Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Author Q & A with Sarah Benwell

I feel so incredibly lucky to announce that today on the blog, I have an interview with one of the most exciting debut authors this year, Sarah Benwell. Sarah is an incredibly talented author whose debut novel 'The Last Leaves Falling' will be released in the UK tomorrow - here to tell us a little more about the book, the research that went into it, and her writing process.

For anyone who hasn’t yet heard about your debut novel ‘The Last Leaves Falling’ can you tell them a little bit about it?
The book follows Japanese teenager Sora, who has ALS, as he deals with that diagnosis… I am terrible at this. Here’s a handy blurb:
Japanese teenager Sora is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Lonely and isolated, Sora turns to the ancient wisdom of the samurai for guidance and comfort. But he also finds hope in the present; through the internet he finds friends that see him, not just his illness. This is a story of friendship and acceptance, and testing strength in an uncertain future.

What inspired you to write this story? Can you tell us about how the original idea evolved into the novel readers will have in their hands tomorrow?
Last Leaves started out as a very, very different book. I was discussing book concepts with a writing buddy, and – as it often does when you’re with friends – conversation drifted. To Japan, the creepy sadness of Aokigahara, and from there, to loneliness, and coercion, and the particular Japanese trend towards suicide pacts.The statistics are horrifying, and Last Leaves started out exploring why.
In the original, the book started with Sora, Mai and Kaito making that pact. The story was about them reaching that end (whether or not they ultimately went through with it). But it turns out the story was all wrong for the characters in my head. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell a story principally about letting go, any more than my characters wanted to live it. Eventually, the story’s focus shifted, to choice, control, and dignity.

The moral and legal debates surrounding end of life choices and the right to die are – correctly – impassioned. We’re all connected to it. Whether we’ve watched someone fight or languish, or have simply wondered what if this were me? Whether we’re for or against it or somewhere in between. Of course we are all passionate. It affects us all.

Debating is good. The issues are complex and the potential for harm if we get it wrong is very, very real.

Last Leaves offers one perspective – the voice of one, lone, fictional teenager – but I hope that it’s done in such a way that readers can approach the issues and explore them safely, and make up their own minds.
The UK cover for The Last Leaves Falling

Sora suffers from ALS, your descriptions of both the condition and the effects of the drugs he has to take to combat that are incredibly realistic and really help the reader to connect with the awful situation that Sora is in, what research did you do to help you create this?
A lot of it is about imagining what it would feel like to deal with the pain and physical constraints and not-knowing – taking whatever experience you have and applying or multiplying that. It’s method-acting of the mind. It’s empathy.

But it also felt very important to portray things fairly. It will never, ever be 100% the way everyone experiences these things because no two experiences are the same. But I sought out the voices of people with ALS. And I talked to friends who use a wheelchair, or have limited mobility, friends who’ve dealt with the uncertainty, the pain, the meds.
I asked questions. I asked them to read my work and pull me up on anything I got horribly wrong.

Sure, it can be uncomfortable: it’s hard both checking your privilege (you will inevitably make assumptions or infer things without even realizing) and making yourself vulnerable to criticism, but it’s so important to be as fair and truthful as you can, and to be willing to listen, and to learn.

Luckily, people have been awesome, and this book is so much better for it.

(*Um. This answer sort of morphed into something more than getting physical details right. Whatever. It stands.)

Speaking of research, the setting is wonderful – from Sora’s family flat in the city to his grandparent’s out in the country, what research did you do to create this beautiful piece of the world that Sora and his friends inhabit?
Some degree of cultural immersion, I guess. While visiting Japan is still waiting on my bucket list, there’s a lot you can do to expose yourself to a place without visiting. I’ve had Japanese housemates, and several conversations about their homes. I’ve watched a lot of Japanese movies and series, seen photographs and read all the Japanese literature I could get my hands on. Details are everywhere. And this goes for the cultural details too.

When I was done, I asked a Japanese friend, and another who lives in Japan, to beta read/ check my work.

Diversity in novels is a hugely important thing, did you start out with the idea that you wanted to create a particularly diverse protagonist, or did it just happen that Sora’s story came to you and happened to fall into the diverse bracket?
You’re right, diversity in books is hugely important. Much as I believe this, though, I never sit down thinking ‘I must write something diverse’, or even ‘how can I get diversity into this story/ onto the shelves?’ It just happens naturally. My world isn’t populated by white, straight, cisgendered, neurotypical, able-bodied people, so why would that be all I write?

Other people, places and cultures are my crack. I’m fascinated by the similarities and differences between us all. So my stories explore that, which lends itself nicely to diversity, but it’s not a conscious, forceful thing, just the things I love.

The US cover for The Last Leaves Falling
The title and cover are absolutely stunning, you must be thrilled with the cover art (both UK and USA editions) how did you come up with the title for the novel?
Yes yes yes yes yessss. I love both covers with all my heart.
The title was a tricky thing. It started out as Death Wish – playing into the book’s ending, and nodding towards Japanese horror and anime cultures. But it was felt (rightly, I think) that this wasn’t doing justice to the story.

I suck at titles. Really, really. All credit for THE LAST LEAVES FALLING as a title goes to Kayla Whaley and her epic distillation skills.

What was the hardest part of writing ‘The Last Leaves Falling’ for you?
There were some difficult scenes, inevitably, but I think the hardest thing was actually the fear. All that research and reaching out to other people is because I really care about getting things right. Particularly where ALS and the wider portrayal of disability in books is concerned.

When you’re writing about any marginalized group – or any group of people to which you don’t belong – you have to be aware of their experiences, of the representation so far, of tropes and attitudes and bug bears, of the history you’re walking over.

It was particularly scary in regards to Sora’s disability. There is not nearly enough representation of disabilities in literature, and what there is is often met with fear and skepticism by disabled readers, who have long put up with awful tropes and stereotyping and being used as plot devices. Add to this that Last Leaves looks at assisted dying, that it broaches difficult questions about rights and control, and I was nervous about getting it right. I’d like to open up worlds and experiences and discussion, and I absolutely want to do no harm.

And the best/most rewarding part?
All of it? As difficult as it sometimes was, writing this book has been an absolute privilege. I’m incredibly grateful for all the help I’ve had, and hope I’ve done it justice. I think I have. I’m proud of the result.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I think I’d like to leave that up to you guys. But I wouldn’t say no to making people think.

Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?
South Africa. Music. Heartbreak. Girl-girl kissing. :D

Do you have any advice for any aspiring authors reading this? 

Research, research, research. And don’t be afraid. Or do, but write your story anyway.

So that's all from Sarah! Thank you so much for coming over and taking the time out of your crazy schedule to talk to us! 'The Last Leaves Falling' is an absolutely incredible book, but I shall wait until its release tomorrow to gush about it properly when I will be posting my review, so check back then to hear more!

You can pre-order the book on Amazon here
And follow Sarah on twitter for more updates and writerly musings!


  1. What a wonderful, in-depth interview! I can't wait for more people to read and fall in love with this book and Sora's story. I think it's amazing. And CANNOT WAIT FOR SARAH'S NEW BOOK!

    1. I KNOW! Such an exciting debut, and right at the start of the year! I keep having to resist the urge to talk to random people in bookshops about it... Well, at least until the book comes out, then it's all fine ;)