Wednesday, 19 August 2015


I am delighted that SARAH VAUGHAN is joining me on my blog today as part of her Blog Tour. Sarah's book - The Art of Baking Blind - was published in paperback on 13 August 2015. 

What inspired you to write a novel?
I’ve always wanted to write. I read English at Oxford but it never really occurred to me that I could write fiction, or at least not the sort I’d been studying. (The most modern was Virginia Woolf’s and TS Eliot’s; the majority written by dead white men.) I thought I could write, though, and so trained to become a journalist. I joined the Press Association as a news trainee and was poached by The Guardian where I worked as a news reporter, health correspondent and political correspondent for eleven varied, interesting years.
Like many hacks, I itched to write a novel but I didn’t have the confidence to get started: I didn’t feel I had anything sufficiently interesting to say. That changed with motherhood. I took voluntary redundancy after my second child to freelance, and as I did creative things with my children – including baking – I found my voice. There was plenty I could write about: nurture; motherhood; the demands women place on themselves and the gulf between their needs and roles as wives and mothers; the disparity between appearance and reality; the impossibility of perfection. Once I had a hook, all these preoccupations could be articulated.

What gave you the idea for The Art of Baking Blind?
The idea for The Art of Baking Blind came as I baked with my children and watched other mothers – and it was always mothers – bake for school cake sales. I realised I was over-investing my baking with emotion: if I baked with my kids it meant I was a good mother; I was nurturing them and showing how much they were loved. At the same time, I caught the final episode of a series called The Great British Bake Off. It was autumn 2011 and the finalist who would win, Jo Wheatley, explained she had entered “because I wanted to do something for myself.” It then transpired that her husband was in prison for his part in a £60m fraud. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s “back stories” – the events that make us who we are - and here was an incredible one! But why else would people push themselves to compete in a baking competition? I thought of the bakers I’d known since childhood and three characters – Vicki, Karen and Jenny – quickly emerged.

Do your personal experiences influence your writing? If so, how?
I don’t think it’s possible to avoid that, particularly with a first novel although I was very concerned that I didn’t exploit other members of my family. Many of the characters have elements of my personality in them. For instance, I’m a bit of a perfectionist like Vicki, and my children mean everything to me like Jenny. I’ve never had Karen’s complex relationship with food but from the one time I’ve dieted – before my wedding – I could see how easily one could become fixated with calorie counting and slimming. Similarly, although I’ve never experienced Kathleen’s problem, I did have huge trouble conceiving my first baby and know what it’s like to become obsessed with having a child and with fearing that it will never be a possibility.

Describe your writing style in 10 words or less?
I hate talking about myself – yes really – so I’m going to quote my editor, who likens it to a lemon drizzle cake: “rich yet moreish with just the right amount of bite”. She also describes mine as: “Warm, compassionate, inventive writing; sophisticated yet accessible; with unflinching emotional honesty.”

Do you have any strange writing habits?
I have to drink caffeine before I start writing. An Earl Grey to ease me in, then a double shot Lavazza coffee. Since I work when my kids are at school I tend to have walked a brisk mile and a half taking them there, ideally more. I’m afraid I don’t do anything unconventional. If I’m struggling with something I’ll go to a different setting – the library or garden – and write in longhand. But most of the time it’s just me, clattering away at my desk.

Do you plot out the whole book before you start or just start writing and see where it leads you?
Am I a plotter or a pantster? More of the former though my characters take on a life of their own and I’m constantly re-plotting.
I’ve written two novels now and with both I’ve thought a lot about the plot before the start: I’ve known the crucial scenes and how it will end. But both, particularly the second, have required a lot of redrafting and rearranging or cutting of chapters, and have changed vastly in the writing.
With The Art of Baking Blind, I knew from the start that it would be structured around six stages of a baking competition that would provide natural peaks and, I hoped, some compulsion to continue reading. (Although, who wins the competition doesn’t really matter; like all novels it’s about the characters’ process of self-realisation.)
At 28,000 words I plotted each chapter and although there were extraneous characters that were later cut, and a couple of extra plot lines that came in, this helped me weave them all together. I then slotted in the Kathleen flashbacks – which are discrete from the present-day plot – at strategic points. At one point, after the first draft, I drew up a huge grid, with the chapters along the top and the characters, including Kathleen, down the left hand side. I then pinpointed what each character was doing in each chapter so that I could get a sense of whether their stories were balanced in importance, and to check that they weren’t vying for attention all the time.

What do you consider to be the hardest part of your writing?
My second novel, That Summer at Skylark Farm, which I’m just finishing, has involved some major redrafting. It’s a hugely improved novel but I did feel a pang having to cut quite so many thousands of words. There’s also the sense of isolation, having come from a buzzing newspaper office, particularly when I worked in the lobby. And the self-doubt.

Do you think that your journalistic background has benefited you as a fiction author?
Undoubtedly. When I first wrote to my agent, Lizzy Kremer, I played up being a journalist. I could meet deadlines and write to length, I said, and had written every day of my career. The implication was that of course I could write a novel. And yet writing a 600-800 word news story based on research, and with the safety net of other people’s knowledge and quotations to back you up is very different to concocting 100,000 words, and creating such a psychologically-plausible, immersive, compelling world that you manage not only to capture but retain your reader’s attention.
Having said that, having spent my entire adult life as a journalist I know how to meet deadlines; to write to a daily word count; to cut the waffle (I hope); and to spot a good hook or twist. I find fiction harder, because of the need to retain the reader’s attention for quite so long, but far more challenging and exciting.

How has your life changed since getting your publishing deal?
Well it’s been better financially. But it’s also been fantastic for my sense of self-belief. I found it difficult taking redundancy from the Guardian, which I did because we’d moved and I’d had a problematic second pregnancy. But I hadn’t realised how much of my identity was bound up in being published and with writing constantly. The Art of Baking Blind puts paid to all of that. It’s been the most wonderful experience and I still can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to secure this deal and to actually have my novel in bookshops! I’ve even started calling myself an author (albeit with an apologetic, disbelieving smile.)

I have to ask – are you good at baking? And what’s your favourite type of cake?
I think I am good at baking. Many of my favourite cakes didn’t make it into the novel as they weren’t sufficiently complex or metaphorically rich. These include my very favourite, Devil’s Food Cake, which is the cake my mum used to make for our birthdays and I now make for my kids. It’s so delicious that I shared it on the Waterstone’s blog:

If you were writing a book about your life, what would the title be?
That’s an impossible question. I tend to be quite self-deprecating but I could hardly publish an autobiography entitled: I’m really sorry. It’s a cheat but maybe 'A Room of My Own'? At the moment, I work alongside my son’s Lego and my daughter’s piano and I’ve been thinking a lot about Woolf’s suggestion. Though I think I’m quite sociable, writing is a solitary business and quite a selfish one.  To write well, I need that space.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read, widely and critically, then plant your seat on a chair and get started. Take your writing seriously because if you don’t nobody will. Be disciplined: develop that splinter of ice in the heart that Graham Greene said all writers should have and don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Persist. Push yourself to get better. Cling on to your self-belief.

And lastly, why should people read The Art of Baking Blind?
The Art of Baking Blind is a novel about why we bake but it’s also about motherhood, nurture, the importance of being loved, the pressures women put on themselves and the impossibility of perfection. It’s about a baking competition inspired by a 1960s recipe book by an early domestic goddess, Kathleen Eaden. Her strictures imply that you can have the perfect family life if you bake exquisite cakes, biscuits and bread. But as the novel progresses, we see the contestants’ lives unravel and we realise, through a series of flashbacks, that Kathleen’s life was, inevitably, not perfect. I hope it will appeal not just to bakers, or to people who enjoy sensuous food writing, but readers who relate to engaging, complex characters and who want a little darkness, as well as warmth, in a read.

About Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan read English at Oxford and went on to become a journalist. After 11 years at the Guardian as a news reporter, health correspondent and political correspondent, she started freelancing. The Art of Baking Blind is her first novel and she is now working on her second. Sarah lives near Cambridge with her husband and two small children.

Find Sarah Vaughan on Twitter - @SVaughanAuthor

The Art of Baking Blind
Published by Hodder (Paperback - 13 August 2015)

There are many reasons to bake: to feed; to create; to impress; to nourish; to define ourselves; and, sometimes, it has to be said, to perfect. But often we bake to fill a hunger that would be better filled by a simple gesture from a dear one. We bake to love and be loved.
In 1966, Kathleen Eaden, cookery writer and wife of a supermarket magnate, published The Art of Baking, her guide to nurturing a family by creating the most exquisite pastries, biscuits and cakes.
Now, five amateur bakers are competing to become the New Mrs Eaden. There's Jenny, facing an empty nest now her family has flown; Claire, who has sacrificed her dreams for her daughter; Mike, trying to parent his two kids after his wife's death; Vicki, who has dropped everything to be at home with her baby boy; and Karen, perfect Karen, who knows what it's like to have nothing and is determined her façade shouldn't slip.
As unlikely alliances are forged and secrets rise to the surface, making the choicest choux bun seems the least of the contestants' problems. For they will learn - as Mrs Eaden did before them - that while perfection is possible in the kitchen, it's very much harder in life.

Read my review here.

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