Spread the Word’s Communications Manager, Francesca Baker talks with Sarah Perry about writing, poetry, Brighton and her new book Let Me Be Like Water. A transcript of their conversation is available to read below…
Francesca Baker: I’m here with Sarah Perry. Your new book, Let Me Be Like Water, is published – today? Tomorrow?
Sarah Perry: On Thursday.
Francesca Baker: On Thursday, very exciting. It’s a story about a woman called Holly moved to Brighton to escape the grief of the death of her boyfriend. It’s your first novel, and recently you ran an online course for us about exploring using poetry and writing fiction. I wonder – because obviously you’re a poet by heart, I suppose – what’s the difference between writing the two?
Sarah Perry: Oh, I don’t know, I’m sure it’s different for everyone. I think it’s a really big question as well, what’s the difference between poetry and prose. I don’t think I’m as interested in, in my process, what the difference is, but more how you can use the two together.
Quite often I’ll write a poem that will become part of the book, or I’ll write something in prose and then turn it into a poem and then turn it back into prose as a way of stripping the language back. Or thinking a bit more intentionally about language and rhythm as well.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, that makes sense, because the book is written in kind of – some of the chapters are not really chapters, they’re these paragraphs.
Sarah Perry: They’re very brief, yeah.
Francesca Baker: Did you deliberately set out to challenge form, or is that just the way it works for you?
Sarah Perry: I didn’t really know I was writing a novel when I first started writing it, which I think is where the form came from. I was writing, and I was writing it into something and I didn’t know necessarily what that was. There are some poems which were finished poems, which are now no longer finished poems because they’ve been worked into the book.
So I don’t know that I necessarily was that intentional about it, but as a reader I’m really interested in formally playful work. I love prose poetry as a poetic form. It’s one that I really enjoy.
I think that in terms of what I was reading, maybe that’s why I was writing something that was a little bit more of a fusion.
Francesca Baker: Going back to the novel, 20-something Holly moves out of London to Brighton after the death of her boyfriend to escape and heal. Grief and loss is something we’re used to exploring potentially through older characters. Why did you choose to explore them through someone much younger?
Sarah Perry: It is an interesting one, isn’t it? I think that I was particularly interested in women of that age in literature. Loads of stuff is being written now, loads at this particular moment, but historically I think that women in their early 20s have not necessarily been very common fictional characters, and certainly not in complex, emotional ways.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, there’s chick lit and that’s it.
Sarah Perry: Yeah, or they have a love interest or they’re a sister or a mother. We’re often more roles than what we’re feeling. So I really wanted to be reading books about women my age. I was looking for that anyway, so that’s why the central character was that age.
In terms of grieving, yeah, young people do grieve and lose people all the time. Friends, partners, family members. I think that’s where that came from.
I’m also quite interested in grief as being something that we experience as people not just when someone dies. I think that grief can come into your life through other losses or traumas. The way that grief manifests after something traumatic or after the loss of something that isn’t necessarily a person is also of interest to me generally.
Writing into grief just as an emotion I think is incredibly difficult to deal with, and the very long-term nature of it is quite taboo, I think. It’s a whole year in her life, and the grief never leaves her. I think that that sense of how pervasive and all-consuming it is – we’re quite good at being like, “okay, you can have 2 weeks to be sad and then you’ve got to crack on with life.”
I think that I was quite interested in that as well, and what it is to be a young person living in a very chaotic emotion and having to just get on with life.
Francesca Baker: You’re based in London, but the way you describe Brighton is really poetic, and the seascapes. It suggests that you spent some time there. Obviously the sea echoes Holly’s ebb and flow of grief and loss. How important is location to you?
Sarah Perry: Very. In this book, but generally in writing as well, I love reading literature that has a really strong sense of place. It can be a fictional place as well, but I love that sense of being in a space.
The sea is really important to this book because it’s a real – Holly spends a lot of time on her own by the sea, and I think that’s a choice that she makes.
But I love Brighton. I’ve always loved Brighton. I spend a lot of time there. I grew up in Croydon, which isn’t actually very far from Brighton. While I was writing the book I spent a lot of time there finding the little emotional details – stuff no one else will care about, but like Holly takes up running. I don’t run ever, but I’d walk her running routes and think about what she’d be seeing and where she was going. All of the times she runs in the book, I did those routes.
I think that’s maybe part of my process. Also because when you’re writing, sometimes it’s nice to let the kettle boil a bit. I think spending time in a place is a way of feeding the book without sinking into it.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, you’re absorbing stuff in naturally. The novel was shortlisted for the Mslexia Award, which is very exciting. That’s the magazine by and for women writers. Do you think there’s enough support for female writers out there?
Sarah Perry: Listen, I’m up for more support for anyone from a marginalized background, and it’s not just women. So, is there enough? There should just always be more for any kind of marginalized group or less-resourced group.
Francesca Baker: You do work with marginalize groups. You’ve run mentoring young poets’ collectives in Hackney, Glasgow, and somewhere I can’t pronounce. The capital of Honduras.
Sarah Perry: Tegucigalpa.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, that. What’s that like? Are there lots of similarities between the young groups, or is it really different?
Sarah Perry: I’m never necessarily interested in focusing on that identity of marginalized. I think it’s more about creating contexts of empowerment wherever you work for people to tell the stories that they want to and feel that the story they want to tell, whatever it is and whatever it relates to, is relevant and valid. That’s what I try to do in any space that I facilitate.
Tegucigalpa was great. We worked on a multilingual project there, writing poetry in Spanish and English using both languages at the same time and thinking about translation as a framework for editing as well, which was really great.
In Hackney I was working in a school that became a collective of young female poets who are just exceptional young people. They’ve got a lot to say and they’re extremely articulate. It’s a pleasure to work with them.
Francesca Baker: In 2013 you were longlisted London Young Poet’s Laureate. You were Cityread Young Writer in Residence in 2014. Can you tell us more about your writing journey and what some of those opportunities have afforded you to do?
Sarah Perry: I definitely started writing poetry and performing it, doing more spoken word, as a way into exploring what putting my work out there would be. I’d always written privately and on my own, and that was the first context or community in which I felt like I could share my work. I was doing a lot of that in 2012-2013.
The Cityread project was fantastic. It was a month-long residency, and I was writing new work and researching new work as part of the residency. But you can’t do that all day, so I also used the mornings to edit this novel as well. I like that structured time as a time to really work into the first edits of the book, which was a real gift.
Francesca Baker: So the book has been a long time coming, then.
Sarah Perry: Oh my God, yeah. I started it in 2012. It was shortlisted for Mslexia in 2013, and then I did this month-long edit during Cityread, and then I was signed by my agent a couple of months after that. We edited for like 18 months before it was sent out to anyone.
So yeah, it has been a long piece of work. It’s also really old work in some ways because of that. I definitely sometimes read it and I see a younger version of me in the writing and I’m like, “Aww. I’m excited to write the next one now.”
Francesca Baker: What is coming up next for you?
Sarah Perry: I’m actually starting a PhD in October in Creative Writing at Manchester Met, which is amazing. I feel so lucky to have got the funding to do that because I think the hardest thing has been that, since I work full-time and I’m also disabled, finding the time and energy to write is quite challenging.
So having 3 years to do this PhD is the most amazing gift. The second novel hopefully will be the next thing.
But I’m also working on a project looking at the history of women in Dagenham,working with a local school, which will be really interesting. There’s always lots of bits and pieces to fuel the fire.
Francesca Baker: If people want to find out a bit more about you, how can they do so?
Francesca Baker: Thank you.
Sarah Perry: Thank you for having me.
SK Perry will be running a course on Self Editing for Fiction Writers. Sign up here!