Please give a warm welcome to Sara Jayne Townsend. Sara is the author of the newly released short story collection, soon to be reviewed here.
Hi Sara , how are things with you?
I’m a tad stressed. I’m currently house-hunting. I’ve been talking to altogether too many estate agents. I’m going to write a horror story about estate agents soon.
Just how angry do you get when people call you Sarah?
I’m a “Sara without an H”. It does not rhyme with ‘Tara’ or ‘Zara’. And it is not spelled with an ‘H’. I get rather cross either way.
Can you please give the readers a little bit of background information on yourself?
I was born in the North of England and spent the first ten years of my life as a Lancashire lass. Then my mother and stepfather emigrated to Canada, taking me and my younger sister with them. I didn’t want to go, but I was only 10 and had no choice in the matter. When I was 18 and finished high school, I moved back to England. My family are still in Canada. I still visit a lot, and have ties there, but I feel I belong in the UK. I’ve been living in Greater London for over 20 years now and feel settled here. I live with my husband, who plays the guitar, and we’ve got two old and decrepit cats.
Before we dive in, how did the launch of “Soul Screams” at the BFS open night go?
It went extremely well, and I sold all the copies I took with me, which was rather exciting. My fear was that nobody would buy the book. Being able to have a proper signing session has long been on my list of life ambitions, and therefore it was a really big deal for me.
How nervous were you going into the event? Did you know any of the folks that were going?
I’ve been a member of the BFS for over 10 years, so I was confident I’d see familiar faces. I’d been pimping the event all over the Internet for weeks, so non-BFS member friends were also promising to turn up. I was a little intimidated at being the newcomer – I wasn’t the only launch, and the others were for people very well established in the British horror publishing industry. But in the end I had a blast, and everyone was really supportive.
So what exactly goes on at these events?
The BFS (British Fantasy Society) open nights exist to promote British SF, fantasy and horror writers and publishers, as well as being a place to socialise with like-minded people who enjoy these genres. In reality, it’s an excuse to go boozing with people who know what you’re on about when you talk about “The Walking Dead” and “Firefly”. But as the BFS is keen to promote small presses, there’s usually a book launch or two. And always there’s a raffle. The funds go back into the BFS, and prizes are donated by members – books, art work and graphic novels.
I see that you list watching Buffy reruns, and playing Resident Evil games as some of your hobbies, are people shocked when you tell them this, especially the bit about RE?
They just think I’m a geek. And they’d be right. I’m a geek and proud of it. Most of my friends are geeks too, so they don’t see this as being particularly unusual, but my colleagues at my day job think I’m a bit weird.
You also enjoy travel, do you have a favourite place to travel to?
I think I’m a city girl. The places I’ve visited most often are Paris and New York City. I feel at home there. I think people who live in cities in different countries sometimes have more in common than town and city people in the same country do.
Can you tell us about the T Party Writers’ Group? What is the significance of the name?
We started off being called the South London Writers’ Group, but we thought that was a bit boring so decided to come up with something catchier. A few suggestions were bandied around. We were almost called the Cider, Reading and Pringles group (reflecting our refreshments of choice at the time), or CRAP, but decided against that one. A couple of members of the group had a keen affinity with Alice in Wonderland, and someone suggested we call ourselves the Mad Writers’ Tea Party. We shortened the name to The T Party – deciding the ‘T’ could stand for anything you wanted it to – and it stuck. When the American political group decided to hijack the name we considered changing it, but we were here first.
How did you all come together?
Me and the other two founder members, Des Lewis and Carole Tyrrell, used to belong to a writing group at the beginning of the 1990s that mostly consisted of horror writers. The group eventually drifted apart, but the three of us used to meet up socially. We were sitting in the pub one evening – I think it was shortly before Christmas, and the booze had been flowing freely – talking about how we missed the writing group and someone said, “why don’t we start up a new writing group?” When the cold sober light of day dawned it still seemed like a good idea, so in January 1994, the group that was to become The T Party had its first meeting, in my little flat. There were only three of us back then. Now we number about 30, and there are more SF and fantasy writers than horror writers, so things have moved on considerably since that first meeting.
How much would you say the group has been in developing your writing?
The T Party has always been a group that pulls no punches, and critiques can sometimes be a bit of an ordeal, when the piece you have been sweating over for months gets ritually flayed. But it has helped me grow as a writer, and I’m certainly a lot more aware of my weaknesses. It makes me more aware of them, and I try and catch them in the next manuscript.
Is there any friendly rivalry between you guys?
Generally the group’s quite supportive, but because everyone’s writing in the same genres (ie SF, fantasy & horror) we’re all submitting to the same markets. Whenever someone lands an agent, or a publishing deal, or an acceptance from a big-league magazine, we all clap and cheer and congratulate each other, but no doubt deep down there might be a spark of jealousy. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it just makes you want to try harder, so the next person to announce a success at the start of a meeting is you.
Why horror and crime, what is it about these genres that holds your appeal? Do you have a favourite genre?
Horror was my first love and I always come back to it. I have a fascination for the dark side of human nature – I think that’s what it’s all about, and this is what crime and horror have in common. The stories in SOUL SCREAMS are all exploring the darkness of the soul, and pretty much all of the characters are in a dark place. My horror stories always feature ghastly deaths, as the crime stories do, but in horror it’s not about the ‘whodunnit’. Sometimes it’s more about the ‘why’.
And what is it about the genres that you dislike?
When you write horror, you’re not always taken seriously. In the 1970s and 80s the genre was enjoying huge success, and there was a lot of pulp horror published that wasn’t always of very good quality – they usually had rather unsubtle covers and they can still be found occasionally in second hand books shops. I think horror writers are still paying the price of that legacy. The assumption that just because you write horror means you can’t write tell still seems to be floating around out there.
Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you and your writing?
Stephen King. I discovered him in my school library as a teenager – first Different Seasons, then Carrie, then It. King writes a lot about the angst of being an outsider, especially as a young person, and as a teenager that really spoke to me. My first published novel, SUFFER THE CHILDREN, was very much inspired by his writing.
If you could give any book to someone who doesn’t read horror, in an attempt to change their mind, what book would you choose, and why?
Probably THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson. Firstly it proves that horror can be scary without being gory, and I think the book is incredibly atmospheric, just through the use of language. It’s a classic spooky haunted house story.
You’ve said that you have always been a writer; do you have any reason as to why you always felt a need to write?
I can’t explain it any more than I can explain why I was the only left-handed child of right-handed parents. I’ve always been telling stories, even as a child. In some ways I think it keeps me sane. At least I have an outlet for all of my frustrations, and that’s why they tend to end up in my stories.
Over the years how have you developed your craft?
The only way to become a better writer is to keep on writing. You also need to read a lot, and talk to other writers, because you can learn a lot from others. Sometimes reading a bad book is more helpful than reading a good one. Why did you hate this book? Is the author making fundamental errors in his or her writing that you are finding annoying? Are you sure you’re not guilty of the same thing in your own writing? Much of the process is about learning what works for you, though.
And how would you describe your writing style?
It’s very linear. I get very annoyed with books that jump about all over the place. I like books to have a definite beginning, middle and end, in the order in which things happen. I have occasionally been accused of over-explaining things to my reader, and I suppose that’s a consequence of my writing style. When my amateur sleuth gets out of a car, she doesn’t just get out. She puts on the handbrake, releases the pedal, takes the key out of the ignition, takes off her seatbelt, opens the door, gets out, picks up her handbag from the passenger seat, closes the door, locks it. Sometimes this means my writing gets bogged down with too many details so I try and watch out for that, in later drafs.
Does your style, or writing voice change when you write a horror story compared to when you write a crime story?
I don’t think the style changes much, as both genres involve building up tension. When I’m writing my amateur sleuth series I am writing in her voice, which distinguishes it from other stories. At least, I hope so.
Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of your writing. How do you go about the writing process? Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow?
I’m a meticulous plotter. There’s usually a few pages of notes, plus character notes, and then I do a rough plot outline, then a chapter-by chapter summary. Only then do I start work on the first draft. I’ve learned the hard way this is the only way I get to the end of the first draft. I’ve got too many half-finished manuscripts languishing in drawers because I started without thinking through what was going to happen at the end, and then I ended up giving up because I got stuck.
And just how do you make time to write?
I have a full time job, and commute into London, so it can be difficult. By the time I get home from work, I’m normally rather tired, then by the time I’ve dealt with emails and had dinner, it’s time for bed. What works for me these days is getting up ludicrously early and taking the early train into London. I get to the Starbucks round the corner from work by 7:30am, and have an hour’s writing time before I head to the office. If someone told me a few years ago that I would be voluntarily getting up at 5:30am to write, I would have laughed at them, but that early hour is proving very productive, especially at first-draft stage. It seems I get up before my ‘internal editor’ is properly awake, and therefore my word count first thing in the morning is quite high.
How much research do you do?
I’m a bit lazy when it comes to research. Generally I start a novel when I’ve got my chapter plan sorted, and don’t worry too much about the finer detail. Quite often my first draft is full of blank sections with notes for myself – “look into this”. I’ll try and fill in the blanks before the next draft, and hope that my facts aren’t so far out that I’ve got to completely change the plot of the novel. But then again, I’m a big fan of “creative licence”. The beauty of fiction is you can bend the truth if you need to.
Pen and paper, or computer for the first draft?
When I started writing, as a kid, it was pencil in the back of school exercise books. At some point in the late 1980s I switched to computer – I got myself an Amstrad PCW. It didn’t have a hard drive, so all the files were saved on floppy disks. Nowadays I can’t imagine writing in longhand. Using a computer saves so much time in editing in later drafts, and I’m a touch typist, so I type faster than I can write anyway. Besides, my handwriting is so bad even I can’t read it – left-handed people rarely have legible handwriting. I rely heavily on my little NetBook, which I take into London with me for my early-morning writing sessions. It even comes on holiday with me, so I can snatch writing time whilst away.
Do you have any rituals that you go through when you write?
The whole process involves rituals. The plot summary and chapter-by-chapter breakdown is the first stage. When I’m writing a first draft, I save each chapter in a separate document, and I log the word count of each chapter, along with the date of writing. This also helps me keep a running tally of the total word count, as well as allowing me to keep track of how long it’s taken me to write the draft. For draft 2 I start again with a new word count document, and I use the chapter-by-chapter breakdown to help me keep track of amendments.
After draft 2 I usually submit the manuscript to the writing group or other beta readers, which necessitates putting it all into one document. But I generally keep working off the separate documents for all future drafts, and only put all the documents into one final document when the manuscript is finished.
At home I write in my ‘writing corner’ with my laptop. For my writing mornings, which I generally find more productive because there are fewer distractions in Starbucks than at home, I sit in the same seat and I have the same breakfast every time to help me write – single shot soya latte and ginger muffin. At least, that’s the way it used to be.
How are you managing now that Starbucks has stopped selling Ginger Muffins?
My writing sessions at Starbucks have been a lot less productive since they stopped doing ginger muffins. They were part of my ritual. Don’t they know how hazardous it is to make a writer change her routine?
How do you edit, do you edit as you write, or do you edit after each draft is finished?
I try not to edit as I write. I know some writers do, but if I did that I’d never get to the end of the draft. The first draft I will just write, and try not to switch on the internal editor. With each consecutive draft there will be some editing, but I try not to go back on myself. If I encounter what I think is a major problem when I’m working through a draft, I’ll put notes in my chapter plan – “needs to be a scene here revealing conflict between x and y”, or whatever, with the intention of fixing that bit in the next draft. It does mean there are often quite a lot of consistency errors in early drafts. For instance, I’m currently working on a new novel featuring my amateur sleuth. I’d got most of the way through draft 1 when I suddenly realised the murderer was not who I’d thought it was, but some other character. So the ending suddenly veered off on a completely different track, and when I wrote the second draft I had to do a lot of editing, to set up the clues for the actual murderer, instead of those for the person I originally thought it was.
What part of the writing process do find you the easiest, and what part do you find to be the most difficult?
Starting each draft is always the hardest part. For draft 1, you’re looking at a blank page. I also find starting each consecutive draft difficult because I know there are things to fix, but I’m not always clear on how to fix it. It’s hard to define what’s the easiest. Sometimes I will have a very clear idea in my head about what’s going to happen in the next 3 chapters, and so rattling them out becomes quite easy. Because I do most of my writing in my early-morning write sessions, generally I have to stop and go to work, so I’ve got used to working in hour-long bursts. If I sit down knowing what’s going to happen next, then starting the writing is easier, so I’ll try to think about that ahead of time. If I sit down to write and I don’t know what happens next, I end up procrastinating by playing around on Facebook instead.
What would you say drives your stories the most, characters or plot?
I think it’s characters. The reviews I’ve been getting consistently say I create realistic characters, which I consider a huge compliment. I tend to try and set up ordinary, flawed, believable people and put them into extraordinary situations.
The actual process of writing must cause you as an author to go through a whole range of emotions, from jubilation when it’s all going brilliantly, to at times almost despair when a chapter just won’t do as you want it to. How do you deal with these emotions?
If it’s really going badly, sometimes I’ll just walk away and go do something else. Blasting zombies is quite a good tension release. Trying to fit the writing in around the paying day job does tend to make me feel like I’m working two jobs sometimes and I can get quite stressed about it, but when it’s really not going well, sometimes I just have to accept that and give up. Giving my brain a rest for a few days can sometimes be the best remedy. If a scene is really giving me trouble and refuses to present a solution, I might even skip over it, leaving a note for myself saying “x happens here” and go on to the next bit, and hope that by the time I come to that section again, in the next draft, the plot will unravelled sufficiently for me to be able to write the troubling scene.
So let’s talk about your books. Suffer The Children is your first novel, prior to it being published had you previously had any short stories published?
I had a fair bit of success getting short stories published in the 1990s. There were a lot of small-press horror zines around in the UK at the time, so there were plenty of markets, though most of them didn’t pay much, if anything. My first published short story appeared in FEAR in 1989. They paid me £50. I was 19 at the time. I got quite big-headed about that, thinking I was going to be rich and famous, but the reality was no publication has paid me anywhere near that much in one go since. And FEAR went bust not long after – clearly they were paying their authors too much!
How easy was it for you to get the book published?
It wasn’t. From the time it was completely finished, in 2004, it was travelling the submission circuit for five years. That doesn’t include preliminary enquiries I made while I was working on it – there were a few of those, but I was working on it for ten years, which is longer than it takes me now to write a book.
I lost track of how many rejections I got, but I started to get discouraged. It seemed I was spending my life scouring my writing magazines and the Internet for potential markets, queuing up in the post office for return postage to stick on the SAE (most agents and publishers didn’t accept email submissions then), living in hope every day and then getting depressed when I got home to see that familiar A4 envelope, addressed in my own handwriting, on the doormat. For a while I was getting the same message – no market for horror in the UK. I think in the early years of the 21st century that was true, but horror has been enjoying renewed popularity in the last few years – luckily for me.
I’d just about given up getting that book published – I’d been working on my crime series instead – when I heard about Lyrical Press. They were a relatively new e-publisher calling for submissions of all genres. I thought a bit before sending STC off to them, because I was aware that if they accepted it I would probably never get a print version of the book, and that was another dream. But they were accepting full manuscripts as email attachments for submission, and I thought I’d take a chance on them. They sent me an email a couple of weeks later with a contract attached saying they’d like to publish SUFFER THE CHILDREN. That was August 2009.
Can you tell us what the book is about?
SUFFER THE CHILDREN is about a supernatural creature who retains the appearance of a beautiful woman by sucking the life force out of young people. She also has powers of seduction and is able to gain a similar power through sex. She is a variation of a succubus, and based on the myths of Lamia and Lilith, both of which I found fascinating. The three main characters are a teenage girl, her cousin and his girlfriend who discover the truth behind this creature and figure out how they can stop her.
Is there a message to the book?
I don’t really put deep and meaningful messages in my stories – I just want to entertain people. But I do think characters need to grow and learn lessons throughout the story. The main character, Leanne, is a tough and vulnerable teenager who’s had quite a hard life, and by the end of the story she’s learned to let in her adoptive family and allow them to love her.
As mentioned at the start you have just published your short story collection Soul Screams, are the stories in here new, or is this a retrospective of your career to date?
The stories in SOUL SCREAMS cover a 20-year period of my life. The oldest ones were written when I was 17. They are pretty much a map of how my writing has evolved over the years.
Is there a theme to the collection?
They are all about that ‘inner scream’. Some are supernatural stories, but others are not. But all the characters are generally unhappy and dealing with some kind of psychological angst. That wasn’t necessarily purposeful. It’s just what I write about. I’ve used writing as an outlet to deal with difficult emotions, and that becomes quite apparent when you read all the stories together.
How do you decide the running order of the collection?
I suggested an initial running order, grouping together stories that I thought had a common theme. My publisher had some amendments, based on his views on how well they would flow.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
That’s like asking a parent to pick their favourite child. They are all dear to me in different ways.
Can you tell us about any future projects?
I’ve currently got two works in progress on the go. I’m working on a new horror novel, about a group of live action role players who unwittingly raise an ancient magical supernatural beastie during a game. I’m also working on the second novel in my amateur sleuth series, that sees my intrepid sleuth working as a backing singer for a rock band, and investigating the murder of the front man on the opening night of the band’s European tour.
Thanks for popping over for a chat, do you have any final words for the readers?
Thanks for having me, Jim!