Interview: The confessions of Sara Collins

Sara Collins is well known in the Cayman Islands as a commercial lawyer, a human rights advocate and a mother to five children. Now she can add the title of acclaimed literary novelist to that list.

Her debut novel, ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’, has been universally praised by reviewers across the UK, and is being adapted for the screen.

In between an endless series of interviews and book tour events, Collins took time out to talk to the Cayman Compass about her journey to reach this point.

On the critical response to the novel:

It is surreal. It is a cliché, but it is a dream come true. Since I was a little girl all I wanted to do was to write a novel, even though I took a detour into a career as a lawyer. Just having the book published by Penguin and Harper Collins was more than enough. I never expected anything like the critical reception it has received.

On her path to becoming a novelist:

I worked at Walkers for many years and at Conyers Dill and Pearman. I gave up the law around ten years ago to focus on raising my family. In 2014, I did a creative writing masters and started the book in the second year of the degree.

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On the inspiration for the novel:

I read the biography of Francis Barber, which is the story of a young Jamaican taken to London and given as a gift to Samuel Johnson. I was struck, not just by the idea of being given as a gift, but the idea of someone who had been deprived of opportunity rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest minds of the age. It is not just about race but about prejudices against women as well.

On the importance of the degree program:

I had vague ideas and ambitions but the degree really encouraged me and everyone around me to take it seriously. The course gave me a sense of structure and discipline. I had to meet a deadline for my dissertation. It was not just a frolic. I got signed by an agent midway through the course [after winning the Lucy Cavendish prize for unpublished authors].

On the advantages of a background in commercial law:

It gave me some maturity about work. Law, especially commercial litigation, is very demanding. I was not any stranger to hard work, which helped a lot because I had to work all day, every day to get it done.

It is a historical novel and involved masses of research, and my days as a young lawyer helped with that.

My office at home did look like a law firm by the end, because it was filled with colour-coded files, notebooks and reference material.

On her previous writing experience:

There is not much. I never had time or the mental energy, when I was a lawyer or when I had five children that were very young. In my 20s, I wrote a short story, published by Caribbean Writer. What I did, which is almost as important as writing in terms of preparation, was read. I read widely and I read with a view to becoming a writer. I did it deliberately and consciously. It is something any aspiring writer should do, and I advise to start as early as you can.

On her influences:

One of the huge influences on my work, apart from Toni Morrison, is Margaret Atwood, and she just gave my book an endorsement, which was just incredible. I also love Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry, who write those modern gothic novels. The classic gothic romances have been a big influence. There is a strong link between the plot in Frannie and the plot in Jane Eyre. It is about the creation of a self, taking control over your own life.

On the relevance of historical novels to the present day:

I think there is no point in writing a historical novel unless you are writing about the present too. It has to have relevance, not just for the writer, but for her readers too.

There is a line in my novel, “A man writes to separate himself from the common history, a woman writes to try to join it.”

It is about historically disenfranchised people taking centre stage, which I think is highly topical.

On the sacrifices of writing a novel:

I think there is a general lack of recognition for the fact that writing a serious novel is a craft that requires a lot of study and a lot of time and even a little bit of madness. It was more difficult than being a lawyer or a mother.

My friends didn’t see me, my family didn’t see me. I am sure people wondered where I was. I was really holed up in my study at home, giving up all of my free time in service of getting the book ready.

My family had to be neglected and to find a way to forgive me for neglecting them. I devoted my entire energy and time and attention to the book. There really was nothing left over for my family and friends.

On making it as a writer in her middle years:

It really is the most gratifying thing to realize that it was not too late. I turned 40 before I got serious about this.

It was the passing of two dear friends that spurred me on. I still feel grief about their passing. They would have been so excited and proud about what has happened as a result.

They were two incredibly energetic and talented people. One was the dancer Susan Barnes and the other was the lawyer Melanie McLaughlin. They were both very young. Even though I understood in theory that there is no such thing as guaranteed time to do what you want to do, this was just an idea or a desire before that.

The book is dedicated to Mel and Susan, because that was the biggest single influence in deciding to take it on.

I decided to just go for it, and felt I wouldn’t have any regrets about trying.

What’s next for Sara Collins:

The other thing that is a revelation for me is that your first job is to write the book and your second job is to promote it. I am dividing my time between Cayman and the UK doing book readings, launches, writing articles and doing interviews. The book has been optioned [by Drama Republic, the production house that made ‘Doctor Foster’ and ‘Black Earth Rising’ for the BBC] and I am writing a screenplay, so I will also be back and forth for the television adaption. I am hoping to have a launch event for the book in Cayman soon.

On charting new territory:

When I decided I wanted to do it, there was not really a model to follow.

As a young person growing up on a small island when you don’t see anyone else that has done it, you can easily make the mistake of thinking it can’t be done.

When Marlon James [the Jamaican author of ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’] won the Booker Prize, as a person from Jamaica, that was one of the moments when I felt that was a breakthrough, that people would treat this seriously.

If this changes anything, I hope that there is some boy or girl in Cayman that sees me doing it and realises they can.

Some people are told, explicitly or otherwise, that they don’t have anything to say, or that what they have to say is not as important or as meaningful. The real shift that has happened, in literature and more broadly, that has made this possible for people like me is to realise you don’t have to accept that message.