Wednesday, August 09, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sarah Caulfield

Sarah Caulfield is a recent graduate of Downing College, University of Cambridge. She has been published previously by Lethe Press, Autonomous Press, The Mays Anthologies 22 & 24, Headmistress Press and Voicemail Poems. She was the 2015 and 2016 winner of the John Treherne Creative Writing Prize. The eldest of two children, she has lived in the United Kingdom, Poland and Germany and is from Blackpool, Lancashire. You can find her on Twitter at @holden1779. Her Patreon is here:

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
So I guess that when my first poetry book, SPINE, came out, so did I - in terms of to my wider family. You'd expect that to be a big change, but it wasn't really in my case. I'm incredibly privileged in that, if anything, it actually made it less awkward for me. With regards to the book itself, I kind of just occasionally forget about it being a thing, and then remember. I don't even own a copy of SPINE myself yet, as my copies ended up being mostly sold to a local bookstore in Cambridge, G.David, who was interested in stocking it. I can't compare it to another published collection, but I have another chapbook manuscript I'm revising at the moment, and it's interesting to compare in terms of where I am at these two varying points of my life. The majority of my work is inspired by autobiographical events. SPINE was written between the ages of eighteen to twenty almost exclusively, with the exception of one of the poems (To The Girl I Was), which was written at 21. So to me they're kind of embarrassing, but also very reminscient of that period of my life, which was very fraught and difficult. This second collection is from another difficult period, so it's the same but not the same, I guess?

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Actually, I came to fiction first, and poetry was secondary for me. I'd already been published several times in fiction and won several awards. I'd also done work for radio at university, after health issues and a lack of understanding surrounding them meant I felt I had to quit theatre due to general inaccessibility. Through the radio and work with that, I began to become interested in spoken word, and had practise in performance. The poetry was kind of an accident. Honestly, when I was told by Headmistress Press (the publisher of SPINE) that they wanted to accept it, I was recovering from an ear infection whilst staying in Bulgaria, and had been rushed to the doctor's in the early hours of the morning, put on a IV drip, the works. So I made my friend read the email for me as well and check I wasn't imagining things.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I tend to make a maximum of two drafts, although it can go to three. Most works - both fiction and poetry - are written as complete first draft, but before it begins I'll be drawing on research - particularly in fiction, where I write queer historical fiction primarily. I often research things on the off chance I may use it someday - I recently spent three days in Berlin teaching myself about the history of the Berlin Wall, out of interest in potentially using that information in my writing at some point. In poetry, it's much more organic - usually as a first draft in its entirety, although I will get the idea of a whole poem from just one line. I tend to write those down on my phone when I think of them and save them to look at later.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I think for me, I'll get the idea of a poem from one or two lines, and potentially also the title. I tend to write short pieces that combine into a large project, as I tend to group poetry by timeline - it also seems to work out for me thematically, too, as I tend to write poetry constantly for a month or so, and then nothing for several months.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
For a long time public readings were a huge part of my creative process - I wrote with the intention of performance, and would read things back to myself out loud to establish rhythm, etc. However, recently, I've come to the realisation that right now, I really don't enjoy giving readings, so I'm taking a break and seeing if that changes or not in the future.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I once was described as grappling with a kind of 'transgressive Catholicism', which sums that theme up pretty well, I think. SPINE was named after my editor suggested it, pointed out the word 'spine' is the most commonly used one throughout the collection, with is a major theme in that work and as a whole - bodies, bodily transgression, and the invisibility or visibility of that. I began writing poetry primarily after being diagnosed with a long-term chronic illness at eighteen, and so disability became a major theme. Queerness already was. I don't know what kind of questions I'm trying to answer with my work, honestly - but I like the idea of challenging narratives. There's a narrative of what life is for a disabled person, or a queer person - something inherently tragic, or something elevated by suffering, a kind of martyr almost - and I like to challenge both of those. I've noticed that these narratives are as deeply current as they are historical. For example, disabled people are very rarely allowed a dialogue with the wider world where they express rage. Not just anger, but rage. Lesser status and inaccessibility is considered something we should overcome as a show of assimilation. And for me, rage was how I sustained myself through that period of my life, where I was becoming aware of how the world was designed against me on some systematic ways. I am a person privileged in many other areas, but like anyone else who's gone through this, it was an experience that I found myself struggling to articulate. I think some of this anger and confusion - and desperation to find a sustainable way to cope and reject the narratives of what I ought to be - worked its way into SPINE.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I'm not sure. I think the role of the writer is potentially transformative - when the culture talks, the writer talks back, either in the culture's own language or in a language outside of it. But I firmly believe in the Death of the Author as a theory, so who knows.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I don't find it particularly difficult. I'm very extroverted, and I have enough faith in my own work and in the editors I've worked with to establish a dialogue. Having someone outside the work looking in helps focus me.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
'What you can, with what you have.'

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don't have a routine - until about five days ago, I was a full-time student, but hopefully I'll settle into a writing routine as I begin to be able to take on more freelance projects. I do tend to work better in the evenings and late into the night, though, usually finishing early in the morning.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I get the hell away from my work. I think it can be actively hindering to sit and stare at something that won't give. I try to get away from even thinking about it, which for me, often has meant leaving the city entirely - I'm an hour away from London at the moment, and so I would go and visit friends there or cycle aimlessly at 6am for miles. Anything to get myself away from feeling like a stuck record.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sea salt. I grew up in a coastal town. Probably also my mother's perfume.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Visual art is a huge one, but social history is a huge inspiration. Also people-watching, although that's almost a modern day version of the latter. I'm deeply detail-orientated. I like to know the brand of soap a woman in 1920s South Carolina would use level of detail-orientated. I don't think I necessarily need to write those details explicitly, but for me, details make something come alive. They give me a sense of the world.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

The first letter in Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet. Richard Siken's Crush, particularly Scheherazade. Catherynne M. Valente's Deathless, but also her short stories. Oscar Wilde was very formative. At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill. Margaret Atwood's Helen of Troy does Countertop Dancing. Outside of my own work and within it, young adult fiction as a genre is particularly compelling both in terms of academics and my own writing, particularly Modern Faerie series by Holly Black, the Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater, and the Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo. Also anything by Libba Bray.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
In terms of writing, or just generally? In terms of writing, publish a collection of short stories, a full novel, and a second poetry chapbook. In terms of generally, I'm adopting a cat this summer. And I would like to visit Seoul and be able to access some historical research there.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I'm always going to be something else as well as a writer, I think. I find it important for my own work to have something else that doesn't hinge on it. I teach. I'm hoping to specialise in tutoring disabled students in English as a Foreign Language, particularly using theatre. And I would like to work in museum educational outreach.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I'm not really sure, only that I've been certain I wanted to be a writer my whole life, and have actively formulated my choices in life to be able to enable that from being very young.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Handmaiden was the last great film I saw - the original novel by Sarah Waters was one of my first historical queer fiction books, and I find the history of the Japanese Occupation of Korea deeply interesting. In terms of books, I haven't been reading much outside of my degree at all, but I finished the manga of A Silent Voice, which was very cathartic. I'm looking forward to finally reading a friend of mine's work - Remilyn Oshibanjo. It's her debut poetry collection, these are the most terrifying thoughts. I ordered it months ago!

19 - What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a novel to pitch to indie publishers later this year, set in the 1920s, about a distant French-Polish relative to Sherlock Holmes, trying to make a living as a photographer and courtroom artist. As of the 1st June, my short story Mock the Midnight Bell was released as part of Twopenny Books' anthology Clockwork Cairo - Mock the Midnight Bell is about cat burglars in alternate-history 20th Century Cambridge - so I'll be working on promo for that. My comic, a collaboration with artist Wiktoria Radkiewicz, Wolf Bones, is out right now - a queer retelling of Red Riding Hood set in WW2 London - and I'll be looking into a Kickstarter to print other planned comics in the series over the summer. And finally, I'll be working on polishing up my second chapbook to try and get it out there. It's tentatively titled The Worst Best Failure You Know.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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