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Sara Foster: Author and former editor

Sara Foster’s debut novel is Come Back to Me. Originally from England, she settled in Perth with her husband in 2004.

Although she started her career in book publishing and has been working as a freelance editor for the last decade, she has always had an interest in writing and wrote poems and short stories from a young age.

In 2002 she was heavily involved with a charity children’s book series to raise money for War Child. She also contributes regularly to holidaygoddess.com, a website devoted to female friendly travel.

Click play to listen. Running time: 20.52


Come Back to Me

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Sara.

Sara
No, problem.

Valerie
Now, tell us about Come Back to Me. What is your book about?

Sara
Well the story begins with a chance meeting of old flames in a restaurant and then follows the repercussions of the four people who are present that night as an old tragedy comes full circle and also from long held secrets come to light.

I first got the idea when I saw an article in the West Australian newspaper which was a very small article, but about a pretty big tragedy for the person involved. I began thinking about the repercussions for her and for those around her. On the one hand I was thinking about that, and on the other hand I was looking to tackle some quite timeless things really, like love and relationships, identity, how people confront or hide from their demons, so I’ve tried to explore that as well. And, to look at love triangles without the reader being able to pick a side, because I would like to represent a bit more real life in that.

Valerie
Tell us a bit of the timeline with that. When did you first read the article? And how long a gestation period before you put pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard, or whatever? Then how long did that take?

Sara
I first read the article in 2003 when I was traveling with my husband and we were going up the West Coast of Australia. I’d see it in the West Australian then. It really germinated in my mind for a while, and I began putting it together with the other elements that I wanted to write about very slowly.

Then wrote over the course of a number of years, but really probably six months core work on it, but over a number of years there would have been thought processes going on about it all the time.

Valerie
Prior to that your career has been in the book publishing industry, but not as an author, more so as a book editor. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Sara
Well, I went traveling when I finished my university degree, which was in English Language and Literature, and during that time I really decided that I wanted to try and pursue a career in publishing.

So, when I got back I looked at the London temping agencies that had placements in publishing houses, and found a place in Harper Collins being book stock control to start with. From that I managed to respond to an ad they did in-house for an assistant to the Fiction Director, and really then started working in the editorial department and learning from everyone there, which I did for two years and then went freelance.

Valerie
Working as a book editor is very different to working as a writer, I mean, what you’re doing from day-to-day is very different, but also having been around so many books and read so many authors obviously in your career, was it very daunting to tackle your own book?

Sara
Yes and no. It was half daunting and half inspiring. I think it might that I could really turn away from it, because I was surrounded by it all the time. So, I knew I had this dream to be a writer myself and it meant that I had- that I always was confronted with people who were doing that, and reminded that was what I wanted to do. So, yeah, a bit of both really.

Valerie
Which one do you prefer- the editing, or the writing?

Sara
I do love editing, but writing is my absolute passion. If I could choose which I did everyday it would be writing.

Valerie
Are you still doing book editing?

Sara
I am, yes, I’m doing bits and pieces. I just had a baby, so I’ve a bit of a break, but I’m going to keep doing bits and pieces of editing as well because I enjoy keeping that going.

Valerie
Describe to us when you’re writing your book your typical writing day. Did you have some kind of daily ritual that you needed to start off with to get into the zone? Or, how did that work?

Sara
I wish really that I was that organized about it. I’m a little bit more chaotic about it than that sometimes. I have realized that I do thrive when I write in the mornings. Really when I started being disciplined and dedicated to it I would write first thing before I did anything else, any work, or did anything else around the house just to make sure that I was doing it everyday, because I think that’s part of the challenge when you are trying to write, particularly when you can’t write for a living so you’re trying to fit it around everything else. It quickly becomes down your list of priorities if you’re no careful.

So, I found that the best thing to do was to get straight into in the morning, which probably isn’t my natural most creative time, but then I would be thinking about it right from the start so I would come back to it later on and carry on working at it through the day when I had the chance then. So, that really helped me.

Valerie
Many creative writers think that you should just get the words out there, get it all out there and then go back edit much later. But, as an editor did you feel compelled to edit yourself as you went along? How did that work?

Sara
Yeah, I kind of did half and half. I definitely think if you get too caught up with the editing process it holds you back while you’re writing. I do think the science of it, just getting it down and then going back and editing… so I think as a writer I would do the same thing. I would try and get the bulk of it down. But, on the other hand if I feel that my writing starts to go off on a tangent and it’s getting a bit unwieldy, well then I will go back and try an edit and tie in what I’ve got in order to put myself back on track, really.

Valerie
What are the specific skills you think a writer needs to edit their own work well?

Sara
I think that they need to be able to take a step back and just look at their writing from the reader’s perspective. The need to be able to think about who they’re writing for, because if you’re writing for yourself it doesn’t really matter. But if you’re trying to write for market, well, then you need to think about who that is and be able to distance yourself from your own work.

Look at it from your reader’s perspective and then polish it accordingly. Also be able to, if you are showing it around, to be able to listen to other people’s comments. I think it’s quite hard to do when you’re passionate about something that you’ve written. But to really analyze what other people are telling you about your work is a really key skill to hone I would say.

And, to be able to polish your work and go over an over it, and look at how other writers have done things that you like, and analyze that and put that into your own work. As much analysis that you can put into will make your work ultimately more polished, which will be obvious when you come to try and sell it.

Valerie
Budding writers out there, what would you suggest to them for them to hone their skills to get to a stage where they have a publishable book?

Sara
I think that it’s difficult because you have limited access to facilities as a budding writer. Unless you want to pay a lot of money for experienced editor to look at your work, you do have to do quite a lot of this yourself. So, I think a good place to start would actually be to look at the genre that you’re trying to write in, and to look at how other people work.

I still do that now. I recently went into a classic text, Daphne du Maurier’s book Rebecca, and tried to analysis how she put certain things together and to create her mystery and her suspense, just to see what I could learn from it. I think that’s a great place to start, and also quite interesting to see what you can find out about the technical side of the writing, because you often don’t really look at that when you’re reading and enjoying a book. So, that’s a great thing to do.

I think also to access what you can find on the internet, and what you can find through your local writer centers and groups is great because they often have advice. Or, people who are prepared to share their work and you can share your work, and give you constructive criticism. Essentially they’re your readers, so they’re a valuable criticism that you can learn from. I think that’s a great place to start.

Valerie
So, with your book, Come Back to Me, you started off with that seed of an idea, with the magazine article. Did you then plot out and structure the whole thing? Or, did you just sort of let yourself go and see where it took you?

And, what would your advice be to other people?

Sara
I really, I think you’ve got to find your own way of working, because I’ve heard other writers talk and everyone seems to be slightly different. Some really plot and plan, and other completely go for it.

I’m different as well in the fact that I prefer to write first, and so let my ideas really take off and just get really into the characters, and not do too much planning. Then I actually tend to do it backwards, so then I’ll look at what I have written and try and look at where I’m heading and what I like and what I don’t like, and I will draw up a bit of a plan, and then I will try and analyze a bit in terms of what themes I’ve got in a story, which ones do I want to make stronger, which do I think I’ve got too much of- that kind of thing.

I tend to do it a little bit retrospectively, which I haven’t heard people say that much, so I don’t know whether I’m doing it differently, or whether I just haven’t heard comments like that. But, I think it’s really important to let your imagination go and not be too held back by that. I think when you’re writing you just should write for yourself and let that completely loose, and then once you’ve done that, that’s the time to start analyzing.

Valerie
Your book deals with quite a number of painful issues. When your writing about that sort of thing, or when you’re writing about a tragedy do you find yourself taking on a lot of that emotion and that feeling?

Sara
Yeah, I do actually. I find it quite difficult. I think I tend to avoid my big scenes, even though I know I’ve got to write them, until I really give myself a kick and say, “Come on, you’ve got to sit down and do this.” Yeah, and then I do find it quite emotional, and reading it back I still find it quite emotional because you do have to take yourself to that place to try and write about it. And, that’s not nice when it’s a dark place.

Valerie
It’s quite scary.

Sara
Yeah, very much so.

Valerie
How do you convince yourself to go there?

Sara
Just really if you’re going to tell a story you need to, you do need to go there, you need to live and breath your characters. If you want to talk about tragedy you have to go there, really. It isn’t pleasant, but that’s really all I think about it. You’ve got to be convincing, so you have to do it.

Valerie
Do you have a technique to switch yourself out of there? Or, to uplift yourself out of there?

Sara
Just doing something different, really. I think just switching off and getting on with day-to-day life can lift you out of there. I think it is easy to get quite brooding and I’m one of these people that tends to ruminate a lot on things anyway, and so I’ve come up with various methods to try and tackle that, of switching off, and just getting out and doing something different, or reading something can be good actually, just getting back into the book that you’re reading. That can be good, and trying to read something light when you’re doing something dark. Mix it up a bit so you haven’t go too much of the same thing going on at the same time. So, I find that really helpful.

Valerie
So, what are you working on now? What’s next for you?

Sara
Well, I’m currently working on my second novel, which is about a young woman who’s living in isolation on the North York Moors in England after her husband mysteriously disappears. So, she’s been left there with a small child and she’s trying to find out what’s happened to him. The village is a little bit creepy. She feels very much an outsider trying to figure out what’s going on.

So, again, I’m traveling to a fewer of the darker places.

Valerie
Sounds like it.

Sara
Also I’m trying to have a bit- she’s got a couple of friends that come and hopefully lightening things up for her.

It’s not completely like that. But, yeah, I’m really enjoying that.

Once that finishes I’ll go back to my notes, which I have lots of scribble notes of different ideas and try to figure out if any of them are any good and hopefully carry on.

Valerie
And hopefully on a lighter note, I understand you also enjoy traveling and you contribute- do you write some travel articles?

Sara
I do, yes, I do. I started writing travel articles for a female-focus travel website, which is www.holidaygoddess.com and so, I’m really enjoying that. It’s really nice for me to be able to write about some of the trips I’ve taken.

Valerie
Do you do that a lot? How much of your day-to-day work is your book, your actual writing? How much is it the other stuff that you do?

Sara
Well, it’s not very typical at the moment because I’m still on semi-maternity leave. Normally I would be writing for say two or three hours a day, and then editing for most of the rest of the day, and then maybe an hour or so on this travel writing, and different things, different bits and pieces. So, I’m really kind of switching it about a bit.

But, at the moment the editing component isn’t in there because I’m on maternity leave, which is nice. I’m getting a lot more time to write. So, I’m enjoying that. Then I’m just taking it bits a time.

Valerie
What’s been the main highlight, or the most rewarding thing about  your writing journey so far?

Sara
I think the highlights have been firstly getting the book finished.

Which is a personal highlight for me because it’s been so long in the planning. It was just fantastic to get it finished. Then to have other people read it and enjoy it, and to feel like I’ve told the story that I wanted to tell and other people are receiving and understanding and appreciating that story is extremely rewarding. I’m only just starting to experience that now because the book has only just come out.

Yeah, the publishing contract obviously it was a massive validation, so that was incredible. So, that was the very start of people actually seeing my writing, and that was the first thing I’d really shared with many people. So, that was extremely rewarding to know that I could actually finish it and get other people enjoying it was amazing.

Valerie
Did you ever think because you were in the industry you already had a foot in the door?

Sara
Yes, I did because I got the insider’s perspective on quite a few of these things. I knew how to approach people. I’d had unsolicited authors, I’d been their point of contact when I worked at Harper Collins, so I kind of knew the ways that you should and shouldn’t do certain things. So, very much it was, yeah, a real foot in the door for me.

Valerie
What’s been the most challenging thing about your writing journey so far?

Sara
Finding the time to write was a challenge for a long time. So, that was a real challenge. I don’t really feel that challenged for ideas, more just pursuing them and making that time.

A lot of it I have found very rewarding, actually. I would just say as well that conveying the idea that you’ve got to the page is a massive challenge in itself. It’s very interesting when people start to read it and do have certain comments and you realize that you have gone wrong in certain respects, and what you’re trying to convey isn’t there yet. So, it is a challenge to get that story across in the way that you plan on telling it.

Valerie
Where do you draw ideas from in terms of your characters?

Sara
Here, there, and everywhere really. It varies from- I obviously- I recently written something on this actually, but I don’t based my characters on people.

My friends and family will be very assured to hear about that. Obviously there are facets of things that people say and do that I draw on. Then, I’m fascinated by the different people that I do meet. I’m very much a people watcher, and I often try to think about what’s really going on inside people when they’re saying and doing certain things.  The same with the media, the good things that you see on there Or films and books that I enjoy will get me thinking about certain character traits. So, really I just combine things that I find interest me into characters that I think are compelling, that I want to write about.

Valerie
Finally, and you’re at the start of your journey as an author. You’ve had great career as a book editor already, so you’ve got that fantastic background, but this is your first novel, and you’re working on your second. Fast forward for me ten years, and paint me a picture of what your life looks like then and how many books you’ve written and what genres they’ve been in.

Sara
Yeah… I really hope that I have carried on writing a lot of books. In ten years’ time I hope to have a little bit of a corner of the shelf.

Valerie
Yes.

Sara
So, that would be great, and I hope that I can write about some- I’d love to continue the fiction because fiction is a huge passion of mine. But, I’d love to write some sort of non-fiction researched social commentary kind of interest issues as well. I’m quite fascinated with them. Yeah, just certain ways that things are handled in the media.

I’m sort of interested in kind of mind, body, spirit sort of stuff. I’d be interested in mixing it up a little in the future as well and going down a few different roads just to keep different angles going, keep different things turning.

Valerie
Wonderful. Maybe a portfolio career as a writer, you know, book editor here, fiction writer here, non-fiction, social commenter here… or whatever comes next.

Travel writer…

Sara
That would be fantastic. Yeah. It’s nice to still have lots of dreams and to look forward to trying out different things and seeing how they go. So, I’m really looking forward to that.

Valerie
Wonderful. On that note, thank you very much for you time today, Sara.

Sara
Thank you.

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