Second novel series: Sarah Vaughan on becoming a better writer

Today I am delighted to welcome Sarah Vaughan to the blog, to talk about her second novel The Farm at the Edge of the World. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a proof in April and got lost in this evocative and ultimately redemptive story of love and heartbreak set in the remote Cornish wilds. It’s out in hardback on June 30th, and here is Sarah to tell you all about it.

 When did you have the idea for your second novel and was writing it part of your book deal?

The idea behind The Farm at the Edge of the World came because I was thinking about the emotional significance we invest in a certain place. I’ve always loved novels in which the location is important – books like The Go-Between, Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Far from the Madding Crowd, Return of the Native, Howard’s End or more recently Atonement or Life After Life – and I wanted to write about the place that makes me cry every time I visit it, a spot just to the west of Padstow, and to explore this affinity. At the same time, my elderly neighbor, a D-Day veteran, died at the age of 95, and we discovered at his funeral that he’d been awarded the military cross for his bravery in the North Africa campaign. My 95-year-old grandmother, who had had to work in a munitions factory, had died two years earlier and I became acutely aware that a generation that had experienced bravery we had no concept of was dying and that if I wanted to talk to any of them about their experience I had better get move on. As a journalist, I loved getting people to tell me their stories and The Farm was conceived very much in this vein.

Writing this was part of my two-book book deal. It wasn’t the idea I initially came up with but it was one that seemed to fit. I’d used a time slip in The Art of Baking Blind, in which one strand is set in the 1960s. By using a time slip set in the second world war I hoped it might complement my first novel. Mother/daughter relationships are also an ongoing theme.

How long did it take you to write?

On and off, it took about 18 months. It was, I’m afraid, the archetypal difficult second novel in that it required far more work than my first. That was partly because it involved a lot more research – both reading and several trips down to Cornwall; and partly because it was a far more complicated structure with a more developed story in the past. I delivered on time but my first editor wisely wanted some changes that would make it darker and more ambitious – and which led to me chopping out or rewriting 55,000 words. Her suggestions were right but this, and a change of editor, meant it took longer than the anticipated year.

How does the style and subject matter compare to your first novel?

 My first novel, The Art of Baking Blind, is about why we bake – but it’s really about motherhood, the impossibility of perfection, and the pressures women put themselves under as they try to accommodate their needs and their roles as wives, mothers, daughters.  It has a time slip story, the tale of Kathleen Eaden, a 1960s domestic goddess whose iconic Art of Baking prefaces each chapter and who has her own secret that’s finally revealed. But the majority of the action is in the present day and although there are dark accents, it’s ultimately an uplifting book.

The Farm at the Edge of the World, while finally redemptive, is a little darker, being preoccupied with love, loss, forgiveness and the pain of regret. The past story is of equal weight to the present and is more closely entwined; and although most of the characters are women – Maggie, her daughter Judith and granddaughter Lucy, and a visitor called Alice – there is one main male character, Will.

Like my first novel, which includes numerous descriptions of food, I hope this is a sensuous read – though it’s the cliff tops, fields, moorland, farmyard and churning waters of the Atlantic that I hope to evoke. Without creating spoilers, there are more poignant moments in this novel, a couple of farming scenes that are brutally unsentimental, a birth scene and a love scene too. The Art of Baking Blind had five separate storylines; The Farm at the Edge of the World has two – Maggie/Alice’s story and Lucy’s – but I hope it’s stronger for that.

How did your experience of writing it compare with your first novel?

It’s such a cliché but I think you write your first novel in a rush of energy and with little expectation but with so much hope. You write your second with the burden of expectation – especially if your first has been bought in a pre-empt and sold to nine other territories, including the US, as mine was. I was acutely conscious that I was now writing novels for a living but that I only had a two-book deal – and if my second book was no good my new career would be over as quickly as it had begun. I think a second novel is a rite of passage you just have to get through. Having said that, I have learned so much through the redrafting. The Farm at the Edge of the World has turned me into a better writer.

What did you love or hate most while writing it? What went well or badly?

I loved capturing the Cornwall I adore. Not only was this the perfect excuse for several trips but it also involved acting like a reporter again (I was on the Guardian for eleven years and before that at the Press Association and the Times.) I miss the gregarious nature of a being a journalist and so I got a real buzz out of interviewing a trio of octogenarian farmers – all 15/16 year-olds in 1943-4 – whose memories of killing pigs and hand milking cows, and of the sound of bombs whistling down the chimney proved invaluable. I equally loved watching cows being milked on an organic dairy farm; tramping over Bodmin moor in the mist; visiting old airfields and military museums; and trawling through archives in west country libraries – all justified as “research.” I initially hated ripping out the bits my first editor didn’t think worked – although it swiftly became liberating and taught me that nothing is sacred in those early drafts.

Was your second novel harder than your first, or do you think the “difficult second novel” concept is a myth?

I think it’s pretty clear from my earlier answers that this second novel was far harder to write and the difficult second novel is very much a thing! So far, my third novel is proving easier, although I suspect all novels are difficult at some point. I very much hope that this doesn’t read as if it was a tricky second novel. Interestingly a friend, who has put up with me agonising over it at the school gate, has just read it and texted that she: “loved it even more than the first one. Magnificent: I laughed; I felt; you even made me cry.” I guess it’s worth remembering that she doesn’t know about the various different drafts; and is reading it totally fresh. Here’s hoping other readers feel the same.

Thank you so much to Sarah for talking to me. You can find her books here:

The Art of Baking Blind

The Farm at the Edge of the World