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Books: Costa-listed Kate Sawyer on life and work

Her apocalyptic debut novel published in the midst of a global pandemic to rave reviews. And now Kate Sawyer’s The Stranding has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, announced next month, as Alice Ryan reports

THE STRANDING by Kate Sawyer (53789034)
THE STRANDING by Kate Sawyer (53789034)

Kate Sawyer is having a pinch-me moment. “It seems that authors these days are supposed to be cool - maybe they always have been; maybe Virginia Woolf was cool - but I’m really excited and I’m not going to pretend I’m not,” she says. “To be shortlisted for a Costa, alongside such brilliant writers and in the prize’s 50th year, too? I really couldn’t wish for any more for my first novel.”

The Stranding published in the summer, its timing and subject matter eerily apt. At the outset, heroine Ruth survives an apocalypse by hunkering down in the mouth of a dead whale on a New Zealand beach alongside a stranger, and the ensuing story, which vacillates between past and present, charts both her former life and the new life she’s compelled to build.

“I have an overactive imagination, as all creative people do, and there have been times during the pandemic when I’ve thought ‘Is this the end of everything?’,” admits Kate. “But strangely I found that thinking and writing about the worst case scenario - and I hope this is true of people reading about it, too - made me find and feel hope. . .”

“This book!!!!!,” raved Marian Keyes. “It’s gorgeous and original and captivating. . . Beautiful writing and characters I cared for as if they were my own family.” Agreed Bryony Gordon: “I didn't want this book to end. It blew me away, and moved me beyond belief. I want to read it again and again and again.”

“I had a gut feeling [about this book], but when I started getting comments like that from authors I really, really admire, it was such an incredible affirmation that yes, this is good,” says Kate.

“I was writing what I’d want to read myself. I’ve had no formal training at all, which is one of the things which put me off [writing a book] until I was in my 40s; equally, that’s one of the things which liberated me to follow my gut, I think.”

Kate Sawyer ©Nick Arthur Daniel (53789033)
Kate Sawyer ©Nick Arthur Daniel (53789033)

Thanks to the dual narrative, as well as exploring the ‘what ifs’ of life in the wake of a decimating global disaster, the book explores the real-life, here-and-now female experience. Kate called her heroine Ruth, a Biblical name which translates from the Hebrew as ‘friend’, to signpost the fact she is both individual and Everywoman.

Says Kate: “I’ve always been very drawn to magical realism, but when I started writing seriously I discovered that, as a writer, I gravitate towards relationships, the real things that happen between people. I also discovered that I’m really quite observant of real life.”

Kate has plentiful real-life experience to draw on. A Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art-trained actor, she worked on stage and screen from leaving school - Bury St Edmunds’ County Upper; she’s a Suffolk native - until, having penned a series of plays, she decided to change career lanes and focus on writing, a decision which coincided with another: to pursue fertility treatment and become a solo mother.

Both dreams, of having a baby and signing with a literary agent, became reality at the same time, within weeks of each other in December 2019. “I’d already had four rounds of fertility treatment which had been unsuccessful,” says Kate, “but it just happened that I wrote the first two chapters of The Stranding on the same day that I started the treatment which actually conceived my daughter.”

Ruby was born on December 9 and Kate filed her final draft to her agent the week before Christmas. The two experiences - having a baby and writing a book - are akin in some ways, she reflects: “Both are fraught with fears and full of joy.”

Bury St Edmunds Cathedral in Winter (53789068)
Bury St Edmunds Cathedral in Winter (53789068)

Kate returned to her hometown of Bury St Edmunds a couple of months before Ruby was born and, though she admits missing people and places in London, she says the decision to return to her roots, so she could raise her daughter with family around her, was without doubt the right one.

“I couldn’t have done this without the support of my parents,” says Kate. “I’ve also found that being back in Suffolk has given me a sense of space, which I maybe didn’t even realise I needed.

“I often write in a coffee shop, I find it helps me focus, and Wright’s is brilliant: the staff must be sick of the sight of me! I also love the farmers’ market at Wyken Hall; Ickworth Park; the Abbey Gardens.”

Having built up an impressive acting CV pre-book and pre-motherhood - among other things, she toured the stage production of political farce Out of Order with Susie Amy and Shaun Williamson - does she plan to continue that career too?

“The truth is that a huge part of me is happy not acting; happy feeling that I can be myself,” says Kate. “I don’t mean in terms of not playing other people; I mean in terms of not having to fit the expectations of the industry, particularly in terms of physical appearance. That’s something I’ve always struggled with because it goes against my moral compass. Plus, I really love writing. So, yes, it would have to be an amazing job to tempt me.”

With the next novel well underway - another feat of structure, it will mine the memories of 10 key characters - Kate will find out if she’s won her Costa category on January 4. Shortlisted alongside The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore, Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson and Fault Lines by Emily Itami - “all of which I’ve read, all of which are brilliant” - Kate says “to be in such great company is an honour in itself. It’s confirmation that this is the right path.”

The Stranding is out now in hardback, eBook and audio, published by Coronet, with the paperback following this spring. For more visit mskatesawyer.com.

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