Before the Fire by Sarah Butler out now in paperback.
This interview took place on the release of the hardback in 2015; reprinted here to celebrate the release of the paperback edition.
Sarah Butler’s debut novel ’10 Things I’ve Learnt About Love’ is published by Picador and was translated in 15 countries around the world. Her next novel, ‘Before the Fire’, was published in March 2015. She runs UrbanWords, exploring the relationship between writing and place through projects and writing-residencies.
McVeigh: Your first novel ’10 Things..’ was a huge success selling in 15 countries. Pretty much every debut novelist’s dream. What was that like at the time and how do you look back on it now?
Butler: It was incredible! I’d been writing seriously for ten years before I got my deal with Picador. That was a real dream come true, and then the foreign deals were completely unexpected, and brilliant. I look back and think how lucky I was to have all those things fall into place at that particular time. I think these things are always a mixture of hard work and luck.
McVeigh: What was the impact of reviews – good and bad?
Butler: Good question! They had an impact on my mood and self-esteem, of course – the good ones lifted me, the bad ones depressed me. I try hard to be sanguine and accept that there is no book in the world that everyone likes, but that is easier said than done. There were a few which made me think differently about my own work. I think ideally that’s what reviews would offer: another way to think about your writing and its effect on a reader.
McVeigh: Every author I’ve spoken to urges me to start another project before my novel comes out. Did you? Would you offer the same advice?
Butler: I did. I felt very strongly that I needed to be working on a new project when my first novel came out, so I wouldn’t put too much pressure on the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of the published book (that was the theory anyway! And I put those words in inverted commas because they are hugely subjective and relative terms). Once a book’s published there’s not much, as its creator, that you can do about it. You can do your best to publicise it, but you can’t stand in every book shop and make people buy it, nor follow them home and make sure they read it and interpret it in the way you want them to. It felt important to me that I had something – a new project – which I could do something about. I’ve done the same with Before The Fire – and am already fairly far on with a first draft of my next novel. It keeps me grounded. Plus I’m miserable if I don’t write, so it wouldn’t make sense for me not to be working on something new. In terms of advice, though, I think everything does this strange job differently and the most important thing is to know yourself, and what you need, and go with that, rather than with someone else’s idea about what you should be doing.
McVeigh: Recording artists traditionally have that difficult second album syndrome and more and more I hear authors talking about that difficult second novel syndrome. Did you experience that?
Butler: Do you know, people keep mentioning that to me too! My response is, yes, it is difficult writing a second novel, but then it was hard writing the first, and I know damn well that it will be hard writing the third and the fourth and the fifth. It is difficult, end of. Also, I’d written two unpublished novels before Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, so actually Before The Fire is my fourth novel – and yes, it was difficult!
Of course, it is different too – I had a two book deal and therefore an (almost!) guarantee of publication, and a deadline, and a series of real and imagined expectations to contend with. Having my first novel published was a more problematic experience than I’d anticipated: you are vulnerable, you are judged on public platforms, you are interviewed about your personal life and some of that can be difficult to manage. Maybe writing a second with the knowledge of the challenges involved in being published invites a certain amount of worry and self-doubt.
McVeigh: The central character in Before The Fire is a teenage boy, how did you approach writing from that POV? Were there any difficulties/concerns and how did you overcome them?
Butler: I found it completely terrifying! It’s strange how little control I feel I have over my novels at times. Originally the novel was going to have four narrators: two mothers and two teenage sons, but Stick – the main character – was the only one I could write. He was the character I was interested in; his was the voice in my head, if you like. I spent a lot of time worrying about whether or not I had the right or the ability to tell his story. I made my boyfriend and a couple of male friends (you included!) read terrible early drafts in order to reassure me that I was able to pull it off. In the end I decided I just had to trust myself, trust that I had talked to, worked with, and listened to enough teenage boys to be able to fully imagine my character. It’s a risk, but then any writing is a risk. The spark for Before The Fire came from my anger with how young people were stereotyped and labelled in the media and political discourse after the riots of 2011. I wanted to tell a story about a young man that summer. And this is the great thing about writing a novel – I’m not writing about all teenage boys, I’m writing about one teenage boy. I think if you really commit to imagining a character fully, you can write anyone, and there is power and value in that act of empathy and imagination.
McVeigh: The novel is set in Manchester leading up to the riots of 2011. What research did you do for this?
Butler: I grew up in Manchester, and moved back here just as I started to write Before The Fire. I spent time walking and cycling around the areas that feature in the novel. I also worked with students at a primary school and a secondary school in the area where the main character lives, talking to them about their lives and attitudes. I wasn’t in Manchester when the riots happened, so I watched a lot of YouTube videos, read newspaper articles and research reports and talked to people who had experienced them.
McVeigh: I tried to use research for a story I wanted to write and in the end abandoned it completely having gotten lost in the history. Have you any tips for writers who want to use research in their work?
Butler: I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that question! I often end up feeling I haven’t done enough research… Friends of mine who write historical fiction tell me not to worry too much, to read a few general books and then not be afraid to make stuff up. That’s the thing, isn’t it? If you’re writing fiction, you’re allowed to make things up. I think it’s about feeling secure enough in your world to give yourself permission to play. Personally, I tend to do enough research to give myself some confidence and then start writing. It takes me a long time to work out the shape and structure of my novels, and I always end up changing things quite dramatically. So I’ll write in order to work all of that out, and most importantly to work out the emotional truth of what I want to say; then I’ll go back and do more research, once I’m clear about what it is I need to know.
McVeigh: You do a lot of creative writing projects with community groups, how does that impact on your writing and what are the key things you take away from those experiences?
Butler: I think if we are open to the world then everything we do filters into our writing in some way. I do community-based writing projects because I love doing them (www.urbanwords.org.uk); because I am passionate about the role and importance of creative writing and storytelling in the wider world; and because it keeps me grounded and sane (more or less!). Yes, this work does impact on my writing, though the impact it has is rarely planned or even anticipated to be honest. So for example, I started working on my next novel thinking it would be about a couple in their twenties set in 1950s London, but I soon found myself writing about this same couple in their late 80s, negotiating care homes and facing their own mortality. I am convinced that this change happened because of a recent project I was involved with in Preston. I worked in a day centre for people with dementia and had a lot of conversations about ageing, care and home – all of those themes have seeped into my new book.
McVeigh: You also have a writing consultancy what are the most common errors first time novelists make?
Butler: I’m a bit uncomfortable with the word ‘errors’! If I’ve learnt anything about writing it’s that everyone does it differently, and that just because you get published doesn’t mean you did everything ‘right’ and just because you didn’t get published doesn’t mean you did it all ‘wrong’. We have to find our own way, I think.
Saying all that, I do think that some writers founder when they become so defensive about their work they won’t listen to well-meant, constructive criticism. That too is a difficult balance: between believing in your own work and vision, and listening to other’s opinions, but I know that I’ve found feedback and editing hugely useful in my own work. I have heard a handful of writers tell me that they don’t read, which I find extraordinary, if only for its arrogance – if you don’t read, why on earth should someone read your writing?! And we can learn so much from reading – it’s essential I think, for writers at any stage of their career.
Here’s an exclusive extract: the prologue from Before the Fire.
9th August 2011
On the corner of Market Street and Spring Gardens, a boy who is almost, but not quite, a man flicks a plastic lighter until it yields a small yellow flame. His hood is pulled up around his face and a JD Sports bag slices a diagonal across his back. Behind him, people stand and watch, their phones raised to catch his movements, the buzz of burglar alarms and police sirens echoing across the city. The shop window is already broken. He steps over smashed glass to reach his hand in through the security bars, to the plastic dummy. She has a blank white face: no eyes, no nose, no mouth. But she has breasts, and hip bones – visible beneath her scarlet summer dress. He holds his lighter against a fold of material.
Then he turns away and crosses Market Street; stops by a shuttered-up shop, adjusts his hood, squares his shoulders, and looks back. Nothing but the smallest of flames, which seems to cling to the security bars, suspended between floor and ceiling. It is hardly big enough to notice. The people who watched him stand at the window with his lighter wait, nodding as if in agreement. The rest: the scared, the excited, the curious, the high, just walk past.
Soon enough the fire flares upwards – a skinny flame, gathering orange around its edges. Now some of the passers-by slow and turn their heads, though few break their stride. Something drops, molten gold, to the ground and another flame starts, as if from nowhere, to the right of the first, which is roaring now, reaching for the ceiling. The second is trying to catch up. Its audience has grown. Staring. Filming. Hypnotised. Black smoke gathers behind what is left of the window. The two flames join, and together they are unstoppable.
And now, as the crowd holds its breath, as a teenage couple kiss, as another alarm starts to wail, the fire grows. It stretches backwards and sideways, billowing behind the shuttered doors. It rushes forwards, its flames arcing from the window, pouring smoke up the brickwork, shattering what is left of the glass. It reaches for the onlookers and they shrink away, their movements short and panicked. Some turn and run. A man stumbles over a bike. A woman half trips and then rights herself. The couple, though, carry on kissing, their faces lit gold by the flames.