Interviewed by InkTears Founder, Anthony Howcroft
Sara-Mae, we’ve been working together for quite a long time now, on all sorts of projects. You’ve got an amazing resume - you were the first female editor of the London Magazine, I know you’ve been published in the Erotic Review, and you’ve been Editorial Director at InkTears since the very beginning, where you’ve not only worked on all of the books we’ve published, but also recorded and edited all of our video interviews. What’s more, you actually are part of the band that play background music in many of the videos! My first question is, what do you consider yourself first - a writer, editor, musician…?
A writer, mainly, but I've become a podcast producer over the last few years, as a result of building a boutique podcast company: Fable Gazers. It's all story-telling and editing basically; you're still constructing a narrative and taking out the boring bits! Music is a great passion of mine that also feeds into the podcasts - it's wonderful when you can put a bit of music under some dialgue and it really enhances the emotional resonance of what the person is saying. In my writing, as in my other work, I'm a great romantic, so I have to watch I don't over-egg the emotional pudding, as it were.
I know there is a hidden novelist inside, bursting to get out. Can you tell us more about your writing?
It's not hidden through my own choice (lol), I've had an agent, who was lovely, for my first book (a feminist YA mashup of Frankenstein and the Swamp Thing dealing with issues of sexual consent for teens) but we've since parted ways. I'm now working on another YA book which is a lot more farcical. My dorky sense of humour is really coming out for that one. The trouble is, with books, there are so many hoops to jump through, never mind the time it takes to write the damn things... so, working on the podcasts has seemed like quite a relief in the sense that I can create them, edit them and release them into the wild - no agents, publishers or any other gatekeepers in the way. This is both freeing and rather terrifying as well.
What made you want to do the Sugar Baby Confessionals podcast?
Well, it wasn't really a case of moving from one thing to another. I'm always writing, and always will, but I sort of fell into podcasting through a number of fortuitous events. First was hearing the podcasts Serial and This American Life, which led me on to The Guilty Feminist, The Allusionist and more... I adore the style with which these creators tell these very human stories, and the wry interpolations of the hosts. Also, though I'm not a journalist per se, I have written articles and copy, as well as working with journalists a lot as an editor and I enjoy the process, the parsing of ethical concerns with regard to trying to tell a non-fiction story in a way that elevates it, allowing the listener/reader to draw a wider relevance from the piece.
So I mentioned to a dear friend of mine (Ruby) that I wanted to learn how to do it, and did she want to do it with me? You can hear on the podcasts how charming and articulate she is, so you won't question why I thought she'd be good. I thought we'd do something on film or music. And then she said, "Well, it just so happens that I've been thinking about becoming a sugar baby. Maybe we should record our conversations." And we were off! Two and a half years later, we're finally releasing a podcast exploring her life and experiences as a sugar baby - The Sugar Baby Confessionals.
Tell us a little about your friend Ruby (and that’s a pseudonym, right?)
Yes, we keep many of the people involved anonymous for obvious reasons, though I think, if not for protecting certain family members, she would be open about it. She's a terribly smart, wonderfully charming American, an extrovert in the truest sense of the word. She's also a mum with three kids who is nearly fanatical about the Paleo and Whole30 diet. In fact, she recently convinced me to do a Whole30 (a month of eating no alcohol, dairy, refined carbs, sugar, legumes etc). Luckily, I was finished by Easter and then I gorged myself on chocolate!
Over the course of the podcast, you also interview another sugar baby, and even a sugar daddy too. Was it easy to get them to talk openly?
I am so grateful to them for their bravery and honesty in talking to me at all, never mind with such openness and candour. Madelaine, whom I've since met, is really sweet and funny, with a vulnerability about her that catches you off guard. The Brit, the sugar daddy whom we chat to, was a bit of a tougher nut to crack. I had to use all my journalistic wiles (not very extensive, admittedly) to draw him out, and I'm not sure I succeeded, to be honest. But you'll have to judge for yourself.
Did you find any of the revelations shocking?
I'm pretty open-minded, which is odd, considering I'm probably the most vanilla person imaginable. But I've always believed in really investigating a topic before coming to a judgement on it. I like to get to the heart of the things that are hidden, and bring them into the light of day, even if it's sometimes uncomfortable or awkward. In my experience, disapproving of things 'on principle' can be rather a suspect stance. Maybe it's the writer in me, but I'm insatiably curious about people and what they get up to, and would rather explore difficult or taboo subject matter, than rehash the same boring stuff over and over.
Having said that, I've been more shocked by how challenging to others this subject matter can be. One woman recoiled from me in horror when I told her the premise! But, on the whole, those people who have actually listened to the podcast have seen that it's not simply a titillating, sensationalist farce, it's very poignant at times and ultimately tells a very human and moving story about friendship, love in the modern era and the risks we take in the pursuit of happiness.
What has surprised you most about the characters?
How strange it is, that you can find people to be at once savvy and smart, yet also extremely naive.
You describe yourself as ‘vanilla’ when it comes to sex, and you have had the same partner for a very long time. I found your honesty, and willingness to ask straightforward questions very engaging on the podcasts. You talk about lacking confidence, but it seems to me that it takes courage to be so open, especially in the company of the sugar babies that seem to have such incredible confidence. How has the experience of interviewing the sugar babies been for you?
It's been a lovely way for me to enrich my relationship with Ruby. We were always close - she's one of the few people in the world who gets my dorky sense of humour. But we were living on different continents for a long time and it makes it easy to lose touch, which is one of the reasons I was looking for an excuse to work with her on something. I believe (and hope the same is true for her) that we've become much closer friends as a result. The fact that both she and Madelaine trusted me enough to lay their souls bare is very touching and really made me want to do them (and their stories) justice.
Also, it has made me think about trying new things and communicating better about sexual things. In that regard, I hope anyone who's been in a long-term relationship will find something relevant in the podcast.
I know you go into detail with the sugar babies about how their partners feel about their choices, but how did your partner feel about you being so open on the podcasts?
He's always been very supportive of my crackpot ideas! Luckily for me, he has a high tolerance for me working long hours on something that, as yet, has seen very little remuneration. But I think people who are in relationships with writers (perhaps you'll agree with this, Anthony?) have to be very patient, long-suffering sorts. He's also been helping me with some of the production side of things, and means to play a larger role in Season 2: Heyer Today.
At the start of the Sugar Baby Confessionals you state that one of the reasons you wanted to make the podcasts was to ensure you’re friend was going to be OK, and would emerge emotionally (and perhaps physically) unscathed. As the series has progressed, I’ve increasingly come to share your concern - the potential for emotional damage seems huge, and yet those involved seem to understand the logic of that argument, but less so the emotions. Do you ever want to shake them by the shoulders, as a friend, and show them the dangers? I guess what I’m asking is, do you find it hard to remain an independent interviewer?
This is a tough one to answer because, in my experience, when people are set on doing something that seems dangerous or uncertain, issuing a veto or telling them baldly that they're wrong for doing such and such, rarely works. Also, as a highly risk averse person, I sometimes don't trust my own sense of misgiving or fear, because I know I'm overly cautious. Perhaps that's why I'm drawn to people like Ruby, who really grab life by the...horns ;) Add to this a near complete lack of 'street smarts', which Ruby has in abundance - I sort of trusted that, between us, we could stave off any particularly dire consequences. However, there is no accounting for the human heart, so I had to let go of trying to control the situation and just focus on being there for her, as best I could, outside of the podcast.
In terms of her choices, I tried very hard to be a non judgemental ear for her, so that she would feel safe to be open with me, and if something did happen, I could really help her. Also, I hoped that, by talking about it each week, she'd be able to process it herself, or at least get a chance to think more deeply about everything that was happening to her at the time.
You also used to be the editor at Trespass, which is probably the only magazine that published my writing that I didn’t dare show to my parents or work colleagues. That may have had something to do with the cross-dressing cartoon of a Nazi on the cover, but some of the interviews and material inside was pretty ‘out there’ and extreme for the time it was being printed. For someone who is ‘vanilla’ to use your own term, how did you get so involved in this alternative side of life?
The publisher of The London Magazine, at the time, wanted to produce a magazine that was the polar opposite of that very old and established publication. I created Trespass to be THE place where controversial subject matter, from art to literature to sexuality, had a forum where it could be intelligently explored, without judgement. It's still one of the things I'm most proud of. It allowed me to show the side of me that is brave. I still believe very strongly that taboo subjects should be explored instead of pushed under a rug or forcibly repressed. This should go without saying, but in the current climate in which intelligent journalism is being discredited, perhaps it needs emphasis.
Do you think this fuels your writing?
Definitely. My work is full of dark themes, mythological references and issues that preoccupy me. In my first novel, as yet unpublished, Ever After Eden, I explore feminist themes, issues around sexual consent, all couched in a twisty, tautly plotted fantasy thriller format - I'm quite into marrying 'difficult' subject matter with a commercial aesthetic. Much like my taste in novels and TV/Film, I enjoy both high brow and low brow things, from Ru Paul's Drag Race to The Hand Maid's Tale. My latest book is a lot more frivolous than the first one, however, with lots of dumb jokes, romance and faerie magic. I'll often play with mythic tropes in my work, there's a reason they've served as allegories for such a long time. I'm drawn to darkness, I suppose, like director Guillermo del Toro, who said, "The first thing is that I love monsters, I identify with monsters.” I like exploring the dichotomy in myself, and many people probably, of having certain values, but also wanting to understand the alternative paths taken by other people, and why they walk those paths.
What is next for you? Will there be a sequel to Sugar Baby Confessionals? More podcasts?
I would love to do another podcast series with Ruby and we have several ideas bubbling away. They'll be top secret though, until they've been recorded! (Mostly because I won't really know until then what they're truly 'about'.)
However, I've long been working on Season 2 for a while now, and I'm really excited about it, although it's a lot more ambitious structurally, than TSBC. Inspired by podcasts like The West Wing Weekly, the series is called Heyer Today, celebrating the work of best-selling author and Regency romance queen, Georgette Heyer. Over the course of 12-14 episodes, we hope to convert new readers to her wonderful work, contextualise each book chosen in terms of what was happening in GHs life at the time, as well as exploring the mystery (as I see it) of why her work hasn't already been adapted into films or a TV series. This seems especially odd, as the Jane Austen adaptations are so popular. They've literally just announced yet another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice! As Heyer is like a mashup of Austen and PG Wodehouse, her fans believe her books would make for an incredible, and totally unexploited, cinematic experience(s). So there's a mystery to be solved, as well as a wider discussion of the difficulties of getting a book made into a film. For this I spoke to producer Andy Paterson (Girl With A Pearl Earring, The Railwayman) and along the way, I learn a lot about the difficulties of turning a book from paper to celluloid.
I'll also have guests to talk about Heyer's life, like her biographer Jennifer Kloester and head of the Jane Austen society in Australia, Susannah Fullerton. Then there are the special guests who've been so kind as to chat to me about their love of Heyer's work: people like Stephen Fry and author Joanne Harris, amongst many others. It's been an absolute gas getting to talk to other people who love Heyer, as well as introducing new people to her work.
Thanks for spending the time talking with us Sara-Mae. Where can people download the The Sugar Baby Confessionals?
Remember to listen from episode 1, as we're telling a story that won't make as much sense if you don't hear it from the beginning. You can get it on any good podcast platform. Subscribing on iTunes is great, for example, and rating and reviewing the podcast will help other people to find us too. You'll also find us on Stitcher, Libsyn, or wherever you like to get your podcasts. If you fancy helping us spread the word by sharing the podcast on your social media channels that is, of course, amazing. If you want to chat to me directly, I love to hear what people think, so get in touch!
PS. If you have listened to the podcast, and you want to help Sara-Mae win the Listener's Choice at the British Podcast Awards, please vote for it here (you can find it by typing in sugar babies into the search bar). Be quick though - votes close on 17th May!