Interview with Sarah Vaughan; bestselling author of ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’
Once upon a time, I would consume two to six books a month. I read everywhere. Walking down the street, on buses, at lunch-time, in the bath, in bed – you get the idea. These days with work, children, studying and such, I don’t get to read as much as I’d like, so I get my fix by listening to books on Audible.
I discovered Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy of a scandal after listening to Apple tree yard by Louise Doughty, and it resonated with me. So much so, that when I saw Waterstones in Roman Gate promoting a night with the author Sarah Vaughn on Twitter, I joined the conversation to discover that Sarah is an Exeter girl. Naturally, I asked her for an interview, and she kindly agreed.
Sarah grew up in Exeter. When she was ten, she won the Devon Young Writer of the Year Award and stayed here until she left to study at Oxford University. She is a former Guardian journalist – news reporter and political correspondent – who always wanted to write fiction.
Anatomy of a Scandal is a psychological thriller that explores the truth behind allegations that cause a scandal in Westminster. The themes seem especially poignant in the wake of Boris Johnson being reprimanded by Commons Speaker John Bercow for using sexist language, women’s marches becoming more commonplace and more and more women from all walks of life being inspired to speak out through the #MeToo movement.
My full interview will be in Devon Life in the coming months, in the meantime, I asked Sarah some questions about her book and her love for Exeter and the South West…
Anatomy of a scandal is a gripping story that highlights themes of toxic masculinity, rape and the issues surrounding the #metoo movement. What prompted you to tackle those difficult subjects?
Anatomy of Scandal draws on my experience of working as a political correspondent on the Guardian and as a news reporter who covered various high profile news stories and trials, as well as my time reading English Literature at a historic Oxford college. But I actually dreamed up the plot after being perturbed by coverage of a rape case.
It was back in November 2013, and the footballer Ched Evans was trying to appeal against his conviction for rape. I was upset by the way in which the alleged rape victim was depicted by commentators and started thinking about how horrific it must be to summon up the courage to come forward with a rape conviction and then have doubt cast on that in the papers and in court. I also started thinking about what we’d now call our #MeToo experiences, though we didn’t have that terminology at the time, and how I didn’t want my then 8-year-old daughter to have to experience some of the things I had as I learned to navigate sexual politics in my early to mid-twenties.
The main plot points came to me in the dream, so I obviously merged concerns I’d had about power, perceptions of truth, privilege – all seen at Oxford and in Westminster – and consent.
You are an Exeter girl, when and whereabouts in Exeter did you live?
Quarry Park Road, Sylvan Road, and then Polsloe Road. We moved here in March 1974 when I was 18 months, and I moved away permanently a year after graduating from Oxford University. (Having spent a year temping as a receptionist and wiping tables at Dingles/pot washing at the Royal Clarence, among other things.) I went to Stoke Hill junior and middle schools and then the now-closed St Margaret’s.
Favourite place to hang out with friends?
As a teenager, it was the Mount Rad, off Magdalen Road, or the Crown and Sceptre on a Friday night. (Or Boxes and Warehouse, down on the Quay, though I was never cool enough to go to them.) As a parent, it’s Pizza Express with a view of the cathedral, Harry’s in Longbrook St, or Dart’s Farm fish and chips.
What was the best thing about living here?
I think you’re really spoilt because you have beaches 25 minutes away, Dartmoor, 40 minutes away, and Cornwall just down the road. Exeter’s a historic cathedral city with culture, good shops, and a direct line to London but the best thing for me is the quality of life and in particular the quick access to the cliffs and the sea. My children love swimming at Exmouth – where I found out about my first book deal one rainy October half-term – and my favourite walk is from Branscombe to Beer, though I also love cycling from Topsham to Exmouth, or walking from Budleigh to Otterton, or up to Double Locks. I think if you’ve been brought up by the sea, and near cliffs and moors, you always hanker after it. I’m certainly far more creative when I’m by the sea and would love to move back to the south-west.
If you could sum up Exeter in a poem, which would it be?
That’s tricky. Can I sidestep it and say that when I was 11 I wrote a song about Exeter for the children’s TV show, Why Don’t You? (Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead.) My sister and I were recorded singing it in Bristol and filmed in Exeter, complete with my breathy flute playing and her guitar playing. It included lines such as “It’s our city…it’s oh-so-pretty so why don’t you come and see?” (You can see why I didn’t become a lyricist.)
If you could change one thing about Exeter what would it be?
I always wish I could have seen Exeter before the Blitz destroyed parts of Southernhay/Princesshay. There’s such a contrast between the Cathedral Close – even with the ravaged Royal Clarence – and the High Street stretching up from Princesshay and Sidwell Street. There are two main things that in an ideal world I’d change, though: 1 The huge traffic jams when you try to get out of the city at busy times (caused by the road infrastructure not keeping pace with the city burgeoning).
And 2, most importantly, Exeter’s homelessness problem. I find it shaming that in 2018 people still have to sleep rough.
ECFC or Exeter Chiefs?
You can hear the roars from St James’s at my mum’s house so I would probably have to say ECFC, although Exeter Chiefs might be a more canny choice. My 10yo boy plays both football and rugby and has only just transferred his allegiance from Exeter City to Liverpool (sorry.)
For myself and my fellow bloggers, I also asked a very pertinent question.
If I wanted to make the transition from freelance writing/blogging to becoming a novelist what advice would you give me?
Get your characters sorted before you start: what’s their goal, what’s their flaw, what’s their fear? Sketch the basic plot. Remember: it’s all in the editing. You just have to get the words down. It’s a cliché but read, read, read – widely and in the genre you want to write in. And then that old Hemingway dictum: The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Or, less elegantly: just write the book.
“With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in the public eye, a renewed sense of vigour around women’s rights, the founding of The Staunch Prize (a new prize launched for the best thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”), and in the year of the Centenary of Women’s Suffrage, we are pleased to host an evening of conversation that will tackle some of these issues. Both Erin Kelly and Sarah Vaughan have written around these themes in their fantastic novels, and it promises to be a stimulating and thought-provoking evening.
CONTENT WARNING: The evening’s conversation will include mention of rape and sexual abuse. There will be a safe space provided during the event for those who need to take a moment out.”
Tags: #metoo, Anatomy of a scandal, Devon, event, Exeter, feminism, novelist, Sarah Vaughan, Thriller, waterstones, writer