Interview with SPOTLIGHT author Sarah Windebank

February 3, 2020

In this interview, the fourth in a series of interviews with SPOTLIGHT authors, we speak to Sarah Windebank, whose collection Memories of a Swedish Grandmother is published by Myriad Editions.

Spotlight Books is a collaboration between Creative Future, New Writing South and Myriad Editions to discover, guide and support writers who are under-represented due to mental or physical health issues, disability, race, class, gender identity or social circumstance.

See all interviews in this series.

What are the challenges of your own life experiences, and do these present in your writing, as concerns, themes, ways of thinking about writing?

I have suffered from mental health problems since my adolescence, most likely as a consequence of being sexually abused as a fifteen year old. Thus, I have self-harmed, suffered from bulimia nervosa and depression, been diagnosed with psychotic episodes and paranoia and consequently experienced material poverty.  Sometimes I wonder, though, because of my involvement in women’s and LGBTQ politics and writing groups, whether it is just a lack of acceptance on the part of  the psychiatric services that people are gay, which has caused many of my problems. 

Writing as catharsis, has helped me with psychiatric and social problems. Taking an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development at Sussex University, a course that focused on the therapeutic as well as the aesthetic purpose of writing fiction and poetry, has been helpful. 

Life in a psychiatric hostel, or a halfway house for homeless youth, or a council flat alone in an alien place with new born twins, makes me want to speak out, and so some of my writing, I hope, has a radical bite to it, . 

Even as I am writing this, I realise there are things that have happened to me or things about myself that I find impossible to state factually because they remain too painful and sensitive to revisit,except imaginatively. 

Is there a writer you particularly admire, and what about their work is powerful to you?

I would say that of poets writing now I love Sarah Howe, particularly Loop of Jade. I like her cleverness, her attention to form and the precision of her language. I also like the themes of searching for her identity as half English, half Chinese, and the exploration of her relationship with her Chinese mother. She writes very good prose poems as well. However, I have a bee in my bonnet about a much older writer, Mary Wollstonecraft. Though she is best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she also wrote novels, and a wonderful study of her travels through Scandinavia. And of course, she was Mary Shelley’s mum. I wonder whether a narrative poem about her life might be a next writing project?

What are you working on now?

At this very moment I am writing a short story about a village in China cut off from the modern world and inhabited by ghosts. It comes from an experience I had when teaching in Sichuan. I am also writing poems and am looking for a theme for a second book. I am working on a research proposal for a possible PhD in poetics. Prose is walking, and poetry is dancing, albeit walking  through a sunny wood or along a polluted street, and dancing a wild hip hop or a formal waltz to the strict rhythm of a metronome. Thus, I am perusing The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem from Baudelaire to Anne Carson, and thinking about the intersection of prose and poetry.

What made you apply for the Spotlight Books project and how has it had an impact on you?

I applied for the Spotlight Books project almost accidentally. I was in a phase of severe depression, partly because I had not enough money to live on, partly because someone close to me was ill, and it was deepest, darkest winter and I was cocooned with a bit of time on my hands. I thought I would put my poems in some sort of order, and spotted the competition on a website. I had not even thought I would be considered for publication by Spotlight Books; it had been an exercise in ordering my work. So, I was quite overwhelmed when I was notified that I had been selected to be published by Myriad Editions. It has made me take my writing more seriously, and having never submitted my poetry to magazines or competitions much in the past, I have now begun to consider doing this. I am also applying to study for a Creative Writing PhD, which I felt I could not do before I was accepted for Spotlight Books. It has given my confidence a great fillip.

See all interviews in this series.

Sarah Windebank has an English father and Swedish mother. She has degrees from University College London and the University of Sussex, and has taught English Literature and Language in China and the UK. She lives in Brighton.