sarah armstrongIt’s my great pleasure to introduce Sarah Armstrong, a former Walkley award-winning ABC journalist whose first novel ‘Salt Rain’ was short-listed for a number of awards, including the Miles Franklin. Her second novel ‘His Other House’ is now in bookshops and it’s totally absorbing. In this interview Sarah talks about writing, ethics and parenting – and managing all three at once!

Q: I understand you gained the idea for ‘His Other House’ from a news article about a Wollongong man leading a ‘double life’. What made you want to write about this?

A: I found it such an intriguing scenario. After reading the article, I found myself wondering how he felt about it: did he justify it to himself in some way? Or did he know it was wrong and feel bad? I guess my journalistic curiosity kicked in (I spent years as a journo at the ABC) and I really wanted to grill this guy! Instead, I explored the situation through fiction. When I started, I thought it must be a fairly uncommon scenario but, astoundingly, when I was writing it and would mention to people what I was working on, eight times out of ten, they’d say, ‘Oh, I knew of someone like that! My neighbour’s (or friend at school’s, or friend’s cousin’s, or brother in law’s….) dad did that.’

his other houseQ: ‘His Other House’ has a lot to say about ethics and morality. What do you think is the role of these in everyday life?

A: I think getting clear on our own ethics and values is really important. For many years I kind of drifted through life without really sitting down to ask myself: What is most important to me? What are my core values? What is non-negotiable? How do I want to live my life in terms of honesty and kindness and service to others?

Once I articulated my values to myself, it made decision making in tricky or fast-moving situations much easier. I know that if I am to follow my values that I will choose to be honest when talking to my husband or friends about something, even if what I say is hard or creates complications. I know that I will choose to help someone who looks like they are struggling eg another mum at the supermarket, or someone who seems unwell. I don’t always do this, I hasten to say! But knowing what I value in life makes it easier to do so.

I think having a child concentrated my mind on this. It made me think about what values I want to pass on to her, because of course what she sees me and her dad doing, is what she will do.

Writing His Other House made me really drill down into ethics in relationship. As it asks on the cover: Does love mean always telling the truth? Should we tell our partner if we are attracted to someone else? Or if we flirt with someone else? Every person will have their own measure of this, of course, but it’s good to know what your own measure is (not to mention your partner’s measure!). I think that the more truthful you can be, the better. As long as it’s done in a way that’s about building intimacy and talking frankly about the relationship (rather than hurting or punishing the other person in some way). I try to tell the truth to my husband – whether that truth is painful or not. I suspect he is better than me at being completely honest about relationship matters – and it’s not always easy to hear. But always, I feel closer to him after such a discussion.

Q: There is also a substantial focus on parental love. In a way, each of the main characters has a fractured relationship with a parent, yet there is no doubting the love. What does this say about the nature of the parent/child relationship?

A: I think deeply about the business of being a parent (possibly too deeply!) and really try to be aware and conscious in how I interact with my daughter but I don’t always get it ‘right.’ Sometimes I am tired and grumpy, sometimes I engage in an unnecessary battle of wills. The fact is that parents – no matter how noble their intentions – are fallible. We are human. We do the best we can. And that’s okay.

Q: In which of your characters do you most see yourself?

Each of my characters has a little of me in them. I gave Rachel my down-to-earth qualities and my love of gardening and my background as a journalist. I gave Marianna my longing for a child, my experience of IVF and miscarriage and some of my thoughts about motherhood. Quinn has some of my ways of seeing the world and my fear about being seen for who I really am (although I think I’m getting over that!). That said, the characters are entirely their own people; they are not me.

Q: You take the reader right inside the minds of your main protagonists. Is that a conscious decision? Do you have any particular techniques for getting in there?

Yes, it’s very conscious. Fiction offers us something that is impossible in life: getting inside the heads and hearts of other people. I think that’s why I love reading so much, and why I love writing. Writing is a practice in compassion for others, because you can’t get inside a character without feeling for them and trying to understand them. And once you do this for a character, it’s easier to do it for real people around you.

Q: Can you outline some of the differences in the experience of writing ‘His Other House’ compared to your last novel ‘Salt Rain’?

A: When I wrote Salt Rain  – my first novel – I had no idea where the story was heading. I’ve heard someone describe writing a first draft as blindfolded groping in the dark. That’s how it felt. I had an image that came up in a freewrite: a girl sitting on a hill in the rainy dark, looking down at houses in the valley below. That was all I knew about the story and it wasn’t until about the fourth draft that the plot became clear to me.
When I started writing His Other House, I had a situation in mind so I knew more than I did at the start of Salt Rain. There was still plenty of work to do, though. You know, small(!) stuff like create fully dimensional characters, decide on character arcs, consider structure, setting, voice etc. But I had a clear narrative framework to hang it all on, which made writing it much more straightforward than my first novel.
Now, I’m about half way through my third novel and I’ve moved even further from the blindfolded groping approach. With my current project – working title TTC – I had a dramatic situation in mind, but this time I also knew exactly where the story started and where it ended. I knew how the protagonist would change throughout the story. There’s still a lot of work to be done but I am not groping my way through the first draft. Sometimes I worry that this means I have lost something. Some spontaneity, some free, wild writing but I tend to think – as someone who has been writing fiction steadily for more than fifteen years – that even as I write to my loose plan, I have learnt how to keep some sense of being spontaneous and open to the unexpected.


Q: Can you tell me about your writing process?

A: I write in a studio in our sub-tropical back garden and I write when Amelia is at preschool three days a week. I am very disciplined about writing time and simply do not do anything else in those hours. No hanging washing on the line, no cuppas with friends, no dentist appointments. I write a very sketchy first draft, at that point I am feeling for the voice and the plot and don’t want to waste time on prettying up something I may ditch down the track. Then second draft is usually about adding layers and digging down into character. I quite often write little notes to myself mid-manuscript eg. ‘Maybe a flashback here to explain her mother’s death?’ Or ‘More description here of street,’ or ‘What does he look like?’ I  come back to those notes later and flesh the points out.

Q: You teach and mentor other writers – what’s the most recurring piece of advice you find yourself giving?

Don’t stop to edit the first draft, just keep writing. Figure out what your main character wants. Be prepared to rewrite many many times. And be prepared to make big changes in a rewrite…. The fact is that writing a novel takes lots of time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a novel that Pan Macmillan will also publish. It’s about an issue dear to my heart and quite confronting to write. I won’t say anymore right now  – unusually for me I feel like keeping this one close to my chest – but I’m really enjoying the process of creating this story.

Read the Book Birdy review of His Other House here.

Buy His Other House from Booktopia or Bookworld 

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