I'd like to welcome you to my interview with writer, Sarah Passingham. Enjoy.
Hello Sarah, can you please introduce yourself?
I'm Sarah Passingham, based in a small village on the Norfolk Broads south of Norwich.
Ah, a lovely part of the world. How long have you been writing?
I've written almost as long as I could read. I recently found a 'book' I had made when I was seven or eight. But, for publication, for about 25 years.
What first got you interested in writing?
I was lucky in that I was brought up in a house full of books. My father read all the time and he was also a spellbinding story-teller. But my O Level English teacher was the first person to really encourage me - Mrs Gool was part-Indian, impossiby exotic in our wind-swept, coastal boarding school, and spoke in perfect RP English always with a laugh in her voice. I think a bit of me wanted to be her!
Do you attend a writing group?
I belong to a very small weekly writing group (we were five, but have recently been reduced to three) and have met for years to encourage and critique each others' work.
We don't read in advance, instead we read bits out to each other and then discuss it. The reading aloud is as valuable as the feedback. And, of course we always have tea and cake!
I also run the Norwich Arts Centre Book Club - a reading group.
What genre(s) do you write?
I'm a bit of a Jill-of-all-Trades and have worked as a freelance journalist and librettist, as well as a creative writer in the accepted sense. I guess you'd call me a memoirist and literary writer. And I love writing about food. Recently I have been writing more poetry, but I don't write crime, science fiction, fantasy or for children - although I rule nothing out for the future!
Are there any genres that you don't enjoy writing?
Horror and war. It really isn't my bag, and I never read it.
I'm pretty much the same, although I'd quite like to try horror. However, I'd probably scare myself too much! What types of things do you write (poetry, short stories, articles, travel writing, song lyrics etc.)?
Yes, all those (actually, not travel writing), but I've spent the past five years working on a memoir about living with the fall-out of my father's polio, so that has ruled out almost everything else recently, apart from poetry - mostly prose poetry, and short stories. I like to write for performance, and plan to do more of this soon.
Have you ever had anything published? If yes, what and where? If no, would you like to be published?
In the 1990s I published three books on fundraising and event management. Then I moved into creative writing. Since 2000, I've been published by The London Magazine, Stand, Brittle Star, and broadcast by the BBC, as well as my work being recorded and performed.
Have you sent your writing to agents/publishers? Have you received any rejections?
Have I ever been rejected! I don't think a writer alive, who writes for public consumption has not been rejected. I have a drawer full of rejection letters. Some are very helpful, some just, Thanks, but no thanks.
The hardest to take of all my rejections came after a fantastic success: my latest book won me an agent, but when it was finished, she decided (after vacillating for fourteen months!) that it wasn't structured quite right.
Would you consider self-publishing/e-publishing? Why/why not? Are you interested in eBooks, or do you prefer the old fashioned paper-made books?
Yes, I think it definitely has its place. I don't own an eBook reader ...yet! But I'm sure I shall soon. If I made a habit of travelling, I would have one tomorrow.
But I love, love, love paper books that you can hold and riffle through and keep. I love the different sizes, shapes, weights and quality. They give you a clue to what you are about to read, or how you should approach them before you even open the covers. An eBook can't do that yet.
Who/what influences your writing? Where do you get your inspiration from?
I am constantly being inspired by my surroundings, by other writers, as well as the radio. When I'm not writing, which I have to do in complete silence, I am always listening to Radio 4.
I find Barbara Kingsolver's precision with language inspirational, but recently it has been Mark Cocker's spare and exact description of his observations, that have really influenced my writing.
How do you come up with your characters’ names and personalities?
Names have come from graveyards, local people's name badges, and I convert place names to family names. Somehow they always feel right for a particular locality. Personalities evolve through their actions. Or maybe it's vice-versa, I'm not sure!
Graveyards! That's a brilliant idea. I might have to take a trip up to the church later. What is your writing routine? Do you write daily or just when you feel like it? Is there a certain time of day where you are at your most creative?
When I'm working on a project, I go out to my 'writing room' - essentially a shed in the garden, start about 10.00 and write until about 12.45. After a bite to eat, I'll read what I've written, perhaps edit or, if I'm on a roll, just continue until, 4 or 5.00. My husband is retired, so he might bring me tea, but I quite like running back to the house for refreshments. It makes me stop every couple of hours, and rest my eyes. A couple of years ago, I got eye strain, which was very painful and it took a long time to recover. I'm more careful to look away from my screen regularly now.
I intersperse these intense work days with walks with friends to get some exercise and get some distance from what I'm writing.
I hope you've got a heater in your writing shed, especially with the snow we've been having recently. Do you start out with a complete idea for your stories, or do you just start writing and hope for the best?
I rarely start with a complete idea, but I sort of know where I'm going, even if it is a theme I'm exploring, or a finishing up point that I want to get to. I once dreamed a whole short story and had to leap out of bed to get it down! I sleep very badly as I always have ideas whirling around and can't rest unless I get them down, so I keep a pad and pen bedside my bed.
Do you have an editing process? Do you have someone else read over your work? Do you read your work aloud to yourself in front of the mirror?
Oo, reading in front of a mirror, what an interesting idea! Who does that? No, that's not something I've tried, but I always read dialogue out loud - often as I'm writing it. Libretti texts are interesting and I sometimes sing a line, even though the composer hasn't written the music, to make sure I'm not tying the singer's tongue in knots. It's also important not to start too many lines with 'popping' sounds or sibilants, which can make a piece sound ragged, as well as being devilishly difficult to sing.
And, of course, I share my work aloud with my writing group members.The later becomes part of the editing process, which might run to four or five drafts. Or even more.
What do you enjoy the most/least about writing?
I love the feeling of accomplishment when it's done, and seeing people's faces when they recognise something in their own experience from my reading. I hate how down I get when it isn't going easily.
How important is it for you to share your writing?
Hugely important. Almost all my work is for public consumption. If you want to be published, you have to be willing to get it out there and cope with criticism as well as any praise that may come your way.
Have you ever entered any writing competitions? Have you ever won?
Yes, several. I won the Julia Fitzgerald award for short fiction in 1996 - although it doesn't exist anymore! I've been runner-up and commended in a number of prizes, but never actually cracked the top point again. It does help if you regularly submit pieces, and I've sort of got out of the habit.
Have you ever attended an open mic event for spoken word performers?
Yes. It's a good place to try out new work.
What advice could you give to a new writer?
Attend all the 'writerly' things you can locally and get a feel for the way other writers approach their work. Encouragement is out there, and we all need it.
Read, read, read. And when you're done reading, read some more. There is nothing like being taught by those you admire.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given with regards to writing?
Robin Hemley told me to believe in myself, then convince others. I've taken that to mean: If you don't believe in yourself, you won't convince others.
Apart from writing, what are your other hobbies/interests?
Living in the heart of the watery Norfolk landscape is as much a hobby as a lifestyle. I run cross-country three times a week. I walk with friends by the rivers as much as I can. I garden and observe the wildlife. I love film and reading, both of which I share with my younger daughter, who is at university studying English and film to my great delight. I used to be a sporty tennis player, but that has fallen by the wayside. I have a Graphic Design degree, so art is a great pleasure. As is cooking - I'm so sad, I watched every one of the Great British Bake Off episodes!
Since January this year, I have taken up meditation. It has become hugely important to me and I think this is the start of a life-time habit.
You're not sad at all. I can spend a good few hours of my day watching The Food Network! But then I tend to spend more time watching programmes about cooking, rather than actually doing any cooking! What types of things do you read? Do you think your writing reflects your book tastes?
I have an eclectic reading list, and yes, I guess, my writing does reflect my reading tastes. I certainly don't write anything that I'm not happy to read.
Do you have any favourite lines from novels/plays/poetry/songs, or any favourite literary quotes?
My father was a research and development engineer - in layman's terms, he was an inventor - and he often quoted Thomas Edison who said that genius was: 'One percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.' And that's pretty much what I feel about writing.
As you can tell, I thought my own father was inspiring and when he died, we found a list of his own reminders for a good life, the last of which was: The joy of Originating. Is there anything better than creating something new?
I don't think there is. If you could have written anything, what do you wish that could have been?
Many things, but lately it would be "Crow Country' by Mark Cocker. It's about my home patch - he lives in the next village - and I recognise it all. I am proud to be a country girl, but his knowledge of the countryside is nothing short of awesome, in the true sense of the word.
As a child, I would have done anything to write like "BB" or Denys Watkins-Pitchford, how wrote my favourite book, 'The Little Grey Men'. Perhaps that is what consolidated my love of the countryside.
What are you working on at the moment?
Restructuring the memoir, a novel and I'm having fun with poetry.
Do you have a website/blog/twitter/facebook dedicated to your writing?
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Many successful writers say that they write something every day. I probably do that, but not always what I should be writing! Since 2004, I've kept a writing journal. It is a repository for anything remotely connected with, or useful to, my writing life. A scientist friend encouraged me to do this and it has proved invaluable.
Would you be able to provide a short piece of your work?
IRONING IT BETTER
It was so cold it made your gums shrink and I was doing his ironing just to keep warm.
‘We’ll be with you as soon as we can,’ they said, but we’d already waited over an hour.
I’d washed up and arranged the ironing board so I could watch his flock of willow-tits fight and bicker over the seed. Swish, swish, went the iron and I let my fingers linger on the warm fabric. I caught him once turning a collar. ‘Young’uns don’t do this any more,’ he’d said. ‘Army training never hurt anyone.’ It took me a moment to work out what he meant. Others showed me their medals; he showed me his needlework. He gave up sewing after he had his stroke. But he still fed his birds. And the Council fed him. I let the hot cotton smell comfort me as I worked, hanging everything carefully on the airer as I finished. The house creaked gently in the snow-quiet and I pushed my hands under my arms as I leaned on the draining board to watch the sky turn grey and heavy. When the first flakes fell from a sky as blank as blotting paper, the birds flew away.
The knock at the front made me start. ‘Upstairs, is he?’ they asked. I nodded and waited in the hall as they carried him out.
‘Good-bye,’ I said under my breath. although I’d already told him earlier. I folded the last of his shirts and unplugged the iron. ‘I like to have everything ship-shape and Bristol fashion’, he used to say, as we put his things away in their proper places.
© Sarah Passingham Published in Brittle Star Dec. 2007
Thank you very much Sarah.