Orford author Sarah Foot’s new book Fragments ? and the family health crisis that put story-writing on hold
Sarah Foot doesn’t crave the spotlight, so the publication of her new novel brings mixed feelings. It’s lovely that people will read the story, but publicising it… well, you sense she’d rather be walking alone among the snowdrops. Steven Russell delays her
Powerful writing exposes the dark fears we hide in the corners of our mind. Sarah Foot’s new novel does that – from the cover. “Life can shatter in a moment,” it warns. “Then you must pick up the pieces.”
It’s true. At 20, you’re immortal. At 45 – however many unit trusts you have in your portfolio; however many swish cars glint in the driveway – you begin to suspect that stability hangs by a thread. More hinges on luck than we like to admit.
Sarah knows it. Once, husband Tony lay in an induced coma, very seriously ill with septicaemia that triggered multiple organ failure. He recovered, thank goodness, but it was a jolting reminder about fragility.
“He got ill incredibly quickly,” Sarah recalls. “On a Sunday afternoon I was saying to a friend ‘Is it man flu, do you think?’ Forty-eight hours later he was put into a coma. People, very well-meaning, were thinking ‘Do this…’, ‘You should be doing that’ as he came out of the coma – thinking you could control this awful thing – but all I could do was wait.
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“I remember once in intensive care there was this man who had been involved in a car accident, and I overheard a junior doctor say to the senior one ‘What can we do for this poor young man?’ and she said ‘Just wait.’ Sometimes things are beyond your control.
“I suppose that relates to my character Julia, who thinks that if she works hard enough and is bright enough she has more control than she does in the end.”
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Julia, in Sarah’s book Fragments, is a top-notch lawyer who thinks her drive and intelligence can keep inner demons at arm’s length. Husband Phillip, meanwhile, is a big-hitter in the advertising industry who discovers he can no longer “sell” himself to himself. Looking for meaning, he quits “to give something back”.
As if that’s not enough, their lives are joined by single mother Laura, a woman torn between the demands of her daughters and her own passions.
The moral and emotional complexities of modern life lie at the heart of the novel. Whose needs should you put first? Your family’s? Your own? And once you’ve made your choice, how do you live with the consequences?
‘Putting my foot in it here!’ Poor Sarah. Lob fundamental questions like that into the public arena and you get people like me prodding your psyche to find out where the inspiration came from.
And I’d rather like to know why it’s been nearly 25 years between her debut novel and this second book, please!
Probably not a comfortable experience for someone who admits she was ill-suited to a stint as a national broadsheet journalist. “I wasn’t sharp enough.”
Tony’s dreadful experience obviously influenced the theme of Fragments. And Sarah remembers reading about a woman who was very successful. “There was that slight sense of entitlement that because she’d worked hard, and was very clever, she deserved it. I remember thinking ‘My goodness. Have you never had something completely from left field, where however hard you work, however intelligent you are...” Life doesn’t always go to plan.
Then there are those big moral dilemmas playing out in our lives “whether or not we’re even conscious of them. That’s something I think about a lot. ‘If I’m going to do this, then I’m not going to be able to that.’
“My mother was so disabled for so long” – Marion had been confined long-term to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis – “and you can never do enough for someone like that.”
The impossible questions – Who should we love? Who should we give our energy to? – are eternal.
“Sometimes you can be in despair about the choices you’ve made, but you’ve got to pick up those fragments and rebuild, again and again.”
She admits life can be “incredibly challenging”.
“I had a really brilliant state education. I got a full grant at university. If you’re brought up with the sense of obligation to give something back – and that’s no bad thing – living up to those expectations is hard.
“I had a long time not being published, and it’s stupid to define myself by the books. I know, intellectually, life’s about the unsung kindnesses; it’s about the compassion you show to people; it’s the times you’ve been a good friend. But it’s hard to have the strength of character not to also want worldly success!”
Sounds like she beats herself up a lot?
“That’s probably at the heart of it, yes!” she laughs. “Gosh, is that the headline? I’m putting my foot in it here!”
Moving to East Anglia has been one of the best things the Londoner has ever done. Sarah grew up in the north-west suburbs and always yearned to swap the capital for the countryside.
Suffolk worked its magic following a week’s holiday in Rendlesham Forest in 2009. She was hooked: the family moved up early in 2010.
Home is in the Orford area – in a converted office building that belonged to a long-demolished country house.
“I think Suffolk’s a bit of a slow burn. Its beauty isn’t obvious. I didn’t get it at first. Now, I can be waking up and feeling quite low about things, but I get up early and walk outside. The air smells of childhood holidays. The beauty lifts me.
“I tend to do the same walk every day because I like that feeling of getting to know a place. It’s never the same.
“There’s a terribly nice woman who has a second home, and she was saying ‘Ugh, the weather’s so bad I’m going to go back to London.’ I’m thinking ‘You don’t get it.’ I enjoy the greyness and those amazing skies even on the bleakest days.
“And I used to get really excited as a child when I saw a frog. Now, I’ve got frogs everywhere! Last summer there were three leverets (baby hares). To me, that’s incredible. And the snowdrops and daffodils. Small miracles...
“One of the disadvantages of London is winter. Sometimes I felt I lived in a saucepan. It’s grey and you don’t see any of the changes.
“This is what I like about doing exactly the same walk each day – because you see those tiny, incremental changes and realise life goes on.”
‘A new lipstick can lift you’ Sarah studied history at university in Exeter and left with no firm plan. Jobs for graduates were thin on the ground in 1983, so she went home to Pinner and taught herself to type.
It was boring, so she typed letters, including one about having to move back home after university.
“I sent one off to The Times, thinking I might get a letter published. That was as much as I dared to hope.”
But the features editor liked her style and got Sarah to write a column: a “diary of a job-hunter” kind of thing. Only about eight were published, “but with that you’ve got an entrée”.
Later she got a job on the magazine Vogue. Was she keen on fashion and trends?
“I used to treat myself to a Vogue on the journey home from university, about four times a year. I didn’t love the thing about needing to have the ‘right’ bag – clearly, as you can see, I don’t! – but I like that sense of capturing a mood. Now, I haven’t a clue, but then it was exciting.
“And sometimes, when people are feeling down, there’s a lot to be said for the trivial. A new lipstick can lift you; or feeling a nice fabric.”
Vogue, then. Wow.
“It was a real privilege. You were working with really talented people. I remember turning up in one of my mother’s dresses – with my parents’ generation, nothing got thrown away – and a brilliant writer said ‘Oh, my. That’s a Horrockses cotton.’ It was a 1950s dress, but she knew exactly.”
After about a year, Anna Wintour arrived as editor. Legend has Wintour down as unsmiling and demanding. What was she really like?
“I was a minion. Someone like me, it was great for. She did get rid of a lot of the old guard. I used to get quite a lot of pieces in. I had four bylines one particular issue. That was nice.
“I wasn’t high enough up the food chain to be in all the editorial conferences, but I do remember going into her office and she said ‘What do you think of the cover?’ She was always asking everyone for their views.”
Then came a job on the Daily Telegraph, “which I was terrible at. The daily routine didn’t suit me; I could pace myself much better on a magazine. I don’t have the quickness of mind.”
There was a spell on the social diary column. “Some people would love it, and love going to the parties. I needed to recharge by being completely on my own. I didn’t have that political expertise, either. I’d force myself to listen to the Today programme; force myself to read the papers. It was never something that came naturally.
“And then I lost my job, and used the redundancy money to fund my writing of Fair Sex.” Fortunately, Sarah did also keep one day a week’s work at the Telegraph.
The novel was published in 1991, when she was 30 – a wry view of the world of glossy magazines (though we shouldn’t draw firm comparisons with Vogue, she points out).
Dublin was the next port of call – as maternity cover on a magazine – and then she landed the editorship of Irish Tatler, the “style bible”.
After perhaps three years in Ireland it was on to the Hebrides. Sarah stayed in a borrowed cottage “and wrote a book that wasn’t published...”
She’d been yearning to write more fiction. “Unlike journalism, unlike life, you have that bit more control over your characters. I sometimes think writing’s an escape from life. You hide yourself away and create this other world where people do what you want them to.”
The Hebrides were home for a couple of years, before Sarah returned to London, married Tony, and had a son (now aged 11).
She’d written near enough the first chapter of what would become Fragments before becoming a mum. Then it went on hold.
“When he was about two and a half, I organised childcare so I could do more writing. I did miss it. Within five weeks my husband got desperately ill; and then he was terribly ill for a long, long time. So I didn’t write anything more until my son started school.”
There’s a newspaper cutting from 16 years ago in which Sarah wrote about island solitude. The photograph shows her on Islay – baggy jumper, wellies, hair blowing in the wind – skimming stones.
If she could travel back in time and meet her younger self, what advice would she impart?
“Have more confidence in yourself.”
Is she short on it? Why?
She nods at a copy of Fragments, on the table.
“There are bits (of the book) I’m really pleased about, but maybe there’s just that sense it’s never good enough. If you are someone who puts a lot of pressure on yourself, you can never do enough.
“I could never save my mother. I don’t have a cure for MS.”
It strikes me there’s a sense in much of her writing of not quite being at ease with the world. What does she most fear?
“I mention it in the prologue: that one may be privileged, in good health, with loving parents and a good education, but worrying you’ve not used your life in the right way. I suppose that’s always the fear. I’ve been too cowardly at times.”
“Just a sense of self-disappointment; self-doubt. Maybe from setting yourself too high standards – impossibly high standards.”
Fragments is published by Quercus at £19.99