Sally Hepworth: On Women, Relationships & Writing
Stumbling on Sally Hepworth
Quite by accident, I found a book called The Secrets of Midwives earlier this year. It was one of a handful of Australian novels offered at a discount on iTunes when I was looking for something to read on the train. I liked the sound of it; a story of 3 generations of women, all midwives. The characters had present-day problems that could only really be solved by reliving aspects of the past. I couldn’t put it down.
I later learned that it was actually the debut novel of Sally Hepworth, an author from Melbourne. Naturally, I sought out her other books and read them both in quick succession. Because I enjoyed them so much, I got in touch with Sally for a chat.
I’ve read The Secrets of Midwives, The Things We Keep and The Mother’s Promise. All three have a sort of medical theme, I noticed. Midwives, a paramedic with Alzheimer’s and then a nurse developing a bond with a cancer patient and her daughter. Do you have a medical background yourself or is this just an interest of yours?
I don’t have a medical background, but women’s health is definitely an interest of mine, as a woman and as a reader. As a writer, I love tackling subjects that people normally shy away from, because what people shy away from is usually interesting. As for the research, I’m an avid reader and very good at making friends with people who know more than I do ☺
I like your knack for capturing the bonds between women. In The Secrets of Midwives, in particular, you examined the complex bond between mothers and daughters as well as the sacrifices and love between women and their friends. Is this something you’ve drawn from your own life, such as your own relationships with female relatives and friends?
Of course. I suspect it would be impossible for my writing not to be coloured by my experiences and observations. I am surrounded by fantastic women (my mother, my friends, two daughters) so I like to think I have an understanding of the dynamics of female relationships and I enjoy writing about them. That said, I think it would be hard to write a book about something I, or someone close to me, was experiencing. I prefer to be removed from the subject I’m exploring so I’m able to see all sides of the story.
I really love the focus on women in your books. Even if they have a man in their lives, he doesn’t feature as prominently in your stories. For example, in The Things We Keep, the story is told through the eyes of Anna, who is living with Alzheimer’s, and Eve, who comes to work at the care home and also Clementine, Eve’s daughter. Has it been a conscious decision on your part to tell the stories of women?
I’ve always read women-centric stories, so it felt natural for me to write them. And there is so much material for stories about women. I also figured that since 80% of fiction readers are women, stories about women were bound to find an audience. I’m also not convinced that I could write believably from the point of view of a male. I’ll never say never, but I haven’t been keen to try it so far.
The Mother’s Promise was the story of a woman who finds she has cancer but it was so much more than a story about an illness. It dealt with mental health, domestic violence, sexual assault, substance abuse and more. It wasn’t until after I’d finished that I realised just how much it covered. Do you aim to educate or perhaps be a social commentator through your writing?
First and foremost, my goal is to entertain. I strive to keep people gripped for 350 pages, and unable to put my book down. If I educate people along the way that’s fine, but I don’t aim to be a social commentator. It’s not a writer’s job to have an agenda when they write fiction, and even if I have an opinion on a certain subject, I try to leave it out. As an author I’d rather highlight the different sides of an issue and let people make up their own minds about things.
I write quite a bit and find myself jotting things down on the train or when in the bath! The joys of being time-poor. What is your writing process like? Do you dedicate time each day?
I have three days a week where I write from 9:30 am – 3 pm while my kids are at school or at kinder or with a babysitter. It’s never enough time, so I try to use the time for writing and editing only. The rest of my work (like updating my websites, replying to emails, doing interviews), I do in my own time, like at night after the kids have gone to bed, or the weekend.
I’m a huge fan of Stephen King, Diana Gabaldon, Jacqueline Carey and more. Who are your favourites and how do you think they’ve shaped you as an author?
Liane Moriarty is my favorite author. I also love Sue Monk Kidd and Christina Baker-Kline. All of these writers have different styles but what they have in common is the way they get inside their characters and make the reader feel what the characters are feeling. That is what I aim to do.
Lastly, any words of wisdom or inspiration for aspiring writers?
Focus on the writing and write the best book you can. There will be plenty of time to start a social media presence, research agents and publishers, and hob nob with people at writing events once you’ve got a polished manuscript ready to query. Don’t let these things distract you from writing the book.