Sara Collins nearly didn't become a writer at all. Having originally studied law at the London School of Economics, she worked as a lawyer for seventeen years before quitting to embark upon a MA in Creative Writing at Cambridge University in 2014.
It was a gamble that paid off. Her debut novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, just won Best First Novel in the 2019 Costa Book Awards. Inspired by her love of gothic fiction, it's a thriller about a woman's fight to tell her story after she is put on trial for her employers’ murder in Georgian London. As she told us back in April: 'I didn’t want to write another “slave story”, but once upon a time I’d have loved to read a gothic romance about a woman who happened to have been a slave.'
Here, we speak to Sara about her writing process, the authors that inspire her and what makes her happiest.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
Toni Morrison. I am in awe of how she reworked the English language, as well as her astonishing grace, and her quick, almost obliterating intelligence. But, most importantly, she succeeded because she was so unequivocally herself (and unequivocally black) rather than in spite of it. It takes a special kind of courage to make a path where there is no path. In doing so, she became the path, in particular for so many of the black women who dared to write because she did – for that, she has my gratitude as well as my admiration.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I had a series of summer jobs during high school and university, including babysitting, manning a hotel reception and working in a clothing boutique, but the worst was the time I spent counting pills in a pharmacy. That level of boredom plays strange tricks on you. It begins to feel like serving a long sentence. I still sometimes see the counting spatula and hear the tick of pills falling through the funnel in my sleep.
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times.
Jane Eyre is one of the books I read at least once a year during my teens. I was instantly and eternally captivated by the idea that a mere novel could generate such a fierce and compelling persona. Jane seemed alive. It’s one of the best character studies ever written, a marvellous portrait of the value of anger while refusing to limit yourself.
What the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s perfect advice, not just for writing a novel, but for the whole experience of being published: Anne Lammott quoting the coach in Cool Runnings: ‘If you weren’t enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough after’.
What makes you most happy?
Pistachio gelato, reggae music, the feeling of getting to the midpoint of a good book (like sinking into a warm bath) and knowing you have some time left with it.
What’s your biggest regret?
The one I can share publicly? That I didn’t start writing novels in my twenties like I wanted to.
What’s your ideal writing scenario?
There isn’t one. I find writing painful and difficult and often have to force myself to do it solely in order to get to the end-product, rescued by the pleasure of revising and excavating the real story from the rubbish. There’s a misconception that writers are nothing more than patient receptacles with a lot of time on our hands, ‘receiving’ stories which we then transcribe for millions of pounds (come to think of it, that’s my ideal scenario!) but the reality is that it’s hard work. I treat it like a job now, taking proper breaks and trying not to neglect my health while I do it.
...and your ideal reading one?
Anywhere, anytime! Best lounging under shade near an ocean with good snacks and drinks (calories consumed while reading do not count).
What’s your favourite book you’ve read this year?
So many! The one I read most recently that I’m currently raving about is Nina X by Ewan Morrison.
What inspired you to write your book?
As Frannie [the protagonist in Collin’s novel The Confessions of Frannie Langton] says: ‘all those books I read, and all those people who wrote them’.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is out now.