Introducing my friends and fellow (or should that be sister?) authors of Honno – The longest-standing independent women’s press in the UK – who will be at the Honno Book Fair on the 7th May 2022 , 10.00am until 4.00pm, at the Queens Hall, Narberth, Pembrokeshire.
If you’re in the area we’d be thrilled if you popped in to say hello.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be introducing each author. I’ll also be showcasing Honno.
Today, I’m really pleased to be joined by Sara Gethin
Hello and welcome, Sara. And thank you for being with us today.
It’s good to be here, Judith
Please tell us how many books have you written, and which is your favourite?
I’ve written two novels for adults, and I’m going to add an optimistic ‘so far’ to the end of that sentence, as I have another storyline percolating in my head. ‘Not Thomas’ was my first novel. It’s a contemporary story about a neglected five-year-old boy and the people who are letting him down – spectacularly – and those who try to help him. The children in my second novel, ‘Emmet and Me’, are also failed by the adults around them. The background to that story is the extremely harsh industrial school system of 1960s’ Ireland. Picking a favourite from only two books feels like an impossible choice, but the most recently published is ‘Emmet and Me’, so I’ll choose that one.
What inspired the idea for your book?
The inspiration for ‘Emmet and Me’ came from a memoir I read by a man who’d been brought up in an industrial school in Letterfrack, Connemara. Those schools were filled with children whose families had fallen on hard times, and they were run, mainly, by the Catholic Church. They operated all over Ireland from the late 1800s, and some of them – a handful of the infamous ‘laundries’ – were still open in the 1990s.
The Letterfrack school was notorious for the extremely harsh treatment meted out by the Christian Brothers who ran it. Peter Tyrrell, the author of the memoir I read, wanted to draw attention to the terrible plight of children in these schools during the 1950s and ’60s. He felt ignored by the people in power, and eventually took his own life by setting fire to himself on Hampstead Heath. The character of Emmet came to me very clearly after reading Peter’s memoir, and I knew that at some point I was going to write about a boy growing up in the inhumane conditions of a rural industrial school in 1960s’ Ireland.
What was your hardest scene to write, and why?
There’s one scene in ‘Emmet and Me’ that readers have said makes them shudder. It’s where one of the characters has a rather nasty and unusual accident. The peculiar thing is I didn’t realise, until I went back to edit that passage, that I’d described an incident I’d witnessed as a child. That same accident happened to a friend I was with in a field when we were seven years old. I had buried the memory until I wrote about it for the book. Writing that scene initially wasn’t as difficult as going back to edit it, and discovering I was reliving the incident from my own childhood.
What part of the book was the most fun to write?
I loved writing the conversations between the two central characters, the ten-year-olds Claire and Emmet. The children meet in school and become forbidden friends. They’re misfits. Emmet is looked down on as he lives in the industrial school, or ‘orphanage’ as the locals call it. Claire feels out of place because she’s been uprooted from her Cardiff home and dumped at her granny’s isolated cottage. Both children love reading and horses, and Emmet and Claire bond over a copy of Black Beauty. It was great fun to write conversations alternating between Welsh and Irish accents, although it was also quite a challenge!
If you were to write a spin-off about a side character, which would you pick?
There are two girls in Claire’s class who are referred to by everyone as the ‘House Girls’. They live in the local orphanage, and they stand out a mile in school because their uniforms are different from the other girls’. They’re ignored or teased by the children in their class, and the teachers treat them appallingly too. Despite this, they show Claire nothing but kindness. I’d love to expand their story one day.
*At what point did you think of yourself as a writer?
The first book I wrote was the collection of stories for children, ‘Welsh Cakes and Custard’. When I found it on the shelf of my local library, I truly felt like a writer. That was back in 2013, and I’ve written three more books for children since then, plus two novels for adults. I still get a huge thrill when I see them on the shelves of Llanelli library, although I really hope they get borrowed too!
Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym, and why or why not?
I write my children’s books under my real-life name, Wendy White, but I use Sara Gethin as a pen name when I write for adults. That’s because the stories I’ve written for children, so far, have a light touch and are humorous, whereas my stories for adults are in a totally different vein. That’s not to say there’s no humour at all in my novels – I really hope I make my readers laugh or smile a few times when they read ‘Not Thomas’ or ‘Emmet and Me’. But it’s certainly true to say there are darker moments in the stories too.
What do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused?
I love to have music on in the background while I write, but not just any music – it needs to be a playlist I’ve put together for that specific piece of writing. Sometimes the playlist consists of one song, repeated over and over, for a particular scene. I find music is the easiest route back into the mood I’m trying to create for a book, especially if I’ve had to take a break from writing. When I’m struggling to find the words, it’s normally because I haven’t yet discovered the perfect piece of music.
How do you use social media as an author?
Ah, social media – love it or loathe it, it’s not going away any time soon, is it?
I’m mainly active on two platforms – Twitter and Instagram – with an occasional dip into Facebook. My favourite is Insta. I could waste many happy hours on there, scrolling through images of gorgeous scenery and beautiful book covers. My own posts are mostly of sandy walks and shipwrecks. Cefn Sidan is my local beach, and it’s very photogenic. I’ve also been known to post the occasional book-related pic.
On Twitter, I love following authors and talking about books I’ve read or am looking forward to reading. I mostly retweet other people’s news, with a shameless flurry of self-promotion when I have a new book out myself, and I’m always so grateful when people share my news too. Pre-pandemic, when I’d organise signings in book shops, I’d tweet about them before and afterwards. My book launch for ‘Emmet and Me’ last year was a Zoom affair. I tweeted about that to an extremely annoying extent, I’ve no doubt! But it was wonderful to have so much support from the Twitter community for the launch event, and for the new novel too.
Why did you choose Honno as a publisher?
I love the fact that Honno is run by a committee of women, and I’ve been a fan of the publisher and their books since my student days, many years ago now. Long before I began writing, I knew it would be wonderful to be published by them. I feel it’s a huge honour that my two manuscripts were chosen for publication by Honno, and I’m very proud to be featured among the fabulous female writers they have on their list.
Thank you so much, Judith – I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to talk about books again! I’m so looking forward to getting together in May for the Honno Book Fair at Narberth. It will be a very special event indeed! Sara x
Sara Gethin Bio:
Sara Gethin is the pen name of Wendy White. She grew up in Llanelli and worked as a library assistant before becoming a primary school teacher. Her debut novel, ‘Not Thomas’, written in the voice of a neglected five-year-old boy, was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. While home is still west Wales, she and her husband spend much of their free time in Ireland.