Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Vaughan
In “Reputation,” Sarah Vaughan Explores How Far a Mother Will Go to Protect Her Children
In a Q&A with the London author, she talks about turning 40, leaving her journalism job and taking inspiration from the news headlines / BY Rosemary Counter / July 6th, 2022
On her 40th birthday in 2012, Sarah Hall made a ballsy toast with big news: The former Guardian news reporter and political writer was pivoting to novels, and by this time next year – hopefully, maybe, fingers crossed – they’d be celebrating her book deal. Perhaps willing success into the world, Sarah Vaughan (her pseudonym, and what we’ll call her here) indeed published the first of five novels a little more than a year later. North Americans might know her pen name best from Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal, the courtroom miniseries, starring Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend, that explores issues of consent through a British MP facing rape charges. Some people joke that Vaughan must have a crystal ball when she chooses her plots, and her newest novel is no exception. In Reputation, glamorous MP Emma Webster deals with online trolls, revenge porn and tabloid journalists who want to ruin her for a juicy story. (The dead body in her house, however, isn’t helping her situation one bit.) Zoomer called the London-based author to talk book deals, “likeable” characters, tabloid journalism and changing career paths at 40.
Rosemary Counter: I just love your birthday story, first of all. Tell me again?
Sarah Vaughan: I had 16 girlfriends and too much Prosecco at my birthday dinner. I’d been freelancing at the time, having had to give up my job at The Guardian because of problems during my pregnancy. So when someone asked what I would work on next, I stood up and made an announcement. I would write a book and get it published by my next birthday.
RC: That’s a lot of pressure! Had you ever written fiction before?
SV: No, no, no, never. Actually, when I was a child, yes. I actually won a creative writing competition when I was 10. The prize was £75 and a trip to visit a publisher. By the time I was in university, however, it didn’t occur to me that I could write fiction at all. I went into journalism instead and landed at The Guardian, and I loved it there and would have stayed, except I had a pregnancy complication where I couldn’t walk. Logistically, I couldn’t work in a newsroom anymore and I needed a new plan.
RC: How did your journalism play into your books? I see breaking news, tabloids and media spin all at play here.
SV: The books wouldn’t exist, at least not like this. I’ve attended and covered quite a few court cases, which as you’ll see in Reputation features heavily, as it does in Anatomy [of a Scandal]. About a year into my career, when I was just a trainee, I attended an inquest into the death of a 13-year-old Black teenager here who was alleged to have been killed by a white gang, all of whom refused to answer any questions. It was absolutely fascinating to sit in on this dramatic case. I learned there is so much that goes on in a courtroom beyond what’s really going on in a courtroom.
RC: It was pretty fun, as a Canadian, to experience a British courtroom. For example, “My Lady”! Also, your tabloids, my god!
SV: Are they very different from Canada?
RC: When Meghan Markle was in Toronto, a British tabloid wanted to pay me to go sit on her doorstep. I said “No, thank you, that’s rude!” I don’t think the magazine could find any takers on the gig.
SV: Canada seems a bit more respectful that way. I’ve done that, though. One of my first jobs was to doorstep Princess Diana.
RC: Speaking of beloved but imperfect characters, how do you write a lead who is likeable, but also maybe capable of murder?
SV: I was asked recently about writing an “unlikable” character, and I thought, “Hmm, I thought she was quite likeable!” Flawed, but likeable, at least to me. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say if Emma was a perfectly good character who had just rung up the police like she should have, then we wouldn’t have a novel here, would we? When people are under threat, even good people, they act irrationally. I don’t think anyone thinks they could commit a crime, but you don’t know. Especially if you have children, you don’t know how far you’d go to protect them. In that case, it often doesn’t take much. The instinct is to protect your children, and this is really the starting point of Reputation.
RC: You have a real skill in taking a straightforward issue – here, revenge porn – and showing it from all sides and adding complicating factors until nothing is black and white, everything’s grey.
SV: I love exploring instances where the law hasn’t quite caught up with the reality of what’s happening. Whenever my kids start telling me about something that I don’t quite understand, I know there’s a story there.
RC: Do you know what your next book will be about?
SV: Absolutely, but I can’t talk about it. Let’s just say it’s very, very topical.