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Sarah Webb and The Shoestring Club

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Women’s Fiction

By Hazel Gaynor

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Sarah Webb is the international bestselling author of no less than nine adult novels and numerous titles for children. From her background as a bookseller, Sarah maintains that she will only continue to write for as long as she enjoys it. With the launch of her new novel, The Shoestring Club it would seem that enjoyment is still very much a part of the writing process! “The Shoestring Club is about two sisters, Julia and Pandora Schuster, who lose their mum at an early age and who used to be close as twins but now have a rather strained relationship. At the beginning of the book Julia finds out that her ex-boyfriend and her ex-best friend are getting married, and her life starts to quickly unravel. I started thinking about The Shoestring Club quite some time ago, and it evolved over the past three years. I wanted to write about two things: what it means to be a sister and also about what happens to a person later on in life when they encounter something traumatic and upsetting as a child. In the book, Julia, the younger sister (she’s 24) is deeply troubled by something she sees when she’s nine.”

After concentrating on the hugely successful ‘Amy Green’ series for young readers in recent years, has Sarah found it difficult to move back to adult fiction? “To be honest it was at first, yes. I enjoy writing the Amy Green books so much and still do. I’m working on book six at the moment, the last book in the series and I’m going to miss the characters so much. But I have a strong idea for another series for young readers, ticking over at the back of my mind, waiting to be shaped and formed into a proper book proposal.”

Interestingly, diversifying into children’s fiction is something which Sarah feels has benefited her writing greatly. “Writing for children has taught me so much about writing in general and I am a much better writer for the experience. After nine adult novels I was starting to feel a little jaded and wondered if I had anything new to say as a writer. Writing the Amy Green books reminded me of what how exciting and joyful writing can be, and I’ve now brought this sense of joy and possibility to my adult books. I’m very proud of The Shoestring Club and I’m learning more and more about connecting with readers and creating memorable plots and unforgettable characters with every book that I write.”

With so many successful titles already behind her, where did the inspiration for a new book come from and what exactly is it which keeps Sarah motivated to write? “The setting for The Shoestring Club – a designer second-hand shop – was inspired by a real store called Stock Xchange in Dun Laoghaire which I love and highly recommend visiting; and the zoo scenes – one of the characters, Arietty Pilgrim is an elephant keeper – were fantastic fun to research as I got to visit Dublin Zoo and meet the elephants up close and personal with one of their wonderful keepers, Alice. In terms of motivation, I guess like most writers I want to write the best book I can which drives me to keep improving, keep writing better books. I’d also like lots and lots of readers all over the world, of course. But for me, the daily act of writing is the part of the whole process I enjoy the most – sitting down at my desk, blocking out the ‘real’ world and simply writing. After a good day of writing, when the words just seem to write themselves – the world seems like a pretty good place. It doesn’t happen all that often, maybe only a couple of times a year – but when it does it’s truly magical.”

With the publishing industry going through a challenging and transitional period, with the impact of the recession and the increasing prevalence of ebooks within the market, what does Sarah find exciting about the industry? “The energy and passion in the children’s book world. I’ve been working with children’s books for twenty years now (scary), as a bookseller, marketing manager and now writer – and it still thrills me. It’s a wonderful world to be involved in – children’s book people are so full of life and such fun! Digital/ebooks and the future of the book interests me greatly too, I see a lot of possibilities for writers in the future.”

In a slightly unconventional arrangement, Sarah has two agents, both in Lucas Alexander Whitley in London and she also has different publishers for her different books. She explains why. “One agent deals with my adult novels, the other deals with my children’s books and they are both experts in their fields and wonderfully honest and smart. I love working with them both. In terms of publishers, my adult novels are with Pan Macmillan (UK and Ireland) who do a fantastic job. I have been with them for over ten years now and my editor, Trisha Jackson is fantastic and I have the most lovely sales rep and PR agent in Ireland too, both who I adore working with. My Amy Green books are with Walker Books (Candlewick in the US and various other publishers – but Walker deal with the rights on this series), who are also a joy to deal with. I have two editors there, Annalie and Gill, both amazingly good at their jobs and Mr Walker in Ireland, Conor is a joy to work with. I also publish with O’Brien Press in Ireland – they published my recent nursery rhyme book Sally Go Around The Stars (with Claire Ranson, illustrated by Steve McCarthy) which was nominated for an Irish Book Award and featured on the Late, Late Show. Emma the Penguin, an early reader, is also published by O’Brien.”

Although it’s hard to imagine that Sarah does anything at all other than sit at her desk and write, does she ever find time to switch off and relax and if so, how?! “Absolutely I do – I wouldn’t have much to write about if I didn’t! And it’s really important to ‘fill the well’ so to speak and to rest the mind. I walk – a lot, love visiting art galleries, going to the cinema and watching television drama, such as Sherlock. But I only watch telly at the weekends … something has to give, so telly it is! And at the weekends I spend most of my free time with my partner, kids, family and friends (when I’m not sneaking off to read or look at pictures!).”

Sarah also confesses to being an avid reader and shares some of her favourite books and authors. ‘I read – a lot. Whatever time of the night (or morning) it is, I can’t sleep without reading at least a few pages. I love good popular fiction: Marian Keyes, Sheila O’Flanagan, Cathy Kelly. I’ve just started JoJo Moyes’ new book, Me Before You.” Sarah also lists Chad Harback, Anne Tyler, John Green and RJ Palacino as particular favourites. “As an author and as a person, I truly admire Roddy Doyle. He’s a fantastic writer for both adults and children and he also finds time to help run Fighting Words, the free creative writing centre in Dublin’s city centre which he set up. I also greatly admire Judy Blume who changed the face of children’s and YA fiction forever with her brave books about real children facing real problems. She’s in her seventies now and still publishing books.”

Of course, being a successful writer isn’t simply about writing a great book and Sarah is involved in many other aspects of the industry. ‘I enjoy going to readings and book events, especially children’s books events and I’m on the board of Children’s Books Ireland which has regular meetings and social events. I programme the Mountains to Sea Book Festival (children’s events) and library events (with arts curator, Tom Donegan), so that also keeps me pretty busy. It’s not ‘relaxing’, exactly, but it’s something different to the writing and its fascinating and very rewarding work. Seeing children’s eyes light up when they see their book heroes talk about their work right in front of their eyes – Eoin Colfer, Darren Shan, Cathy Cassidy – it’s magical.”

Every aspiring author will no doubt be reading this and thinking how much they would love to taste even a little of Sarah’s success! So, what piece of advice does she offer to anyone looking for that elusive publishing deal? “Write about a subject that means something to you. And concentrate on your characters above all else. Create unforgettable characters, larger than life characters. You can always pull them back a little at the editing stage (which I have to do a lot, see question above). If you can’t create memorable characters, you can’t write good popular fiction, it’s as simple as that.”

With so much success already behind her, what is next for Sarah? “I’m currently writing the final book (book 6) in the Ask Amy Green series, Wedding Belles. Then it’s on to edit the next adult book, a companion book to The Shoestring Club called The Memory Box. After that, lots more books in the pipeline, including a new adult novel and a non-fiction book with my lovely writer friend, Judi Curtin, so stay tuned!”

Visit Sarah’s website at www.sarahwebb.ie

About the author

(c) Hazel Gaynor January 2012

HAZEL GAYNOR is a blogger and freelance writer, specialising in parenting and the modern family. Hazel’s blog ‘Hot Cross Mum‘·offers an honest, frank and humorous insight into life at home with two young boys. ‘Hot Cross Mum’ was listed in·The Independent Top 50 Parenting Websites and Blogs in October 2009 and has been ranked in the UK’s Top 100 Parenting Blogs index since September 2009. ‘Hot Cross Mum’ was shortlisted for the 2010 Irish Blog Awards and was awarded a gurgle.comblog award in July 2010.

When she’s not blogging, chasing around after her two children or avoiding the ironing, Hazel writes·features for the Irish Examiner, The Irish Independent and Modern Mum magazine and·contributes regularly to parenting websites. She has also written a weekly column for The·Leinster·Leader and·blogs for Hello magazine in ‘Off the Shelf’.

Hazel·has appeared on national radio and TV and was featured in The Sunday Times Magazine in January 2010.·In addition to running the Inkwell Blogging & Beyond online workshop, she is currently working on her first fiction novel.

Hazel lives in Co. Kildare, Ireland, with her husband, two children and a kitten which is intent on destroying her leather sofa.

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