You very, very lucky, and so am I, because joining me for today’s One Interview is Sarah Bannan. Her novel WEIGHTLESS, a story about bullying like none you have read before, has mesmerised, not just bloggers and booksellers, but the likes of Roddy Doyle, John Boyne, and Colum McCann. It’s so sharp and authentic, you can’t help but be drawn in. If you haven’t read it, then do so immediately. You will not be disappointed.
Hi Sarah, thanks so much for joining me. So, WEIGHTLESS is an unflinchingly realistic novel about bullying. Can you give me one reason why you were drawn to this topic?
My high school. Not that I was the object of bullying, or a bully myself, but I moved to a small town in Alabama when I was thirteen, and went to a high school with traditions and rituals, which seemed to me, almost designedto make kids, especially girls, compete against one another. And not in a healthy, esteem-boosting kind of way. We voted on cheerleaders, we elected ‘class favourites’, voted on homecoming court (only girls, mind), we had a school-run beauty pageant. In retrospect, it’s shocking to me that more shocking things didn’t happen, that there wasn’t more bullying. Kids, by and large, tried to be kind to one another, but only within our set little cliques. There wasn’t much mixing. And there was a lot of chatter, a lot of gossip, and I was really interested in seeing how gossip and chatter might fuel a story. And exploring how gossip and chatter are supremely unreliable and lacking in empathy.
It’s a scary world you’ve created in WEIGHTLESS, though you do this rather stealthily. Were some scenes particularly difficult to write? Which one scene or part of the book was most challenging for you?
I found the voice almost eerily easy to access: the first person plural, the mindset of a pack of teenagers. I sometimes wondered if it meant something terrible about my character, if it was indication of stunted growth!
And I found many of the very harrowing and dramatic scenes relatively easy, in that I didn’t go through so many drafts when it came to them. That being said, I would think about them a great deal in advance, and would really have to build myself up to write them (like, I would write everything but the dramatic scenes, I would write around them), but then when I did they came quickly and more easily than I had imagined.
There’s a chapter near the end, which involves Carolyn, Brooke and Shane in the school parking lot, that I found extremely difficult. The narrators didn’t witness the scene first hand, and are getting all of their information from a stoner. So there’s a lot of detail missing, and a lot of things they couldn’t know. But I didn’t want the reader to be completely confused either. It was a difficult balancing act, and one that I didn’t manage in any of my early drafts. Finally, my agent gave me insightful notes about what didn’t work in that scene, and then my husband gave me great advice as well….
What’s the one thing you’d like readers to take away from the novel?
Compassion. Compassion for all of the characters in the novel, and a recognition that the absence of compassion, pity and responsibility brought terrible things to a community and to the lives of its teenagers.
And who is your one, ideal, reader?
If it doesn’t sound too selfish or too self-involved, I write with myself in mind. I wrote, and now am writing, the kind of book I would want to read. I read constantly, feverishly and generously – I don’t often come across books that I don’t admire in some way or another. So, I’m probably too kind a reader, but I’m my first reader and the only reader I can bore with all the writing that goes wrong!
What’s the one physical thing you need in your life to be able to write well?
Any time I do anything that involves me writing longhand, the result looks like some kind of failed craft project. My handwriting wasn’t always bad, I don’t think, but it’s awful now. Illegible for me and impossible for me to sustain for more than 200 words. So I just have to use my computer, I have to type. I love the word processor: for word counts, for cutting and pasting, all that jazz. I’ve heard writers say that longhand is better just because typing goes too quickly, but I find my own handwriting ferociously frustrating.
And what’s the one immaterial thing that makes writing easier?
Support. Knowing that some people believe in my writing makes it easier for me. It makes me feel like it’s not a waste of time, makes me feel less silly about the whole endeavour.
And your one biggest distraction when trying to get words onto paper?
Self-doubt and guilt. I know that’s two, but they go hand in hand for me. I almost always feel like I’m not good enough, and that I should be spending my time with my family, or in a job that makes us more money, and on and on and on and on. I think it’s part of the reason I write so early in the morning: I am too tired to beat myself up.
Ok, you’re on a desert island (probably not for the first time). You can bring one of each of these things.
One book: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
One album: Document (REM)
One TV series: Gilmore Girls.
One luxury item: My MacBook, just so I could write, with all this extra time on my hands!
One person: My daughter, Niamh. (Although I realise this means that I would need to bring Peppa Pig, not Gilmore Girls; Time for Bed Fred! by Yasmeen Ismail instead of the Foster Wallace; and the soundtrack to the new Cinderella film and not my REM….She is three and a half…Hmmmm!)
Access to one website: Slate.
And finally, why is WEIGHTLESS important to you? Give us as many reasons as you like!
Oh, gosh. It’s my first novel, so that’s big. I wrote it thinking nothing would ever happen with it, that it would never be published, and I can really and truly say that it’s changed my life, for the better. It’s given me this whole new way of looking at the world, and I’ve gotten to do so many new things as a result of the book being published.
People’s reactions to it have been so gratifying and fulfilling. I never imagined what it would feel like to have people respond to the book and, I suppose, because of the subject matter people have come forward with very personal and moving stories. So that has been extremely humbling and surprising and brilliant – to know that the work has touched people in some way.
The fact that it’s been published and received so well so far also means that I now have the confidence to write more, and I’m so enjoying that process.
Thanks so much for your time, Sarah. I can’t wait until your next book comes out. When is that?
No date for that yet! I just finished a very rough first draft, but I feel like there’s a long way to go. That said, I thought I would never get to the first draft stage, so maybe it will be sooner rather than later. It’s very different territory – still set in the States – but it’s about an adult couple, and it’s much more of an internal story….no first person-plural, no “we” – not yet, anyway!
Can’t wait for it!