Sarah Lean grew up in Wells, Somerset but now lives in Dorset with her husband, son and dog. She has worked as a page planner for a newspaper, a stencil-maker and a gardener, amongst various other things. She gained a first class English degree and became a primary school teacher before returning to complete an MA in Creative and Critical Writing with University of Winchester. A Dog Called Homeless was her first novel, and a brilliant success. She has followed that up with the equally beautiful stories A Horse for Angel and The Forever Whale.
My mum brought home a typewriter to type up scripts for the amateur dramatic society. I was about ten years old at the time. I remember standing by her shoulder and asking her if she would type my stories and made up some there and then. I had a feeling that I cannot describe, a word that doesn’t exist in the dictionary. It’s related to shiver, excitement, surprise, possibility, dawn, home, and love. I wrote stories now and then, hid them, sometimes showed Mum.
Eight years ago I decided to attend university to study English because I wanted to be a teacher. At the first session for creative writing our tutor asked us why we wanted to write. I said, ‘Because my junior school headmaster said he hoped to see me in print one day’. I suppose it was always there, I’d just forgotten.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
I read Andersen’s Fairy Stories – I still have the book; it’s very old and beautifully illustrated. Enid Blyton, especially The Faraway Tree.
There’s an old fable that stands out to me, about a king with three daughters who couldn’t decide which one to pass his kingdom to. He asked them to bring him a gift to show how much they loved him, to help him choose. The youngest daughter brought salt, and he banished her until he realised its importance. I have no idea why that stands out.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organise your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
Haphazard! I need to be more disciplined and organised.
I write at the dining room table, because the window looks out on the garden. It needs to be quiet, preferably with nobody else in the house, except the dog. He often sleeps on the chair beside me (Harry’s a border terrier cross, if you’re wondering).
If it’s warm, I’ll write in the garden because I love being outdoors. When walking or traveling I rehearse things again and again in my mind and can usually remember what I want to write about.
I often leave the house without my notebook and have to write notes on receipts and scraps of paper, questions about the characters and plot, phrases, speech that stands out. It often surprises me when I come across the notes again, or when the dog has found them and chewed them. I could definitely be more organised.
Inspiration is everywhere, just like stories. For me, the key is to just look, just listen, wherever I am. I watch people. I listen to their vocabulary, try to understand what it tells me about them.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Don’t listen to that voice in your head which is convincing you that you’re not in the right mood to write, that other things are more pressing, that you’re not ready, the weather needs to be better. Just keep going.
Expect to get it wrong, again and again. Practice is paramount, expect to learn, love learning.
Don’t worry about where you are going. It’s what you are doing right now that matters. Trust your guts.
Interview reproduced with thanks to HarperCollins Children’s Books