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Image / Living / Culture

Debut novelist Sian Hughes on writing her way through grief, confusion and motherhood


By Sarah Gill
05th Jul 2023
Debut novelist Sian Hughes on writing her way through grief, confusion and motherhood

An award-winning poet whose debut literary novel has already been incredibly well received, Sian Hughes shares her experience of putting pen to paper in the hopes of finding meaning in the depths of tragedy.

Setting out armed with grief and confusion, Sian Hughes attempted to write her way into understanding what might lead to such tragedy, in a quest for forgiveness more than anything.

When she was in her twenties, a friend took his life by entering a tidal river. An experience that shifted her mental landscape, Sian wrote Pearl about the seemingly random nature of this act. As she wrote and rewrote the story over many years, she experienced motherhood and lost her own mother, and found new ways to empathise with the central characters.

Sian’s first collection of poetry The Missing (Salt, 2009) was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, shortlisted for the Felix Dennis and Aldeburgh prizes, and won the Seamus Heaney Award.

Here, she shares her writing journey, beloved novels, and literary inspirations…

Sian Hughes author

Did you always want to be a writer/author?

I have always been a writer. I don’t remember discovering or deciding on it, but when I was seven my teacher Patrick made me a special book to write my poetry in. He was an exceptional teacher, an exceptional person, to be able to see the writer behind the scruffy, dyslexic mess that was my written work. He is still one of my best friends.

What inspired you to start writing?

This book grew out of a set of characters I invented a long time ago. I cycled past an old house on the edge of my village when I was going to see my first boyfriend, and I imagined what the house would be like inside, and who might live there. But I didn’t have a plot for them. I experimented with writing in the voices of several of them, but I didn’t know for years what might happen to them to make it into a story. Then when a friend of mine died in a river, I wrote all their names onto a page of my journal, closed my eyes and pointed and the paper: whoever the pen fell on would die. That was the plot. But I was shocked at who I had chosen. I couldn’t think why she would do that. So I set out knowing what happened, but it took me ages to try and work out why. The answers came from my reading and re-reading the medieval poem Pearl, an elegy that was written in Cheshire, where I grew up. The final piece of the jigsaw came about when I moved back to my childhood home after my mother died, and I missed her everywhere I went. So the evolution of the book grew out of many different things, and when I wrote it I felt like I was juggling lots of different elements, wondering if they would ever come together to make one story. And they did.

What did you learn when writing this book?

The thing I have learned in writing this book is to listen to your own heart. This story would not leave me alone, my mind kept coming back to it, like falling in love, and for ages you go on thinking ‘no, this is not possible’ but your heart knows best. If this is your book, you won’t feel at home with yourself until you write it, just as, if this is the person you love, you will feel a whole lot better when you do something about it.

Do you have any quirky habits when writing?

I don’t have very good habits as a writer. I wish I did. I do write in journals, and I enjoy writing with pen and paper as a process. My secret weapon is going to The Arvon Foundation for a week’s retreat once a year to catch up with myself.

The first book you remember reading is…

The first book I read was the ladybird book of the farm. I’m not sure if that counts. When Patrick was my teacher he read us Charlotte’s Web and The Wheel on the School. I guess all of those books are about living in the countryside.

Your favourite Irish author is…

My favourite Irish writers are Michael Longley, for his beautiful tiny stories, and Seamus Heaney, for being the first poet I ever read and thought – ‘wow, this is what it is all about – I wish I could do that.’ At the moment Claire Keegan is the best seller in my bookshop because I am so enthusiastic about her work, and I recommend her to just about everyone who comes in. I don’t give everyone the same book, but I often give people the Candlestick Press mini anthologies on a theme – ten poems about cats, or Spring, or music, depending on who it is. I love the way these gorgeous little objects bring poetry to people in an accessible way.

Sian Hughes author

Three books everyone should read?

I don’t think there are books anyone ‘should’ read. There are books I re-read over and over, and never tire of, and others I read once and enjoy every second of, but don’t return to in the same way. I am working my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist right now, and loving all of them. David Copperfield is one of those books I re-read a lot, so I devoured Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead in three days. I basically did nothing else. I barely even stopped to eat. Then I felt sad I had not made it last, and wished it was not over.

Do you suffer with writer’s block?

All my life I have struggled with depression, and the worst thing about it is when I cannot write or read. I stopped calling it ‘writer’s block’ and I just think of it as ‘block’. When life is a block, like stone. Even writing about it makes me feel stone cold. I wish I knew the way out of it, and could say something helpful to someone else about it, but I can’t. Only that in my case it comes back more rarely now, and I am deeply grateful for the help I’ve had to overcome it, and that I live most of my life unblocked now. When people come into my bookshop and say they’ve not felt well enough to read, and they want something to try and get back to it, I always feel very sympathetic, and ask them what they loved to read as a child, and take it from there. After one very bad patch I re-read Jacqueline Wilson’s The Suitcase Kid and I cried with relief that I could read whole pages again.

The three books you’d bring with you to a desert island are…

On a desert island, I would take the biggest books I could in case I was there a long time. So complete Chaucer – is that cheating? The Arabian Nights, cheating again. And one of the Bloodaxe anthologies, either Being Alive or Being Human so I would have some surprises.

The book you always return to is…

I return to all my favourites. I re-read all of Anne Tyler, Jane Austen, A.S.Byatt, Frances Hodgson Burnett, the Judith Kerr autobiographical trilogy, J.D. Salinger, my favourite Dickens’ novel.

Seeing your book in shops is…

My niece sent me a photo of my book in her local bookshop, and I felt something like terror mixed with gratitude. I hoped I would be good enough. I hoped I would not let down the people who had faith in me.

One book you wish you had written is…

One book I wish I’d written would be A Little Princess. I think children’s writers are the pinnacle of achievement for a writer, the ultimate in economy and directness.

Should books be judged by their covers? How did you pick yours?

In my experience authors have no input into how their book looks at all. The role of the writer is to say thank you very much to everyone who does all that stuff, especially if you are like me and have no skill in that area. By chance I do really love my cover for Pearl, and all my family think I chose it because it is my favourite colours.

Sian Hughes author

The best advice you’ve ever gotten is…

Having spent all my adult life writing one novel I must qualify as the best procrastinator in the world. It’s not a title I am proud of, and I offer no excuse. My favourite advice all comes from Stephen King’s autobiography On Writing and that is the book I always recommend to creative writing students for that reason.

Your work space is…

I don’t have a work space. Certainly not a room, or a desk. I wrote Pearl at the kitchen table surrounded by all the other things that happen there, or sitting in bed with my young son asleep on the other side of the mattress, keeping the light on low and staying awake so late I was no use in the morning.

Pearl by Sian Hughes is on sale now.