Can you juggle four kids with being a published writer? This mummy novelist says yes!
PUBLISHED: 15:27 30 January 2019 | UPDATED: 17:17 30 January 2019
As she launches her latest novel, set in the cold war, author Sarah Armstrong talks about how she balances family and a writing career.
Imagine: Three children in nappies. You’re also working for The Open University – largely from home – AND you’re writing novels in your “spare” time. Blimey.
So what’s been the survival technique of Sarah Armstrong, who has a trio of published works and another in the pipeline? How does she tick all those boxes without imploding? (I daresay it helps a lot that her brood are now all past primary school age.)
“A lot of it is just going ‘No!’ It’s just about setting those boundaries: That I’m not responsible for all the cooking and washing and all that stuff. (In any case, Sarah’s a confessed awful cook and detests cleaning.)
“It is really hard for most people who go out to work to see ‘being at home’ as work at any point. My children used to tell other people that I just sat at home watching TV all day! That’s honestly what, I think, they thought I did – because I was at home. So getting that ‘No, I’m at work, even though I’m in my house’ message across is really, really difficult.
“When they were really little, I would look after them until six o’clock, when my husband got home, and then I’d take an hour off to watch TV, and then I’d either start writing or marking from seven till midnight. So it all depended on whether I’d got marking or not as to whether I could write or not.
“I’ve never been one of those people who writes every day. Because I can’t. It entirely depends on everything else that’s going on.”
Take Sarah’s new novel. The first draft, 74,000 words, was written over 35 days spread between May and October in 2017. (People kept asking her how long it took to write a book, so she kept count.) By any standard, that’s going some.
The wake-up moment
It was after the birth of third child Henry in 2005 that Sarah realised the clock was ticking – fast – if she was ever going to pen a novel. Time to get a move-on, despite everything on her plate.
“I remember sitting at the computer with him in my arms – he was tiny – just in one arm, thinking ‘I’ve got to do this now.’ It really was a wake-up moment. Then I had another child after that…”
For the record, Sarah’s children Alfred, George, Henry and Mabel were born in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2006. There’s only 15 months between the middle two, and in 2002 she started working for The Open University.
Somehow, she managed to find the time and creative energy to produce The Insect Rosary, published in 2015.
Sarah, the daughter of an English teacher, had written stories and poetry when younger, studied English for years, wrote her PhD and was always reading. But she hadn’t been writing for pleasure for ages.
When she started on the novel, “it was really hard! Just getting any good at it. I’d studied writing so much, and I’d read so much, that it was all ‘just going to be there’. It wasn’t. It was all really difficult.”
That was “a massive shock”, but she toiled away and earned her dues. “Since then, I’ve read it takes 10 years to do your ‘writing apprenticeship’. I waited a long time… but I did get my first book published in nine years!”
How does Sarah cope managing family life and writing?
“If I have only an hour, I do have trouble sitting down for that. It has to be a better stretch of time, I think.” Minimum? “Oh, two. Otherwise you are just faffing around and only have half an hour left.
“It’s not just writing; it’s having time to think about the writing. I have tricks. I used to have a string of beads hanging off my bag, and if I saw it I’d remember I was writing a book.
“And I’d have music. If it was playing, I’d sit and write, and wasn’t allowed to get up. You have to force yourself, because your brain will do everything it can to stop you writing.”
That, Sarah believes, is human nature. “It’s a ridiculous thing. ‘I’m going to sit here and type imaginary things and someone’s going to read them…’ The whole thing’s bizarre!
“Your brain will go over all of this: ‘It’s rubbish; you haven’t got any good ideas.’ So it’s about forcing yourself to block that out. Music works for me, but I know a lot of writers who can’t use music at all. I can’t use it if I’m marking, but I always use it if I’m writing.”
What kind does she choose? “Largely Brit pop and David Bowie. Things that are familiar to me, so I don’t have to think about them very much.
“And I’ve managed to get David Bowie into all my novels so far!”
‘Happy people write dark books’
The Insect Rosary takes readers to Northern Ireland in the summer of 1982, where Bernadette and her older sister find out their family is linked to disappearances and murder. Three decades later, Nancy makes a disastrous return to the farm, and we learn why the sisters haven’t spoken since that shocking summer discovery all those years ago.
Sarah’s second Novel, The Devil in the Snow, came out in 2017. In it, Shona yearns for a simple life with her son. She needs to finally be free of her “ex”, still living in the house. Her mum is obsessed with the devil. Her uncle has just come out of jail and isn’t entirely to be trusted, and there’s a shaman (someone with access to the spirit world) in the shed.
When her teenage daughter vanishes, Shona is sure her ex has something to do with it. She soon realises the secrets she’s buried are dangerous.
Quite dark and edgy, aren’t they, these tales? “Yeah. They’re not romance! I’ve got this theory that really happy people write dark books and miserable people write happy ones. Which is probably completely wrong, but I think you do have to feel quite safe and secure about things.
“I don’t like happy endings,” says Sarah. “I just like people feeling conflicted and trying to act against each other.”
The writer’s latest thriller - set in the year Bowie visited Russia
The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt is a thriller set in Moscow in 1973. Think cold war diplomacy and counter-espionage.
Martha’s been ejected from the University of Cambridge for giving out left-wing leaflets (and, to be fair, doing no work). To make things look a bit better in the eyes of her parents, she marries friend Kit. He happens to be gay, and has been posted to Moscow by the diplomatic service; a wife could keep him safe.
His bride finds the Soviet capital fascinating but tricky. She doesn’t know who to trust. Martha starts learning the language, but makes the wrong friends, is soon out of her depth and finds herself in the shady world of counter-espionage.
Sarah realised that while she hadn’t been particularly interested in the cold war before starting on the novel, she had long been hooked by tales of real-life spies – such as Melita Norwood. She was a British civil servant who for about four decades channelled state secrets to the KGB.
“I’ve always been interested in the idea of people pretending to be other than they are. Even the undercover police in the animal rights protests –that kind of spying against your own people, as well as against other countries.”
“The ’30s are fascinating, the ’50s are fascinating. It’s all interesting. So I just had to go ‘Well, David Bowie went there in 1973, so I’ll just have to set it in 1973’.”
Bowie’s her favourite – his music the soundtrack to many key moments of Sarah’s life. Good enough reason.
In 1973 the musician experienced the Soviet Union when returning home from a tour of Japan. Frightened of flying, he opted to take the train…
Given a fair wind, The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt will prove the first in a series. There’s definitely going to be a second book.
Sarah didn’t want to say goodbye to some of her characters, and this time last year had the idea of a string of related novels. She mentioned it on the bottom of an email, only in passing, and Sandstone Press gave her a two-book deal.
“With Moscow, I feel like I’ve just opened a boxful of stories and could keep going forever…”
The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt is published by Sandstone Press on February 7, at £12.99