Norfolk author Sarah Perry tipped for stardom with debut novel After Me Comes The Flood
One has won international prizes, another was pursued by nine publishers, and now a third is reeling in rave reviews. Some of the most talked-about books of the summer are the work of Norwich writers. ROWAN MANTELL met Sarah Perry, the latest Norfolk author tipped for stardom.
If Sarah cannot see the spire of Norwich Cathedral she feels unsettled, cast adrift.
It is a fitting sensation for the author of After Me Comes The Flood – her first novel, narrated by a man who chances upon a crumbling country house where he finds the residents are expecting him.
The book is set in slightly off-kilter Norfolk, a merging of Thetford Forest and the salt marshes of the north coast. It is disorientatingly hot after weeks of drought, but the air is ominous with fears of flooding, signs of decay, and intimations of insanity. Landscape, objects and personalities are all disintegrating in a haunting story which is part-mystery, part-psychological thriller.
Sarah fell in love with Norfolk on camping holidays, but has lived here for just 18 months. 'We moved up here on a whim! We had no friends here, no family, no jobs,' she said. 'I felt a connection to the coast. I became really quite besotted! But I'm a city girl so we moved to Norwich.
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'I walk around now thinking why would anyone live anywhere else? And there are writers everywhere. It's a city of literature and although I don't hang out with them all, I know of them, and if you get on a bus or go into a pub you are virtually bound to meet a writer. The Norwich Writers' Centre is an amazing place and I also have an unhealthy infatuation with Norwich Cathedral! I go there as much as I can and I like to be able to see the spire. To me it's like the needle on a compass, guiding me home.'
Sarah grew up in Chelmsford, the youngest of five daughters of deeply Christian parents. The family attended the town's Strict and Particular Baptist chapel.
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'In the 1940s and 50s many Baptists began using more modern versions of the Bible, and having guitars, but the church which my parents attended had stayed very much as it would have been at the turn of the century – the 19th century that is!' explained Sarah. 'We weren't like the Amish though.'
It also was not an Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit upbringing. Sarah's family was, and is, close and loving.
Although much of contemporary culture was suspect, Sarah grew up steeped in classic literature and classical music.
'To me it was a privilege to grow up in an atmosphere where I could be taken out of school to go and hear Beethoven's 9th Symphony at The Proms. I don't really know about my sisters but I never really missed contemporary music. I loved classical music and literature and Pre-Raphaelite art and Turner.
'Dad once found a cassette tape of Elvis Presley in the house and threw it into the bin. There was no big drama. We just found it in the bin.
'We would have looked quite old fashioned, as we didn't wear jeans or make-up. I imagine I looked a little dowdy and I can remember someone had written 'Take That' on the toilet wall at school and I wondered, 'Take what?'
'We didn't have pop music or posters or go to the cinema or have a television, but I read Jane Eyre when I was eight and our biggest influence was the King James Bible. It was read at meal times. We memorised whole chapters. As it is the greatest achievement of English prose ever, to be saturated with that is a real privilege.'
Sarah's mother was a maths teacher, her father a scientist. 'We once made gunpowder in the back garden!' remembered Sarah, 'But he could also reconcile his work with belief in a six-day creation.
'My dad will devour 17th century treatises on astronomy or Euclid but when I said to him that I was worried about what he was going to think of my book he simply said 'Sarah, I don't read novels'!'
Today she has slipped free from some of the restrictions of her childhood. 'My parents are probably disappointed but there is no great family rift,' she said. 'I would say I do have faith but I don't attend church regularly.'
As a child there were many, many services. 'In church people would take notes and I used to pretend to do that but I would be writing stories. I can't decipher them now but they were just about getting the story out. I used to walk around telling stories in my head on my way to school. I would see someone on the bus and watch them and form an entire back story. I used to make myself cry by coming up with all these desperately sad stories!'
Sarah's first job was with the civil service but she still really wanted to write. 'All I had ever wanted was to write but I was afraid I couldn't. I had very little self-confidence and very little self-discipline.' It was to give herself the space and structure to write that she enrolled on an MA course, where she was taught by the then Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. He also supervised her doctorate and Sarah said: 'He is an extraordinary teacher.'
It was Andrew Motion who first told her she was a gothic writer. 'And I said, 'What are you talking about? There are no vampires, no castles.' It turns out I'm a gothic writer, not a gothic horror writer. At the heart of the gothic is this focus on the uncanny and the unsettling, where you are not quite sure whether you have actually seen something out of the corner of your eye…
'I'm not sure I believe in ghosts or spirits, or anything else of that kind, but I do believe people encounter them. A ghost created by our own mind is no less frightening or real than one that's been lurking in an old priory for 500 years!
'I've had, like most of us, I expect, moments of great dread and unease but it's never solidified into anything you could see.'
After Me Comes The Flood began taking shape as Sarah studied creative writing. 'I feel as if it's always been there but there must have been a point when I started writing it rather than just pondering the characters,' she said.
Now 34, Sarah married at 20. Her husband was a police officer in London. 'I decided to marry him when I was 13 and his family came to our church!' said Sarah. 'He was a few years older and I don't think he noticed me until I was 17.'
Soon after their wedding the young couple spent six months in the Philippines as voluntary aid workers with a Christian charity.
It was the first time Sarah had ever been abroad for any length of time. 'I can't convey the poverty I saw. There were families so poor they didn't even have a piece of cardboard to sit on.'
The piece she wrote about the experience won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial prize, which in turn led to a Writer in Residence post at Gladstone's Library in Wales.
Her first novel is published this week but Sarah admitted: 'I still feel rather foolish and fraudulent if I say I'm a writer.'
She also works as a legal journalist and said: 'One of my favourite jobs is to read Supreme Court and Appeal Court judgements and write them up. Honestly, talk about fact being stranger than fiction!' She revealed a future novel will draw on aspects of cases she has covered, saying: 'It would be a shame to waste them!'
But her focus is on After Me Comes The Flood, which has been likened to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and John Fowles' The Magus. The title was initially Confusion but had to be changed very close to publication as another book was about to appear with the same name. Fittingly for a novel which sets out to disconcert, the title emerged mysteriously. 'It was as if the phrase appeared on the page and it fitted perfectly.'
Fears of inundation flow through the book, despite a searing summer drought, and the words also carry the sense of harbingers of doom and even the Bible story of a flood to punish sin. The crumbling Norfolk mansion setting is mainly imaginary but Sarah said a key coastal scene is set in one of her favourite spots on the North Norfolk coast where a boat, stranded on salt flats, looks as if it could never float.
The book itself is already being floated as a summer bestseller, and after publication, surely comes a flood of attention for a haunting novel by another gifted and engaging Norwich writer.
After Me Comes The Flood, by Sarah Perry, is published by Serpent's Tail for £11.99 in paperback and £7.99 as an ebook. It will be launched at The Book Hive, Norwich, at 6.30pm on July 8.