The Bailey’s Prize-nominated debut from East Anglia-based writer and academic Sara Taylor, The Shore (Windmill, £8.99) is a southern gothic novel interlinking a series of narratives set on a group of small islands off the coast of her home state, Virginia.
Tell me about the opening chapter of The Shore – how it started life and became the basis of the book.
For several years I tried to write about the Eastern Shore of Virginia and failed miserably – the stories showcased the landscape well, but they didn’t hold together as actual stories, so I gave up. Then I found myself alone in my father’s house on the edge of the marsh for the summer with no internet or reliable phone and a looming school deadline. Since I didn’t have the tools to research or the time to faff about, I decided to write about the one thing that would be easy to fact-check – what it was like to be in that place in the summertime with no one but my sister and no guarantee that someone would be able to help if things went wrong. When I’d finished I realised that it was the inside-out version of the stories I’d been trying to write. I’d wanted to write about the Eastern Shore from the beginning, so the rest of the stories came from the questions that Target Practice raised – who was Chloe’s mother and what had happened to her; where had their family come from; what would happen to them as a result of the events of the first chapter? The book isn’t especially autobiographical, but the spark for most of it came from overheard conversations – everyone on the Shore seemed to have a doomsday plan, everyone whispered about local scandal, every crossroads and creek and cornfield cemetery had a story told about it.
What’s the relationship between the reality of growing up in rural Virginia and the communities we are introduced to in The Shore?
One of the hurdles that I keep tripping over with both writing and life in general is that I didn’t interact with people beyond my own family very much until I was an adult. That isolation inevitably colours my perception of reality. I seem to interpret what I see more dramatically than most people because it’s all still a little alien. For instance, drugs are an issue on the Shore and I can’t tell which sheds are garden sheds and which sheds are pot shacks until they get busted (my little sister can, though), but in reality drugs provide more of a baseline to other life problems, rather than being a central issue. I wanted to get as close to the reality of life on the Shore as I could, but I knew from the start that it would be a skewed reality. Though, I’m satisfied to say, people from the Shore and from other parts of Virginia have contacted me to mention that the portrayal of life and community in the book is uncannily similar to their own experiences.
The book spans centuries but many of the issues faced by its characters – poverty, racism, sexism – are enduring. Is this a comment on rural parts of the southern US or wider society?
The issues of the book aren’t unique to any one place, so I suppose The Shore could be counted as a look askance at the world in general. But the American South seems to almost embrace these issues as part of a regional identity. This baffled me when I encountered it as a child; now that I’m starting to understand the historic and cultural influences that have led us to this point I’m intrigued by it. My intention was less to comment on than explore the darker side of a place that is often idealised.
What does The Shore tell us about the resilience of women?
When I was a kid, there was a seemingly constant flow of women into my kitchen. My mother was both good at listening and at delivering the stiff kick that’s sometimes required to get a person to go from “my life is a disaster” to doing what they can to fix it, so young mothers from our church whose husbands had abused them or abandoned them turned up. For years it seemed like, everywhere I looked, there were women with the natural fortitude of wet tissue paper keeping themselves and their children afloat. They had to be resilient because they didn’t have any other option; external support was limited to non-existent, and walking away was so taboo that it was never considered. The book simply reflects my own experience of how women behave under pressure.
How did your evangelical upbringing inform the novel?
In this case I really tried to stay away from personal experiences. A lot of the moral viewpoints of my childhood – traditional gender roles, attitudes towards female sexuality, etc – show up in the novel, but that is more because they’re common in that part of the world.
Tell me about your PhD studies at the University of East Anglia.
They call the degree creative and critical writing. My critical research is on the censoring of high school literature anthologies in the United States in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s in response to pressure by Christian activist groups and how that censorship has influenced education since then. It sounds a bit dry, but one of the concepts regularly (and successfully) opposed was the teaching of critical thinking, which probably explains a lot about the current state of the public school system. The creative part is a novel about a Christian family that is influenced towards fundamentalism by the education controversies of the 1980s and 1990s, and how that affects their relationships with each other. The first draft of the novel has just been finished, and it is painfully autobiographical.
Your next book is due out in August this year – what’s it about?
At the moment my second book is going through the furnace of final edits. The Lauras is about a woman who abruptly abandons her life to travel across the United States, settling business left unfinished when she was a teenager in foster care and a young adult on the run. It’s narrated by Alex, her only child with the man she leaves behind, who is dragged along unwillingly at first.