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Some Kind of Influence #1

From 1990 to early 1997 I lived in a house that came alive at night, shadowed throughout the day.  It was a nightmare and dream made of brick and concrete surrounded by humanoid-trees and a long stretch of road that would whisper your name. There was always something happening in that house: strange sounds, possum scratching inner roof and walls, figures out the corner of your eye, odd men knocking at the front door, tall Eucalpyts that would catch fire, my parent’s symphonic arguing, my brother teaching himself how to play guitar and fall in love with science, he and I hand holding down the hallway because we were too afraid of what was hidden in the dark. And there was always me in my room: writing, inventing characters, talking to myself. Me reading late into night hours, me wondering what type of adult I would become, if there was anything I’d be able to offer the world once I got there. 

From time to time I’m asked who or what has influenced me and my writing. The answer is that house. This was the place I learnt to observe one adult after the other as they came to visit the family, the place that taught me to listen to physicality, to listen to gut instinct. This was the place I spent hours collecting the minds of others: I watched film and t.v as if they were breath, read books like scripture, listened to music until it became muscle memory. I learnt what I liked, what I didn’t. I learnt that you should be curious.

Here is the first part of some of the things I learnt about in that house, the things that helped me become a writer: 

Lost Pages: The Book See What I Have Done Might’ve Been

In the beginning naivety was the greatest gift. I had no idea how long writing a book would take me, how many drafts I’d complete, how many false starts would become false ideas of failure. 

I went along, wrote the words, went along, and then after a time I began to feel the enormity of it all, what it takes to write a book. Sometimes I couldn’t breathe. Many writers will tell you that to write a book is to run  a quiet marathon, others a test of character. The only thing I know about writing books is this:  you need to be able to sit within yourself day in day out, be able to block out the inevitable hate-noise that will thunder for you, be able to recognise the gold days when they arrive. To write a book you need to accept the repetition of it all and still be able to make something new.

Your book is never going to be the work you have planned in your head. You’ll start writing those first words and from that moment the book adapts to the environment it’s in, adapts to the molecular changes in your own bone structure, muscle fibre. Adapts to your growth as a writer and human.

Since publication I constantly rewrite the novel in my mind, fantasise about new chapters, new plot points, new characters. I rewrite what already exists. A few weeks ago I caught myself digging out an old, half-used notebook from 2015, ready to begin writing a new section for Benjamin, this character I seemingly can’t get enough of. But I stopped myself. The past is the past. I can’t unwrite See What I Have Done. It’s the best book I could write with my abilities at that given time. 

The only thing  I can do now is write another book, a better book, one that matches the writer I am today, tomorrow, next week, the years until it’s done. 

Is See What I Have Done the book I imagined it would be? There is yes, there is no. But it’s as close to the original idea I had…which is something because for a long time it veered in directions I never knew it could go. I mourn the book I lost, the one that came to me in a dream all those years ago. If I’d been able to work faster, would I have saved that version? Instead I took the slow route and created a ‘thing’ I never thought I could or would. It exists, flaws and all. And it’s the version that has allowed me to begin my second novel. 

So what might a different version of See What I Have Done look like? Easy. It was once called FALL RIVER and I have a selection of old sections here:
In the beginning Benjamin had the ability to change into other people. I was playing around with identity and duality, inner and outer lives, the ways in which we can fabricate our own stories to suit a narrative. He was many people living inside one body. Does this mean he had multiple personalities? No. For many reasons (perhaps I’ll share them with you at a later time) this version of Benjamin wasn’t working the way I wanted him too and it didn’t fit the story I was building. But the original idea of him appeals to me so much and I hope I can use him again one day, somehow.

Below, Benjamin is in his form as ‘James’ circa 2012. Reading this again for today’s post I can see that quite a bit of this was used in some form in the final version of the book. But it’s also lazy writing.

In the same year I was getting to know Emma, who at the time was a relatively new narrator. I had no idea what to do with her in some parts and so I often wrote her in quick points, just to get something down on the page. Almost a sketch:

And now structure. I found a contents page from the time I submitted to the woman who is now my agent. I’ll let you figure out what changed:


See What I Have Done Interview: Indies Introduce Q & A 

I swear one of these days I’ll do an actual post. Until then: welcome to my laziness.

In the lead up to the US release of See What I Have Done I was lucky enough to chat with Carolyn Hutton as part of the Indies Introduce Q & A series. 

Every time I do one of these  I find I struggle to truly explain my approach to the book in a way that is ‘satisfying’ mainly because the act of analysing what was once intuition feels too much like questioning magic. Some thing’s can’t be explained. But that’s the deal you make when you create something and it’s born. And so I will talk and talk. Happily.
Here’s an extract from the interview. READ MORE HERE
CH: You move the story forward with four very distinct voices, all in first-person, each one unique and very well-developed. How did you manage to inhabit and write from such different perspectives?

SS: The short answer is a lot of false starts and an inability to focus! I began with Lizzie and learned fairly quickly that she was incapable of telling her story in a way that would be satisfying or complete. I became so frustrated and infuriated with Lizzie when I wrote her that I couldn’t bear to be in her head for long periods of time. I needed an out.

The next two narrators I came up with were Benjamin and The House, and again I found these narrators were just as selective as Lizzie. The more frustrated I became, the more narrators I dragged into the whole debacle, so that’s how we get to hear from Emma and Bridget. Initially I wanted the feeling that although they might have been operating against each other, they were essentially connected and without one we couldn’t have a whole. But it was also my inability to be with one character for any sustained period; I would be OK for a few weeks or months but then I needed a break to go and be with one of the others for a while. In the first few years it was hard to remember where I was in the story at any given time, and I realized each narrator needed to concentrate on telling just a few parts of the story. By doing this, I also got to know them as people, which helped build their voice and perspective.
CH: The Bordens’ house is a character in your book—the creaking floors, the ticking clock, the different bedrooms with their own hidden secrets. Did you visit the Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts, as part of your research for the book?

SS: As I mentioned earlier, the house was a narrator in the novel right up until the final year before publication, and, in the end, I swapped it out for Bridget’s narrative. But the house had made its presence felt throughout the other narratives as well and was more effective that way. I really liked the idea of a house knowing far more than anyone else and having the ability to make its occupants feel a particular way. I can become a little fixated on setting!

Because the house was a narrator I wanted to know its history, when it was “born,” who lived in it before the Bordens moved in. So I did a quick Google search and that’s how I discovered that not only does the original house still stand, but it is actually a fully functioning bed and breakfast. I knew then that I had to visit.

I slept a couple of nights in Lizzie’s bedroom and it was one of the best/worst writing experiences of my life. The house was everything and nothing like I thought it would be. Being in that house allowed me to think of the Bordens in a different context. You stay in that house long enough, you start to feel like you live there, start to let it dominate you. It was exactly what I needed to write this book.

CH: With such an intense subject matter and characters, was it difficult to separate yourself from the story and the personalities and be present in your “real” life?
SS: I’ll be honest: Sometimes it was almost impossible to separate myself. This novel took 11 years to write, and I thought about it every single day. The characters consumed me; they constantly visited me in dreams. If I was in the middle of a particularly intense writing period, I’d find it really difficult to step out of it and talk to people around me. But this is natural when you spend hours inside your own head. Eventually you have to return to the real world and be a productive citizen. You can’t keep serving your book whenever it wants you to, but it’s hard to say no.

At work I’d be planning a program and all of sudden I’d think about rotting fruit or something Lizzie had said and I’d just stop what I was doing and begin to jot down novel notes. I shouldn’t admit this publicly but every now and then I’d schedule a work meeting—with the manuscript—and I’d go write for 40 minutes to an hour just so I could get it out onto the page and actually concentrate on my job.
Sometimes the subject matter was too much, and many times I thought about chucking it all and beginning work on something else. But the alternative wasn’t any better. I don’t write happy stories; so I figured I might as well stick with the Bordens. Besides, other writers deal with far heavier stuff than I do and they don’t quit.
But I’m making it sound like it was hard going all the time and that I was a complete and utter obsessive. It wasn’t, and I wasn’t. I was aware that writing is a choice; no one forces you to do it.


Drafting Through The Natural World

First drafts terrify me. I’m currently in the middle (at least I think it’s the middle!) of a very strange, half-dreamed, ill formed, urgent, naturish first draft of a new novel. And it’s coming along very slowly.

And it’s too ambitious for me and I don’t think I’m the right writer for this idea or story or characters. And yet. I know I should write it because it is actually too ambitious and is more than I bargained for. So here I am.

I’m prepared to share two things about the book with you:

1. that it’s a dual narrative family portrait spanning 30-40 ish years.

2. It is about a woman who takes a car trip with her child. Nothing is what it seems.

The working title is Blue Mountain. (You got 3. I’m generous like that!)

So back to this first draft. This week I’m currently researching and developing the first draft part by taking a writing residency. I’ve had many revelations about the novel and as terrible as the writing has been, ive made so much progress. I can’t wait to get into the meat of all the drafts that await me.

And the reason I’ve made so much progress is due to the walks I’ve been taking every day. I’m one of ‘those’ writers. You know the kind: fidgety, annoying, needs to walk out their thoughts, sees something along the way and thinks, ‘now that’s interesting. I wonder if…’ takes photos of it and then just stares at said photo for hours. I’m also desperately, heavily reliant on nature to help me write. And maybe not necessarily for all the reasons you might guess. Being on the residency reinforced a need for change of scenery to help recharge the creativity, let it make patterns and connections in a different environment. You don’t necessarily have to go far from home to do this but I think it’s a good idea to generally take yourself away from the usual park or street you walk down and try somewhere new. Your writing will thank you for it.

Here are some things I’ve seen this week which have given me a deeper understanding of what this book is actually about. I’m not ready to share the context just yet.

And bonus photo of a line or two from a bigger section I wrote after one of the walks

One final thing: I’m in the mountains and I feel ridiculously peaceful because of them.

See What I Have Done Q & A: Foyles Edition

I’ve had the good fortune of being asked many questions about See What I Have Done lately so I thought I would share some of them with you in the next few posts. 

Critical reflection can be a tricky thing. When I was writing the book I wasn’t always aware of what I was doing and often felt I was writing through intuition alone. It was foolish to think this but there you have it. If you’d asked me why I had made some of the narrative choices I had I’m not sure I would’ve been able to tell you.

 But distance is the thing that affords hindsight. Since the book has come out I’ve been forced to reflect on process on a different level and as difficult as it has been (I still don’t know why I did particular things) it’s had a surprising flow on effect on my current novel in progress: I write with that same intuition but question myself more regularly, seem to have developed a better bullshit detector with things like character development, plot, and prose. And that’s the point, right? That one project helps develop the next and the next, that you learn more about the process of writing. This is not to say I know how to write a novel. I only know how I wrote See What I Have Done after the fact. I’m not entirely  sure I know how to write my new novel but I’m slowly figuring it out, slowly implementing lessons learned.

Anyway. Back to the Q & A. The following first appeared on the Foyles website and I invite you to go there and read the rest of the interview there.


See What I Have Done delves into the shocking double murder of Abby and Andrew Borden that took place in Massachusetts in the 1890s. What drew you to write about this story?

I would say pure luck was the initial aspect that drew me to this story. I was in a second-hand bookstore when I accidentally knocked a pamphlet about Lizzie Borden off the shelf. After reading about the case I was initially uninterested. But that night and for a whole week, I dreamt that Lizzie was sitting on the edge of my bed poking me in the legs. She said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I began writing down these dreams hoping they’d go away and without realising it, I had started writing a novel. My gut instinct was that this story was about a family who no longer loved each other rather than the actual crime and trial itself.
 The Borden murders are most often thought of as Lizzie Borden’s story, younger daughter of Andrew and prime suspect in the case. See What I Have Done, however, is told through multiple voices: both Borden sisters, the family maid and an outsider. How did you approach creating distinct voices and stitching their stories together?
The short answer is: a lot of false starts and an inability to focus! I began with Lizzie and learnt fairly quickly that she was incapable of telling her story in a way that would be satisfying or complete. I became so frustrated and infuriated with Lizzie when I wrote her that even I couldn’t bear to be in her head for long periods of time. I needed an out.
The next two narrators I came up with were Benjamin and The House and again, I found these narrators were just as selective as Lizzie. The more frustrated I became, the more narrators I dragged into the whole debacle, so that’s how we get to hear from Emma and Bridget. Initially I wanted the feeling that although they might’ve been operating against each other, they were essentially connected, that without one we couldn’t have a whole. But it was also me unable to be with one character for any sustained period: I would be ok for a few weeks or months but then I needed a break and to go and be with one of the others for a while. In the first few years it was hard to remember where I was in the story at any given time, and I realised each narrator needed to concentrate on telling just a few parts of the story. By doing this, you also get to know them as people and this helped build voice and their perspective.  
Benjamin, the outsider in the book, brings a completely different perspective. I thought of him as a wildcard, able to disrupt the stories the insiders told. Where did he come from, and was that your intention when writing him?

Benjamin was a character that came to me fairly early on in the initial writing. A few things happened at once: I had read some wild theories that suggested Andrew Borden may have had an illegitimate son who committed the murders and that Lizzie let him in the house. Then there was a theory that a man was hired by Lizzie and uncle John to carry out the crime. While none of these can be substantiated, the idea of an outsider appealed to me, someone who might be able to either tell us ‘observed secrets’ about the Bordens or be a possible murderer.
However, when I started writing this character, what came out was someone completely unexpected. He was someone who although very violent, also had a traumatising childhood. I began to think of Benjamin as a parallel character to Lizzie, almost mirroring each other when it came to the idea of justice and retribution, the idea that people are products of their environment and act accordingly. I was interested in the ways people can distance themselves from their actions and felt that maybe Lizzie did this (she is someone who is different on the inside and outside). What if Benjamin did this too? So for many years, Benjamin was someone who could literally become other people throughout the novel. Obviously that particular character trait and sub plot isn’t in the book but you never know: that version of Benjamin might pop up in a different novel!
The book is incredibly gripping and hugely atmospheric, claustrophobic and intense. A large part of this was the visceral world you created within the house, its smells and tastes. How conscious were you of expressing the intimate nature of life in the very late nineteenth century?
I have always been drawn to scent and the peculiarities of houses since I was a child. It’s not unusual for me to describe things in that way when I’m writing or even when I’m speaking to someone, so it felt very natural to add those types of details to this book. Having said that, I wasn’t fully aware of the extent I was doing it until I’d written a draft or two. Once I realised the effect it was having on the narrative, I saw an opportunity to heighten it all and exploit it for all it was worth.
Specifically with regard to Lizzie, with her impulsive need to touch, taste and smell things, do you think she craved sensation?
What a great question! My version of Lizzie most definitely craved sensation, craved experience of any kind. For me, she just needed to feel something was real during a very bizarre time in her life. I was always fascinated that real-life-Lizzie could give quite specific details about what she did that day but couldn’t recall other, ‘bigger’, things. This was most evident in her claims she was eating pears or that she’d been looking for a lead sinker that day to go fishing with her uncle. She’d also asked her neighbour, Mrs Churchill, who she should engage to do the funeral. This was literally straight after she’d discovered her father’s body. But when asked if she’d seen Abby, she was sketchy, gave multiple answers. All of this encouraged me to think of Lizzie as someone who existed on her own time, someone who perhaps might have really only considered herself and her experiences..
I enjoyed your portrayal of Lizzie Borden very much, her ability to be callous, demanding, self-centred, but also gentle and loving. Her affection for her pigeons seems genuine and heartfelt, for example. What do you make of her, after researching and living with her for this time?
Lizzie struck me as a woman very capable of playing a role, particularly when it came to ‘daughter’. Even Emma, her sister, has said that Lizzie was ‘peculiar’. All of us have different sides to our personality and we can be slightly different versions of ourselves depending who we’re spending time with. Humans are complex. I wanted this for Lizzie. I wanted her to be chaos wrapped in skin.
While I was researching I heard a rumour that Lizzie killed a cat belonging to Abby. It’s true Abby and Lizzie did not get along and I wouldn’t put it past Lizzie to have gone out of her way to ‘ruin’ something for Abby. However, we know Lizzie was very fond of animals, especially cats, and left a sum of money in her will for animal welfare groups. All this to say, Lizzie is a contradictory woman.
As for me, I have some affection for Lizzie as a character but I don’t particularly like her. I’d never want to be her friend.    
As part of your research you spent time staying at the Borden house, which has become quite a tourist attraction. What was it like, and would you want to do it again?
It was one of the greatest, creepiest and most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. It was probably also one of the stupidest things I’ve done but it was amazing research for the novel. The house is modelled on the crime scene photos so it’s like walking back in time. I met some amazingly generous people there who were only too happy to talk about the case with me and share their theories of events. If it weren’t for this book I probably would never have voluntarily stayed there but saying this now, I think I would like to go back one last time and say goodbye to the house and my created Bordens. We’ve been together for so long that it seems fitting that we part on relatively good terms. Perhaps we could have a nice cup of tea together in the dining room.

Could you tell us about some more of the types of research you did into the case?
Aside from reading the trial transcripts, looking at the autopsies and going through newspaper articles from the time, I also spoke to people about the case while I was at the house. Because this novel is primarily about a family, and knowing what it’s like to belong to one, I realised I could use parts of my own experiences, no matter how small and insignificant, to help build a believable world. For example, when the Bordens go to Boston or when Lizzie was in Rome or Paris, some of those details came from me when I visited those cities. The fictional Borden house is based on my experiences there but also based on houses I’ve lived in. Details like this just help set the scene and make it feel real.
Similarly I used my experiences of being an older sibling as a way to unlock the relationship between Emma and Lizzie (and no, my brother and I are nothing like those two). Even Benjamin and Bridget have some of me in them. I never intended to inject myself into this novel but occasionally something would slip out and if it seemed to fit, I’d run with it, change it up. I think when we’re trying to find people’s humanity in fiction we borrow from our own experiences because we want to see the best in people even if they are, in the end, the worst.

Read the rest of this interview here

Above: UK edition of See What I Have Done

Look Up

My mind is a rush. For weeks I’ve divided days into categories: See What I Have Done and Blue Mountain. I find it difficult to generate new scenes or ideas for Blue Mountain on any day I need to deal with Lizzie. It’s emotionally and mentally tiring to have to deal with all those characters while they congregate in the same place. Which is frustrating because right now I need to be working on both. 
I moved on from See What I Have Done around August last year. Although I was knee deep in edits and still had proof reads to look forward to, I’d fallen in love with a new novel that germinated from a strange dream I’d had years before and which had been waiting for me to come back to it when Lizzie was done (yes, I’m aware I’m beginning to hang a lot of respsonbility on dreaming for writing but whatever). Suffice to say, I got shitty when the Bordens interrupted my dates with Blue Mountain. But on we’d go and it was happiness to be able to write about new people and new situations. It was also frightening.

When you work on something over and over again you forget what a beginning is like. You trick yourself into thinking that first drafts (or in my case draft zeroes) come out fully formed and need only a few minor tweaks. So then you write and what comes out is somewhere between potential and utter shite, and you remember all the first drafts you’ve ever written (not great) and confidence begins to drain. You begin to think that you can’t do it, that actually, the craft of writing is now too hard for you to even comprehend and while it is absolute euphoria when your project sings it is equally excruciating to sit there and write and have nothing come out, make you feel like you’ve never written a sentence in your life.

I find that once I get in a rhythm the frightening days become fewer (or is that less? See, this is why I did terribly in editing at uni) and while not always fantastic writing, I can see where I can take the next draft. So by now you might be thinking, ‘But Sarah, you’ve been working on your new novel full time for a few months now. You must be banging that first draft out.’

Guess the answer.

Which brings me back to my rush mind. Now, I didn’t intend for this post to be yet another long winded saga about the writing process. On the contrary. I wanted to show you a dead possum. But before we get there you need to know my current frame of mind: a confusing mess of novels. I sit down to write and the old and new fight for attention. And it’s not a pretty sight. Often the writing and narrative and characters in Blue Mountain come out on the page and make no sense (literal no sense. I can barely read my own writing lately) and before I can iron the crinks out, get over myself and get on with it, I am asked to (and I am very happily to do so, I should add) do something for See What I Have Done and I have to abandon the novel for the day or week and that frightening first draft panic lingers.

Last week, in an effort to solve these feelings and take control over the situation, I did what I always do and went for a thinking-walk to sort out  my issues. Admittedly I was also on a mission to find something ‘inspiring’ for character work that would help get the writing juices flowing and thus first-draft-glory would all be mine. 

I took to a street I always walk, started day dreaming, stopped paying attention to the world around me. That’s when those feelings of first draft panic struck.  I was meant to be paying attention, was meant to be working through ‘things’. I was angry at myself. And that’s when I looked up.

At first I wondered if the possum had fallen, had saved itself with a flick and grab of tail. I went closer. When it didn’t move, didn’t flinch as I approached, I realised it had crossed powerlines, that it was dead and that it had probably been swift. I couldn’t believe what I almost missed because I was feeling sorry for myself.

This jolt from the unlikely, the reason to always look up, to look outward.

I stood there awhile, took it in. There was something in this. I went home immediately and started writing, got to work. It felt great. 

My curiosity. Sometimes I’m ashamed of it. My first thought on waking the next day was: is the possum still there? I got up, went to it, and there it was, tail still clinging and I noticed that overnight decomposition had made small changes, had bloated a stomach, had fattened fur. What if it were to drop? The wind picked up, gave a little knock on the body. I waited. Nothing. The small changes that had occurred. Thoughts returned to the novel. Right there in the street the little scene I had written yesterday was beginning to transform. I could see how I’d develop it, what I wanted my character to do, who I wanted her to become. Small changes, like that belly, that fur. 

I went home, took to work. That afternoon I had to return to See What I Have Done but I wasn’t phased that I had to abandon Blue Mountain. Just like that possum, I knew it would be there when I got back. 

I didn’t get a chance to go to the possum for two days. On the third day I went to the spot, looked up. Gone. A major change. I was disappointed, if only because I wanted to know how much longer the possum could stay there, how it would change from day to day. When had it been moved? The fourth day? The fifth? Just before I arrived? It was clear I hadn’t been the only one to look up.

But here’s the thing. Since the possum, not once have I  panicked  about going back day after day to the inevitable beautiful-ugly first draft mess that’s waiting for me, haven’t panicked* about juggling the demands of two novels that are complete opposites: finished, beginning. 

Don’t be surprised if a dead possum on a power line appears in Blue Mountain. And if it does, you’ll know how I was feeling when I wrote it in. 
* I may panic later.