With a whopping count of seven published novels since her 2010 debut, Come Back to Me, Sara Foster is no rookie on the literary scene. Her thrillers blend psychological intrigue with action and contemporary issues, and have received acclaim for their creative vision and intensity. She is passionate about well-written women and recently completed a PhD at Curtin University about the portrayal of mothers and daughters in dystopian fiction.
Her most recent novel, The Hush, was released in 2021 to overwhelming praise. The book became even more topical after the fall of Roe v Wade in the United States and subsequent conversations about women’s reproductive rights. The story takes place in a near future dystopian version of the UK, where an unexplained plague of stillbirths has triggered draconian restrictions on women’s bodies. Seventeen-year-old Lainey is thrust into a whirlwind of surveillance and corruption when she discovers she is pregnant, and the only person she can turn to is her single mother, Emma. Teenaged girls are vanishing, and Emma and Lainey must work together to keep her safe, even if it means calling in help from Emma’s estranged mother Geraldine . . .
Originally from the United Kingdom, Sara now lives and works in Perth, where she Zoomed in from to join us for a chat about The Hush late last year. Sara shared so many wonderful insights into her perspective and process as a writer, and we’re delighted to bring them to you here.
Sara: Why don't I do the same and acknowledge the Whadjuk people of the Noongar Nation, where I sit today, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.
Sara: I am the author of seven fiction novels, and I came from a publishing background before that. I started working in publishing back in 2000, and I worked in a publishing house for a couple of years, and then went freelance as an editor. All the time I was writing my own books, and so in about 2007–2008, I thought, ‘No, I really need to focus on this if I'm going to make it work.’ And so I began really trying to put books together. I managed to get an agent. My first novel came out in 2010, which is called Come Back to Me, and ever since I've been working on my fiction in between having children and doing my PhD and other things that come along in life.
Ciara: Wow, what an exciting time.
Sara: Yeah, absolutely. It's all been a bit of a roller coaster. But here we are, still going.
Sara: Yeah, it's been a really interesting journey with this book. It actually first began back in 2009. Around that time, when I had my first daughter, I was busy becoming a mum. I had lots of time while I was feeding her, and I was reading all the dystopian fiction of the time, which was things like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, Uglies, all those kinds of things. ‘Cause I was curious about what was going on with these kinds of really topical, amazingly popular young heroines in these stories . . . and I was excited to look at that, but I began to notice that in most of the stories, the mothers were missing. I think it was just the worlds coming together and the fact that I just had a child. So I was particularly conscious of how mothers were portrayed, and how I was going to be caring for and introducing my daughter to topics around young women. I began looking more and more at that kind of fiction and noticed more and more that mothers were either not there at all, or when they were there, they were pretty dysfunctional or really negated in the stories. And this became a real kind of passion of mine – just looking at why that might happen. I began to think about what that means for younger women, when we constantly negate older women in fiction, and we don't represent them fully. So in 2015, I started working on my PhD on this topic, where the idea was to produce the fiction and the exegesis to support the fiction. But of course, throughout all that time, while I've been putting all these ideas together, we've had the rise of Trump as president, we've had the #MeToo movement, we've had Roe v. Wade. So really, I've been working alongside the topics of the day, developing my story, putting the women back into the story, and listening to the conversations going on around me. Everything has combined to make The Hush.
Sara: Well, I've always been really keen on female-centred stories because I think there's so much more we can still do about looking at different representations and understanding the real nuances behind how we represent female identity. And I guess, as time has gone by, that's developed into maternal identity as well. That's such a fascinating topic to look at, you know, the sort of angel/monster myths we apply both around women and around motherhood. We don't seem to get past a lot of tropes that we have around all these different kinds of identities, and we struggle to incorporate diversity or depth in storytelling. Often you see the same things repeated again and again. So I mean, that's a very broad way of saying it, because obviously, there's now a hell of a lot of people working to turn that around. But you can still see that we have a long way to go, and I think that I basically want to be part of that conversation and part of that movement towards different kinds of stories.
Sara: Yeah, I do, more and more so as I've written and read the research and increased my own understanding. I've become much more aware of the way, in patriarchal culture, we are kind of taught to be suspicious of one another. And I’ve learned to look at different identities with a more reflective and open-minded gaze, I guess. So my idea with The Hush was that I didn't want to have superhero women in there. I wanted to have women with flaws and foibles, and women who had taken their lives one direction or another but were aware of what that might have cost them in other ways. Women that could understand that they could celebrate their uniqueness, and they could still encourage one another to be different, not to be the same. I really enjoyed looking at the different generations and how they managed, you know, their own beliefs, and how they then respected one another's beliefs but didn't necessarily have to agree with each other.
Now, I'm really noticing more and more when I read fiction how much that generational linkage is missing, and how we've been taught to stay in our own gen– I mean, we even have terms for it now, don’t we, like Gen Y, Gen Z, Millennials. We’re taught that we are like this, and you are like that, but not necessarily: let's talk about what the great things are about each generation and connect through that. We're taught, you know, that Millennials are always lazy or Gen X is always really dysfunctional and biased. You hear the negativity so much more than everything that we could learn from one another.
Sara: Yeah, that was a really difficult thing to tackle because I was aware that abortion would be a massive consideration for her, and probably the most likely one in many respects, from where she was coming from. I mean, the point is, really, that she can't easily access one. The specifics of her story are that she confirms her pregnancy very late, so that has changed the context in which she may be able to get an abortion. The fact is that she can't access one easily in the environment that she's in with the new laws that governments have introduced. And so she would have to basically have an underground kind of abortion, although she may be able to access that more easily because of her mum's connections. But also she's the kind of girl that would be possibly more interested in having a baby. She's not super career driven, she's not super focused on externals and stuff. She may be more interested than others. And that, again, kind of blends into those decisions that they took. They definitely talk about abortion, but they rule it out quite quickly because of one reason or another. And really, part of that is character, part of that is the situation there, and part of it is because the whole focus of the novel is what happens when you can't easily access these rights and your body is there to be used by the powers that be. So for her to push that too hard would have taken the story in a totally different direction.
Sara: Yeah, it's come down to that they haven't really been able to make that decision effectively for themselves in safety. And some of them may– I mean, we don't talk about the girls that are not in the houses, but some girls may be seeking that alternative and actually going and pursuing that. But they would have to take great personal risk in the context of what's happening in The Hush to be able to do that. One of the points of The Hush is to drive home, sadly, what that means to not have a choice around your body and how it's used.
Sara: Not so much, actually, because there were a few quite distinct differences in The Hush that made that a lot easier to manage. It's much more near future than most of the books that I was looking at and much more tied into reality than something like The Hunger Games, or Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill is one that I did as well. And then in terms of the mother, I was trying to do something very different. So I was actually trying to present the mother, whereas I didn't have much to work on with what happened in the other stories because the mother wasn't there. And then, with the daughter, again, she is feisty but in a different kind of way. She's a much quieter character than the heroines that we meet in the very futuristic dystopias. That was important to me as well because I wanted to say that quiet doesn't mean weak. You know, she has fire in her, but she goes about displaying it in a different way and when she needs to. She's not necessarily a girl that's going to go out there and be the leader. Like in the story, Lainey, who's my main character, has a friend, Sereena. Sereena is the kind of girl that's going to go out there and be the leader. Lainey is in agreement, and she's not a follower. She's just attracted to quieter components of life, more intricate components of life, like the job she does at the vet and the birds she looks after. She's much more connected to earthy, natural aspects of the world than the political, until she's forced to be.
Sara: I'm just going to pause for one second while I let my cat out the door [laughs and goes off-screen].
[Comes back on-screen] She got trapped in with me, and her next action will be to try and knock something off to make sure that I know that she doesn't want to be there.
Ciara: It’s alright, mine’s the same.
Sara: All right, so technology. Technology, to me, has the potential to go either way. You know, it's a massive threat to all sorts of things, and it also could be very liberating in many ways. It has the opportunity to connect us like never before; it has the opportunity to divide us like never before. That's kind of what's so interesting about it to me. What it does as well, with the advent of all this new technology when you're writing a fiction book like this, is it intensifies everything because there's a lot less space to actually have individual private life happening. Even with thrillers that I've written in the past – I know when I wrote Hidden Hours, that was a much more straightforward, contemporary thriller, but when I was writing it, I was aware that I had to negotiate CCTV all around London. And that made trying to tell the story really challenging. It's like, they’ll be watched here, they’ll be watched there. We can't sit back like we used to. If we want to engage with the world, it's [referring to technology] there. A lot of it's beyond my scope, even what we can do with technology now. There is the possibility for our lives to be intervened in, in all sorts of different ways that are quite frightening if it gets into the wrong hands, if it's developed in the wrong way. But there is also the possibility to form networks to counteract that, to have these amazing conversations, to listen to people that you would have found so much harder to access 20–30 years ago, to get different opinions and divergent views. So I think that, yeah, it's just fascinating to observe. Whichever way you go into it, it can mean so many different things.
Ciara: Yeah, I particularly found that aspect really compelling because one of the things that I've actually had published in the past was about the intersection of tech and women's rights.
Ciara: So it was like, ‘Oh! This is written exactly to my interest.’
Sara: [Chuckling] I love it when that happens.
Sara: It's an interesting one to try and balance, actually, because I do love thrilling stories and suspenseful stories. And sometimes I love them purely for entertainment and escapism, but I do enjoy the ones that add social commentary into the foundation of the story as well. I am very much of the opinion that the political is personal and vice versa, you know, everything intersects. So with even the more personal stories about people's very unique individual situations, I can see political overtones in why they've come about and how the wider cultural–political sphere is affecting individual scenarios.
It was very exciting to actually put that on a bigger scale. This is the first time, with The Hush, that I've taken myself out of the very personal story and actually world-built a political structure and had my characters engage with that. And it’s fascinating, digging into the depth of that, trying to consider the nuances of that as well. Like if I write the sequel to The Hush, which I may do, there will be political change in it, and there will be commentary around what that does and doesn't mean. Because I'm also interested in watching the current state of politics and what does change and what doesn't change when we get different governments in. I think that we're all becoming more aware of the possibilities but also the stagnant status quo that feels like it pervades all of politics right now, and asking questions about why and what we've built into the structure of life and our governing systems to allow that to happen – and allow us to talk about what we want so much but not see it played out in real life. And I think that's a really important conversation to have, so I would like to take that further, definitely.
Sara: Yeah, absolutely. It's written as a conversation piece, really. I would love it to start all sorts of conversations, but you know, I want it to start open conversations. Obviously, you see various feedback online, and it’s not such fun seeing people entrenched in their position, whatever it is, as it is seeing people get asked a question or go, ‘Oh, you know, I'm not so sure about that.’ I kind of prefer the uncertain conversations, where we're all a little bit, ‘Yeah, okay, we might think this, but what's the other way of looking at it? And how do we keep our mind open to the complexity around any situation without becoming firmly entrenched in either side.’ It's all too easy [becoming entrenched]. You know, I have my own things where I find it very hard to break out and consider another perspective if it jars so radically with my own personal morals or stance or whatever. But I think that because of what's happening with technology and climate change and all the things that are pressing in on us right now, those kinds of interesting conversations are really important, and I love listening to the people that are having them. I would love this book to contribute to that as well, and just bring things up for people that they might not have considered.
Sara: Yeah, I did. And I still, you know, think that could happen. It hasn't been as extreme as I thought it might. I have seen a few extreme comments. And yeah, whenever you put yourself out there, you stick your head above the safety line. You are potentially putting yourself out there to get backlash. I think I just need to stay firmly grounded as to why I wrote it – [having the] kind of conversations that are not trying to shut anyone’s opinions down, but I am trying to introduce themes that I think are really important and encourage proper dialogue about these kinds of issues. Some of it is scary, around the control of women's bodies and the political circumstances and the way we might go in society. But some of it is really hopeful as well. Like, what would happen if a group of women banded together? And what could they actually achieve? And what are we missing? And what might we gain from reconnecting those generational lines and learning from each other? So that, for me, was the core of the story as well. I didn't write it wanting to fill everyone with just fear. I wanted to ask really vital questions, but I also wanted to very much explore the wonderful nature of what happens when a group of women get together and support each other, and how that can resonate through all sorts of experiences and make the difference between something that feels heart-wrenching and unbearable and something that can be overcome and negotiated. So I hope that it feels like there is a decent amount of hope in the story as well.
Sara: I've just finished writing the exegesis, part of my thesis, which took me forever. I've got two daughters now, who are 13 and nine, and they've grown while I've been writing. When I started doing this work, they were very young, and so my relationship has changed and developed with them as I've been writing. So I have lived the research in quite a few ways as well, which has been really interesting and sometimes challenging. But I said very clearly [in the exegesis] that I did not want to just show them stereotypical expectations of womanhood. I didn't want to show them that we couldn't have a relationship in the future. I wanted to show them the opportunities for support from older generations, but I also wanted to show them that older generations can be willing to listen to them and what they bring to the table. And that they are human beings in their own right, and they can choose beyond stereotypes all the time. We need to promote those conversations because, again, they're kind of – I mean, one of my girls is a teenager now and the other one is just coming up to that – but the conversations that happen on the ground in their lives are very different from the ideological scenario we want to happen. It’s probably unrealistic to think they [reality and ideology] could meld completely, but we could bring them closer together. Even that would be an amazing thing, to just have them realise that they can be more supported as the women and the people that they are.
Sara: I really enjoyed writing Geraldine, the fiery feminist matriarch of the story.
Ciara: And I loved reading her.
Sara: Yeah, she's definitely still with me, giving me her opinions on all sorts of things, so I’d love to write a bit more about her. I loved writing the mother–daughter story too. I loved all the female characters, basically. I found my little band of crusaders that were trying to get through the story very inspiring, and that kept me going. Because I think the thing that I found the hardest was just the topic, really. Obviously, I've chosen to write about something so extremely raw, so horrific in terms of the babies that don't breathe at birth. When I had the idea, it stunned me that that was what was going to be the problem, that was going to be the epidemic. I just thought, ‘No, I can't do that. That's too hard.’ And as soon as you think that as a writer you know that is the challenge. You have to try because that’s going to challenge you and push you into this new territory. But that was incredibly challenging, and I didn't want to do anything that felt like what we would call trauma porn, you know, where we just experience that trauma for the sake of trauma. There had to be a purpose to it being on the page that was very much part of the story, and we had to feel it without basking in it. So getting the nuances of what I was going to represent on the page about that was quite challenging as well. That definitely was the hardest part of the story.
Sara: I did think about setting The Hush in Australia. It was just the size of Australia, really, that made up part of the problem. It was the fact that I needed to feel that we were very close to political seats of power while still showing these ordinary lives that the women are living at the beginning. And I couldn't do that in Australia because it is too spread out. The feeling of it is not quite as claustrophobic because of the nature of the landscape. Also the British political system seemed to lend itself better to playing at that story. I mean, across the board in the Western world you can see echoes of the same politics, so it's not like we've got supremely different political things happening, or we didn't have. But it was just a combination of things that meant that I thought the story would end up better suited and be much more believable in that setting. I do write across the UK and Australia quite a lot as well because I know both places, and I am often drawn to the land of my birth, my homeland. But this one in particular felt like it should be there.
Sara: It's funny, I do this really weird kind of planning, where I plan in my head for a long time before I write anything down. That's becoming harder because of publisher deadlines; it's becoming harder to just let them exist in my head. I'm always saying to myself, ‘I should really plot this out first because it'll be so much tighter if I do, and it'll take less time . . . ’ But I find that if I plot too hard, it kills the emotional engagement I have with the story. So I tend to do this thing where I write and write and write, and then I reverse edit, which is where I break down what I've written. I'm very clinical about that bit. It’s kind of all in a table: where the characters are appearing, what they’re doing. I’m looking for gaps, looking for places where there's too much, and I kind of structure it all once I've done it to see what's gone wrong, what's missing, what's too tight, what's too loose. As I'm asking myself all those questions, I'm digging into those characters and scenarios again in a different way. And I'll tighten up the first section or decide I want to keep it, lose it, keep bits of it. And then once I've got that going, I'll probably just set off again with enthusiasm for another loose part.
I'm trying to change that. I'm constantly trying to go, ‘No, no. Plot it out!’ [Laughs] So far, I always go back to this system of working. I'm on the next book now, and I'm still trying to do it. So maybe one day I'll crack my own particular style and plot first because it drives me crazy that it's not the most time efficient way of working. But I also think that you have to just be absolutely in love and passionate about the book that you're working on. Too much plotting and too much procrastination at the start means that I start to just lose that feeling of living in that world, of being in that world, and what it means to be in that world, and all those really exciting things that I want the reader to feel. The only way I can do that is by writing it fully. That's how I end up somehow with a tight story where nothing's irrelevant, because it is all examined at one stage or another.
Sara: Yeah, that's a really, really interesting question. It does feel like it's a book that I've lived with for such a long time because it’s been my PhD. It's nerve racking, going, ‘Okay, how do I move on from that?’ Part of me is tempted to stick very closely with the mother and daughter issues. I'm sure they will come back in many of my books because I love writing about mothers and daughters, I love writing about the different generations. And it isn't the first time I've put multigenerational stories in my books, it's just the first time I've set it up like this. So that's definitely a theme for me. But I also think maybe I need to do something different. I've gone back to some more distinct psychological thriller ideas, where I can just kind of let my enjoyment of writing rip without having to consider the political drama and the bigger backdrop for a while, and that's where I'm leaning at the moment. But yes, I still want to take everything I've learned and not let it go to waste. So, in my mind, I'm figuring out how to make all that happen.
Sara: I would like to just mention in terms of writing about fiction for social change, that that's becoming a real passion of mine. To that end, I've just written a short story that's going to be in an anthology that's going to COP 27. It’s trying to give positive, hopeful stories around climate change and what we might do and achieve. I'm really excited about that. It's a very different project. And this lady, Denise Baden, has put it together in the UK and invited writers from all over the world to contribute. And so I'm continuing in the same vein of figuring out how to write really enjoyable, accessible fiction that also asks really interesting questions about where we are and where we might go. I definitely want to stay in that vein and encourage other writers who are doing the same thing to dig into both sides – you can still write great fiction, I hope, with those kinds of ideas and bigger questions in mind.
Sara: It's great to meet you, Ciara. Thank you so much for your great questions. I've really enjoyed the chat. It's been fantastic.