Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner. January 2009.
Sarah Webb’s latest novel is a delight. Anything for Love is a romantic comedy. A fun read filled with zany characters who will warm your heart. It’s the perfect antidote for this gloom filled January.
Novel writing, for most writers, is a full time job. Sarah Webb, though, is not like most writers. A born organiser, she gets writers together at dinners and events. She organises reader’s days; she’s on the committee of Irish PEN.
Sarah has a blog that she updates every day. She’s a journalist who reviews children’s books. As children’s book consultant to Dubray Books, she’s written a guide called ‘Mad About Books.’ She’s a mum of three.
And if all that wasn’t enough, she’s found the time to write for teenagers too. Amy Green Agony Queen comes out with Walker Books next month. (February.) So just how does she find the time?
“I just love it all,” laughs Sarah when we meet at the spacious house in Dun Laoghaire she shares with her partner Ben. “I’m sociable and writing is a lonely business. I love all the things that I do.”
We’re sitting in Sarah’s farmhouse style kitchen. It’s a huge room, but warm, with its yellow walls. It’s eerily quiet too. That’s because Amy Rose 5, and 2 year old Jago are out with Sarah’s ‘lovely Slovakian au pair.’
“She takes them for a walk in the mornings so that I can get some peace and quiet,” says Sarah. “And Sam, who is 14, is still in bed,” she adds, laughing.
Sarah looks stylish in black trousers and a blue jumper. That’s because she’s just returned from a funeral.
“I don’t normally look smart when I’m writing,” she says.
Now 39, Sarah’s life is settled. But it wasn’t always that way. Sarah was a single mum to Sam; struggling to work as a children’s buyer; a job that involved a difficult commute.
“I had post natal depression for eight months too,” says Sarah, remembering those fraught years. But she rallied. She wrote three recipe books for children, and then sold her first novel to Poolbeg.
“Poolbeg published the first three; and they were also published by Pan Macmillan in the UK,” says Sarah. “And the other five books have been with Pan Macmillan, and with Harper Collins in the USA.”
Those early experiences, though, have informed Sarah’s writing. Anything for Love features the eccentric world of the charity Queens. And though the exploits of Maud Hamilton O’Connor and her colleagues on the fund raising committee for a maternity hospital make hilarious reading, the novel is not without issues.
The Heroine, Alice, is a single mum with low expectations. The book features post natal depression; premature babies; Bebo bullying and the abuse of immigrants. Tackling all this, Sarah feels, is really important.
“I haven’t written about single mums since my first book, Three Times a Lady, and there are a lot of women in that situation,” she says. “I wanted to show that they can find love as well.
“I became aware of the abuse of immigrants through one of my best friends, Katarina, who started off as my au pair. She would tell me stories about young girls and older women who were minding children for 12 hours a day; and doing night shifts too.
“I think Maud would have had a strange relationship with her housekeeper. And I liked the fact, that by the end of the book, she has accepted a Polish lad as an equal with her precious little son. That, to me, was important.”
Sarah adored creating the character of Maud. And she is careful to explain that she is not based on her mum; Melissa, who was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate for her tireless work for The National Children’s Hospital and the Rotunda.
“I purposely did not talk to anyone in the charity field, because I did not want anyone to think the character was based on them.,” she says. “But I have come across a lot of women in charity work who were involved in modelling or fashion. I’ve seen a lot of the Ladies who Lunch.”
The relationship between Alice and Grace, the bossy sister she lives with is lovingly drawn. There’s affection there, and loyalty, but tension and irritation too.
“I have two sisters and I am the eldest,” says Sarah. “I have some of Grace’s attributes. I am bossy and a control freak. I like to tell my sisters what to do.
“My youngest sister thinks she is Alice, and she does have that caring attitude. But I never base a character on one person.”
How did Sarah’s teen book come into being?
“Two years ago I visited Sam’s class in school to talk about writing,” she says. “He was in fifth year. I was talking to the girls and they said, ‘Our mums have read your books. Why can’t you write for our age?’
“I told them I’d give it a go. And they got excited and wanted to be in it. They gave me loads of ideas and told me all about Bebo, and what was cool and what was not.
“I went back into them and said I had an idea about a teen who was an agony queen and they loved it. They gave me more ideas. So I wrote it in three months. It was a delight. I showed it to my editor, and she said, ‘wow. This is just what we want.’ She spurred me on to get it finished.”
Sarah sent the book to her agent. It went to auction, and was bought in a pre-emptive bid for a six figure sum. She’s been commissioned to write six books; one a year, and the film rights are under negotiation.
With all that to celebrate, you’d think life couldn’t get any better. But in July last year it did. Ben and Sarah were in Castle Townsend, Co Cork, with the children, and they went swimming in the sea.
“We both love swimming,” explains Sarah. “We were wearing our wetsuits and we were quite far out to sea. It was a beautiful day. We’d left the kids at the house with a friend. And I proposed to Ben.
“He said ‘yes’ at once,” laughs Sarah. “And he wanted to tread water and talk. But he is a stronger swimmer than I am and after I’d proposed I got tired. I had to hang onto him.”
They’ll marry in June 2010, because there’s already a big family wedding planned for this June.
It’s appropriate, though, that Sarah should have this dream ending. Because she likes to give a happy ending to the characters in her books.
“They’re essential in Romantic Comedies,” she says. “Though sometimes my endings are just hopeful.”
Sarah adores the feedback she gets from her readers. What would she like them to say about Anything for Love?
“First of all I hope people enjoy it, but also that they can relate to one of the characters,” she says. “It could be Grace or Alice. I hope the characters seem real to them.”
Anything for Love by Sarah Webb is published by Macmillan at 14.99 euro.
Copyright. Sue Leonard. 2009.