Author meets Reviewer: Sarah Vaughan meets Nicola Smith

Article published on January 3, 2018.

After reading and reviewing (and loving!) Anatomy of a Scandal, Nicola Smith had some questions for Sarah Vaughan:

Nicola Smith: I have read your books in order of publication and what strikes me is how different they are to each other and how diverse and versatile your writing is. Was it a conscious decision to write something quite different each time or was it a natural progression of your writing?

Sarah Vaughan: Thank you for your lovely words. I think it’s a progression. My first novel, The Art of Baking Blind, was the first I’d ever tried to write and so, although it has a time-slip story and several story strands from multiple points of view, it wasn’t ambitious in its subject matter. It’s about motherhood, and the impossibility of perfection, and details a baking competition. My kids were 4 and 7 when I started it so these were preoccupations of mine at the time.

I wanted to be more ambitious with my second novel and to write about a character nearing the end of her life, and to show her as a young woman, 70 years earlier. I also wanted to evoke an area I love: a stretch of coast in north Cornwall. The Farm at the Edge of the World, set on a remote farm in that area, features a time-slip story set during WWII and is about love, loss and atonement. It was my archetypal tricky second novel and is a lot darker than the first: I read a lot of du Maurier before writing it and it’s more suspenseful. I think I was gearing up to write my third novel, which I’d already thought of. 

Anatomy of a Scandal is clearly darker in tone than my first two books but I think there are strong elements of the same theme in my previous writing. There’s a flick of the theme in the first novel and it’s more explicit in the second, which features a traumatic scene on Bodmin Moor. I think it’s clear that the subject matter of Anatomy was something I was working towards and needed to explore.

Nicola Smith: Anatomy of a Scandal is your first book with Simon & Schuster, your previous books having been published by Hodder & Stoughton. I know that publishers often prefer authors to stick to one style, one genre. Did you meet any resistance going from a baking book to a historical time-slip novel? And based on your previous work, did your new publishers expect something different to Anatomy of a Scandal? 

Sarah Vaughan: I suggested the idea for Anatomy after writing The Art of Baking Blind but Hodder, unsurprisingly, thought it too huge a leap in subject matter and genre. The Farm at the Edge of the World was conceived to be in keeping with my first novel – it featured a time-slip, albeit 70 not 45 years before – and Hodder had no problems with me writing this.

I wrote Anatomy of a Scandal out of contract, and, because the editor who had bought my first novel had long since left Hodder, and because it felt different in tone, we sent it out to ten publishers, none of whom rejected it. S&S knew exactly what they were getting because they read it before bidding for it in a very exciting auction. Moving publishers felt the right thing to do because of this change of genre.

Nicola Smith: The title, Anatomy of a Scandal, is perfect as the scandal in question is picked apart and examined. Did you come up with the title or was it your publishers’ choice? Did you have a preferred title?

Sarah Vaughan: I came up with the title but it was inspired by my writer friend Terry Stiastny, a former BBC journalist who now writes elegant political thrillers. We had met up with a contact of hers in a Westminster bar. She’d read an early draft and this contact asked her what it was about. “Well,” she said. “I suppose, really, it’s an anatomy of a scandal.” And I had a light-bulb moment. I’m hoping she’ll somehow come up with a title for my fourth novel. 

Nicola Smith: You are clearly writing something of what you know in this book. You read English at Oxford, just like the characters, and you had a career as a political journalist. How much of what happens in the book is based on your own experiences? 

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy is my most personal novel and I’ve drawn on my experience at Oxford in the early Nineties; as a news reporter who covered court cases for the Press Association, and the Guardian; and as a political correspondent on the same paper.

Not everything that happens to Holly happened to me but, like her, I was an unsophisticated, provincial student who arrived at Oxford feeling like a complete fraud. I wasn’t from London or the Home Counties, I hadn’t attended a famous public school, and when the boy in the room opposite me announced he went to Eton – something that I’ve incorporated into the novel – I was cowed but also so incredulous I wanted to laugh.

I went to one of the most public school colleges – where a certain David Cameron had studied six years previously – but though, initially, I felt like an outsider, I also felt, academically, that I belonged. I wanted to capture that sense of awe, and that tentative awareness of belonging, as well as the fear of being an imposter.

As far as my experience working in the lobby is concerned, I couldn’t have written this novel without having worked there. I was a parliamentary correspondent back in 1996; then a political correspondent covering a maternity leave in 2000–1; before joining permanently for two years in March 2003. Obviously I didn’t experience what happens in this book – but I thought it was conceivable. (And, as the sexual misconduct scandal sweeping Westminster shows I wasn’t that far off the mark.) My period in the lobby allowed me to imagine a James very clearly: I’d seen plenty of powerful, charming men at work; and seen how a few politicians were willing to be flexible with the truth – even if only by omission or carefully crafted answers – if it suited them. I also saw how two stories involving sex ran.

Nicola Smith: How much research did you have to do to enable you to write the courtroom scenes? I expect the pressure was on to get every detail correct. Did you watch many trials? 

Sarah Vaughan: Before I became a political correspondent I was often asked to cover interesting court stories because I had fast shorthand. These included the trial of Roy Whiting – who abducted and murdered Sarah Payne; the arraignment of Ian Huntley, who murdered Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman; the trial of DJ Jonathan King, who sexually assaulted teenage boys he took out from care homes; and the inquest into the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence. So I was well versed in court procedure and the inherent drama of a trial. Before I started writing, I went to the Old Bailey to watch the trial of a City financier accused of sexually assaulting three women he worked with; and to my local crown court to watch the start of a domestic rape trial. I then managed to shadow the barrister in the first case in a rape trial at another crown court. She very kindly advised me about court procedure, let me into the robing room, introduced me to colleagues, and read parts of my copy. Through watching her forensic examination, as well as others’ cross-examination, I managed to be as accurate as possible.

Nicola Smith: And related to that, are you a meticulous planner or do you wing it and see where the story takes you? 

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal was unique in that I literally dreamed the plot. I was thinking about what I should write as my next novel and in the morning I woke with the main plot points and the bare bones of the story formed. I knew from the start that I wanted to write about a barrister who would prosecute a junior minister accused of rape and I knew that I wanted a storyline involving things that had happened twenty-odd years earlier at Oxford. It didn’t take long for me to work out that I wanted the wife’s point of view to be important, as well.

Unlike my two previous novels, where I used a massive piece of A2 card divided up into columns of chapter, point of view, what happens, timeline etc., I jotted the chapters for Anatomy down as a list, starting with the first five of them and, once I’d written these, planning through to the end. There were some changes to the plot midway through – including one pretty major one – and some playing around with where the past story would sit, but I still knew where I needed to get.

For my fourth novel, which I’m just finishing, I had the arc of the action – and a twist and the ending – before I started writing but it’s been less straightforward: probably because my plot hasn’t been as clear throughout. I accept that I can never plot it all though. Part of the excitement of writing – amid all the slog and frequent hair tearing – is letting your characters lead you in a certain direction.

Nicola Smith: How has your writing style and your technique changed since your first book? Does it get any easier?

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy was the easiest book I’ve written because I felt so incredibly passionate about the subject. Interestingly my dad’s just started reading it and has emailed to say my style is “much more confident and assured.” I’m trying to write tighter, more muscular prose all the time and to cut anything I’m unsure of. My fourth book isn’t proving as easy. So I think writing will continue to be challenging! But I like stretching myself. I’ve learned so much in writing my novels – both about diverse subjects and about the craft of writing. 

Nicola Smith: Do you have any unusual writing quirks or rituals?

Sarah Vaughan: Coffee is pretty much obligatory. A strong cup made with an espresso machine before I start writing and then mugs of Assam tea throughout the day. In an effort to curb my sedentary lifestyle we bought a puppy in March so each day begins with an hour or more’s dog walk, or, ideally, a shorter run. I can’t write with music on, and hate hearing people talking so I find it impossible to work in a café. But I did write Anatomy while we had builders creating an extension for five months so I don’t require complete silence if I’m really immersed in what I’m doing. Stretching – the odd Pilates roll-down – is important too.

Nicola Smith: If you hadn’t become a writer, what do you think you would be doing now?

Sarah Vaughan: I’d either be a freelance journalist, something I did after taking voluntary redundancy from the Guardian and before I got my book deal, or I’d have retrained to be a secondary school English teacher: the job I was researching when my now agent, Lizzy Kremer, rang me to say she’d picked me from her slush pile – and changed my life. I was miserable freelancing, and I don’t think I’m a loss to education. Even though I sometimes find writing difficult, I still can’t quite believe I have this job.

Nicola Smith: What’s next for you? Is there a fourth book on the horizon to look forward to?

Sarah Vaughan: I’m just completing my fourth novel, which should be published in January 2019 all being well, and there’ll be US and UK edits for this. Then I need to write my fifth novel and hopefully dream up a sixth!

Our thanks to both Sarah and Nicola for this excellent Q&A.

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Simon & Schuster UK 9781471164996 hbk Jan 2018

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