The Prize-winning and Oprah Magazine ‘Inspired Women’ author Sara Collins talks to our arts contributor, My Ly, about her stunning debut novel, the uniting power of anger for women, the importance of setting and her routine as a writer.
Sara Collins is the author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a gothic-suffused romance-cum-thriller narrated by a formerly enslaved Jamaican woman, Frances Langton, who is accused of murdering her employers, the Benhams. The idea for Frannie Langton began to take shape during Collins’ time studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge. It is there that Collins won the Michael Holroyd Prize of Re-creative Writing (2015) and was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize (2016). In April, Frannie Langton was published to immediate acclaim, with the novel being tipped as one of the must read books for 2019 by The Times, The Observer and The Guardian. It has recently been selected by O, The Oprah Magazine as part of their Summer Reading List and was described by Margaret Atwood ‘as deep-diving and elegant…Wide Sargasso Sea meets Beloved meets Alias Grace.’ Collins is currently working on the screenplay of the novel and writing book reviews for The Guardian, but our contributor, My Ly, caught up with her to discuss her dazzling debut, the real and literary inspirations behind Frannie, and her advice for aspiring writers.
Your debut novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, crosses multiple themes that are challenging, complex and thought-provoking, including slavery, adultery and sin. Where did you get your inspiration from for the novel and why did you choose these specific themes?
In historical fiction set in the 18th or 19th centuries, black characters are usually hemmed in by the institution of slavery, which means they’re either non-existent or they’re portrayed as victims. I’d never read a historical novel which put a black character at the center of a love story. I’d grown up obsessed with novels like Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, but that meant I’d also grown up asking myself why a black woman couldn’t be the star of her own gothic romance. Novels start with questions, identifying the space the book is going to fill, and Frannie was my way of trying to fill that gap.
I also read Michael Bundock’s biography of Francis Barber shortly before I began writing the novel. Barber was a young Jamaican boy brought to London in the 18th century and given as a gift to Samuel Johnson. The idea of being given as a gift in England, where all men were supposed to be free, was the springboard for the plot, which starts with Frannie being brought to London by her owner and sent into service in the household of George Benham.
Frannie has to deal with such horrific situations over the course of her life. What makes her so outspoken and such a fighter?
Reading is a transformative experience for Frannie. As soon as she enters the world of books and learning, she refuses to accept the status quo. As she says, it’s like holding “all the things that could have happened but just haven’t happened yet”. This in turn gives her a sense of power and agency she wouldn’t have had otherwise. It makes her certain of her own humanity, which means that of course she would fight for it. I wanted Frannie to say the things many people in her position would have been afraid to say. I wanted her to be irreverent, and I wanted her to comment on her masters’ inability to see their own mistakes: “…in the whole sum of human history, by what order have you white men been wrong more often than you’ve been right?”
You wanted to explore how a Jamaican woman might deal with anger; do you think you would have written the story any differently if your main protagonist had been an English woman?
Frannie’s anger was in fact inspired by the most compelling fictional English woman of all time: Jane Eyre. I had in mind Joyce Carol Oates’ description of Jane’s “scarcely concealed rage” while writing Frannie, and I also had in mind how rarely we see women’s anger given full expression in novels (especially black women). Jane Eyre was the first novel I encountered about the usefulness of anger in motivating us to refuse to accept less than we’re worth, and I still believe it’s one of that novel’s main attractions. One of my intentions while writing Frannie was to explore how our anger unites women. There are a number of women in the novel, black and white, from very different backgrounds, yet what they have in common is anger, in response to being denied an outlet for their own talents and desires.
Your novel shifts between different time frames and countries. What kind of challenges did these time shifts and contrasting settings present to you during the writing process?
I had mood boards pinned to the walls while I wrote, full of photographs and paintings, and as a result a sense of time and place crept into the novel almost by osmosis. I also visited the Greenwood plantation in Montego Bay, where I spent an afternoon in the gardens trying to erase two hundred years of history, seeing it as it might have been in the early 19thcentury. I walked for hours around the same parts of Piccadilly and Mayfair that Frannie would have visited. I tried to write about one country at a time, so that I could feel immersed in the setting I was writing about. The key was to include a few vivid details rather than overloading the picture. Good descriptions should evoke character as well as place. How characters react to their surroundings tells the reader a great deal about their motivation and their state of mind.
I wanted Frannie to say the things many people in her position would have been afraid to say. I wanted her to be irreverent and to comment on her masters’ inability to see their own mistakes
It’s obvious you conducted a huge amount of research for your debut; how did you manage the research process and what was the most difficult aspect?
It’s much easier to research a novel than to write one, so it’s tempting to research endlessly as a way of procrastinating. The tricky bit is knowing when to stop! I tried to make sure I always had a question to answer before I started, although often the best material revealed itself while I was looking for something else. Rose Tremain says research has to be ‘re-imagined” before it finds its way into the text, and I agree: it goes into your subconscious until it comes up again where it connects to some aspect of character or plot. But it only does that when you know it so well that it feels forgotten.
When you’ve spent a long time researching something, it can feel as ‘darling’ as your most beautiful prose. But if it doesn’t serve the purposes of the novel, it doesn’t belong. I cut thousands of pages of painstakingly researched backstory about French emigrés because it slowed things down too much and wasn’t adding anything.
When you have masses of research to do it helps to be very organized. I filed my notes by topic, to make it easier to refer back to particular notes when I wanted them. I kept track of my bibliography and used primary sources wherever I could.
I like to say I wrote a gothic romance about a woman who happened to have been a slave, not a novel about slavery. Frannie is educated, passionate, angry and in love, and I hadn’t seen that before from a character like her.
The psychological effects of slavery have left a mark on generations past, present and future; how do you feel readers who have an association with slavery will respond to your novel?
I worry sometimes that readers see “slavery” and think they know what a novel is going to be about. There’s usually only one kind of story associated with it. Frannie herself says this isn’t going to be “another one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair”. I like to say I wrote a gothic romance about a woman who happened to have been a slave, not a novel about slavery. She’s educated, passionate, angry and in love, and I hadn’t seen that before from a character like her.
As a minority voice who is dealing with the power struggles of freedom and choice Frannie has a fiery, vivid and secretive personality. Do you think your reader can empathise with Frannie as a character?
I hope so! Frannie isn’t a pure victim. I think her honesty, wit, and self-awareness make her empathetic.
If Frannie Langton, Jane Eyre and Josephine March were all sitting at dinner together, what do you think they would have a conversation about first?
I love the idea of this! I know they would get along, and I think Frannie would tell Jane that Rochester isn’t worth her affections. (Come to think of it, she’d probably say the same to Jo about Professor Bhaer.)
Can you tell us about your writing routine; what was your writing pattern or how did you fit writing in when you worked full-time as a lawyer versus what is a typical writing day for you now?
I had very rigid routines and became quite superstitious about them. I’d given up work as a lawyer by the time I wrote the novel so I was lucky enough to be able to write full time. The only golden rule is do what you can, when you can. You won’t get anything done if you don’t start. It’s as simple as this: a novel is built word by word. I’d start at the same time every day, with coffee first thing, and then poems to get me started. I’d let the music and rhythm and imagery of the poems I was reading build to a wave of inspiration inside me, leading to my own writing. I worked until dinner time, with short breaks for lunch or exercise. I found sticking to my routines was a way of getting to the place Mary Oliver described as ‘deep in the machinery of my wits’.
How did you approach plotting your novel? And has your synopsis changed much from when you submitted your work in progress project into the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize competition?
Hardly anything survived from my original synopsis except the kernel of the idea. The novel was a work-in-progress when it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. I spent almost two years developing it after that.
I wrote quite freely to begin with, to let the ideas come (which meant allowing myself to make many wrong turns). Only when I had a complete rough draft did I stand back and begin to analyse it for structure, the characters’ arcs, and where I could amplify subplots. At that point, I prepared a scene by scene spreadsheet to keep track of what happened when, and to keep an eye on pace, making sure each aspect of the plot was given adequate time and attention.
You have an MA in Creative Writing. Would you encourage other writers to take these types of courses? Do you feel that it made you a better writer?
The course gave me a sense of discipline about my writing. My biggest problem before had been abandoning things unfinished, but while doing the degree I was forced to see things through. I learned how a messy first draft could be improved until it became publishable. Most importantly, I learned that everything starts as a messy first draft, and I needed that knowledge when the going got tough and I began to despair that I could ever whip the novel into shape.
Your book has been optioned for TV; how is the adaptation going?
It’s a huge pleasure to be adapting the novel myself. I am trying to find new ways to excite myself about the material, which I hope will mean viewers will find it exciting. It also involves writing with an eye exclusively to what the viewer will be able to see (and hear), and involves a very different skill set from writing a novel.
Are you working on a new book currently? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Yes, but all I can really say is that it’s about a cult. I won’t start it properly until I get the screenplay out of the way.
What are your top three tips for aspiring writers?
Persevere. Read. Persevere (yes, I’ve said it twice but it’s really that important!)
Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton is available to buy online and in all good bookshops across the UK and US. See here for more information about the novel. You can follow Sara Collins on twitter via @mrsjaneymac
You can read My Ly’s review of The Confessions of Frannie Langton here.