Monday, June 20, 2016

Interview with Sara Barnard about Beautiful Broken Things

Beautiful Broken Things is a sad, funny and real story about friendship, overcoming trauma and the damage it can do to self esteem. I read it as fast as I could get away with, since I was visiting family at the time, and I fell in love with Caddy, Rosie and Suzanne, and was intrigued by their often problematic dynamic of three.

I finished BBT the week before Nightwanderers came out, and was really eager to talk to Sara about the process of writing the book, and the decisions she made along the way, and also about her young friendships, as she seemed to be interested in some of the same themes as me: the intensity and magnificence of female friendships, and friendship as a sort of romance, as well as notions of self-esteem and the good/bad influence we can be on each other. 

The book has recently been selected as one of Zoella's Book Club reads, as well as receiving many other plaudits, and so if you haven't picked it up already, then make sure you do. Visit Sara's website for more news about her work or talk to her on Twitter (she has a new book coming out too). Seeing as Sara lives a little far away, in Brighton, we couldn't meet for coffee, so I was very happy when she agreed to this interview. : )

Caddy, Rosie and Suzanne are really well drawn characters, and I recognised them from my teen years. The dynamic between the three of them was so interesting, and their varying levels of self-esteem seemed to be a key factor in the ways that they interacted. Was this something you set out wanting to write about? How people can fit together in terms of need? 

I don’t think anyone gets through their teen years unscathed; we all have our low moments, especially when it comes to self-esteem. But often this isn’t something you realise until you’re an adult – you think it’s just you! So though I didn’t set out to write directly about that, it seeped in as quite a natural part of writing teenage girls. I think the friendships we have at that time have a huge effect – they either lift you or sink you, and sometimes it’s both. In this case, I was interested in the friends that lift you. : )

This is a subtle and complex element of relationships, and something I can now see played a large part in my friendships as an adolescent. Could you tell me a bit about your early friendships in this respect? Who do you most relate to out of the three girls? 

I went to a girls’ school, and I was part of a group of friends. We were awful to each other for years – there were so many shifting allegiances and loyalties that seemed so important at the time. My best friend, who sort of flitted in and out of the group and had other friends, was the exception – we never fought (still have never fought, 17 years on!) and our friendship was very different. And of course, hers is the friendship that has really lasted. She likes to say now that she’s a mix of Rosie and Suzanne, which is probably true! Caddy is a lot like how I was when I was a teenager; shy, quiet and self-conscious, always worrying I wasn’t interesting or cool enough for my friends. 

Suzanne is a fascinating character, beautiful and broken, like the ornaments her stepfather broke (and then glued back together – this detail made me cry), did you have to do a lot of research to get her behaviour right? 

Suzanne has been hanging around in my head for a number of years now (as a fellow author, I’m sure you understand this and won’t think I’m a bit mad?!) and her character grew very organically for me. Though I did do research, it wasn’t to find out how she’d behave – it was more to understand her behaviour, if that makes sense. I would think, how would a person in these specific circumstances react to this specific incident? And that’s how I approach all of my characters and research, really. So with Suzanne, it was how would a girl who’d been internalising abuse for years react when she’s taken away from her family and expected to make a fresh start in a new city? 

In the acknowledgements to BBT you thank Tom for saving Suzanne when you had almost given up. Could you let us know a bit more about this? Did you write an alternate version (I won’t publish this if it contains spoilers/will edit accordingly.) 

I did… anyone who’s read BBT through to the end can probably guess what this alternative is. Trying to get the ending right took a lot of time and a lot of drafts. My boyfriend, Tom, gets the credit for finding the solution. It was right at the eleventh hour, but we got there in the end! I’m very happy BBT has the ending that it has; it’s definitely the right ending for the girls and the book. 

You create tension within the dynamic of three girls very believably, and I thought the power play between Suzanne and Rosie was especially well done. There is an understanding that flows between them that Caddy is outside of, which seems to be because of their recognition of the part she plays to both of them. Did you find yourself in this sort of dynamic as a teenager? What would your advice to Caddy be about Suzanne, if you were her older sister? 

I was never in a trio like the girls, so I’ve never had to deal with quite that kind of dynamic, thankfully! There was a lot of power-play between my friends when I was at secondary school, but it was more superficial. I would give basically the same advice to Caddy as Tarin does, which is the whole idea of how important it is to sometimes say no as much as it is to say yes, that enabling someone’s behaviour isn’t helping them. I’d tell her to take care of her, because Caddy never really quite understands how much pain Suzanne is in, or just how vulnerable she is.    

Low self-esteem is a real obstacle, particularly for females, and even more so for young females, what are your ideas about why this is? And how do you think we can teach/show the younger generation to have stronger/better self-esteem? 

I think we live in a society that doesn’t properly value women or girls, so it’s inevitable they grow up internalising that message. We tell them that things they love are petty and frivolous (boybands, YouTubers, for example), we tell them they need to be pretty then chastise them for being obsessed with make-up. I think it’s not enough to tell them once they’re teenagers that they should value themselves and have higher self-esteem because it’s too late, we should be working to change the patterns of society and the stereotypes that young girls are faced with every day. And the answer to that, I firmly believe, is feminism!

What do you think? Is the answer feminism or something else? Let me know in the comments!


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  2. Sorry if that comment was a bit "too cheeky." I was having trouble writing a "proper comment."

    Happy Independense Day. How do you celebrate?

  3. I think you hit on a bit of the answer just by using the word 'value'. Even in my job right now (I'm a teacher thinking about heading back into the classroom) I've been thinking that if we (the teachers) felt valued it would make such a difference. We don't need a Teacher Appreciation Week, we just need to feel valued throughout the year. But in response to your question: We need to value everyone, each person, and each girl and woman, so that when they are growing up, and are grown up, they can value themselves in whatever path of life they chose, in their relationships and friendships. There is so much insecurity and second-guessing, and even mistrust. This book sounds like something I would absolutely enjoy, as it seems just from this interview that I will relate to Caddy quite well, still now almost 40 I worry that I'm not interesting enough and am always self-conscious. Christy

    1. Thanks for the honest comment, Christy. Caddy is very relatable whether you are a teenage girl or adult woman. As a 33 year old I found myself identifying in a rather uncomfortable way quite often throughout the novel. Value is key, you're right. We need to teach our children that they are valued for their unique skills, rather than setting them up to fail in an unrealistic competition, or giving them unrealistic expectations. Good luck with your return to teaching, if you decide to go back. Chelsey x