Writing Podcast Episode 223 Meet Sally Hepworth, author of ‘The Family Next Door’

In Episode 223 of So you want to be a writer: How to turn your story ideas into amazing stories and how writers organise their personal libraries. We have 3 copies of Quark's Academy by Catherine Pelosi to giveaway. Plus: meet Sally Hepworth, author of The Family Next Door.

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Show Notes


Listener Shoutout


All I can say is I wish I found this podcast two years earlier than I did. I had been trying to write my first book for so long and could never find the motivation to continue, or I had no idea how to continue. Now, I listen to this podcast every morning on my way to work and even during my lunch breaks and it prepares me for all the writing I am going to do when I go home that day. As my partner says, we are very lucky to have Val and Al as they offer us all these tips and guidance at absolutely no cost. I will forever be a loyal listener and I can’t thank you ladies enough!

Links Mentioned

How to Develop Story Ideas Into Amazing Stories

How 11 Writers Organize Their Personal Libraries

Listener Question

Anon asks:

Hi Al and Val. Happy new year to you both… I have a question for the podcast: I'm very fortunate to have had a novel published, with the help of a great agent. However, now I've nearly finished the first draft of my second novel. My agent asked to see it when I'd written 30,000 words, but I feel terrified to show it to her. I'm now up to 82,000 words. With my first novel, I didn't even send to an agent until I'd written six drafts and polished it to a state I was really happy with. The idea of showing something so early sends me into a panic. Is it different for subsequent books? Should I throw caution to the wind and show her my terrible first draft? Do you think a good agent would be able to give helpful feedback when I'm really only still finding out my own story? 

Val and Al answer your question on the podcast.

Writer in Residence

Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives (2015), The Things We Keep (2016) and The Mother's Promise (2017), and The Family Next Door (Feb 2018). Sally's books have been labelled “enchanting” by The Herald Sun, “smart and engaging” by Publisher’s Weekly, and New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally’s novels as “women’s fiction at its finest” and “totally absorbing”.

Sally's novels are available worldwide in English and have been translated into 15 languages.

Sally lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children.

(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

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WIN: Children's book ‘Quark's Academy'!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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Interview Transcript


Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives, The Things We Keep, and The Mother's Promise. Her engaging novels are available worldwide in English and have been translated into fifteen languages. Her new novel, The Family Next Door, is out this month through Pan MacMillan. So welcome to the program, Sally.


Thank you very much for having me. It's good to be here.


All right. So we're going to go all the way back to the beginning, which given the number of novels you have you would think would be many years, but it's actually only until 2015 when The Secrets of Midwives was released. Was that the first novel you ever wrote? How did it come to be published?


No. The Secrets of Midwives was my third novel. The first novel I ever decided to write, I was living over in Canada at the time and I was about to go on maternity leave with my first child, so I thought that it would be a great idea to write a novel that year as well. The Canadians are very progressive, and they were going to pay me for a year of maternity leave. And so I wanted to put that year to good use. And I'd always wanted to write a novel.

So I wrote a book that year. My baby was a good sleeper, so I managed to get that book done. And really, that book I didn't write with any particular focus. I didn't know anything about writing a book. It was really a practice book. But of course at the time, I finished writing it, I thought it was fantastic, and perfect, and it was going to be a big Times bestseller. So I started querying agents. I queried agents in Australia, in Canada where I was living at the time. And I really didn't get much of a response. I got actually quite a good response of rejections, quite a thorough amount of rejections.

And I was very new, and my spirits weren't dampened by that. So I just decided to keep querying. And I just cast my net a bit wider and started querying US agents at that point. And to my great surprise, I did get a couple of responses from US agents asking for more pages. And a few of them ultimately didn't want to go with it, but I did get eventually an agent who wanted to work with me further on that book.

And things changed a little bit. That was how I found my literary agent. That book was the book that ultimately ended up selling to a German publisher, and it was published only in the German language. So that was an interesting thing for me! The first book I ever wrote and had published, the only words I can understand on it are ‘Sally' and ‘Hepworth'.


I love it!


Everything else is in German which I don't speak. And the way that that happened was that it didn't really sell to any US publishers, and so my agent thought that maybe it would sell in Europe, because that book was set in the south of France and in London. So over it went to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and it was bought by a German publisher. So that was book one.




So as you can see, it's never a quick story is it? How does one get published?


No, it's not. And I think what I love about it is that every story is different. That's the first one that we've ever had that only came out in a foreign language. I think that's terrific. So what happened with book two?


I was very grateful in the end that it was only published in German, because it really wasn't a very good book. So now none of my friends can read it and I don't have to be embarrassed.

So book two was, again, this book was set in Australia and I decided to try something new. I was still a really new writer – I'm still a relatively new writer – but I was just experimenting, and I wrote a book about a drug dealer who goes on the run from the police in a Mazda 121 up the east coast of Australia. Needless to say, that book didn't sell either.


I can't imagine why! Such a great getaway vehicle!


And I was still gaining the experience of writing and learning to write a book and finding out what interests me and trying that out. And I really think that's such an important thing, for beginner writers to do follow their instincts. Even if it is into a Mazda 121.

So that was book two. I showed it to my agent. I didn't get too much interest, and we just quickly, we all just didn't speak about that book and we moved on after that quite quickly.

And my agent then sat down, and he was in the US at the time, and he said would you consider writing your next book in the US? Setting your next book in the US? And so I said, okay. I was pregnant at this time with my second child, and I was thinking about babies and birth, and I was reading a lot of books that were about midwives who were in the US. And so it actually felt that the US system of midwifery really lent itself better to my books.

And so I decided to write a book about three generations of midwives. And that became The Secrets of Midwives. And it was that book then that sold in a three-book deal to St Martin's Press. And now I've signed another three-book deal. So that was the first book that propelled me into… Or my first book published in English, I should add! That propelled me into the contract that I'm in now.


That's exciting. It's quite a story as well. The interesting thing about it is that from that point, you've then published a novel a year. And as you say, you've got a new contract which I'm assuming is a similar timeframe. So were any of those books that came out in that first three-book deal, had you written any of them before the first one, before The Secrets of Midwives came out? Were they older ideas that you reworked? Or did you start from scratch with each one?


No, I started from scratch. I didn't have another book written when I sold the book, when I sold The Secrets of Midwives. But by the time The Secrets of Midwives came out, I had written book two, which was The Things We Keep. Because there was a big lag between signing that contract – I think it was about two years between signing the contract and The Secrets of Midwives coming out. So immediately knowing it was a three-book deal, I knew I needed to get busy on the next book.


And do you need to keep – like for those kinds of deadlines – do you need to keep a strict writing schedule? Is that how you set up your day? Do you have a routine? Or do you juggle it around work and family life?


I'm not a routine person. I always feel like I should be a routine person. I just am all over the place. With the exception that I work fulltime as I writer. So every day – I suppose this is a bit of a routine – every day I get up, I go to the library generally. I also have an office at home. And I work between 8 and 5. That's four days a week. Or 8 and 6. So it is my job. I don't also look after small children. I've got two children in school, and another one is in care, so writing's very much my job.

As for what I do within those hours, it is so varied. It can be… I tend to really break up my year in quarters. And for the last few years, the first quarter of my year is about promotion. So whichever book is about to come out, I'm working on promotion, I'm doing interviews like this, I'm writing Q&As, I'm writing original essays, going on tour, that kind of thing. The second quarter is about getting the first draft of the new book out. The third quarter is about editing, self-editing the book, and getting it into a shape that I feel like I can send to my editor without feeling too sick about. And then the final quarter is about editing together with my editor.

And then there's the stuff that happens all around that. Social media, and speaking events, and things that come up all throughout the year. But I manage that in a really higgledy-piggledy roundabout way, and I'm sure there's a better system, so don't take advice from me.


I don't know, that all sounds very organised to me. Do you go to the library because you need to leave your house? Why do you choose to work there?


Several reasons. First of all, until recently, I've just moved house so I now have an office, but I didn't have an office at home. And I have got a little one at home who is with a nanny, so it's better if I'm just out of the house and she doesn't see me.

But also, I really enjoy working from the library. I love being surrounded by books. I feel like that really is creatively inspiring for me. Also, the library is really close to nice lunch venues.


Very important.


Which is much nicer than just going to my fridge. You know what it's like when you're at work all day, you just live for lunch time.


You do.


I also go for a walk. It's about two kilometres away so that helps me to exercise. And also it is the quiet. I do feel like, rather than being at home, I'm actually going to work. And that's really important for my kids to see, that I go to work. I don't just work on my computer. And that's really important for me mentally. The same thing happens if I go into my office. I shut the door, right, I'm at work. But the leaving of the house is significant to me for those few reasons.


So what about your writing process? Are you a plotter? Do you just do an outline? Do you just get an idea and go with it? How do you actually… If you're going to sit down and go, okay, today's the day I'm starting a new book, what's the process?


Well, again, I wish that I could align myself with a certain camp. I used to. I used to really feel that I was a plotter. And I think that's part of just starting out as a new writer. I really, after writing those first two disastrous books, I became very interested in making sure that I could understand the structure of a novel. I read a whole lot of books about how to write a novel, how to write a good novel, how to create dynamic characters, and all of those pieces that come into writing a book.

And so I wanted to make sure that I was implementing them. So a lot of plotting and a lot of planning started when I was writing The Secrets of Midwives, and even The Things We Keep, as well – the first two books.

But since then, and I'm not sure if I've actually moved away from that so much as I've just internalised a lot of that. I haven't had to actively plan and actively think what's the goal, motivation, conflict? What's the character arc? I think I'm just maybe, hopefully, doing it intrinsically a little bit more.

But the other thing is I'll never completely be a pantser – they call them, don't they? I'll never completely be footloose and fancy free because I have, which is a good thing, I'm contracted, my books have all been contracted since The Secrets of Midwives, which means my publisher wants to see a synopsis before I start. So to that end, I do have to produce a fairly loose three or four-page document from beginning to end of what's going to happen in the story.

That said, my editor has told me, you know, you don't need to… As long as the book is good, as long as we like it, don't worry too much if you decided to move away from a plot point that you put in the synopsis. So I tend to write the synopsis, and then I put it to the side, and I write the book. That's my current structure but speak to me in a year and it might have changed again.


So you said that your third quarter of the year is essentially editing that first draft. How do you approach that first edit? The one that you're doing for yourself before you're happy to take it to your publisher? What's the process of getting through that self-edit, that first edit yourself?


Again, this is where I'd love to… I've heard lots of writers talk about how they write the first draft, and then they print it out, and they get out their pens, and they make a note and they then write a list. And that just sounds so glorious and effective, doesn't it?

For me, it's muddier than that. By the time I've finished the first draft, I know what's wrong with it, usually. I know if something's wrong with it, and I know things that I need to fix. Because I write quite fast and furious, that first draft, and I'll get to the end and I'll think, oh I need to change that woman to a girl, or I need to make this person older, I need to kill this person off, or this person needs to not exist. And I'll know that in my head. I may have made a note to myself. I might not have made a note. But I'll just know that that has to happen.

And I leave little notes to myself in the manuscript as I write. Like, “kill this person” or “break these people up” or whatever it has to be. “Change this occupation to lawyer.”

It's less clear what draft I'm on, and it's more just a constantly moving and chipping away and getting more things right. So it's really that third quarter is just about sludging through mud and trying to make it less muddy. Does that answer your question?


It does, but I'm just interested… Depending on different people that we speak to, some people to end up with say a 90,000 word manuscript will write 120,000 and then cut it out. And others will write 50,000 and have to add 40. Where do you sit on that line?


I tend to, I always aspire to have a 90,000 word book. I always end up short. My books are sitting around 75,000 words just now. Which I feel like is a bit short. I'd like them to be longer. But what tends to happen is I kind of write to that 90,000 word mark and I cut words out.

But I also write skinny. Sometimes in my first draft there'll be a scene that's literally the words “put a scary scene in here”. So in that sense… “Write the scene where Bill kills Mark.” And that's first draft done! So it's not really all that done. So in that sense there's always things that need to be added. And I sort of do that because I know that scene, I know what has to happen, but I don't necessarily know what's going to come next. I can't even remember what you asked me now. I've just gone off on a tangent.


Neither can I. I think we were talking about the number of words and whether you… So you tend to write under, do you?


I definitely write under. I need to focus better on writing more.


All right. So let's talk about writing contemporary fiction, because it's quite an interesting thing. A lot of people will write, will start out writing contemporary fiction because of that whole write what you know thing that everybody tells you to do. But in actual fact, there are difficult aspects of writing about contemporary life. Putting it on the page in a vibrant way. What do you think are the most difficult aspects of creating a contemporary world? As with The Family Next Door, which you’ve done brilliantly.


Thank you. Look, there are so many challenging things about writing in all genres, I imagine. But for me, the thing that keeps coming up and up again, in writing contemporary fiction, is that everyone has experience with it. Everyone lives their lives.

I heard someone say the other day that she writes life-lit. People call it chick-lit or women's fiction, but she said she writes life-lit. And I thought, I agree with that. I think that is what I write, too. I write books about life. So obviously everyone that's alive has opinions on it and has experiences with it and can relate to it, which is wonderful. But it also means that you need to try and create characters that will feel believable to people who have experience with life.

And quite often I'll have someone say – and it might be my editor, or it might be the beta reader, or it might be a reader once the book has been published – they might say, “oh, I just didn't believe that this would happen that way.” And that's an interesting thing. And that absolutely is a valid comment, because you want to make the readers believe. But quite often people will say something like, “someone would never do that. It would never happen that way.” And I think, well, that happened to me! Like I might have stolen the story from my own life! It does happen.

But that doesn't matter. The fact that it happens to me, if someone doesn't believe it, then you're not doing your job the way you should be as a writer.

So I suppose in creating a world that doesn't exist, and really allowing people to suspend their reality, you do have a little bit more of an advantage because you can make anything possible. People can fly because you tell them that they can fly and that's part of your world. But when we ground things in this contemporary world in which we all live, people are going to come into it with opinions and with things they believe and they don't believe. And as a writer, that just makes us have to work a little bit harder.


So what do you focus on in creating a world like that? You're essentially dealing with a world that all your readers are familiar with, you need to still ensure that that world is fully built, but not in such a laboured way that people are going why is she telling me how the fridge works? So what do you focus on when you're creating that world?


I tend to under deliver on description. And I think part of that is that it is a contemporary world that people understand. I like to leave bits to the imagination. I try not to describe… I mean, I do describe hair colour if it comes up in conversation, but I don't have the heroine running her hand through her long blonde hair, because that isn't a thought that she would have about her own hair. I find that description for me is less, so it allows peopled to draw more images with their imagination.

And so really, it becomes about how to deftly paint a character picture with a few words. And that's where my focus will lie, on making the characters spring to life with a few words. Without telling the reader this person is bubbly and vivacious, you know, you have to have her coming in and doing something bubbly and vivacious. And that's really important to do well and to do quickly fairly early on, because that's the impression that readers are going to stay with of those characters.


That's an interesting thing because obviously the characters are so incredibly essential. When you're writing contemporary characters, one thing I have found difficult in the past about it is differentiating voice between people who may have similar backgrounds. If you've got three women living in the same neighbourhood, chances are that a lot of the vernacular they're using is similar, they're at the same schools, they're doing the same drop offs, or whatever they're doing. Do you have any tips for differentiating voice with those people who might be from similar backgrounds?


I write multiple point of view fiction and so that's always something that I think about. How can I make sure that even if it's written in first person as opposed to third person, how can I make sure that it's obvious who is speaking and whose head I'm in?

And honestly the first thing I do when I create these characters is to think about what differentiates these women. Because later what joins them because obvious, but what separates them? What's different about them?

And it's quite fun to make them opposite in a certain way. If one person is this and another person is that. And I try to keep it to just a few main things, because then I'm able to keep that in my head. And every time I start a new chapter that's from that character's perspective, I visualise them, I think about who they are in my head, and let them walk around a little bit and talk a little bit, and then I start. So I really am constantly asking myself, would Grace say this? Would Fran say, would Ange say this? And that helps to colour that voice.

And especially early on as I'm starting to write the book, I give them lots of internal narrative as well to help the reader understand who they are. And then the reader will start to look for those characteristics in that character later on.


Okay. And here's a question. Because you are working on a fairly strict schedule with your books coming out, how do you know when you've found the right idea for your next book? There's a question.


Often I know the moment that my editor tells me that I've found the right idea! No, listen, it's different for every book. And I have found myself in periods where I've had a month – which doesn't seem that long – but it's an agonising month when I'm thinking I have to start a new book and I don't know… I'll toy around with a few ideas and it just doesn't feel quite right, and I'll spark it up a little bit, but still it's not quite working.

In fact, that happened to me before I started writing The Mother's Promise, I just couldn't figure out what it was that I wanted to write. And I came up with an idea that was okay. My editor was lukewarm on it. And I remember sitting at my computer working away at this really not very good synopsis for my editor, and an email popped into my inbox that was a news story about this woman who was dying, and she was looking for a home for her daughter. And she asked her oncology nurse to look after her daughter.

And I thought, bang! In that case, I knew in an instant. I'm going to write this book. I could see the points of view, I could see the story and how it was going to look. But other times… And I quickly wrote it up and sent it to my editor and they said yes, bang, do it. So that happened in an instant.

And this time, I sent off my latest book to my editor and I've already had an idea for the new book, which came to me while I was in Ikea, of all places.


Of all places.


I think everything happens at Ikea, doesn't it? Apparently, someone has been murdered there. But I had an idea for a book and I'm really excited about that one. So fingers crossed that my editor likes it. But yeah, they can come from all… They can come slowly, they can come in a moment. For me, anything is possible when it comes to the ideas.


And the idea for The Family Next Door, where did that come from?


That came in a conversation with my editor, when we were talking about the kinds of books that we liked. And I was pregnant at the time, newly pregnant. And I was spending a lot of time at home, and I'd been interested in my neighbours. I'm a bit of a Mrs Mangle, and I keep an eye out the front window and see what everyone is up to.

And I was telling my editor about that, and she said, “oh, I'd love to read a book about a group of neighbours who kind of keep an eye on each other and maybe a new neighbour moves into the street.” Then I took that and I thought, “oh, I wonder what could be going on that the new neighbour could discover?” And then I took it and made it what it was.

But it started from that really vague conversation that started from me being Mrs Mangle. So they all kind of take on a bit of me, a bit of someone else, a bit of an idea. And yeah, it came to me. This has probably been the easiest book that I have written because it really was grounded in my world: young mothers, pregnancy, set in Australia, neighbours keeping an eye on each other. It really felt like it just came from me quite easily.


Fantastic. All right, so what kind of things do you do to promote your books? Do you find promotion comes more easily as your backlist grows? Is it something you enjoy? Or not really?


It definitely has got easier. I remember when The Secrets of Midwives came out, I was incredibly nervous about standing up and speaking in front of a room and doing interviews. It definitely becomes easier the more familiar that I become with it.

It's not my favourite part of the process. I prefer the writing of the books. That's always why I got into it. I love the written word. And that part of it, when the book is being promoted, and I'm sitting down and working on a first draft, that's my favourite.

That said, I really enjoy meeting readers. And this year I'm doing a tour, a short tour of Australia, and then I'm going over to the US for a tour, and I am really looking forward to it. While I'm naturally slightly reclusive, and being out of my home environment for a long time can be a bit stressful for me, I think there's nothing like meeting people who have read and enjoyed your books. And in that way, I think it's going to be really rewarding.


Terrific. And you've recently teamed up with authors Rachael Johns and Lisa Ireland to create a new group email newsletter called ‘The Secret Life of Authors', which is rather lovely. Can you explain a little bit about why you've decided on a group approach with that?


It all started when the three of us, we speak quite a lot, we're good friends, and we were all talking about how we had to write a newsletter. We hadn't had a newsletter for a while, and we needed to do it, and we were all complaining, because we thought – I don't even know when I'm going to say, I don't have any news! I can't figure out how to edit it. You know, we were just having a bit of a moan.

And I think it may have been a joke, initially, but we said, why don't we do one together? And then the more we talked about it, we started referring to ‘our newsletter' sort of as a joke. And then one of us said, well, why don't we do it? Then we could actually really make it fun, we could tell our stories that we all find so funny about publishing and about the reverse glamour of it. You know, that we're sitting here doing a Skype interview with someone in New York and we've got our pyjamas on from the waist down.

And there were just so many stories like that, and the woes, and the underworld. And I remember how interesting I found that before I was published, and I know that readers love that kind of thing. Whenever I'm out speaking to readers, they love hearing about the inside world. And we thought, hey, this is a way of a) making it more interesting for us, b) hopefully making it more interesting for our readers, and doing something together. Because we're friends and we really enjoy that. And hopefully in the process our readers will find each other's books and enjoy them too.

But mostly for us, it was really about fun and about our friendship. And we've been really thrilled with the response to the first one.


Terrific. And if people want to sign up for that, can they do that at your website?


Yes. Any of our websites. Mine is sallyhepworthauthor.com. And then there's Rachael Johns' website, and also Lisa Ireland's.


All right, now we're going to finish up our interview today with our usual the last very exciting infamous top three tips for authors. So take it away, Sally. What are your top three tips for aspiring authors?


Okay. The first one I would say is don't be afraid to write badly. I think sometimes perfectionism can be our worst enemy. And for me, my first drafts usually resemble a dog's breakfast. I wouldn't even show them to my dog. But I get the book down fast, and I get that idea out. So I really feel like not worrying about doing the words perfectly or finding the perfect phrase, and just getting that story down. Because ultimately that's what we're doing; we're telling stories.

The second thing that I would say – this is sort of similar to that – is write fast. So the first one is don't be afraid to write badly. The second one is to write fast. This is a tough one, because it's not for everyone. Some people prefer to write slowly, and so don't change your process for me. But I found that the faster I write, and the more I focus on moving forward, the better I write, and the better I keep a handle on what the story is. Because these stories can become quite bulky, and if we slow down too much we can start going off on tangents, because we don't have that fluid movement. We can always go back and fill things out later knowing how it ends, and knowing where we need to fill things out. But I feel like writing fast really propels the story forward and gets a better, tighter story.

And the final tip is nothing ground breaking, and it probably appears in every one, but I think it needs to be said, is read and read widely.  Read the books that are selling really well, read the books that aren't selling very well. Read with your writer's eye and stop every few chapters or few paragraphs and think, am I enjoying this? Why am I enjoying this? Reread books that you've really loved, because that's how we learn how to be a good writer and to be the kind of writer that we would enjoy reading, which I think is what we all aspire to.


Definitely. All right. So thank you so much for your time today, Sally Hepworth. If you would like to find out more about Sally and her books, you can go to sallyhepworthauthor.com and we will put the link in the show notes. But yes, best of luck with The Family Next Door. I think it will go brilliantly for you.


Thank you so much for having me.

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