Saturday, 29 March 2014

Fibro, Sex and a Bestseller - Part 2

Here is the second part of my article and interview with Sarah Darling, the author of Pure Filth...

Despite the difficulty of finding an agent, Sarah did get herself one, even if it was for only three weeks, but then, she laughs out loud, ‘he very politely dumped me. He explained that he thought the story was “far too explicit” for the main market but too good a story to be “lost” to erotica as he put it. He said he had no idea how to pitch it. And then came along 50 Shades which told me that the market did indeed want explicit and that the “main market” could cope with it. That’s why I titled it Pure Filth. I wanted to make it clear what the content was. What I understood from my research was that publishers have projects ready in advance to release over a period of time, and they all have different time scales to work to. I also understood that, yes, my book would be too explicit for some, so I attempted to tone the sex scenes down a little, but it didn’t feel like me, it didn’t feel quite right, and I wanted it to be true and honest, and that was what I was comfortable with.’ And so it seemed, did one of her six daughters. She read it through as if she was an editor, armed with a red pen and marked it up.

‘There were times she sat me down and said, “that was a pile of crap, you can write that again, only do a better job of it!” or “mum, that’s shit, start that paragraph again.” It sounds pretty brutal, but it really wasn’t. It was just the thing I needed to help me write in a much better way and indeed to find my style.’ 

At the beginning, before she had written a word, she went on a creative writing course but after three or four sessions she gave it up. ‘I thought it would help, but I felt the course I was on would stifle me and get in the way of my thoughts and of what I really wanted to say. The fact that I was a teacher I think was a big help as I was used to putting together lesson plans and prepping hand-outs. So I did have a structured way on how to deal with the book as a whole, and for each chapter within it. For example I would have the framework for the whole story and pad it out with other individual smaller storylines as I went. But when so much of it is true it’s more about remembering than making things up. I don’t have to worry about storylines and plots that say a thriller might have.’ 

For the first eighteen months, Sarah continues, ‘I had a blank page and a synopsis. This was a very important part of my writing although I hadn’t written a single word. I had to decide how I would portray characters, but the biggest struggle was how would I portray myself, how honest was I prepared to be? Having left full-time school at the age of twelve to work full-time (because my parents thought I should pay for my keep now that I was old enough!) I missed vital foundation blocks within my education. On top of that, my family had moved a great deal so I had already gone to eleven different schools by the age of twelve. The day of the National Curriculum hadn’t yet arrived so I read about the Romans in one school, and then again in the next, and the next and completely missed the Vikings. This also was the case for English, Maths and every other subject. So I couldn’t possibly write as people should - I simply didn’t know how. In saying that, I believe my weakness is also my strength as I throw away convention and write exactly as I feel. I write as I think or feel and my readers get it, maybe because I’m just Joe Blogs, Miss Ordinary, Miss Nobody and so is everyone else - or a good many at least. The other factor which plays a part I think, is that I read Military History almost every day of my life. It’s largely memoirs or war diaries. What interests me most is why did they do this rather than who did what, when and where, when it came to the battles... No! I am far more curious about how they felt about it, what impact did it have on them? Those are questions that I ask myself a lot about my own life, but I guess that’s the therapist in me.’ 

Sarah describes her book as sexual comedy that has an underlying story of change and sexual empowerment. Based on her own life, it is, she told me, about ninety-seven percent true. As with any novel names and certain places have been changed and the only character in the book with their real name is Sarah herself. ‘Every character is based on someone I know. Most of the storylines are also true, but for legal reasons, true identities had to be protected. When I have spoken to people at my book signings, many people have said that they have had very similar stories or situations in their own life, some of my reviews on Amazon also confirm that. I think that for today’s world, my story is that of many others.’ 

A few days after our interview, I call Sarah to talk about some things that we didn’t have time to discuss during the interview. She has just returned from a weekend of book signings in Bridgwater. Both were organised by Sarah herself. ‘They are quite involved to arrange, but I do enjoy them as they give me the opportunity to gauge a lot of feedback from readers, which is a great help to guide me in the right direction for my next book as I’m able to identify what readers like about my writing.’ The reaction, she says, has been tremendous. ‘I thought women of my age might be interested but I have found that men and women, of all ages and sexuality, are loving the book. A gay friend of mine was laughing all through a reading I did, and another gay friend said he felt he related to so much of it. Young women are enjoying it as much as older ones, I’m truly surprised but thrilled to bits. Again, it’s because of just how truthful it is. I think people can relate to it. At one of the earlier book signings it became clear to me that people are not just reading the book, but devouring it. One gentleman came up to me and said, ‘I just want to ask one question, how is your youngest girl as I’m very worried about her,’ he knew my book inside out. People don’t seem to read it passively. Another person, a man, bought if for a lady friend he had, who he thought was going through a similar circumstance that I depicted in the book, he was hoping she would have the strength to leave the situation because of it. I don’t know if she did. Someone else, a lady, came up to me at another book signing, she had already downloaded the book, she was on her own and quietly came up to me and said, she just wanted to say “thank you” for understanding her. She gave me a real hug and somehow I felt my book helped.’ 

As a film buff, and a biographer of movie stars, one of the things I was itching to know is which actress would Sarah have to play her on screen if her book ever gets turned into a film. She tells me Sandra Bullock. ‘In Miss Congeniality, she is both elegant and lovely and damn right clumsy - on a good day that’s me! I strive to be elegant but somehow I never quite pull it off, it’s not an act. The other day I was having a drink in Costa’s with a friend, all dressed-up in a pretty dress and wearing my lippy, when my mobile rang, as I went to answer, it slipped from my hand straight into my hot coffee. We then walked to my car for something, and the heel of one of my stilettos found the grill of the gutter and I went head first into the front of my car! That's daily life for me.’

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Fibro, Sex and a Bestseller

Are you one of those Kindle owners that browse Amazon and download a sample from a book to see if you are going to enjoy reading it, and then, if you do, download the entire book? Well, that's what happened when I came across Pure Filth by Sarah Darling. The reviews were mostly 5-star and each one of them raved about just how good it was! I read the first two chapters of the sample, and was immediately hooked. Once I started I couldn't put it down! It was one of the best books I had read in years - well constructed, written - and honest. After finishing it and feeling somewhat sad that I had, I found a page for the book on Facebook, messaged Sarah and ended up interviewing her, from which I wrote a sort of Vogue cover story type piece, which is currently doing the magazine rounds. But in case it never makes it into print, here is an excerpt...    
Sarah Darling is lying on the floor in a red bikini and matching red stilettos with ankle ties. Her legs are crossed and propped against the wall while she waits for the photographer to stop fiddling with her camera. It is late in the afternoon, and she has been at the tiny little photo studio in Southampton since lunchtime. She is now tired and is stretching out when the photographer tells her to hold that position and snaps her resting. Its the best shot of the day and absolutely perfect for the cover of her first novel, Pure Filth. ‘That photo really was an accident,’ she tells me when we talk about how and why her book has just taken off here and in America and is fast becoming the most talked about book since 50 Shades of Grey. It is the first in a three-part series, following Sarah’s journey from being an overweight, middle-aged and fed-up wife and sex therapist to a slim, divorced and sexually adventurous lady. It merges threads of Fifty Shades with Sex And The City and Shirley Valentine.

She continues to tell me about the photo shoot. ‘I went with a friend to have a girly photo shoot in a studio. We were asked to take several outfits and have different kinds of shots. I wanted to do a bikini shot so I took one along. I felt very awkward in some of the shots, you know, arms crossed and rather clumsy, it didn’t feel natural. It was only when the photographer had to do something with her camera and I had to wait a while she sorted it out that I felt a bit of a lumux and sat down to be more comfortable. Time went by and I got bored so I turned myself around and put my legs up against the wall and started to stretch out, yawn in fact, and that became the photo that you see on the book.’ 

What’s surprising about all of this is that Sarah has Fibromyalgia. Anyone who has the condition will know just how bad it is. It’s the sort of disorder that leaves its victims tired, exhausted, in pain, forgetful, have dietary issues, not have sleep for a few years, suffer with heat and cold sensitivity, and be in absolute ‘bloody’ agony in one spot that was fine before, but now has ‘the whole damn lot in one go, every day!’ As a sufferer myself and well aware of its effect on daily routines, I am still prompted to ask Sarah how, with fibro, she managed to write the book and do all the marketing and publicity that being a self-published author entails. ‘It was tough.’ she says. ‘The only good thing about it is that I can write as and when I like. I only have myself to answer to so that might also be a good thing about not having a publisher as the only deadline I have is whatever I choose to impose on myself. So if I can’t write one day, it’s not a problem and if I wish to write until four in the morning, it’s okay as I’m writing for me. Anyone who knows anything about Fibromyalgia knows that everything you do is painful and exhausting, so I frequently come away from typing with hands, finger, neck, back and everything else killing me!’ 

But that’s not the only reason it took ‘forever’ to write and publish the book. Sarah started putting pen to paper in 2002 while she was still going through some of the things that happen in the book. ‘Something would happen that would be so funny it seemed a shame almost to not write about it. Once that idea got into my head I found that when certain ‘adventures’ happened or a very comical incident or situation occurred, it became clear that there might be enough to write a book about it.’ The birth of the book, she tells me, really came about when she started to jot down notes to remind her what had happened to make her laugh or cry. ‘I wrote them on any bit of scrap I had to hand. I am still working through these scraps of paper, packs of receipts, and envelopes. It was important to make a note of everything because Fibromyalgia plays havoc with your memory, so it was just as well that I did write these notes. Sometimes the real life Annabel and I have chewed the cud on something that happened and she would say “Oh! Did you see the look on so-and-so’s face” or “Oh yes! And then...” which has indeed reminded me more fully. She told me that when she read the book it reminded her of some of the things that happened. She doesn’t think it was very different from how she remembered events other than when it’s obvious to her that something was changed for legal reasons, but she’s still recognized the situation.’

After finishing the manuscript eight years after she started, Sarah then spent another three years trying to get the book published. And that’s when she came across her first stumbling block. She discovered she wasn’t able to approach publishers directly as many of them didn’t accept unsolicited ideas or manuscripts unless it was submitted through an agent. Sarah went out and bought a copy of the Writer's Yearbook and worked her way through the agents listed, and also did some additional research online to find an agent that would be best suited to represent her book, but as any author will tell you, finding an agent is no easy task. Another hurdle that Sarah faced in trying to place her book was that some agents weren’t happy to look at her work if she was approaching other agents at the same time. And oh yes, most them were unlikely to respond much within three to six months. So Sarah followed the rules and faithfully followed each agents requirements and waited the time they asked for. ‘The rejections were always very polite but not always disheartening. Many would send the standard rejection but would biro in a comment such as “loved it, but not for us” or “please keep writing as I really enjoyed it but we are booked up for the next two years.” There was always a feeling of genuineness because somebody had bothered to encourage me to continue.’