I’m delighted to be joined by Sarah Lee today who is here to chat about her debut novel An Ocean Apart. It’s paperback publication day today and I reviewed the book on Monday. You can read my review here. Welcome Sarah. First of all, would you tell my blog readers a little about yourself?
I’m a debut novelist but I feel as though I’ve been writing all my life (well, certainly my professional life) because I have worked as a journalist, editor and blogger for many years. It was during the pandemic when my luxury travel blog took a bit of a forced hiatus (global lockdowns do that, as I discovered!) that I started writing An Ocean Apart. But before that, I used to travel all over the world sharing stories of destinations and fun adventures. I still love to travel and especially enjoy spa breaks in Austria, foodie breaks to Spain, beach breaks in Thailand and have a slightly unusual penchant for Minneapolis, in the US, because I’m a big fan of the musician Prince.
What inspired you to start writing?
Writing is all but second nature to me as I’ve done so for many, many years even though the vast majority of my stories have been factual features (there has though, been the occasional travel narrative, which allows for more description and the odd flight of fancy). But when I started this project, I was very inspired to write about a time, experience and group of people that had not had much of the spotlight before. I was inspired by the Caribbean women who toiled, sometimes in very challenging circumstances, to care for others and ultimately to build an establishment that is now viewed as one of Britain’s great national treasures.
I was deeply inspired by the women I spoke to and felt a great sense of responsibility to authentically tell the story of former West Indian nurses, shedding light on their experience.
Tell me about your journey to publication
I have perhaps a less than usual journey to publication as I was approached to write a book about Windrush Generation nurses (the fact that my mother was a Windrush Generation nurse was a beautiful coincidence). My publishers, Pan Macmillan, wanted to address a lack of representation in historical fiction and publish more diverse stories. Particularly since the murder of George Floyd, there has been a lot of talk of diversity and inclusion, so it was gratifying to work with a company that was actually taking action to highlight the black experience in Britain, and the contribution that the Windrush Generation has made here. A number of people have told me since I began writing this book, that there isn’t enough knowledge of black British history and little taught in schools, so I’m proud to be able to share some insights into this relatively recent past.
In a nutshell, what is your book about?
An Ocean Apart is at its heart about friendship and the closeness of female relationships. It centres on the lives of sisters Connie and Ruby Haynes, from Barbados, and Jamaican Billie Benjamin, who arrive at St Mary’s Hospital in Hertfordshire in 1954 to train as nurses in the fledgling National Health Service (NHS). It’s a little-known fact that the first ship bringing Britain’s Caribbean citizens here, The Empire Windrush, arrived in England two weeks to the day before the inception of the NHS. A huge number of Caribbean women were recruited to the service, in the face of a significant labour shortage in Britain following the Second World War. For Connie, Ruby and Billie, Britain provides a chance to gain a profession, and an opportunity for a great adventure. While navigating the challenges of settling in and the at times harsh realities of life in a new land, where their face doesn’t always fit, they learn more about themselves and find love along the way.
How do you plan to celebrate publication day?
Well I’ve actually got two publication days – for my first (my hardback, eBook and audio book) I finally popped the cork on a magnum of 2008 rosé champagne I’d had for years, which was just waiting on a special occasion and shared it with my husband and a few friends. My hubby also got me a beautiful bouquet of flowers.
I’m not sure what I’ll do for the second one, but I think I’d better make some fast plans!
Do you have a work in progress just now?
I’m just now working on the synopsis for another novel – so it’s early days, but watch this space!
What one book would you recommend to a friend and why?
I love The Handmaid’s Tale so would always recommend that. For some reason I often seem drawn to utopian/dystopian themes (Orwell’s 1984 is another favourite) maybe because it’s a double-edged sword and there is no such thing as a perfect society. One person’s utopia always seems to be another’s dystopia.
Worryingly, I find these days that Margaret Atwood’s story can feel more like non-fiction than a foreboding drama. But one thing it does is highlight the thin line between a free and democratic society and one of oppression. I feel it’s something we need to have our eyes open to, so stories like this can help to keep us aware.
What are you reading just now?
I’ve just finished The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson, which is a really warming read based on the history Bethnal Green Library, which moved, along with the people of the East End, underground to the tube station during the war. It was such a lovely book with fab characters that jumped off the page and I found myself deeply immersed in the experience of living in the tunnels, dug for London Underground, that became a reality for so many at the time. I’d recommend it. And I have just started Lola Akinmade Akerstrom’s In Every Mirror She’s Black, which I’ve read fantastic reviews of.
If you were on Desert Island Discs, what one book would you take with you?
I’m going to be very optimistic here and hope that the desert island would have a hut with a cooker and a well-stocked freezer and pantry because I love cooking. Then I would take any cookbook by Elizabeth David, but perhaps French Country Cooking – one that was popular in the mid-50s when my book is set, but which has an enduring charm, not only because David was among the first to teach the British to cook foreign dishes but because she spins lovely narratives alongside her recipes which means they are part cookbook, part travelogue. So, I figure it will sate my physical hunger as well as that of my oft travelling soul.
How can people follow you or connect with you on social media?
You will find me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahleewrites/ and Twitter: https://twitter.com/sarahleetravels mostly where I chat about bookish stuff and a bit of travel. Although I am on nearly all of the major social media channels through my travel blog – just search for LiveShareTravel.
You’ll find buying options for An Ocean Apart on the Pan MacMillan website.
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