Today it's my pleasure to welcome journalist and author Sarah Vaughan to the blog so that we can find out a little more about her debut novel The Art of Baking Blind which is out now in Hardback and as an eBook and will be published next week in paperback.
Sarah Vaughan read English at Oxford and went on to become a journalist. After eleven years at the Guardian working as a news reporter, health correspondent and political correspondent, she started freelancing. Sarah lives near Cambridge with her husband and two small children.
You can connect with Sarah via the links below
There are many reasons to bake: to feed; to create; to impress; to nourish; to define ourselves; and, sometimes, it has to be said, to perfect. But often we bake to fill a hunger that would be better filled by a simple gesture from a dear one. We bake to love and be loved.
In 1966, Kathleen Eaden, cookery writer and wife of a supermarket magnate, published The Art of Baking, her guide to nurturing a family by creating the most exquisite pastries, biscuits and cakes.
Now, five amateur bakers are competing to become the New Mrs Eaden. There's Jenny, facing an empty nest now her family has flown; Claire, who has sacrificed her dreams for her daughter; Mike, trying to parent his two kids after his wife's death; Vicki, who has dropped everything to be at home with her baby boy; and Karen, perfect Karen, who knows what it's like to have nothing and is determined her façade shouldn't slip.
As unlikely alliances are forged and secrets rise to the surface, making the choicest choux bun seems the least of the contestants' problems. For they will learn - as Mrs Eaden did before them - that while perfection is possible in the kitchen, it's very much harder in life.
Can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel The Art of Baking Blind?
The Art of Baking Blind is about why we bake but it’s also about motherhood, nurture, the difference between appearance and reality, the importance of being loved and the impossibility of perfection. It follows five bakers who have entered a baking competition inspired by a 1960s cookery writer and early domestic goddess, Kathleen Eaden. Kathleen’s 1966 The Art of Baking implies that, if you make cakes, biscuits and bread as perfectly as she does, you will have the perfect family life. But as the competition progresses, we see the lives of the contestants unravel and we learn – through a series of flashbacks – that Kathleen’s life was hardly as perfect as it might appear.
As The Art of Baking Blind features multiple characters and the various stages of a baking competition, did you have to disciplined with plotting to keep track?
Yes. I knew from the start that the book would be structured around six stages of a baking competition that would provide natural peaks and, I hoped, some compulsion to continue reading. (Although, who wins the competition doesn’t really matter; like all novels it’s about the characters’ process of self-realisation.)
At 28,000 words I plotted each chapter and although there were extraneous characters that were later cut, and a couple of extra plot lines that came in, this helped me weave them all together. It also gave me the confidence to write to my now-agent, Lizzy Kremer, claiming that I knew what I was doing. (Though this wasn’t the case, at all.)
At one point, midway through the first draft, I drew up a huge grid, with the chapters along the top and the characters, including Kathleen, down the left hand side. I then pinpointed what each character was doing in each chapter so that I could get a sense of whether their stories were balanced in importance, and to check that they weren’t vying for attention all the time. Seeing it like this made it feel polyphonic: like a piece of Baroque music in which the different parts weave in and out.
Now that I’m completing my second novel, which involves two distinct, more fully-realised time lines, I am amazed that I thought I could write like this and that it wasn’t even more tightly structured from the start. But the fact that The Art of Baking Blind is largely written in the present day – and Kathleen’s sections are discrete – enabled me to do it like this.
The Art of Baking Blind features an interesting cast of characters, who was your favourite to create?
Kathleen. I found I had huge sympathy for her. She is a character who is constrained by her time: a little too old to enjoy the more permissive, progressive end of the Sixties; still expected to conform to a wifely role. There’s also a deep sorrow at the heart of her story, something she has to hide. I haven’t experienced what she does – thankfully! - but I have experienced something a little related and, for me, that made her a very emotive character.
How many of the recipes featured in the book did you 'research' on your family?
It was more the other way around: that I already made these recipes and so they made their way into the book. Carrot cake, tarte au citron, beef bourguignon, gingerbread men and Victoria sponge are obvious examples. I did extend my repertoire and started making bread and I practised eclairs and choux buns just so I could describe the process going wrong. But I have to admit I cheated in that I’ve never made a Battenburg or a Baked Alaska. Some things are just too difficult. It was obviously really arduous for my family having to taste all the results but somehow we all managed. And yes, I did put on weight as I wrote.
Curiously some of the recipes I repeatedly go back to were just too simple, or insufficiently rich metaphorically, to make it into my novel. These include Devil’s Food Cake, a rich chocolate cake my mother made as our birthday cake and which I make for my children. I wrote about it, and shared the recipe, on the Waterstone’s blog https://www.waterstones.com/blog/tag/the-art-of-baking-blind/. Lemon drizzle cake, and Nigella’s London cheesecake and brownies and Delia’s pavlova also failed to make the book though they are recipes we regularly make.
What can we expect from you next?
That Summer at Skylark Farm should be published by Hodder next spring. It’s a time-slip story set on a granite farm in north Cornwall perched on a windswept bit of coast. It’s about identity, refuge, love, motherhood, guilt and atonement – and the importance of seizing the day, of not risking regret. It involves two stories: a contemporary one and one set seventy years earlier, in World War Two: or more specifically during the summer of 1943.
My great grandfather was a farmer in Cornwall so in a way this is a love letter to my Cornish ancestors: the sense of place is very strong and was one of the parts I loved writing the most. (It also meant repeated visits to Cornwall.) It’s a little darker than the The Art of Baking Blind, though hopefully with the same warmth. The prologue and chapter one are in the back of this paperback, which makes it all seem very real and exciting, so readers will be able to have a taste.
What does your typical writing day look like?
I have young children so write when they are at primary school so between 9.15 and 3.15, with a couple of days until 4.30. Whenever a deadline looms though, or in the run-up to publication, those hours are stretched and I find myself at my desk between 8 and 10pm or, more effectively, from about 6am. A couple of days a week, I try to fit in a swim though that time has been eroded recently.
When writing a first draft, I have a word count of at least 1,500 a day. I’ve found that if I ever have a hugely productive day – say 2,500 – I’m less prolific the next. I know I shouldn’t edit as I go but I re-read the previous few pages before jumping in. The day also starts with a quick look at social media although for the next book I’m going to be strict and not check until lunchtime. It can become addictive.
Did your experience as a journalist help with the writing/editing process?
Yes, immensely. When I first wrote to my agent, I played up being a journalist. I could meet deadlines and write to length, I said, and had written every day of my career. The implication was that of course I could write a novel. And yet writing a 600-800 word news story based on research, and with the safety net of other people’s knowledge and quotations to back you up is very different to concocting 100,000 words, and creating such a psychologically-plausible, immersive, compelling world that you manage not only to capture but retain your reader’s attention.
On the plus side, I know I can just write. And though it may not be very good and may disappear with the next draft, the habit of getting words down for nearly 20 years – longer if you count the years of writing essays to deadlines – has stood me in good stead. I also think I can cut the waffle. What I find harder is getting the pace right over the course of 100,000 words, and the structure. A 600-word news report isn’t going to help with that! There’s also the fact that you’re relying largely on your imagination: there’s no safety net meshed with other people’s opinions – though including a historical thread, as I do in my next book, does provide some support. Writing a novel is far more vulnerable, precarious, exposing – but exciting – experience to writing news.
What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
I have always written for my job. I read English, then trained as a journalist and moved from the Press Association (PA) to the Guardian, where I worked for 11 years as a news reporter and political correspondent. After going freelance, I kept wittering on about wanting to write a novel to my book club. I wanted to do a course, I said, but I didn’t have the money. “Oh for goodness sake, Sarah,” said one friend, with whom I’d trained at PA. “You’re a beautiful writer. You don’t need a course. You just need to get on with it.”
Did you treat yourself to something special to celebrate publishing your debut novel?
An iMac and an ergonomic chair as I suffered severe pelvic problems in my second pregnancy and couldn’t walk for a while. That sounds like a terribly boring answer but it was an indication that I was taking my writing seriously: that this was now my career. I also bought my daughter a bike and my son a hugely expensive bit of Star Wars’ Lego and we had a foreign holiday (something we hadn’t had for six years.)
Finally have you anything exciting planned for publication day itself?
I had a launch party when The Art of Baking Blind came out in hardback last year so I’m storing up my next party for Skylark. But I expect I will go to the supermarkets where it might be sold or my local Waterstone’s and WH Smiths to snap pictures of it in the store. I know that’s not a very cool thing to do, and I’ll refrain from doing it after that, but on publication day, I think it’s allowed!