Getting into writing – an interview with Sarah James

Sarah James

Sarah James/S.A. Leavesley is an award-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Overton Poetry Prize winner 2015, she is author of four poetry collections, three poetry pamphlets, a touring poetry-play and two novellas.

Her poetry has won or been shortlisted for many prizes, with individual poems published by the Financial Times, the GuardianThe Forward Book of Poetry 2016, on Worcestershire buses and in the Blackpool Illuminations.

Sarah’s other work includes editing, mentoring, facilitating workshops, commissions, residencies and festival readings. Her poetry has featured on the BBC, in poetryfilms and on radio. She is also a published essay/CNF writer, and longlisted for the memoir prize in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017.

Her website is at www.sarah-james.co.uk and she runs V. Press, a poetry and flash imprint shortlisted in The Michael Marks Publishers’ Award 2017.

What got you interested in writing?

I can’t honestly remember. As a child, I was either outdoors exploring, or I was indoors reading and make-believing. I guess writing flowed naturally from that. I remember creating my own newspapers and writing a rhyming poem about a flea that loved shopping when I was six… I was a child, and I didn’t have much pocket money, so I think there was a lot more hopping and popping than actual shopping!

Tell us a little about your chosen genre.

I think genres have chosen me rather than the other way around. I write poetry, flash, short and longer short fiction, novellas, creative non-fiction, memoir, essays, features, articles…I’ll try anything I can get my teeth into. I was a regional newspaper reporter for several years in my twenties, then freelanced as a news, features and women’s magazine short fiction writer. Poetry became my thing when my children were little because I only had very compressed amounts of time to write in.

Sometimes my genres choices are dictated by life and circumstances. Other times, a particular inspiration and subject matter will suggest its own preferred genre and form. Occasionally, I mix up or range across several in one piece, or adopt a different face and stance on the same topic in different forms. My narrative poetry collection The Magnetic Diaries was inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary and initially published by Knives Forks And Spoons Press as a mix of prose, poetry and multimedia supplements (audio, photography and film). I then developed a stage version, which was toured by Reaction Theatre Makers and became a highly recommended show at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016.

As a publisher, V. Press started with a single collaborative poetry anthology.  Then I took on poetry pamphlets and collection, followed by flash pamphlets and a flash fiction novella. I’ve written more about the press’s genre choices for the 2018 Flash Fiction Festival UK, where V. Press will have a showcase reading.

What are your happiest memories in your writing career?

The most recent acceptance or commission – whatever and wherever that is!

Other particular highlights? Maybe winning the Overton Poetry Prize in 2015 for my pamphlet-length poetry sequence Lampshades & Glass Rivers, having plenty-fish published by Nine Arches Press, being highly commended in the Forward Prizes for my 2015 collection The Magnetic Diaries, reading in the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends series at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2014, winning third prize in the International Rubery Book Awards for my debut collection Into the Yell (Circaidy Gregory Press)… I’m hard on myself and my work though, I like to continuously push myself with what I’m doing.

Actually, reading this list back, I also want to slightly reformulate the question and my answer. Above are some stand-out memories if I’m looking at my writing in career terms. But if I’m looking at it purely in writing and happiness terms, the biggest joy is in the writing itself, the pure creating. It’s afterwards that the anxiety starts – does this work, will it connect with people…? Happiness then comes from any response which says it does. Both are important and essential for me. While the writing and creating is the pure joy, writing is a form of communication and connection, so I also need to feel that it achieves these. Other really happy moments are simply talking poetry and writing with other people who love this too – sharing the creative and reading buzz is a great feeling!

As a publisher, being shortlisted for the Michael Marks Publishers’ Award 2017 was amazing. One thing about running a press is that I get a big kick and joy from the successes of all V. Press’s authors – and they are very very talented writers!

How do you handle success and failure?

That’s a good question! I love successes, obviously; they mean a lot to me personally. At the same time, I do find it hard to know how much fuss to make about them in terms of social media and the effects on other people. It’s balancing responsibility to publishers and prize organisers to shout about that joy with not wanting to blow my own trumpet… I’m not sure I’ve ever managed this comfortably.

Failures I find hard to recover from confidence-wise. But, looking back, sometimes failures are the very things that make my work achieve more – by forcing me to rethink, rework, try harder, protecting me from publishing something too early… Emotionally, failure and rejection still hurt a great deal. But rationally now, I try to hold onto hindsight’s wisdoms and use disappointment to create something even better or bigger…where and when I can. I’m also learning, slowly, to let go of the things that just don’t work or can’t be changed or improved.

What makes you write when you’re exhausted and your fingers ache?

Hell knows! I guess mostly I don’t write because it seems a sensible career option or a great way of earning a living. Mostly, I write because I have to, I’m driven to and by it. I love the writing and I love the editing; the former in particular actually re-energises me. The marketing etc, I do because it comes with it.

I’m lucky though to have a fairly large amount of control over when and how I work and write. To be honest, if I’m exhausted to aching point and still writing, I’m so in the zone that I’m not feeling that exhaustion or aching. If I am feeling it, then I’ve learned the hard way that it’s best for me to stop for the day or at least take a decent break so that I can start at it again afresh. When I’m feeling exhausted and aching, it’s likely to take me hours to do what I could do better in a fraction of the time when I’m back at 100% again – even if it’s deadlined and that means setting an alarm to get up early enough the next day to do it.

What is your advice to young and new writers?

Keep going. Be prepared to listen and learn. Be prepared to listen and ignore. Expect great things, accept small achievements. Expect, while being ready to let expectations go. Accept everything and nothing. Be prepared to realise that acceptance, popularity and writing the best work you feel you can are not the same things. Keep going.

Are you a traditionalist or a digital? (paper or eBook)

Both! I like my cake and eating it! As a reader, I generally prefer poetry in print form but novels on my kindle. (Holiday reading takes up less space and weight that way, plus my window sills are already functioning as bookshelves, sometime two-books deep!)

Do you blog?

Yes, occasionally. Mainly on my website here, but also some posts on a wordpress blog.

I use my website blog for themed blog-series too: micro reviews, In the Booklight author interviews and my current series of Wednesday Reflections – ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for reader discussion and writers’ prompts.

Do you self-publish?

All my solo poetry pamphlets and collections have been published by independent presses, either commissioned by them or following acceptance from their submissions windows/competitions.  Likewise with my novellas published by Mantle Lane Press. (See my answer to question 10 for a list for these.)

So mostly, no, I don’t self-publish. There are a few small exceptions that prove the rule though, such as snippets shared on social media and writing on my blogs. This is mainly factual or CNF writing about writing rather than poetry or fiction. A collection of my current ‘Wednesday Reflections’ blog series, Sometimes I smile, is available as a self-published book on Amazon.

If you have a publication or promotion – tell us.

My most recent poetry chapbook, How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press) is launched at The Poetry Café in London on March 31, 2018, at 6.30pm for a 7pm start. Against The Grain Press has organised a brilliant line-up including Linda Black, Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire. The Facebook events page can be found here.

I also have a novella Always Another Twist forthcoming with Mantle Lane Press and, with my publisher hat on, I’ve just announced the 2018 V. Press submissions windows. (April for guest editors; April/May for poetry; July for flash fiction.) Full details about this can be found here.

My other books, I’ll just list for simplicity. I could easily write a whole essay about any of them or V. Press’s titles!!!

ALWAYS ANOTHER TWIST, novella (as Sarah Leavesley), Mantle Lane Press, forthcoming 2018

HOW TO GROW MATCHES, poetry pamphlet (as S.A. Leavesley), Against The Grain Press, 2018

KALEIDOSCOPE, novella (as Sarah Leavesley), Mantle Lane Press, 2017

LAMPSHADES AND GLASS RIVERS, poetry pamphlet (as S.A. Leavesley), Lamplight Press (Loughborough University), 2016, winner of the Overton Poetry Prize 2015

PLENTY-FISH, poetry collection, Nine Arches Press, 2015, shortlisted in International Rubery Book Awards 2016

THE MAGNETIC DIARIES, poetry collection, Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2015, highly commended in Forward Prizes. Poetry-play version toured by Reaction Theatre Makers and a Highly Recommended Show’ at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016.

HEARTH, poetry duet  pamphlet, Mother’s Milk Books, 2015, with Angela Topping, a Poetry Book Society Autumn Pamphlet

BE[YOND], poetry collection, Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2013

INTO THE YELL, poetry collection, Circaidy Gregory Press, 2010, third prize in multi-genre International Rubery Book Awards 2011

If anyone would like to know more about my or V. Press’s titles. They can email me at lifeislikeacherrytreeATyahooDOTcome. The V. Press online bookstore is here – unsurprisingly I’d recommend every title in there! For more information about future titles, V. Press news and special promotions, please do follow the press on twitter at @vpresspoetry.

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