About The Author
Sara Taylor was born in rural Virginia, where she was homeschooled by her evangelical Christian parents. Her writing has appeared in the magazines The Fog Horn, ThickJam, Digital Americana, Nibble, The Blue Route, The Jack and Hail, as well as the horror anthology Deep Cuts, pubished by Evil Jester Press. She won the 2012 Stonybrook Southampton Fiction Prize for a short story that was to form the starting point for her first novel. She is currently working on a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia.
Her debut novel was The Shore, which was longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. It is set in among a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean that has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. As the book moves back and forth through over two centuries, it describes the deeply affecting legacy of two island families, illuminating the small miracles and miseries of a community of outsiders, and the bonds of blood and fate that connect them all.
Her latest novel, The Lauras, now out in paperback, follows a mother and her child - whose gender is never revealed - on an enigmatic road trip from Virginia to California and into Ma's past, returning to the places where she'd lived as a child in foster care and as a teenager on the run, repaying debts and keeping promises and all the while strengthening the ties that bind parent and child. Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Sara about writing a genderless character, the difficulty of seeing our parents as people and about how her next novel is the one for which she's been saving all her autobiography.
Below that, you can read another interview with Sara, about her debut, The Shore.
Questions & Answers
What gave you the idea for the book?
The Lauras was supposed to be a short story. The original idea was to begin with an adult kidnapping a child off its parents’ front porch, with the fact that they were relatives and the (mostly good) reasons for the kidnapping coming out slowly over the course of the story. I tried writing the first page in the third person, but it clunked like a bucket of rocks. When I tried again in the first person Alex’s voice came out, which was quite a bit older than I’d originally intended but worked too well to abandon.
Alex’s gender neutrality takes on increasing significance as the story unfolds, and adds an extra layer of complexity to the way mother/son and mother/daughter relationships are conventionally depicted. Why was it important for you to draw the character this way?
It was important to me that Alex remain genderless because it invites readers to challenge the assumptions they might make about Alex’s gender and the implication of that gender. It also avoids the baggage that would have come with an explicitly mother/son or mother/daughter story, and leaves a little space for the reader’s personal experience to colour the reading.
How difficult was it to write a gender neutral character and not to have a mental image of a ‘he’ or a ‘she’?
Not any more difficult than, say, writing about a female character and retaining the image of ‘she’. My intention was less ‘write a book with an agender narrator’ than ‘write a book with a narrator’ with the discovery that the narrator was agender coming about in a similar way to my finding that their family had a surprising amount of baggage. It seems to have surprised my editor a bit that he couldn’t find an errant pronoun that gave it away; there wasn’t really anything to give away in the first place.
You’ve previously said you always seek to avoid autobiography in your writing, but how easy was it this time around, given the centrality of the family and in particular mother/child relationships?
Over the course of my childhood my family drove the entire length of the U.S. east coast, from Halifax to the Everglades, to visit my grandparents, so eternal car rides would feature pretty heavily in my autobiography. But other than that, there isn’t very much of my personal experience in the book, especially when it comes to Alex’s relationship to their mother. I have made use of quite a few family stories that simply couldn’t be allowed to go gently into that good night. I’m curious whether my extended family will still be speaking to me when they spot those.
Do you agree with Alex that ‘It’s rare that you get finality to things, the way we like our books and movies to end… That’s why we read, and watch, and listen…’
I think people find pattern and symmetry satisfying, and though life often follows patterns it’s more chaotic than symmetrical. One of the functions of fiction is allowing people to live the lives that are closed to them. For a lot of people, a life with narrative shape and satisfying closure is just as impossible as turning eleven years old and discovering they are a boy wizard.
Alex says of Ma, ‘I felt like I’d never really seen her before, like I’d held onto a shorthand image of her that was one half how she’d looked when I was six and the other half the idea of “mother,” which wasn’t too different from the idea of ‘God’ when you thought about it.’ Alex’s opportunity to really see Ma is one that children seldom get. Do you think we ever really do see our parents in the way that Alex gets to and is it always desirable to do so?
I think it’s possible to get little glimpses of who our parents are as people in the normal course of things. It was both frightening and liberating to realise that my parents were fallible human beings, and there are moments when I wish I could return to ignorance, especially when they bring up politics. Discovering that our parents are people seems to be a part of growing up that takes a little longer than the rest of it.
Why was Ma so economic with her explanations to Alex about the purpose of the trip? Does she have to ‘learn’ Alex much as Alex has to learn her, or is something else at play?
Just like children have difficulty seeing their parents as more than parents, a lot of parents have difficulty seeing their children as individuals. Ma keeps forgetting that Alex is no longer at the biscuit-and-booster-seat stage, that a little explanation isn’t just welcome but necessary. That, and people often have complex and contradictory reasons for what they do; for a good part of the novel she isn’t entirely sure of her purpose and motivations herself.
Did you have to make the road trip yourself in order to map their journey? If so, how did it dovetail with the writing of the novel, both practically and emotionally?
One day I hope that I get the chance to make the trip in the novel. For the most part the journey was based on research and other peoples’ experiences, though I have driven parts of the route. I’ve always been extremely hesitant to write about things of which I don’t have first-hand experience – which doesn’t go very well with an aversion to autobiography – so I decided not to make the trip in part to force myself to venture beyond my realm of comfort.
Your first novel, The Shore, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Was all of this acclaim a burden when writing the traditionally difficult second novel, or did it give you confidence?
About a year and a half passed between signing the contract for The Shore to be published and it actually being published, so by the time people started reading it I’d finished a draft of The Lauras and was dabbling in a third novel. The response to The Shore would probably have made me nervous if I’d waited until it came to start on the next project, but by that point I was having too much fun with Alex to really be swayed by outside factors.
Can you say anything about your next novel?
The next novel is the one that I’ve been saving all of the autobiography for; the working title is Belief. It’s about a couple that gets involved with evangelical charismatic Christianity as a way of dealing with family and personal tragedy. They decide to homeschool their children because of their faith and in reaction to the Satanic Panic, but as the children grow up the dictates of their environment are increasingly at odds with their needs and desires, until it seems that the one thing that held the family together may be the thing that destroys it. The first draft is finished, but it will probably be a while until it’s fit to be seen.
We also interviewed Sara on the publication of her debut, The Shore, about avoiding the trap of autobiography, teaching her creative writing students that writers aren't born that way and how she'd like to tie up some loose ends in future fiction.
'Chloe's Story', with which you won the Stonybrook Southampton Short Fiction Prize, forms the opening chapter. Was it already part of a larger work-in-progress when it was published?
In 2008 I tried to write a story about two sisters living on the edge of a marsh. No matter what I did with it the piece refused to work, so I abandoned the idea. When I sat down a few years later to start writing what is now The Shore, the first thing that came out of my pen – and it seemed to eerily write itself – was ‘Chloe’s Story,’ and it was only much later that I realized that it was the inside-out version of the story I’d tried to write and couldn’t. Even though it was written first, that chapter spent a long time in the middle of the book before I realized that it belonged at the beginning, where it had put itself. I think that it has always been part of a larger narrative, but that I just wasn’t smart enough to realize it at first.
Rural Virginia is the place of your own upbringing. Were you wary of straying into autobiography?
Very much so, at first. I have a reflexive aversion to writing about my own experiences, so it turns out that that specific fear was unfounded. There are details – crabbing off the end of a dock, the eternity of Route 13 – that I’ve experienced, but they aren’t details that are unique to me.
The majority of your narrators are women, and they endure ongoing misogyny and abuse in this fundamentally patriarchal community. Was a particular challenge to give voice to people who have so often been compelled to suffer in silence?
As a child I frequently found myself tangent to those kinds of stories. My parents were very involved in an evangelical church, so I met people that were trying to work through those kinds of situations and looking to the church for help, or to share their testimony. My mother hoarded reading material, and when I ran out of my own books I moved on to hers – I wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter, but I’d read about women being forced into prostitution and the details of the war in Darfur before I knew where babies came from. A woman who went to our church was in a neck brace when I first saw her; her husband had tried to kill her, but when she divorced him the court decided to give him custody of their sons. The compulsion to try and make sense of it all has never gone away – what is wrong with society that it allows these things to happen? There seems to be a general consensus that the large-scale events – Darfur – are simply wrong, but not everyone seems to agree on the small scale issues – there are people who still think that the woman in the neck brace could have avoided it all if she’d been a better wife.
You worked on the book with editors in both Britain and America. Did you find their advice complementary?
For the most part; the notes from my English editor came through first, and the American notes followed when I was nearly finished addressing the first set. There isn’t much disparity between the two versions of the book.
As well as undertaking your own PhD at the University of East Anglia, you're teaching Creative Writing to undergraduates. Are there any lessons that you're trying to teach them based on your own experience of completing your novel?
The most important one, I think, is that some of them – possibly most of them – began the year with the misconception that skill is something you’re born with and all great artists are self-destructive geniuses; I hope that the re-education away from those ideas is completed before the semester ends. I wish we had the time to properly discuss revision as a process of re-seeing, re-imagining, and occasionally reworking a piece entirely, but that subject alone could have taken up the entire winter. They seem to be slowly getting past the initial fear of the clean blank page, and hopefully coming to see the freedom in constraints; their work keeps bowling me over.
While the Eastern Shore of Virginia has seen radical changes, such as the building of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and the development of tourism, the lives of the indigenous population are much the same. Is there much cross-over between Virginia of The Shore and the areas visited by outsiders?
There are points that coincide. Chincoteague and Assateague are very much popular with tourists, as is Onancock, but even in those places there are little pockets where outsiders never seem to go. Tasley and Assawoman are a bit more difficult to find, and there are dozens and dozens of hamlets that you can breeze right through without knowing it if you blink at the wrong time. A lot of visitors seem to stick to Rout 13, but it’s the places off the main road where people do most of their living.
With the novel dipping in and out of the history of two families across over two and a half centuries, you introduce quite a range of characters. Are there any whose stories you'd like to expand upon in the future?
There were several chapters that were cut along the way from the novel, and several more that haven’t yet made it to the rough draft phase, that I’m waiting for the free time to get back to. I don’t want to neatly tie up all of the loose ends, but there are those that I’d very much like to take up again and see where else they lead.