A photo of Sarah Pearse in black and white against an blue-tinged background, with a ski slope, Agatha Christie and the words "21 questions" in the top right hand corner

‘You have to know how to keep people turning the page’: 21 Questions with Sarah Pearse

The Devon-based novelist and author of The Sanatorium and The Retreat on her love of Kate Atkinson, the best writing advice she's ever had and the fears that inspire her fiction

Even before its release Sarah Pearse's debut novel, The Sanatorium, had been acclaimed by the likes of bestselling crime author Richard Osman, who called it a "must-read", and Reese Witherspoon selecting it for her book club.

Selling over half a million copies and achieving the top spot on the Sunday Times Bestseller list, Pearse's highly anticipated second book in her DS Elin Warner series, The Retreat, is an atmospheric locked-room mystery set on an idyllic island where a body is found at the bottom of the cliffs while guests are relaxing at the wellness retreat above.

To celebrate the release of The Retreat, we revisit Pearse's answers to our 21 Questions about life and literature, in which she explains her love of Kate Atkinson and Sarah Walters, her dreams of hanging out with Agatha Christie and the unexpected job she'd be doing if she wasn't writing. 

Which writer do you most admire and why?

One author I routinely read and re-read is Tessa Hadley, both her short stories and her novels. She has such a beautifully lyrical writing style and her descriptions of the natural world are second to none. It is prose to savour and I love the compelling, realistic characters she creates.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Dogger by Shirley Hughes where Dave loses his favourite soft toy, Dogger. I too had a favourite soft toy that I couldn’t bear to be parted from so I very clearly remember the idea of losing Dogger as pretty traumatic!

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

Northern Lights, the first in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The world building and plot, the intricate writing and characters swept me away. I was completely transported – so much so, I remember wanting my own daemon…

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

'I think some of my early writing was quite self-indulgent…'

A well-thumbed copy of the Best British Short Stories 2012, edited by Nicholas Royle. I treated myself to this book and came away so inspired by the short stories inside that it led me to start writing my own. After a messy few first attempts, I entered several competitions and was placed and published in various magazines. It was from there that I started to take my writing seriously.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I don’t know if the job itself was strange but the hierarchy certainly was – I had a brief stint working in a Chinese restaurant. It took quite a while for me to be considered experienced enough to be "allowed" to shred the crispy duck at the table…

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Write something you’re passionate about but also think about your audience and why they read. I think some of my early writing was quite self-indulgent… Linked to this is a comment I read about understanding plot and what makes people keep turning the page. Without this fundamental understanding of story, I think it is very easy for a book to meander. No matter how good the writing itself is, if the story isn’t strong enough, many people will struggle to read on.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Aside from everything Tessa Hadley, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. (I’ve also listened to this many times too – the narrator of the audiobook, Simon Vance, is perfect; just how I’d pictured Dr Faraday in my head.) I love everything about Sarah Waters’s writing – each sentence is honed and precise and her characters so well-drawn. The book is multi-layered – you have creepy ghostly going-ons, a brilliant cast of characters and a commentary on society, all in one delicious story!

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

Probably Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It was on my pile as essential research for The Sanatorium, but I struggled to get more than a quarter through. It’s staring at me now as I write this…

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

A ski instructor.

What makes you happiest?

Being outdoors with my family – in the mountains if it’s winter, or in the summer we’ll be found at the beach. I’m always active and I get itchy feet if I can’t get outside.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I love rockpooling – once the tide is out it is amazing what you can find. I loved it as a kid and have never lost the love of exploring, except now I do it with my husband and daughters too.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

Complete silence with one (or both!) of my two cats beside me, looking out at a lovely view (again, mountains or beach.) The complete silence part was more or less impossible during lockdown so I’m hoping it improves in the coming months…

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

'Coffee – all day, every day.'

I saw Jacqueline Wilson on a platform at Paddington Station once and I put up my hand up to wave as if I actually knew her, before realising I didn’t!

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

It would have to be Agatha Christie – I would love to hear more about the inspiration for her plots and about the people she met in what is always heralded as the golden age of travel. I think I’d probably serve a bit of a smorgasbord of foods inspired by the exotic locations in her book.

What’s your biggest fear?

Being suffocated. I have major claustrophobia and this manifests in various ways – fear of being trapped in a lift (and running out of air!), being buried in an avalanche… The list goes on and some of these appear in The Sanatorium!

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

To breathe underwater. I’d love to be able to swim freely and go deep without worrying about scuba gear. Even though I completed a diving course I never really enjoyed it due to my claustrophobia as mentioned in my previous answer! I’d love to spend a few days exploring what’s under the surface.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

The Kingdom by Jo Nesbo. It follows two brothers, Ray Calum Opgard and Carl Abel Opgard, as   Carl plans to build a spa and resort on land the brothers inherited in a rural village deep in the Norwegian mountains. But Carl’s return to the village after living away for many years unearths some long-buried secrets about their family and the close-knit community around them. There’s a simmering darkness to the novel but it isn’t explicit – it builds slowly, page by page, revealing secrets about the characters that begin to shift your perception of the brothers and the book as a whole. A must-read slice of rural noir that I couldn’t put down.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Yes – it’s actually one of my favourite places to read as it is one of the only places I can be alone!

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Coffee – all day, every day. Cold, hot. (Although I switch to decaf after lunch!)

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

This is actually an easy choice – A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. It tells the story of Teddy Todd, the younger brother of Ursula Todd who was the main character in Atkinson’s earlier novel about the Todd family, Life After Life. Teddy was a WWII bomber pilot and the story moves backwards and forward in time, spanning his entire life – as a child right through to when he is a grandfather. So cleverly written and poignant, it makes me cry every time I read it.

What inspired you to write your book?

Two things: living in Switzerland in my twenties, and reading an article in a local Swiss magazine about the history of sanatoria in the town of Crans Montana, where my book is set. As soon as I finished the article, I went online to read more. I unearthed so much fascinating information and within just a few hours I knew I’d found the seed of the idea that would become The Sanatorium.

This interview was first published on the 17th February 2021.

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