Having written from a young age, bestselling author Sarah Pearse chose to study English and Creative Writing at Warwick, giving her a safe and supportive space in which to pursue her passion.
We spoke to Sarah in between a book tour for her debut novel The Sanatorium and editing her next thriller The Retreat.
What are your fondest memories of Warwick?
It was the first year that a course like this was offered at Warwick and I had some great tutors including Professor David Morley. One of the things I loved about the course was how open the tutors were in their mindset. I didn’t have traditional arts A-levels as I’d studied Biology, Physics and English but this was encouraged and spoken about at length in my initial interview. The tutors were open minded about admitting students not just from the arts, but with different voices, backgrounds and experiences. The tutors actively encouraged me to use my knowledge of science and explore my unique subject interests as part of the creative process.
One of the great pieces of advice I was given by my tutors was to be true to my own voice and story -not rush the writing process. One of the things I worried about was writing post-graduation – would I feel inspired, how would I go about it? I was really reassured when my tutors told me not to worry – that I didn’t necessarily have to take the plunge into writing full-time, that everything I did, from travel to working in different jobs would all feed into the creative process and provide inspiration for my writing.
That was definitely the case for me. After graduating, I spent several years in Switzerland and the nature of my job meant I travelled throughout western Europe. My work and the experience of living in Switzerland was where I got my inspiration for The Sanatorium.
What techniques did you learn at Warwick that you still use in your writing now?
To just write. The course at Warwick includes lots of time writing in the classroom without any prior preparation. I learnt not to focus on whether the writing was ‘good’ right away but to just get the words down. Editing is where the magic happens and that comes later. I think this has put me in good stead with working to a deadline where you don’t have time to make every sentence perfect right away. The key is to start and then to keep going – get those words down on the page.
On the course we also shared content with each other, and quickly got over the fear of being judged. Until that time, I’d only shared my writing with teachers at school, so it was something I got used to. It was a very supportive environment.
What inspires you?
Readers! Inspiration comes from all around, but I particularly love to hear what my readers say. My novel was first published in lockdown and this experience, although challenging in a lot of ways, enabled me to have a direct line to many of my readers through new technology like Zoom. When The Sanatorium was chosen as a ‘Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick’ and then ‘Waterstones Thriller of the Month’, I connected with readers online via these new lines of communication and I’ve found that really inspirational – knowing in real-time that they’ve enjoyed the book and can’t wait to read the next.
What do you think the role of literature is in the modern world?
I think all literature is a reflection on society in one way or another, but a key role of literature during lockdown was escapism. Readers enjoyed immersing themselves in exotic locations as part of a compelling read, which was reflective of but not necessarily about current circumstances.
Do you have any advice for any aspiring authors?
Perseverance is key – don’t feel upset when those first pieces are rejected as they inevitably will be – it’s very rare to find success right away. Start off with manageable short pieces that you can realistically finish as opposed to a longer piece of fiction – knowing you have started and finished something is a great feeling.
I started off writing short fiction, submitting pieces to magazines and competitions (you can find these listed in the Writers and Artists Yearbook). I was eventually longlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize and then published in Mslexia – a magazine that champions women writers. Mslexia really champions debut authors and for the first time I felt I was taken seriously as a writer. It was a huge confidence boost, and that’s when I decided to write a novel.
This and my other published pieces of short fiction provided a great selling point when I started submitting my novel to agents – they all said it demonstrated my work was of a standard to be published and made them want to read my covering letter and opening chapters.
I also think you need to understand the market if you want to be published and make a full-time career of it. You need to understand what readers want to read and therefore what the publishers will want to publish. Artistic integrity and commercialism together will help you be publishable.
Starting out in publishing or writing can seem daunting. A good first step can be via work experience and there are now paid opportunities like this on offer. Editorial roles can be a good way to understand the business and get experience about what books are getting published.
What book do you wish you’d written?
One of my favourite authors is Tessa Hadley – she writes about family life and nature so beautifully, but the book I wish I’d written is The Little Stranger by Sarah Walters. Creepy and compelling, this book is clever in so many ways, but I love how the house in this book, Hundreds Hall, becomes a character in its own right. I still think about it now, years after first reading it.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently editing my next book, The Retreat, due for publication in July 2022, which sees Elin Warner from The Sanatorium return to the UK for another challenging case.
I’m also continuing to work with my publisher across the 27 territories in which The Sanatorium has been sold to promote my work.