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Writing in no-man’s land

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Q&A | 6 minute read
Sarah Nelson Smith finds a creative space, free from home, office and underwater distractions

Where do you write?

I write anywhere at all that I can shield my screen. I’m ridiculously secretive when I write, and am loath to let anyone see what I’m working on before it’s finished. This tends to mean late-night writing sessions at the dining room table when my family is asleep upstairs, or sitting in the window seat on an aeroplane, where I can angle my laptop away from fellow passengers who doubtless have no interest in peering across at my screen anyway. When you seize the opportunity to write on planes and trains, you have the added bonus of being nowhere: you’re not tethered to home or office with the distractions that either can bring. Rather, you’re in a creative no-man’s land, free from emails and phone calls for a temporary but wonderful period.

Writing You Didn’t Mention the Piranhas felt almost like penning a confessional. I constantly sought out opportunities to write, and to release the story onto the page. Sitting at a battered wooden table in my favourite local café, with a big mug of coffee and pitcher of water, I remember thinking that I suddenly felt like an author. The authors in films always tend to sit in coffee shops, topping up on caffeine and furiously pouring out their souls. The excitement of recognition: here I was – I was doing it! There was a very real possibility that I might just count as an author too now!

What’s the last really good book you read? And the best film or theatre production?

The last book that I really couldn’t put down was The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. I was on a beach holiday at the time and the juxtaposition of the bleak setting of the novel and my own surroundings made it more of a jolt back to reality each time I set the book down. It left me wanting to learn and understand more than I did about the human stories of the Holocaust. This is what I believe a great book does: it never seeks to be a complete room that you can examine and understand, but rather a doorway to a whole new world that the reader can explore in as much detail as they choose.

My favourite theatre production? This is a very easy answer: Six. It’s a British musical written by two Cambridge University students, Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow, bringing together the six wives of Henry VIII, to sing their story. I’ve seen it four times now. It’s brilliantly written and has music that gets stuck in your head for weeks. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

What book marked you as a child or teenager?

Not necessarily one of the great literary masterpieces of the twentieth century, but I adored the Jill’s Gymkhana series by Ruby Ferguson. I used to save up my pocket money each week to buy the next one in the series, and devoured them almost as soon as I bought them. I lost count of how many times I reread them. The books inspired me to get my first job working in a stables and mucking out, cleaning the tack and grooming the horses, in return for a few precious hours of riding lessons each week. The fact that I needed to work hard in return for time on horseback rather than simply having my parents pay for lessons for me somehow made me feel closer to the protagonist, who had done the same.

There was one line in the books that tipped over from pathos into hilarity though: one sad morning, the impoverished Jill crept down to the stable to spend time with her pony, where she ‘wept a bitter tear into Black Boy’s mane’. After reading that, whenever anyone in my family fell into the trap of being too self-pitying, one or other of us would suggest that they go and weep a bitter tear into Black Boy’s mane, as a reminder not to take the moment too seriously, and risk losing the sympathy of the crowd.

What book inspired you to become a writer?    

Every book inspired me! The idea of writing a book feels incredibly personal: after such a long period of the book being a silent dialogue to which only you are privy, suddenly, it’s out there, and anyone at all can pick it up and root through your words, with the freedom to judge them however they see fit. I found it surprisingly overwhelming the day that the eBook version of my book was released. Comments were posted online from friends and colleagues, and also from people I’d never met. The feeling of total loss of control came as a shock. So too did the feeling of gratitude: we all have busy lives and limited resources, yet here were people choosing to spend their time and their money reading words that I’d put together. That felt like both a privilege and a responsibility not to allow either to be wasted.

Pen and paper or laptop?

I love the romance of sitting with a pen and paper, but the practicality of writing a book on a laptop wins out. I love to write poetry too though, and that tends to be on scraps of paper, or in the notes app on my phone when I should be sleeping or perhaps focusing on something else.

Do you reread books or is life too short?

I do reread – not frequently, but when I want to be taken back to a particular time and place. It’s like looking through an old photo album. I remember reading Are You Experienced? by Willian Sutcliffe when I had just finished my gap year living and working in China, and clearly recognised the parody of the group of clueless students in the novel who were travelling around India. Reading the same book years later, when my own viewpoint had changed, gave me a different relationship with the characters in it.

When did you last visit your local library?

Sadly, it has been a while. Libraries and churches have always felt to me like havens, where you can be certain of a warm welcome and a place to sit and think, and to just be. My idea of a decadent day is spending it all in a bookshop or library, with no phone or tech, and no place I need to be. Just books, and a decent supply of coffee.

What classic have you lied about reading?

I’ve skirted over the fact that I’ve never read War and Peace. I do want to, and my excuse that it’s too hefty to lug around to read on the train fails now that eBooks have been invented. I’ll nudge it up to the top of the reading list…

Finally, what’s the elevator pitch for your new book?

You Didn’t Mention the Piranhas: A Crisis Survival Guide is the literary equivalent of a long chat over a drink (or several), sharing insights that will help anyone contemplating their own leadership journey. It gives a first-hand, close-up view of how the KFC distribution crisis of 2018 was untangled, and shares lessons that were learned the hard way. It’s an easy, enjoyable read, and will help people to make better mistakes next time.

You Didn’t Mention the Piranhas by Sarah Nelson Smith is published by Unbound.

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