Monday, 1 June 2009

INTERVIEW: Sarah Rees Brennan

One of the strangest bits of information that you can probably discover about an Irish writer is that they can't speak the countries native tongue very well. One of the reasons for this however is not to blame the education system but perhaps to blame the fact that from a young age, Sarah was a Bibliophile, whilst lessons were meant to be learned there she was reading tales that would spirit her away to worlds unknown instead of the dreary classroom to which she was confined.

So its probably no surprise to discover that with this wanton love of tales she announced fairly early on that she was going to be a writer.

After serving her time in school she traveled a bit and lived in New York and oft used the NYFD as her personal chauffeurs. How, we have yet to discover but we've been lead to believe that theres a tale in the telling however her throat was too dry to reveal all. Here we chatted to her about her writing, her love of books and how Sarah's seem to get an automatic pass into her reading pile...

FT: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

SRB: I think that writing is far more a gift than an affliction, so I'd take issue with that! But I do see what the saying's getting at - when I haven't written something in a while, I get a feeling of physical unease and start being monstrously snappy to people. It does feel like something you have to do, but I think it has to be something you want to do as well. Think of all the people who want to write books and don't: writers write at the intersection of that want and that need.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

SRB: When I was five. Something about my incurable clumsiness tipped me off that I probably wouldn't be any great shakes as a ballerina, and I told my grandfather that I was going to be a writer instead. He was a husky tattooed ex-army guy, and couldn't have cared less about books, but he pretended to believe me and be interested, and that fatally encouraged me. When I was seven I finished my first huge pile of pages I called a book, which was about my primary interests at the time - ponies and ninjas.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

STB: I think that may be true: I wrote a lot of novels before I wrote any short stories, and when I started trying to write short stories I was just awful at them. I kept trying to make them uber-dramatic, and occasionally added cannibalism. With short stories you have to almost treat them as prose poems, choosing every word carefully for maximum impact in a very limited space. It makes the novels better, too.

Mind you, I still can't write poetry for toffee.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

SRB: I think I would tell them some horrible lie, like 'I heard that they were hiding money in the spine of selected copies of that book.' But I would add 'It's about a surly mechanic boy, and demons from Sumerian mythology in London. Sound like it might be your sort of thing?'

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

STB: Fencing. Fighting wolves with bike chains. Torture. Demons. Magicians. Ravens. Books. Families. Rooftop chases. Lies. More lies. Love.

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

SRB: I adore Diana Wynne Jones's work and carry her books from country to country: her books on my shelves make me feel at home. And funny you should ask this, since yesterday I found Kelley Armstrong's The Awakening, the sequel to The Summoning, in a bookshop. I did a little dance. Living in Ireland, the wait for books can sometimes be painful!

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

SRB: When I sit down and write, I know how the story will end. The middle always involves some mystery, but I usually do have an outline of sorts - I had several outlines for my latest book. I read them back over now and go 'Well, that didn't turn out exactly as I planned' and 'Did I really write "add explosions" in the margins?'

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

SRB: I walk and swim, but I mostly read to relax. Some people swear by ereaders, but since I often read in the bath, that could be a very nasty incident. I recently read and really enjoyed (in and out of the bath) Corambis by Sarah Monette, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Dull Boy by Sarah Cross and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. (Stieg Larsson rather lost in this sea of Sarahs.)

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

SRB: More and more people have actually found out this dark secret, but here goes: I love country music. Nobody ever needs to know how often I've listened to the Taylor Swift album.

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

SRB: I don't have any pets. There is a family cat who lives with my parents, who I brought up with a bottle from a few days old. He had ringworm and looked like a tiny shrivelled Egyptian mummy of a kitten, and spent all his time living in my bathroom and screaming in weird, tinny screams amplified by the bathtub as I stumbled around short on sleep doing his bidding. He hasn't made it into a book yet, but he may be a villain one day.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

SRB: They're all fun to write in different ways! I have an Irish magician who's a very sneaky villain, and I enjoyed the way one side thought he was doing one thing, his own side thought he was doing another thing, and only he and I knew the truth. I also enjoyed writing Jamie, one of the four main characters, who when faced with supernatural danger is a complete and unashamed wuss. I'd be exactly the same way.

FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?

SRB: Not much, which made him a fun challenge to write. Nick's a guy of few words, who doesn't like reading and does like cars and swords. I thought it would be interesting to get into the head of the archetypal dark mysterious stranger who knows all about the supernatural world, and deconstruct him: tell things from his side, and see how baffling he finds everyone else!

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

SRB: I used to fence in school, which influences my hero's love for and skill with swords. I was pretty atrocious at fencing, myself, but I still like it. Dancing also looms large in the book - something again that I'm awful at but enjoy, and indulge myself by making some of my characters good at it. I'm fascinated by history and language, which helped me with my research for the book: I loved contrasting the different ways demons were thought of in Elizabethan times, when people believed demons were made of air and could be enslaved, and then in ancient Sumer, when people believed they were made of fire, and were powerful and unknowable.

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

SRB: Mostly from digging through other writers' rubbish bins. No, I get ideas from everything - my friends, my family, people I pass by on the street, documentaries I see on television, interesting facts I hear. And other writers' rubbish bins, of course.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

SRB: I have had writers' block a couple of times, and I tend to overcome it by going on long runs (not something I usually do, but born of desperation!) and casting about me wildly for an idea, any idea! After a while my brain offers up one out of sheer exhaustion and a wish to stop the running.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many woudl call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

SRB: I'm a complete night owl, but my housemates (a DJ and a diplomat) don't mind if I stay up until seven in the morning as long as I don't keep them up playing country music. That's what earphones are for!

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

SRB: Some writers have to work in sacred silence. Not me: I like writing with my friends when they're watching TV, and writing with my writer friends in cafes. When I'm by myself, I tend to play music very loudly. And yes, I do have certain songs for certain scenes, which is terribly annoying for people when I get lost writing and don't realise I've inflicted the same song on them thirty-seven times.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publsihing field when you were first getting started?

SRB: About a million, but I did an internship in publishing in New York, and lived with an editor at another publishing house: I learned about queries, partials, fulls, advances and P&L sheets very quickly. I flailed in the deep end of publishing information and spent a lot of nights obsessively reading publishing blogs - that's how I found the blog of Kristin Nelson, who is now my agent, so you see it all worked out.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

SRB: You might think of it as the drink of love: the depictions of familial love, love for friends and romance in books keep me sold on the idea of love, just like you can keep living on water for quite a while. Then there's the Scotch whisky of love: lots of books have romances that are a terrible idea and yet that the characters just can't resist. Look at Wuthering Heights!

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

SRB: My next novel is the sequel to The Demon's Lexicon, The Demon's Covenant. It's told from the point of view of a different character, and it involves bargains, betrayal, duels on the Millenniun Bridge, and two of the main characters falling in love (not necessarily with each other).

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

SRB: The review site,, (I know, I'm a shameless addict like everyone else),, and my blog at

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

SRB: Several. I took a writing course when I was sixteen at the Centre for Talented Youth in Ireland, and when I was twenty-two a writing course was part of my MA at Kingston University in London. Both were fun and good for me, though I think my instructors were all puzzled by my love for fantasy.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

SRB: Oh, I regarded them as learning experiences, natural steps in the progression to success. By which I mean I would spend hours wailing, throwing stuff at the walls and trying to suffocate myself in piles of paper, and then I would get back to another round of edits and try to regard them as learning experiences.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

SRB: It's really scary (especially waiting for your first book to come out) thinking about how much rests on something as crazily hard to predict as what other people think of your work, but it's worth it to have a job that you love, can't stop thinking about, and can't wait to get back to when you're away from it. Being able to sleep l
ate some mornings is pretty good, too.


Michelle Muto said...

I've heard so much buzz about this book! And I love what Sarah said about writing being a blessing.

Best of luck, Sarah!

Joshua Stuart said...

Ive met sarah in person and i think that she is a very taleted authour !!!