Interview with Sarah Billington

Thursday, November 1, 2012

I met Sarah Billington in 2010 at a Mad Men themed Christmas party thrown by my speakers' agency. (How glamorous does that sound? I am obviously super sophisticated.) Sarah is very lovely and is a freelance editor as well as being a writer. She writes contemporary YA fiction and some spookier stuff under the pen name Edwina Ray. (I haven't read her novel The Kiss Off but Shirley Marr has a quote on the cover, so obviously it is good. There's currently a giveaway for it on Goodreads, too.)

Did you know that there's a professor at Stanford University with the same name as you? Do you actually have a double life, flying between Australia and the US, secretly being a professor of engineering in your free time? 
I did know that! There is also a fifteen year old British singer called Sarah Billington who is constantly having her performances uploaded to Youtube. I haven't seen any yet but I'm getting the impression she is very good. I feel a bit inadequate next to a Stanford professor and singing sensation. If I was in fact ALSO the Stanford professor as well as the young adult fiction writer, clearly I have discovered a time machine or some way to make a daily cross-the-world commute. I write on the trip, obviously.

Where do you get your ideas' is a ridiculous question. But I still want to ask it! What are your inspirations? (If I word it differently, is it excusable?) When you get stuck in a story, or are trying to generate new ideas, are there any specific things you turn to? Other books, newspaper articles, films, music, blogs?
I get inspiration from everything. A thing a person said, a street sign, an interesting relationship dynamic in a TV show, a song lyric, just the way a person behaves, a place I go or see...
When I get stuck in a story, I try and think out possibilities of what could happen, because there is never ONE way a situation could play out. Who will the protagonist choose? The best friend or the bad boy? Making that choice is not the only way the scene could play out. If a girl ran into the room and announced the best friend is her baby daddy, that's a bit different. Or if a stranger appeared in the middle of the scene to mug them and murdered the bad boy, that's...well it's a different direction you could go as well.
Sometimes I get stuck in a genre. I mostly write comedy and that's actually really hard to do when you're not in a good mood or not even remotely feeling funny. Sometimes I need to write something a bit more serious, work on another project and it helps me get it out of my system and find my funny bone again. I've just had that experience today, as a matter of fact.  

Do you have any specific writing tools or special set up? i.e. playlists, computer programs, special writing hat?
Nah. I write on my netbook in bed or on the couch, or on my desktop computer in my office. In Microsoft Word. I tried Scrivener (writing software), and it's really good for plotting out scenes but I'm not such a fan of actually writing the whole book in it as it felt very disjointed and I wasn't writing complete chapters in it. Other writers may know a more effective way of using it, but I haven't figured it out as yet.

I find it hard to write with music playing, as I start concentrating on the story behind the lyrics. That said, it doesn't mean I can't do it. I have a weekly writing date with a friend, lunch at a pub in which we eat and talk books and writing and then we get down to writing for a couple of hours. They have a 90-00s mix that plays constantly. Our lunch date is not complete if they haven't played some John Mayer. Seriously. They always play John.

Do you think you'll ever grow out of writing YA? What in particular draws you to the genre/age group?
I honestly don't think I'll grow out of writing YA. Because I honestly don't think I'll grow up. I'm 28 now and I don't feel like a grown up. I have grown up-type problems, sure, but I can totally relate to the heightened angst of being a teenager. I think all adults still can. Have you ever seen your grandma go out with the girls? Yeah. You heard me. The GIRLS. Not the women or ladies, she's out with her girlfriends. Just like your dad or your grandpa goes out with his boys. They may have grown older in years but inside they're no older than you are. 

Ebooks vs. physical books: can they peacefully coexist?
I hope they can peacefully coexist. It's funny that there are two camps when it comes to digital books and physical books, don't you think? Like we've romanticised paper. This didn't happen with tape vs CD, or CD vs digital music, did it? Or VHS tape vs DVD, and DVD vs Bluray. Are there people out there who are all "you can go stick your digital music where the sun don't shine! I'm keeping my CDs and you can't make me change!"

Personally, my CD collection was just as big as my book collection (okay, that's a TOTAL lie, but it was big) and I gotta love the SPACE I save with digital music. I love that about ebooks, too. And they're super-light when traveling.

All that said, I do prefer the reading experience of a physical book. But I move house a lot. And paper books are heavy.

What advice would you give to authors (particularly YA writers) when promoting themselves online?
It's great to be active and approachable online, but don't be TOO active. You can look like a spammer, or like you NEVER work. There is something to be said for the mysterious, enigmatic writer only really known for their books.

The most important advice I have is: Stop, take a second, and think before replying to something online. Tone doesn't come across the internet very well (which is why the neurotics amongst us can be a bit obsessive with smiley faces  [guilty]) so you have to be aware that what you're saying in a light-hearted way can come across as defensive, hostile or combative. Or even if your comments ARE defensive - you need to stop before you say that defensive thing. Think about it. Maybe the person who made you defensive has a point. Or maybe they have every right to say what they did because they're in THEIR space, on their blog etc. Or maybe they are just a troll TRYING to make you mad. Don't play with trolls.
Just stop, take a second, and think. 

Why did you decide to pursue indie publishing? Do you think traditional publishing is being made redundant?
I had written a book I was really proud of, but my agent didn't think it would sell. I was disheartened by that, and at the same time, I was hearing more and more success stories in the self-publishing field, AND my major assignment for a class at University was to focus on an area of digital publishing. I decided to see what this ebook fuss was about and I've found I'm quite successful at it (I also got a High Distinction for my assignment. Woohoo!). It all happened at the same time and was kind of fate-like.

I certainly don't think traditional publishing will be redundant, more often than not you can trust that the book you buy will have some redeeming qualities, when it really is a gamble with purchasing self published work.
But like indie music, there is now another way to go than with a big backer. Some indie bands aren't very good, just like some indie books aren't very good. Some big label bands also aren't very good, and ditto for some traditionally published books. Being indie or trad doesn't automatically mean really good or really bad.

The thing I like about indie publishing is that books that wouldn't have found a publisher, because they cater to a niche market, are able to find their readers. Short stories and poetry have found a place again, as very little of either get published traditionally. Interestingly, for a couple of years I was consistently hearing that New Adult fiction (18-25ish. College age) doesn't sell. Publishers weren't publishing it because when they did, readers didn't buy it.
New Adult contemporary fiction is currently becoming a really popular genre due to self publishing authors (e.g. Abbi Glines, Tammara Webber and stacks more) finding massive success. New Adult DOES sell, it turns out, but BEFORE self publishing (both have gone on to sell the rights to their books to be published by traditional publishing houses), regardless of how good their books, they may not have been published and readers may not have found these excellent books because "new adult doesn't sell". I find it really interesting and love the diversity and breadth of fiction that self publishing allows for.
Imagining you could travel back in time and meet yourself without tearing the fabric of the universe, what advice would you give your younger self (say, as a teenager) about writing and life? 
Just be you. Don't think that just because you're an adult you need to write serious work of literary merit. You're not a serious person, Sarah, you tend to see the funny side of pretty much everything, so just. Be. You.
Also, one I'm still working on is that what other people think of me is NONE of my business. It just matters what I think of me. I'm a big people pleaser, and unfortunately, I just can't please everyone. Learn it and live it, Sarah! 

For more about Sarah and her novels, check out her website and blog.
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