolute surfing obsessive, and this is his Pullitzer-Prize-winning memoir of a life spent combining surfing with the rest of his life. It’s part unwitting how-to and part adventure story – Finnegan travelled the world in search of perfect and untouched waves and his accounts of seeking out secret hand-drawn maps to find remote islands are properly gripping. I have no clue about surfing but that’s absolutely beside the point – reading about someone in the grips of an obsession is always hugely compelling to me.
What I love most about this book, though, is that it shows the importance of holding on to the passion that sits at the core of what it means to be yourself, and of still making a success of your life in other ways.
Plus, as you’d expect from someone who writes for the New Yorker, the prose is gorgeous. There’s so much to take from this book that I think it would keep me going forever.
But equally: when my kids were 6 and 8, they made me a book for Christmas because they knew that would be what I would like. One son wrote, one illustrated, and my husband edited. If I could only keep one book with me forever, obviously it’d have to be that one.
7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
Years ago when I worked in marketing/PR within publishing, I used to ask prospective authors what had motivated them to write their book. It was my way of understanding how they would feel that the publication had been a ‘success’. Success looks so different to different people that it’s a hard thing to assume. Of all the questions we asked authors, the answers to this one were always my favourite. So I think I should ask myself what motivates me to write, and it’s this:
I grew up in the Forest of Dean, which is a tiny, rural place that many people can’t put on a map. I haven’t lived there for a long time, but I still have family and friends there and go down very regularly.
It’s genuinely one of the most beautiful parts of England – tiny brooks wind in and out of old-growth woodland, and from the peaks of the hills you can see the forest spreading out around the River Wye as peregrine falcons swoop and dive. And the people are just amazing – warm and friendly, and tight-knit in that way that happens when your physical boundaries are drawn by the landscape you live around.
But growing up, there were very few books that seemed to capture country life. As a kid, I devoured pony novels for their descriptions of woods and fields as much as for the ponies. So when I started writing, I really wanted to make sure that I captured everyday life in the countryside, which can be complex and nuanced beyond the amazing views.
I had a fabulous experience growing up there, but the Forest of Dean is one of the most socially deprived corners of the country and it took me a really long time to have the faith to write because it absolutely wasn’t something that people like me did. So in a way, I’m writing for the kid I was, and in the hope that if even one kid there (or in another rural community) realises that writers come from anywhere, then that’s a good thing.
About the Book
Jo grew up in the Forest of Dean, but she was always the one destined to leave for a bigger, brighter future. When her parents retire from their butcher’s shop, she returns to her beloved community to save the family legacy, hoping also to save herself. But things are more complex than the rose-tinted version of life which sustained Jo from afar.
Tessa is a farrier, shoeing horses two miles and half a generation away from Jo, further into the forest. Tessa’s experience of the community couldn’t be more different. Now she too has returned, in flight from a life she could have led, nursing a secret and a past filled with guilt and shame.
Compelled through circumstance to live together, these two women will be forced to confront their sense of identity, and reconsider the meaning of home.