An Impressive Debut: Lucy Clarke’s The Sea Sisters
“People go travelling for two reasons: because they are searching for something, or they are running from something.”
The Sea Sisters is Lucy Clarke’s debut novel, and it’s one of those books that continues to resonate in your head long after you’ve put it down. The story focuses on sisters Mia and Katie – Mia has gone travelling, and Katie’s world is shattered by the news that her headstrong and bohemian younger sister has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff in Bali. The authorities say that Mia jumped—that her death was a suicide.
Katie refuses to accept that her sister would have taken her own life, so she leaves behind her orderly, sheltered life in London and embarks on a journey to find out the truth. With only the entries of Mia’s travel journal as her guide, Katie retraces the last few months of her sister’s life, and—page by page, country by country—begins to uncover the mystery surrounding her death. . . .
Lucy Clarke grew up beside the sea, and not surprisingly in this book, the sea is a strong theme. As Lucy reveals on her website: “I feel an almost gravitational pull towards the coast. I love everything about the sea – the pure smell of salt-air, the mirror-calm of a dawn sea, the promise of an empty horizon. My favourite place to write, where I have my clearest thought, has always been by the sea.
‘In The Sea Sisters, Mia and Katie spend their childhoods by the coast, and it forms an integral part of their early memories. But as they grow older, the sea begins to divide them, both geographically and emotionally. It isn’t until Katie begins to understand the reasons behind her fear of the sea that she’s able to find peace in her relationship with Mia.”
Lucy has a first in English Literature but like many novelists she started writing long before University, as she explained when I spoke to her on a sunny Monday morning, “I’ve always written. I’ve kept diaries and journals since I was eleven, but I wouldn’t say I knew I wanted to be a novelist until a couple of years after I graduated. I took a year off and went travelling with my then boyfriend, now husband, and when I had that space to think, I realised it was something I wanted to do.”
Lucy set up a small business delivering events to schools to enable her to support herself while she wrote. But as happens to many emerging writers, it wasn’t all ‘plain sailing’ (apologies for both a dreadful pun and a cliche!), as Lucy told me, “It took me two and a half years to write my first book, squeezing writing in at the weekends and in the evenings. And it was a manuscript that got rejected. I remember quite vividly that stage of submissions and rejections, but it was on the basis of that novel that I got my agent, Judith Murray at Greene & Heaton Literary Agency”
Unfortunately, even with an agent on board, that story didn’t find a home, but as Lucy said, she felt that it was her apprenticeship, “Now with hindsight I can see that it had some good things about it, but it wasn’t good enough. Judith eventually said that it would be better to put that one aside and get started on another book.”
In all, Lucy had been writing for six years by the time she finished The Sea Sisters, “I started writing when I was 24, and it took me until I was 30 to sign my first book deal. You have to work at it. Writing doesn’t come easily for most people.” But as Lucy says, it’s definitely worth sticking with, if it’s what you really want to do – not only was The Sea Sisters bought by Harper Collins UK, but it’s sold internationally (eight countries including the USA so far) and is, Lucy is thrilled to reveal, on Richard and Judy’s Summer Read List for 2013, “Hearing that was almost more exciting than getting a publishing deal!”
Always keen to hear about an individual writer’s process, I was intrigued to find out that Lucy’s writing evolves in a fascinating way. She is a morning person, and writes her drafts longhand. Lucy told me, “I have a layering approach. I have the concept and idea and biographies of the main characters, and a loose plot, then I free write the first draft by hand, then I type it up. It might only be 20,000 words. I print it off with big margins and re-read it in one sitting. Then I add more and more notes, writing on the manuscript itself. The next draft will be about 10,000 words longer, and I keep going like that, layering the plot, developing the themes. I have teeny writing – and I work a lot from a beach-hut – using this technique I can work anywhere – I’m not limited by a laptop battery life.”
Lucy describes her technique as being a bit like that of an artist: “An artist doesn’t work on just one corner of a painting and make it perfect before doing the rest, they layer up the paint, improving the work all the time. That’s how I work. I didn’t know what would happen to Mia until the end of the book, but as the characters developed, I began to see.”
Lucy explained that she also uses mood boards with photos of her characters and her locations pinned up in her office. Indeed, a friend told her when those early rejections were coming in, that as well as visualising her characters, she should visualise herself getting published and put it on her pin board. She said delightedly, “She lives in Australia now and I’ve just sent her one of the preview copies.”
Lucy’s husband James is a professional windsurfer and she has travelled with him to all the places mentioned in The Sea Sisters, including Bali where much of the book is set. The sense of place is almost tangible throughout the book, from Cornwall to London, to Western Australia, her descriptions are brilliant yet apparently effortless, picking up on minute detail to paint the picture for the reader. She told me, “When I’m editing I draw a five pointed star at the top of the page with the five senses written at each one of its points. It reminds me to give every scene a peppering of the senses.” And Lucy’s ability to evoking place using the five senses is superb, the smells and sounds of Bali particularly, bringing the island alive with all its colour and heat.
At the core of The Sea Sisters is the tempestuous relationship between Katie and Mia, yet Lucy doesn’t have a sister of her own. “I don’t actually have a sister, and although I do have a brother I’m close too, it’s a different relationship. The book started with the idea of a travel journal, that was the hook, but I didn’t want to write it as a journal – I needed a way to tell the story of the journal and I started wondering who would be reading it. The sisters just felt right for me. I interviewed lots of different sisters, chatting to them about their relationship. But it was the things they didn’t say that was interesting, the way they interrupted each other, their body language.
‘When I was writing, Mia came to me first, with the dark aspects to her personality, and Katie grew out of the shadows and light. When I started, I found that playing two different albums as I was writing, one for Katie and one for Mia, enabled me to slip easily into their different voices.”
Although she studied creative writing at University, Lucy told me that she didn’t have time when she started her first book to do courses or classes – instead she told me, “I devoured every ‘how to write a novel’ book that has ever been written”. Even now on her second book, she looks over them all the time. She also analyses the fiction she reads, annotating everything as she goes along, looking at how the writer builds tension, character and introduces flashbacks. This process has definitely payed off in The Sea Sisters – there are several scenes, including the last one, that have you gripping your seat.
Reading The Sea Sisters I was immediately hooked in by the first chapter, and I have read the first page out to at least two groups using Lucy’s writing as an illustration on how to grab the reader and draw them right into the story using the five senses. Lucy said, “The first chapter is so important, the reader needs to be immediately behind the character. It was the first chapter that I did the most work on, because that first chapter is not only for the reader, but a publisher or agent needs to love it too. “
From that very first chapter of The Sea Sisters, Lucy takes the reader on Katie and Mia’s turbulent journey, the story of their own relationship and their relationships with the men in their lives twisting in unexpected and surprising directions that literally keep you hooked to the last page. It is a great read, and one that you won’t easily forget. Lucy Clarke is undoubtedly a talent to watch.