by Tizzy Brown

We recently sat down with Sara Collins, the author behind The Confessions of Frannie Langton, this month’s GNI Reads book club pick, to learn more about her writing process, her dream cast for a TV show adaption, and her approach to self-care when stress takes over.

Writing and Process

Firstly, tell us about your book! We’re so excited to be reading it for book club.

Sara Collins: Frannie is a young Jamaican woman who is brought to London by her owner, John Langton, and given as a gift to George Benham, a famous natural philosopher. While working as a maid in Benham’s Mayfair mansion she falls in love with his wife, Madame Marguerite Benham, and the pair embark on a twisted love affair which ends when Benham and Madame are found murdered. Suspicion falls on Frannie, who is herself found sleeping next to her dead mistress with blood on her hands. At her lawyer’s urging, Frannie writes the story of her life, trying to convince herself as much as the reader that she couldn’t have murdered the only person she ever loved.

In a feature for Penguin UK, you mentioned a quote by Toni Morrison, “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” What has this meant to you in your own writing?

SC: I wrote Frannie as a way of putting a black woman center stage where I hadn’t seen one before. I’d become fed up with the idea that when we encounter a black character in historical fiction he/she is bound to be a victim. Most of the stories seemed to be about slavery rather than love, mystery or romance. My novel started with a question: Why hadn’t a black woman been the star of her own gothic romance? As a teenager I’d been obsessed with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I wanted to write my novel as a tribute to those, but also as a way of filling in their obvious gaps. Writing the novel was my way of giving myself the book I had always wanted to read.

A lot of our readers are working on their writing and are looking for advice in that process. Prior to turning toward writing, you were a lawyer! What was that transition like and how has your career in law influenced your writing, both in content and in habits?

SC: I spent seventeen miserable years as a lawyer, knowing that I wanted to be a novelist above everything else. But having a novel published seems to be the kind of thing that happens to other people and never to you. I also needed time to raise my family (my husband and I have a blended family of five children). By the time I set out to write the novel my youngest was thirteen and I had given up work. I would not have been able to write it while working full-time and parenting young children.

It’s important to do what you can when you can and never to feel guilty about how little that might be.

I was happy to know that it wasn’t too late, even though I didn’t start writing until well into my forties.

It’s no accident that the novel includes a heavy dose of courtroom drama. I was drawn to a career in law because I believed it was a profession built around righting wrongs and changing lives. Frannie’s lawyer is driven by that same conviction. But it’s also a career built around telling stories, around the art of persuasion, and that ties in neatly to the novel’s themes.

The working habits I developed over a long career stood me in good stead while writing a novel. It demanded the discipline to stay in my chair from 8am to 7pm every day, the ability to organize my notes so that they would be readily accessible, and the resilience to keep going through the tough days that are inevitable when you’re working on a long project.

How did this story evolve from your first draft to your last?

SC: The first draft was a mess. One of my biggest challenges was learning to sit with the failure of my first drafts, to understand that it was necessary for them to be clunky and terrible so I could whittle the real story out of them.

I made huge changes, including cutting about 50,000 words told from Madame Benham’s point of view, changing the narrative mode from close third to first person (very early on) and changing the ending twice. After a number of drafts, I made a spreadsheet breaking the novel down scene by scene so I could work on pace and plotting, ensuring that it was tight enough.

Your book is about so many things; murder, an affair, slavery, eugenics, family – you fit a lot in for a book under 400 pages! I’m interested in hearing about how you were able to fit all of these elements into the story.

SC: I hope the elements connect to the main thread of the story, which is Frannie’s yearning for love and belonging. No matter how vast or epic a novel is I think the story only works if it has a strong spine.

What was the research for this book like? I’m especially anxious to hear about the research you did around the science Langton and Benham experimented with.

SC: I had to do masses of research. I’ve listed some of the most helpful sources in the Author’s Note at the back of the book. I found the science research the most surprising and the most heartbreaking. I hadn’t been aware of the extent to which the ideology justifying slavery had been built on experiments on the bodies of slaves themselves. We’re used to focusing on the stereotypical ways in which people suffered, but this was new to me and shocking. We don’t talk about it enough. This was one of the central questions during the Age of the Enlightenment: Should black people be considered human? So many of our great scientists and philosophers were obsessed with what was essentially a wild goose chase. Yet not only do we never tell the truth about that, we continue to venerate them as infallible geniuses.

Frannie was enslaved in Jamaica, and then imprisoned by her own fear of being thrown onto the streets in London. In some ways, Marguerite was also a prisoner of her circumstances. The women in this story are never free. Can you talk about why it was important to show these variations of confinement?

SC: There’s a line in the novel I always quote when asked this question: “A man writes to separate himself from the common history. A woman writes to try to join it.” Because men have controlled the power to tell stories for so long, it’s their stories that have been told. They’ve made their mark, left their names behind. We believe these great men of history because they were the ones who had the power to tell us what to believe (including the fact that they were ‘great’).

I wanted to think about what women have in common, despite the boundaries of race, gender, sexuality, class etc. One of those things was the fact that we’ve been denied this power. Each of the women in the novel has her own strong desires and ambitions, but they are cut off by the men who run their households. They suffer from the agony of suppressed ambition. Anger has what one reviewer described as a “uniting power” among them.

This is your first novel. What comes next?

SC: I’m currently working on the screenplay for the TV series for Frannie, as well as my second novel which is about a cult in the Caribbean.

Self-Care

At Girls’ Night In, we think about self-care a lot. What does self-care mean to you?

SC: Time off with a good book and a cup of tea or coffee – and cake! A massage. Travel to a city I’ve never visited before and walking through the streets with no plan or agenda. Date night with my husband. Sitting in my garden for ten minutes and not allowing myself to think about work. Sleep. Exercise.

How do you incorporate self-care into your routines while you are working?

SC: I wasn’t good at this to begin with and became very exhausted and run down while writing the book. I learned to build exercise into my day as an appointment with myself. I also forced myself to stop working at 7pm no matter what (unless there was a deadline I had to meet)

No matter how much meditation and how many long walks we take, sometimes our stress gets the better of us. How do you deal with those moments?

SC: Allow it. Acknowledge it. Feel it. Then move on.

It may sound like a cliché but in moments of stress it helps to count the things you’re grateful for. Actually stop and count. Go through the list in your head. Often that puts things into perspective.

Quick Picks

What are you reading right now?
SC: The Body Lies by Jo Baker

What are you watching right now?
SC: ‘Dead To Me’ on Netflix. It’s dark, poignant and at the same time hilarious.

eBook or real book?
SC: Both. Real books for real reading joy, but ebooks for travel, for the subway (underground) and for standing in line.

Best place to ignite creativity?
SC: Wherever you happen to be. Creativity depends on what’s going on inside not outside. But it’s great to have a desk and a door to shut out noise and distractions.

Dream cast for the TV show of The Confessions of Frannie Langton?
SC: Zawe Ashton as Frannie, Cate Blanchett as Madame, Idris Elba as Laddie, Michelle Williams as Miss-bella, Benedict Cumberbatch as Benham, Iain Glen as Langton, Angela Bassett as Phibbah.