With a brace of awards and the helpful hand of Richard & Judy behind her debut novel, The Outcast, Sadie Jones didn’t have to worry overly about the ‘dreaded second novel’ syndrome when she came to write her follow-up, Small Wars… Katherine Woodfine asks the questions…
Katherine Woodfine (KW): You worked as a scriptwriter before becoming a novelist. How do you feel your experience writing for the screen has affected your writing for the page?
Sadie Jones (SJ): It was an apprenticeship in storytelling. I spent many years discovering my own strengths and weaknesses. In screenwriting the skeleton of the story is absolutely exposed; there’s no prose to distract people, you’ve nowhere to hide. In writing The Outcast and Small Wars the prose was the flesh, muscle, skin, eye-colour, smell – but it was laid upon the skeleton of the story. I tried to make the skeleton as soundly as I could, first.
KW: Do you feel the runaway success of The Outcast has affected you as a writer? How did this impact upon the writing of Small Wars?
SJ: The success I had with The Outcast gave me a confidence; I started Small Wars with a certain level of self-belief. I decided early on not to be sabotaged by ‘second novel syndrome’ and I determinedly didn’t think about what the reaction to the book might be. The book demanded to be written, and I needed to do my best with it. It was a very tough book to write, in many ways, and dwelling on comparisons would have been very unhelpful.
KW: Both The Outcast and Small Wars share a 1950s setting. What is it that draws you to write about this period in particular?
SJ: I wasn’t going to set another book in the 1950s; I didn’t want to be ‘that ‘50s writer’, but when I came across the Cyprus Emergency I had no choice. The Outcast was a 50s story in quite a different way to Small Wars. The Outcast was a ‘1950s Outsider Story’ – it was a genre tale, it was cinematic in its conception. Small Wars had quite a different flavour, but I was using the 50s in the same way in both: as a canvas on which to set universal stories.
KW: Small Wars is set in Cyprus, and deals with one of the 20th century’s lesser-known conflicts. What interested you about the situation in Cyprus and why did you choose this particular “small war” as the focus for your novel?
SJ: The first thing that struck me about Cyprus was its physical similarity to Afghanistan. On finding out more about it, I found that the logistics of the soldiering were similar too. The soldiers are building relationships with local people one minute and raiding their homes the next. I wanted to tell a story about how the things that soldiers are compelled to do effect them – and their families’ – emotional well-being. Cyprus was the ideal place to do it.
KW: Both your novels are characterised by meticulous attention to detail. Can you tell me a little about how you go about the process of researching your novels, and how this shapes and informs your writing?
SJ: I researched Cyprus and the military for six months before starting writing and then on and off throughout the process – about another two years. With The Outcast, the world came very easily to life in my imagination and the research was limited to detail – girdles and car models. With Cyprus I had to build the world from the ground up, because I didn’t know anything about it before I began. I approach factual research much as I approach psychological and emotional research: I need to find, either within myself or elsewhere, enough information to feel I can place myself there, mentally. The writing process then is about describing what I already know to be true.
KW: Your work has been compared to that of writers ranging from JD Salinger to Camus to Richard Yates; but which authors do you look to when you are in search of inspiration?
SJ: I try not to think about other writers when I work – particularly not the great ones! Writing is tough enough, without a ghostly hoard of demi-gods at one’s back. All of those you mention are amongst my heroes.
Small Wars by Sadie Jones is out now!