Ten Things I’ve Learned about Love: in conversation with Sarah Butler

Ten Things I’ve Learned about Love: in conversation with Sarah Butler

Ten Things I've Learned About Love - Sarah Butler

When a book has a title like this, it’s almost impossible not to start making lists. For instance, ‘Ten Things We Talked About In The Interview’, or ‘Ten Questions I Forgot to Ask’. I’m going to give in to temptation, and go for ‘Ten Kinds of Love’: lost love and hidden love; sibling love, one-night-stand love, secret love; the love from father to daughter or aunt to nephew; love for a house, an area, a way of life. These all make an appearance in the book, although I wouldn’t want to give the impression that you notice this is happening. The reading experience is much more subtle, more complex, than any list allows for.

Sarah Butler and I met for this interview at The Cornerhouse on Oxford Road. If anyone had been listening in to our conversation, they’d have heard two words coming up again and again: interesting and extraordinary. And it has been an extraordinary couple of years for her. At the start, there she was with two unpublished novels, an agent who had come and gone, and a third novel she really cared about, but which had garnered only rejections: “I was quite desperate, knowing that I wouldn’t give up, but feeling that this was going to be the rest of my life trying and never getting there.” Then, while she was teaching on a short story course, Sarah met an editor who “broke the golden rule of publishing and asked to see my book.”

The book was Ten Things I’ve Learned About Love. Picador bought it without the intervention of an agent. In two weeks it had sold in seven countries, and it went on to be translated into thirteen languages, including Swedish and Vietnamese. Extraordinary.

Ten Things is a beautiful book, inside and out. Because it sold worldwide and paid off its advance before it was even launched (yes, extraordinary), Picador were happy to go with the full works in terms of production, so the jacket of the hardback has a tactile, almost 3D appeal, with the zigzag of ribbon, the brown paper cutouts and the starry backdrop.

The central story explores father/daughter relationships, starting with a list of the ten things that Alice will say to her father. She has just returned from travelling across Mongolia; he is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. Her list holds a mixture of memory, yearning and regret. Then comes a list of from Daniel, ‘an old man with a dodgy heart’ who is homeless, marginalised, and a synaesthete who sees letters as very particular shades of colour.

As Alice and Daniel cross each other’s paths over the following weeks, their interlocking stories allow the reader to see a picture develop, Polaroid-fashion, showing a whole which the two characters themselves cannot quite see. There are secrets here that have never been shared. Should knowledge be passed on, or is it sometimes better to leave things hidden? What is the nature of fatherhood, of being a daughter?

Daniel creates messages, threading the colours of the letters together from objects he finds in the street:

‘It’s a long word: daughter… Most of the letters I found in bottle tops. Pale blue, a warm orange-red, heavy purple. The broken bottle did for the T; the electric cable, coated with magnolia plastic, for the H. The last two letters are ones you can find in trees. The charcoal grey of E, the chestnut brown of R, written out in bark. I threaded everything onto the cable, and carried it to you.’

He hopes that Alice will understand, but she does not have his way of seeing the letters: to her, the messages are gifts, charms; not quite rubbish, but not comprehensible. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that I spent the first half of the book hoping very much that the story wouldn’t develop in one particular way and then, as the end approached, very much wishing that it would. The ending when it comes, by the way, is quite perfect.

So what is it like to finally get there, to have a successful book? Sarah has spent her working life within the field, getting her first job in literature development on the strength of her enthusiasm. Running literature festivals, taking on projects with asylum seekers and in hospitals, and giving support to local writers all meant that she was in the right place, but it also made her self-conscious about wanting to be a writer herself. “I saw people building portfolios and going to workshops, and could see that writers weren’t magical beings.”

However, being where she was in the field of literature, “I didn’t want to be the literature person who wanted to be a writer and then failed,” and it was some time before she took the leap. “I always had a strong sense of social justice, and wanted to do something good. The literature development job tackled things like asylum and exile in a way that was powerful and challenged people to think differently. Writing and telling stories can take you to places that challenge the way you think. And I wanted to be the writer.”

Eventually, the process took her to an MA at the University of East Anglia, where harsh criticism was tempered by the assurance that writing was a hard thing to do. “And so I thought, oh, ok, this is supposed to be hard. And that was alright. Giving people the permission to find it hard is important, because sometimes you have to know that it’s not just you being rubbish.”

What was it that made Ten Things the right novel? It has, says Sarah, more of her in it, more of her experiences. “And this time I wanted to tell the story rather than just write a novel. I’d been so desperate to get published before, that writing a good novel came second. With Ten Things, I just decided it was going to take as long as it takes.”

It was on an Arvon course, in the wake of a painful break-up and the loss of her home, that Sarah experienced a “shining beacon of time.” Although she was still technically working on her second novel, the first workshop brought to her the bones of Ten Things, “the names, the plot, all of it. I spent the week feeling as if I’d just fallen in love. And although the writing was still hard work, I always knew that I just had to turn up and write, and it would be there.”

After ten years of writing into the dark, is it strange to be working on something that you already know will end up being translated into six languages? It is, Sarah says, amazing though also daunting to have a deadline already set for January next year. And “being published has been more unsettling than I expected to my identity as a writer.” Gaining a label as ‘a novelist’ brings with it a quantity of cultural baggage. Not that Sarah is complaining: “It feels as if I’ve reached the top of one mountain, and can have a sit down before tackling all the others.”

Sarah Butler

Photo: Eva Sajovic

Sarah will be reading at the ever wonderful Bad Language on Wednesday 27th February at the Castle Hotel in Manchester.

You can find out about the (more than) ten things Sarah does by visiting her website here

Or follow her on Twitter

And very definitely buy Ten Things right here


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