An interview with Sarah Rayner

25 February 2013

By Pan Macmillan

What was the first book you remember falling in love with? What effect did this have on you – as a person, as a writer?

The very first book I fell in love with was Mrs Tiggywinkle by Beatrix Potter. My mother still has the copy - I went through it inserting the word ‘dear’ (spelt ‘daer’) every time I came across her name. I still have a fantasy about living in a hole in a hillside secretly doing my neighbour’s washing! Later, I fell for all the Anne books by LM Montgomery, and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. With hindsight, I see how all three authors have something in common: creating feisty, ‘outsider’ female protagonists who struggle to make their way in a sometimes hostile world. Anne and Laura are very bright, too, and these books are about the connections of family and friendships as much as anything, subjects that still resonate with me.

Where and when do you write? Talk about the process of writing your latest book.

I tend to think up plot lines and develop characters when I’m not at my desk – when I can allow my thoughts to flow freely. So trains are especially good for this – perhaps it’s no coincidence One Moment, One Morning opens on the 7:44 from Brighton to London. Actual writing I do on a computer. I can type pretty fast and I find it’s the best way to get it words down, before they disappear. I then reread and edit printed run-outs as it helps to see the words on the page.

What started you writing?

I’ve been writing since I remember. I wrote stories and illustrated them when I was a little girl, made them into books and made my friends and family read them. I was as bossy then as I am now!

What book are you reading right now?

A book by a friend of mine, Paula Morris. Forbidden Cities is a collection of short stories set in different cities around the world. Paula and I met 25 years ago at university, and have remained in touch since, even though she lives in the US. She gave me her latest book as a thank you last time she came to stay - it’s terrific. She writes with precision, emotion and wry humour – the latter, especially, I enjoy, as her sense of humour is something I treasure in our friendship.

What book do you wish you had written and why?

None – that would be like wishing to be someone else. I’m quite happy being me, and equally I’m quite happy writing the books I write. Novels are so personal, I couldn’t possibly have written anyone else’s book without being them.

Which writers do you feel have influenced you most?

When I started on One Moment, One Morning, my aim was to write something that I hoped would be sparklingly readable, yet didn’t shy from difficult emotional issues. I like to be entertained but also touched and gain greater understanding when I read, so that’s what I tried to deliver. I also like humour, but character-based is humour more my bag than outright comic writing. (Give me Jane Austen over PG Woodhouse, for instance.) Recently, it’s probably writers who occupy similar terrain who have influenced me most: Maggie O’Farrell, Patrick Gale, Julie Myerson, Joanna Briscoe, Salley Vickers and Alice Sebold. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy other authors – far from it – but they probably haven’t influenced me so directly – it’s reading these writers that led me to want to raise the bar when it came to my own work.

Which book would you take to a desert island, and why?

A notebook. I think being able to do my own writing would be the only way I’d stay sane without anyone to talk to. And if we’re playing Desert Island Discs I’d get The Complete Works of Shakespeare and The Bible anyway!

What advice would you give to any budding authors?

Whilst I imagine some writers will say nice encouraging things like ‘try, try again’ and ‘it took so and so 30 rejections before their work was accepted and now she’s a best selling author’, I would say, learn to hone your writing. Edit and re-edit your own work so you avoid repetition and clich�s. Keep your viewpoints consistent, check your tenses don’t jump about, and take a hatchet to superfluous passages when need be. I get asked to read a lot of stuff –goodness knows what agents and editors get – and a vast amount is lazily written. Would be novelists should learn to be tough on themselves before showing their writing to anyone.