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An Interview with Sarah Vaughan, Author of Global Bestsellers

February 19, 2023
Sarah Vaughan
February 19, 2023

Sarah Vaughan is the author of five novels, including the instant international bestseller Anatomy of a Scandal, which has been translated into twenty-four languages and adapted into a hit series for Netflix starring Sienna Miller, Rupert Friend, Michelle Dockery and Naomi Scott. Before she began to write fiction, Sarah Vaughan spent eleven years working at the Guardian, serving as political correspondent, health correspondent and senior reporter. Her experiences as a journalist and the stories she wrote have shaped the novels Sarah has written and her ability to tackle thorny subjects like the secrets between a husband and wife, privilege, consent and social media bullying amongst young girls – the latter of which plays a big part in her 2022 book, Reputation.

Sarah Vaughan has given a writing class to members of The Novelry to discuss everything from why she chose to write fiction after years as a news reporter, to how it felt to become a Sunday Times bestselling author, to her top tips for anyone writing a novel – whether it’s their first book or their sixth. Make sure you sign up for one of our creative writing courses to enjoy learning from masters of the craft like Sarah Vaughan.

Ahead of the event, Sarah has been kind enough to give us a little taster and answer a few questions...

Finding story ideas

First, we wanted to talk a little bit about how Sarah Vaughan finds her scintillating story ideas. With five published books, she certainly has a wealth of inspiration to draw from!

Hello Sarah! First things first: what drove you to first put pen to paper to write a novel?

Financial necessity – and a sense that if I didn’t commit to writing a novel, I was never going to do so. I wrote as a child and read English at Oxford, then became a journalist – so I’d written every day since I was 18.

But it wasn’t until my fortieth birthday that I drunkenly announced to a group of girlfriends that I was ‘going to write a novel and sell it within a year’. I’d taken voluntary redundancy from the Guardian, was hating freelancing, and really needed to earn some money! I was also 18,000 words into what would become my first novel – and felt both a delicious excitement and a quiet conviction that this was a story worth telling.

That sounds like an empowering moment. Did your career as a news reporter refine your radar for story threads that should be tugged? How do you identify stories that require the long-form exploration that a novel allows?

Absolutely. I worked as a news reporter for 13 years, first as a trainee at the Press Association and then I was a journalist for 11 years at the Guardian. You’re always looking for the ‘top line’: the hook with which to snag a reader’s interest and make them want to read on – and that becomes instinctive, after a while.

Both Anatomy of a Scandal and Reputation were partly inspired by articles I’d read in the news, as is my current project.

On my journalism course, we were told to determine stories by asking ourselves: what would I tell my friends down the pub? (This was 1995!) An elevator pitch – reducing a novel to a sentence, or a couple of sentences – is really no different from the newspaper intro. It’s the next 100,000 words that’s the problem – or rather the second part of your question.

You’re always looking for the ‘top line’: the hook with which to snag a reader’s interest and make them want to read on – and that becomes instinctive, after a while.

The psychological thriller market is particularly saturated, so I try to find something that’s different. Particularly newsworthy, you might say. I think if you have that, you can make it work if you work at your characters. I find plot is then generated by them.

Your writing has really strong themes like entitlement, identity, guilt, truth, gender, privilege, power and its imbalance. Do you typically begin with the themes and questions that you really want to home in on first, and then find a story that allows you to? Or do you start with the story, and then explore the themes that underpin it?

I always start with the story.

Each novel has two or three germs of inspiration but there’ll be a lightbulb moment. So with Reputation it was reading an interview with Jess Phillips who said she had nine locks on the front door and a panic alarm by the side of her bed. I immediately wanted to write about an MP who was living under that level of threat and explore how erratically she might behave.

There are recurring themes in my books, such as power, gender and judgment – particularly in my last three novels – or motherhood.

But it’s clear there are recurring themes in my books, such as power, gender and judgment – particularly in my last three novels – or motherhood (all of them, but Anatomy to a lesser degree); or entitlement (Reputation and Anatomy). I don’t think it’s unusual for writers to circle around the same themes, although I’m conscious that the last three novels have been about women being judged – for their sexual behaviour; their mothering; or how they conduct themselves in public life – so perhaps I should move on!

You talk about bringing some of your own – sometimes extremely painful – experiences to your writing, sometimes without quite realising it until you finish writing. Now that you’ve had that experience, would you consciously bring in other aspects of your personal history to your writing? What advice would you offer writers who want to explore their own histories and trauma in their work?

I’m not sure writing a novel is meant to be a form of therapy but I’ve clearly exorcised some of my issues through it. As I’ve said, it was a surprise to discover, by the end of writing the first draft of Anatomy of a Scandal, that I was drawing on a sexual assault I’d experienced in my early twenties and which I’d never really discussed with anyone. But nothing has been conscious. It’s been organic – which hopefully means it doesn’t feel forced.

Regarding exploring, or exploiting, your own trauma, I would say be careful to protect others and remember that once it’s in printed form – or out there on the net, if you’re doing publicity – you can’t take it back. Really assess if you’re willing to do this and recognise that you’ll be asked about it.


Craft

Next, we wanted to learn a bit about how Sarah Vaughan approaches craft.

Your novels hold a great deal of tension and are incredibly well-paced. Is there any advice you could offer to writers trying to grip their readers and pace their stories?

That’s very kind. I think I’ve got better at it. A lot comes in the editing. I’ve a tendency to put in too many flashbacks and too much backstory so I’m quite ruthless about cutting them out after the first draft. I also try to make good use of cliffhangers at the end of chapters.

The adage about every scene having to move the story on, either in terms of character development or plot, is also something I’m conscious of (and have on a postcard above my desk).

Reputation benefitted from me writing it as I gave notes on the scripts for Anatomy of a Scandal: I could see how the TV scripts used statements or questions at the end of scenes to propel the narrative, so I’ve tried to increase that. In fact, before I started writing Anatomy I went through a couple of bestselling thrillers noting quite how often the chapters ended on cliffhangers.

The adage about every scene having to move the story on, either in terms of character development or plot, is also something I’m conscious of (and have on a postcard above my desk).

Do you do a lot of planning and plotting before you start to write your first draft?

I’d say I’m half plotter, half pantser – although I increasingly plot, knowing that I’ll deviate from this and that that’s where I find the writing joy.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any writing books beyond Stephen King’s On Writing when I wrote my first two novels. But I read John Yorke’s Into the Woods before Anatomy and that was a game changer. For Reputation and a project I’m just completing, I used Save the Cat Writes a Novel to get a sense of where the beats should fall (although I don’t stick to this rigidly).

I always know the ending, the major twist, before I start writing. So, for Anatomy I knew the Kate Woodcroft twist (and was intrigued that it fell exactly halfway through the book); for Reputation, I knew the outcome of the trial and the scaffolding of the plot including a final twist. Crucially, I do quite a lot of work on character – see below – and find that plot evolves from this.

I always know the ending, the major twist, before I start writing.

You write very rich and complex characters, adding layers that if not mitigating, at least explain some heinous behaviour. Do you have a process or technique that you would recommend for developing similarly multidimensional characters? Is there a particular kind of character you most enjoy developing?

I do a potted biography for each character – age; background; crucial relationships; physical appearance; education; likes and dislikes, and most importantly, their fatal flaw, their want and their need (not the same thing). Their character then develops as I write and as they interact with others: they seem to reveal themselves through dialogue, specifically.

As for my favourite type of character, everyone has to be fallible (as people are in real life). And I suppose I like writing about strong, often professional women – a barrister, a doctor, an MP. The sort of woman who is dynamic, and who subsequently makes mistakes.

We’ve all loved seeing those amazing characters brought to life by the likes of Sienna Miller, Rupert Friend and Michelle Dockery. Has the process of having your work adapted for the screen impacted the way you write?

Absolutely. I hope it’s made my writing more propulsive, and I know it’s made me ‘see’ the scenes as if they’re being played out on a screen – something that’s always been the case but has intensified as I’ve read more scripts and watched drama more critically.

Seeing my books televisually also means I’m conscious of great settings. Again, I think that’s always been in my writing: my second published novel, The Farm at the Edge of the World, is a love letter to an area of north Cornwall more than anything. But I definitely included descriptions of certain settings in Reputation because I knew they were visually beautiful.

Genre

Because Sarah Vaughan has published books in rather different genres, we were very interested in how she thinks about these different genres and making the switch.

It seems as though you’ve always been interested in exploring some of the darker sides of human nature. Did you make a conscious move to the thriller genre to be able to dive deeper into those themes? How does writing in this genre compare for you to your earlier experiences of novel writing?

No, not all: there was nothing conscious about it.

It sounds naïve but I was stunned to discover with Anatomy of a Scandal that I was being marketed as a crime writer: I just thought I was telling an interesting story. Given that I was writing about a rape trial, I was clearly being obtuse, but to me it was a natural progression from writing about a sexual assault (and depression, suicide and a missing baby) in The Farm at the Edge of the World; and even having a flick of sexual assault in The Art of Baking Blind. I was clearly always going to veer towards the dark side.

Plot’s incredibly important – you need the engine of story – but what I’m fundamentally interested in is character, and that’s remained the constant from those early novels.

I think I’m more conscious of the need to create suspense and a propulsive plot, now that I’m seen as a thriller writer, but my novels have also been described as psychological dramas which suggests they’re a natural progression from those earlier books.

Obviously plot’s incredibly important – you need the engine of story – but what I’m fundamentally interested in is character, and that’s remained the constant from those early novels.

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Someone writing in a notebook
Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan has published five novels, including the internationally bestselling Anatomy of a Scandal, which was a Sunday Times bestseller, and went on to be adapted into a hit series by Netflix. Before she started writing fiction, Sarah worked as a journalist for fifteen years. 

Members of The Novelry team

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