Author Q&A: Sarah Jane Butler

– Interview by Fiona Thompson

Fiona Thompson spoke to Sussex-based writer, Sarah Jane Butler, about her first novel, Starling, described as ‘a beautifully written debut’ by Katherine May, author of Wintering.

The story takes us into the world of Starling, a 19 year old who has lived a nomadic existence all her life, travelling in a converted van with Mar, her strong-willed mother.

One morning, Mar walks out and doesn’t come back, leaving Starling to fend for herself. But is this fledgling ready to fly? The novel describes Starling’s journey as she tests her survival skills and searches for a place where she belongs.

In your acknowledgements, you thank a young woman who welcomed you into her bender when you were lost in a forest in South Wales at night. Who was she?

Many years ago, I went to Wales with a group of friends. My friend Lucy and I decided to go for a walk and ended up in an enormous forest that completely baffled us. It was pre-mobile phones. We didn’t have a map or a torch or a compass. We were woefully ill-prepared.

As darkness fell, we realised we were completely lost. In the distance, we spotted a flickering light that was coming from a large bender – a dwelling made, essentially, from tarpaulins stretched over poles. A woman aged around 25 came out and invited us inside.

The bender was big enough for a double bed, a wood burner, rugs and a cooking area – it was very cosy. The woman lived there with her partner. She was eight and a half months pregnant, and told us she was going to have her baby there, with a midwife present.

She led us to a path out of the woods and, after a bit, we heard footsteps behind us. A friend of hers had come to help us find our way out. He took us past a large communal tepee where they held gatherings and dances, then some other people from the group drove us back to our cottage.

How did this experience feed into Starling?

It gave me an insight into a life that looked very insecure from the outside, but was in fact well organised and full of people who looked out for each other. I thought, ‘What a great way to live.’ I’m not sure I’d want to live in that world all the time, but it’s a way of life I ended up exploring many years later in Starling.

Why is your main character called Starling?

Everyone asks me that, but there’s no deep significance to the name. I suppose it does suit her character, because she’s fidgety, bright and beautiful in a subtle way. But there’s no more meaning to it than that.

Who inspired the character of Mar, Starling’s mother?

Since the 1980s I’ve written letters on behalf of human rights campaigners with my local Amnesty group, and I am always in awe of the women who risk their lives to protest against despotic regimes.

I wondered what impact that kind of dedication would have on these women’s families. In Starling, I investigate what happens to the mother-daughter relationship when the mother is so fiercely and implacably committed to a certain set of values.

You’ve said that your novel started with images, rather than words. That’s a different approach for a writer.

It is! I started with an image in my mind of a girl walking away from me across an empty landscape, and knew she was looking for home, whatever that was.

Much later, in 2013, I went to a writer’s retreat near Land’s End in Cornwall. It was December and I had no idea what I was doing. I spent a lot of time walking up and down the coast and feeling really exposed. So I started making sketches in charcoal. I sketched two main characters, a powerful block of a mother next to a scampering, lively, smaller daughter. I stuck that sketch to the front of my notebook and it’s amazing how accurately it represents how Mar and Starling turned out.

The first draft of your novel centred on a pandemic. You spent seven years working on it and finished it in March 2020. How did you feel when Covid hit?

I was afraid about how the pandemic would play out. By then, I’d done a lot of research on pandemics. Covid was plainly an extremely frightening virus and I was freaked out about the effect it could have on clinically vulnerable people in my family.

Initially, I didn’t think about the implications of Covid for my novel at all. I was just really happy to finish my book because it had been a long, hard push.

People advised you to submit your manuscript quickly when the pandemic started. How wise was that advice?

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best advice. But it worked out well for me in the end.

I submitted the manuscript to some agents and a couple of small independent publishers. The agents were positive about my writing, but they didn’t like the pandemic angle. So I put the manuscript away on a high shelf and decided to come back to it in a couple of years.

In May 2021, over a year later, Fairlight Books got in touch and offered me a contract to publish Starling. It was a crazy time because that same week I heard I’d received a year’s grant from The Arts Council to write about the River Medway. So I knew I’d have the time and breathing space to work on both the river project and Starling.

Fairlight Books also wanted you to remove the pandemic from your novel, so you had to rewrite 40,000 words in four months. What was that like?

Ah, yes. That was very intense. But in a way, it was a huge relief. Previously, the pandemic kept dictating the action. In the new draft, I could allow the emotional lives of my characters to drive the story.

I worked on nothing but Starling for the entire four months and delivered it three days before Christmas 2021.

Starling cooks some amazing food from the herbs, berries and leaves that she forages. I’d love the recipes for her nettle soup, hedge greens and mushroom quiche, and berry flapjacks. When is the Starling cook book coming out?

Ha! I have to admit that I don’t have the recipes – yet. I’ll have to ask Starling.

What have you learned about writing that you’d like to share with other 26ers?

  • Allow yourself time for free thinking – and maybe sketching – at the beginning. Give yourself time to explore your ideas.
  • Don’t imitate other writers. Resolve to write like yourself.
  • Don’t leave any characters dangling. If they’re there, they have to have a purpose.
  • Expect your editor to get back to you quickly once you’ve submitted the first draft. I think mine came back within two weeks.
  • Writing a novel is nothing like writing copy, even if you’ve written book-length projects for clients. A poetry writer once told me I should be less organised in my writing, so my big challenge was to be messier, to let go of my inner editor and allow the poetry in.

What’s next for you?

I have another novel that’s beginning to take shape. I’ve also submitted a proposal for my non-fiction book about the River Medway to agents.

Thank you! And congratulations on writing such a wonderful hymn to the natural world.

– Interview by Fiona Thompson

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.