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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Sarah Watkinson shares the inspiration behind her new contemporary romance novel, Native Soil.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Sarah Watkinson about her life and career, what inspired her to write her new contemporary romance novel, Native Soil, and her creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Sarah Watkinson, emeritus university lecturer in plant sciences, with a post-retirement diploma in creative writing. I have published graduate-level books on fungi, two poetry collections, and now my first venture into long-form fiction. I live in rural Oxfordshire and Northumberland with my husband and dog, and have four grandchildren.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
When I was about 4. I was a compulsive storyteller, and wrote poetry as an excuse to come downstairs after bedtime and bother my parents. I knew they’d want to see my poem.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Creative, imaginative writing – only after I retired. With a life of science writing behind me, I had a sense of unfinished business. A creative writing diploma course helped me to explore my gift for writing, and discover I could write poetry. A poem called Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight was highly commended in a competition, and that became the title of a poetry pamphlet that won the prize of publication by Cinnamon Press in 2017. Fiction came later.
What made you want to write Native Soil?
I wanted to see if I could manage a whole novel. I love reading novels, and was sure I could write one. It’s not that easy!
What were your biggest challenges in writing Native Soil?
Lightening up! My university job had left me with a habit of lecturing and instructing. I had to learn authorial generosity – realising your reader is probably cleverer than you. Also, getting down to work and sticking at it. Learning the craft of storytelling. I could always tell a joke or an anecdote – but constructing a whole world that holds a reader’s interest to the end is a huge skill.
Who or what inspired you when creating your protagonist?
I’m told there are only seven plots in fiction, and its ok to retell an old story. So I chose to model a protagonist on Dido, Queen of Carthage. My tale of a rich widow’s new life in the Yorkshire Dales, amid the struggles between sustainable and intensive farming, is a retelling of this old story, mapped rather carefully on to the original myth, for fun. I wonder if any readers will spot that? She loses everything and everyone she loves, except a trunk full of money, and is exiled to a new land. There she builds a new city from scratch, all on her own. But the gods, quarrelling among themselves, try and settle an old score by shipwrecking the hero Aeneas, on his mission to found Rome, and letting Dido rescue him. Dido falls passionately in love, whereupon Aeneas has to leave to continue his destiny and she dies at her own hand, of sorrow.
My heroine Olivia, however, and my hero Andrew, manage a more twenty-first century, happier outcome than Dido and Aeneas did.
Olivia resembles the actor Nicole Kidman, as becomes clear in the opening chapter.
My hero, Andrew, my second protagonist, is modelled on my former colleagues and scientific collaborators, who helped me learn the amazing DNA technology that now holds the key to exploring the unknown invisible wildlife of the soil, the vital infrastructure of nature-rich ecosystems on land. I hope readers will enjoy coming with me on a bit of this journey. I promise I won’t lecture; we’ll go up on to the moors, and off to California
Who inspired you when creating your antagonist?
Science policymakers, funding bodies, and the academics who choose to bow to their whims, forgetting their debt to independent inquiry.
What is the inciting incident of Native Soil?
Rather ordinary, I’m afraid – a devastating car accident caused by Olivia’s brother that kills both him and her beloved young husband.
What is the main conflict of Native Soil?
The stand-off between nature conservation and intensive land use; and its effects on science and farming policy; how the lives of individuals are wrecked by the thoughtless machinations of the Powers that Be.
The hard choices my couple must make between loyalty to land – Olivia on her farm – and loyalty to a life’s mission – Andrew and his pursuit of truth about invisible wildlife worldwide. He must travel; she must stay with her land and people.
Did you plot Native Soil in advance or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I plotted in advance, very thoroughly, with the help of a brilliant writing course run by famous romantic authors Julie Cohen and Rowan Coleman.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Native Soil need?
Again, I am grateful to Cinnamon Press for awards of wonderful mentoring (Ian Gregson) and terrific editing (Rowan Fortune). Editing tightened up my prose and kept the language concise and contemporary, taking out any pedantic syntax.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Read a lot, write a lot, and study the craft with some of the marvellous courses in creative writing that are now widely available.
Can you give am a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I plan a non-fiction book on the science and poetry of rewilding. I also have a third poetry collection growing quietly in the background.
And finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I am amazed by it! I am very proud that people I respect tell me they enjoy it, and also that they have learned about soil microbiology from it. I am a science communicator at heart, so that does make me quite proud. As long as people buy it and read it with pleasure, it will serve a useful purpose; it’s no Booker contender!
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
Native Soil: ISBN: 979 8 9854286 3 6 Paperback RRP: £16.99; October 2023.
Moore & Weinberg Publishing: www.mooreweinberg.com.
Available through bookshops and internet booksellers (also available as an ebook).
Me: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://www.biology.ox.ac.uk/people/dr-sarah-watkinson @philonotis (X)
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