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An Interview with SARAH DIAMOND

Written by Mike Stotter

Sarah Diamond is one of the hottest new talents around. Following in the footsteps of psychological crime novelists such as Minette Walters and Ruth Rendell, her character-driven work shimmers with a lethal blend of desire, delusion and obsession. She explores the dark, often seedy lifestyle of her tormented characters in a way which few novelists have been able to capture and with an experience beyond her years. In a revealing interview with Fiona Shoop, she discusses how hard it is to be a writer and reveals her own obsessions.

Much has been made of your age. At 25, you’ve published two critically acclaimed novels, does this place pressure on you both to get better and live up to your early success?

It doesn’t really bother me. I know for a fact I’m a much better writer now than I was at twenty, and the further I go, the more I learn – I can’t imagine myself regressing as a writer. As far as that ‘early success’ thing goes, living up to it’s the last thing on my mind. I’ve had a few nice reviews, but nothing to write home about– I want to do a hell of a lot better than that in the future.

Do you get annoyed that you’re heralded as a young author instead of just a good one?

I don’t know, really. Sometimes, it’s flattering and sounds really cool, other times, it comes across as a bit patronising. Like they’d think I was rubbish if I was thirty – but they’re being kind and making allowances, on account of my age.

Your work is very dark, does this reflect your own cynicism to life?

Realism, maybe. There’s a poem by TS Eliot that refers to ‘the skull beneath the skin,’ and that kind of sums up my writing – the surface can be painted and airbrushed and who knows what, but the stuff going on behind it makes it real. It annoys the hell out of me when I read characters and situations in chick fic, because they’re just so incredibly superficial – the sweet, scatty, loveable heroine, the thin, glamorous bitch - oh please. Anyone who’s really known anyone like that can’t have known them at all well. Is it hard for females to succeed with psychological crime novels or do you think that this is their forte? It’s hard to generalise, but I think women are better at subtle suspense than men. I always think of male writers as being more interested in action for the hell of it - shooting lions, detonating bombs and riding off into the sunset with an adoring supermodel. If I’m in the right mood, it can be fun to read that kind of thing – but there’s no way I could write it.

Which writers do you most admire?

I think Stephen King’s God – what was I just saying about it being hard to generalise! The Stand is one of the best books ever and Rose Madder is just incredible. I’m also crazy about Ruth Rendell, especially the non-Wexfords – they’re great in themselves, but Wexford’s such an irritating, self-righteous bastard. He’s the sort of guy who writes letters to the Daily Mail about immigration. I can’t figure out why nobody’s killed him yet!

Which writers have influenced your own writing – if any?

Apart from the ones above – maybe not the ones you’d expect. Graham Greene, definitely. Before I read Brighton Rock, I thought there were only two genres – The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or Hollywood Wives. It was a real revelation that you could do story and style at the same time. Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square was another real influence. Actually, the more I think about it, I can’t believe what I said about male writers earlier. Please ignore it!

How much of your work is based on your own experiences?

Too much. If you want to know how much, I’ve never done any research – the closest I’ve got was when I was writing The Beach Road and got a holiday brochure from Thomas Cook so I could see what Florida was supposed to look like. Apart from that, it’s just bits of my life, tweaked and amended. The Beach Road was very much based on my schooldays – like Jane Sullivan, I also moved schools in my early teens and it was a nightmare. Mind you, it wasn’t much better before that. If there’s one thing that never fails to cheer me up, it’s knowing that I’ll never have to go back. Cold Town was also pretty personal but in a different way – it was all about this nightmare winter I went through a few years back. There were redundancies looming at work and writing was going appallingly. I came out of my office in Soho Square one night, and got the idea there and then.

You focus very much on emotionally-driven, almost obsessive characters, does this echo your own characteristics, those of someone close to you or do you just like writing them?

That’s a tough one. I suppose I am quite obsessive, or I’d never have stuck with writing for so long – last week, I figured out I’d worked every weekday evening for the last three months. My main characters tend to reflect me, and I don’t have much of a middle ground. I’m either totally passionate about something, or I couldn’t give a damn.

There’s an anger in your work combined with characters on the edge of society, is that how you feel or are these the most interesting characters to develop?

I think both. I could never write about a real insider who was secure and successful and a pillar of the community – I’d hate their guts, I couldn’t help it. The only way I could handle a character like that is if they were hiding dark secrets which came out as the novel progressed – which, now I come to think of it, is kind of what my third book’s about.

Possibly a defunct question but one I’m sure you’re always asked – where do you get your ideas?

I don’t have an awful lot to do with it, really - they just turn up on their own. For some reason, the best ones tend to arrive on winter evenings. They seem to like the weather.

How do you combine working full time with writing?

I just write in the evenings. I used to do weekends as well, but it started pissing me off too badly - I never had any free time to do anything else. These days, my Saturday and Sunday nights are sacrosanct.

How hard do you find it to write?

Indescribably hard. I’ve got into this ritual when I get home from work – I’ll put my dinner on, tidy up, change into something comfortable and eat. Then I have a cigarette before I start the evening’s writing. When I’m on the brink of a tough chapter, it feels like I should be smoking it up against a wall.

Tell us about your writing style – I understand that you write your initial drafts longhand?

I do indeed. Whenever I see a chapter of mine typed up on a computer, it looks like the final version that’s not to be changed – it has a kind of professional feel that can be very misleading. If I type straight up, I can have flat, dodgy prose staring me in the face for months on end and not even notice anything wrong. When I write longhand, everything automatically looks awful, so I have to work harder to polish it up.

Why did you choose to write crime?

The funny thing is, I didn’t. I had no idea I was writing crime till my agent told me, and I was quite surprised. I always feel a bit of a phoney when I tell people I’m a crime novelist – there hasn’t been a single policeman in either of my books to date. Actually, there’s going to be one in my third, but he doesn’t really count – he arrests one of the main characters for drink-driving and then vanishes.

Do you have any plans to write a non-crime based novel?

I can’t see it happening. Everything I write is going to have a murder in it somewhere – or at least an attempted one. There’s no way I could do a romance, for example – they make me want to throw up. And I tried writing a comedy when I was at university, but it depressed the hell out of me and I gave it up by page ten. I think I’ve raised the bar scarily high in my own mind, when it comes to drama – if I did a novel that revolved round ‘is Susannah’s husband going to leave her for his mistress?’ I just wouldn’t be able to relate. All the time, I’d be thinking, for Christ’s sake, it could be worse. You could be getting beaten to death with a heavy object, grow up and deal with it!

What’s been your most rewarding moment since starting The Beach Road?

There’s a bookshop in Covent Garden called Crime in Store, and a few months ago, a mate of mine e-mailed to let me know they had a stack of Cold Towns in the window. So I went along to see for myself and there it was! I really wanted to take a photo, but the manager might have seen me, and that would have been too embarrassing for words. I’ve done signings in there. I know the guy. I understand that you’ve been nominated for an award in America, what can you tell us about it? Well, they’re called the Barry Awards, and they’re sponsored by an American crime fiction magazine called Deadly Pleasures. The Beach Road’s up for Best British Crime Novel of 2001 and the result gets read out at Bouchercon in November. I haven’t got an American publisher yet and I’m hoping the nomination might help me get one. You’re currently writing your third novel, Breaking-In, what can you tell us about it? That I’m very, very bad at summarising my plots. In a nutshell, it’s about a woman who seems to have everything – before a chance meeting with a childhood enemy endangers it all. In this book, I’m bringing back one of my favourite characters from The Beach Road – that lovely little seaside town, Underlyme. I grew up somewhere very similar, and could probably draw a map of the place.

Is there any advice which you would give to people who are thinking about writing a novel?

I’d say that you have to be patient. It looks like I got published young, but I’ve been writing short stories and suchlike since I was about thirteen - and all I got before The Beach Road was accepted were rejection slips. It’s really depressing when you get your stuff rejected by those bog-standard women’s magazines that seem to publish anything. I’d also advise aspiring writers not to get paranoid, because it’s a dangerously easy habit to fall into. For years, I thought I must be writing my covering letters on the wrong sort of paper or in an inauspicious font. It was a lot easier to change those things than my short stories themselves – which I must admit were pretty dire.

What are your ambitions?

I want to be a world bestseller and go on tour – just so I can run up a room service bill the size of the national defence budget and leave my publishers to settle up. It’s a recurrent fantasy of mine and helps me to cope. Realistically, I’d like to be earning enough to go part-time at work and have some of my evenings back. Over the last few years, I’ve forgotten what soap operas look like.

Sarah Diamond

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