“But, these days, fairy-tale endings come in all shapes and sizes. It’s okay for the princess to end up with the prince, it’s okay for her to end up with the footman, it’s okay for her to end up on her own. It’s also okay for her to end up with another princess, or with six cats, or to decide she wants to be a prince. None of those make her any more or less a feminist.”THE CACTUS, SARAH HAYWOOD
Sarah Haywood’s The Cactus has been one of the most popular Book Club choices. We had so much fun discussing the book, and so we spoke to the wonderful Sarah to find out a little more about her and her writing…
- You studied and worked in law, but did you always dream of being a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. When I was a girl, I was inspired by books like Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and The Little House on the Prairie series – books where the main character either wants to be, or becomes, a writer. I even set up a sort-of writers’ workshop with my sister and best friend when I was about ten years old. I ended up studying law at university and worked as an investigator of complaints about lawyers. It was only when my younger son started primary school that I decided to give writing a serious shot. Initially, I signed up for a one-year Open University Creative Writing course, which in turn gave me the confidence to apply for an MA in Creative Writing. The Cactus was the outcome.
- What was the inspiration behind The Cactus?
I like reading about characters who are flawed; it’s our quirks, eccentricities and failings that make us interesting, and often – as in the case of Susan – give rise to comedy. In general, female protagonists are much more likely than male protagonists to be ‘nice’ and sympathetic from the outset, although I’m pleased to see that that’s now changing. I wanted to write about a woman who might be exasperating at first, both to the reader and to the other characters in the novel, but about whom we grow to care as she develops, changes and reveals more about herself. ‘You have to get to know her’ is a phrase we’ve probably all used about a friend who hasn’t quite mastered the usual social skills. The challenge was to make Susan prickly and difficult but still be someone that people can connect with. A lot of readers have told me that they’re ‘a little bit Susan’!
Themes of motherhood, family and the way we remember the past run through The Cactus. While contending with the peculiar things happening to her body as a result of her pregnancy, Susan becomes embroiled in a dispute with her feckless brother, ostensibly about their mother’s will, but, more fundamentally, about their own very different relationships with her. This storyline was inspired by my career as a lawyer. I witnessed many wrangles over wills, in which it was often clear that the root cause of dissatisfaction was a feeling that certain family members had always been favoured over others. Susan’s digging into her personal history in her quest for justice calls into question her beliefs about her past and opens her up to new ways of being.
- The Cactus has had such incredible (and very well-deserved) success, what’s been the biggest “pinch me” moment?
It’s hard to pick just one ‘pinch me’ moment. The big ‘headline’ moments in the life of The Cactus have been: being chosen by Richard and Judy for their book club; being shortlisted for a Best First Novel award; being chosen by Reese Witherspoon for her book club; and being optioned for a Netflix original film starring Reese. Although each one of those has been fabulously exciting, I don’t think anything will quite beat the moment when, after sending off the first 30 pages of my novel to a literary agent, I received an email to say that they wanted to see the full manuscript. It was only the first tiny step towards publication and all that has followed, but I think it was probably the sweetest.
- How are you feeling about The Cactus being adapted for the screen? What has the process been like?
It was a few weeks into lockdown when I heard that a deal had been done with Netflix for a film adaptation of The Cactus starring Reese Witherspoon, so it’s still early days in the process. The next stage will be finalising the screenplay, into which, I’m pleased to say, I’ll have an input. I can’t think of anyone better than Reese to star in the film. Not only is she an incredible actress, but, coincidentally, she’s also exactly as I describe Susan in the book: petite, blonde, attractive, 5’1” tall and 45 years old. I had a chat about the film with Reese Witherspoon on Zoom, which was wonderful and surreal. She’s just as lovely and friendly as you’d expect her to be.
- Can you give us any clues about your second novel?
I don’t like to reveal too much about a work-in-progress, as it can shift and morph during the writing process. I can say, though, that it’s a character-driven novel about three women trying to find a voice.
- When you aren’t writing, what are your favourite things to do?
It goes without saying that my favourite thing to do is read, whether curled up on the sofa, lying in bed, sitting on a train or – my favourite – lazing on a beach. Other than reading, I love hiking in the mountains. We regularly travel to Snowdonia or the Lake District, both of which are easily accessible from my home in Liverpool. I’m also a big fan of puzzles: jigsaws, crosswords, sudokus or anything else that taxes the brain cells. I’m writing this as we’re slowly coming out of lockdown, and am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent rather a lot of time recently playing Animal Crossing with my two sons. My excuse is that the world-building involved in the game is an exercise in creativity!
- Any tips for aspiring writers?
Every writer I know has their own different way of working. Some write best in the morning, some in the evening; some at a desk, some with a laptop on the sofa; some in complete silence, some with music in the background.
My advice is to find what works for you. There’s no right or wrong time of day, place, or routine. And neither is there a right or wrong age to start. The important thing is to set aside a regular chunk of time and find somewhere you can concentrate solely on your writing. Oh, and always carry a notebook!
- What are your top five favourite reads?
My favourite reads change from week-to-week, sometimes day-to-day, but there are certain books and writers that I return to time and again. My reading tastes are very wide, from what might be termed ‘literary’ to what might be termed ‘commercial’ books – categorisations which I find very unhelpful, as many ‘commercial’ novels are brilliantly plotted and written, and many ‘literary’ novels are gripping page-turners. I’m always drawn to strong central characters with compelling voices, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Notes on a Scandal, both of which have uniquely different first-person narrators and powerful plots that draw you in.
One of my favourite books of recent years is Sally Rooney’s Normal People. At its heart, it’s a romance, but not in the traditional sense. Rooney’s depiction of the characters’ thoughts and emotions feels, at times, painfully true-to-life and recognisable. I haven’t watched the television adaptation yet; I think I’m nervous that it won’t live up to the book.
My favourite writer is probably Elizabeth Strout. I particularly like her debut novel, Amy & Isabelle, a poignant and nuanced exploration of the relationship between a mother and daughter. I love Strout’s precise and spare use of language, and the understated way she depicts so clearly the innermost feelings of her characters without ever having to spell them out.
The book I’ve enjoyed most since lockdown is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Centred on the death of Shakespeare’s son, it’s a heart-breaking portrayal of love and loss. Although it feels particularly timely, with its references to plague in Tudor times, this is a book that people will be reading and enjoying for years to come.
Thank you so much to Sarah for taking the time to answer our questions!