How The Stranding – Bury St Edmunds author Kate Sawyer's story of hope after the end of the world – was born
Faced with the end of the world, Ruth climbs into the mouth of a beached whale in New Zealand with a complete stranger.
The premise of The Stranding, author Kate Sawyer’s debut novel, had me hooked and I devoured the entire book within 48 hours.
But while the novel’s ‘now’ timeline might take place on the other side of the world – after the end of the world – its ‘before’ story is rooted much closer to home, being set in London with frequent trips to Ruth’s hometown of Bury St Edmunds.
There, Kate is describing a world she is familiar with, having grown up near Bury and then spending two decades living in London, before returning to her home town in 2019.
The 40-year-old’s own career path to published author has been varied.
After leaving County Upper School in the late 1990s Kate travelled in Australia, completed acting courses at the Oxford School of Drama and Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, worked as an actor and producer, wrote for theatre and short film and worked in restaurant front-of-house and events production.
But in 2016, while on tour with Shaun Williamson and Susie Amy for the production Out of Order, she came to the realisation that, as a single woman, she would need to take matters into her own hands if she was to become a mother. It was the first of several major personal revelations which led Kate to where she is now.
“My career has been really diverse for no other reason than trying to survive financially in London,” said Kate.
“At 35 I was on tour doing comedy with these legends of TV. On that tour I realised it was really unlikely I was going to meet someone to have a baby with and I started thinking about becoming a single mother by choice in earnest.”
As a result she took on a more long-term role in events and embarked on fertility treatment, but when the contract finished she was in the middle of treatment and was unsure of her next steps.
“My mum asked me ‘what’s the thing you have always wanted to do?’ I thought about it and said I wished I had gone to university, got a degree and tried my hand at writing,” said Kate, who then applied for the MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
As part of the application process she was asked to write 4,000 words of a novel – which is how The Stranding was born.
“I started writing the book on the same day I started the fertility treatment that conceived my daughter Ruby,” she said.
Kate won a place on the course and during meetings with UEA was encouraged to keep on writing The Stranding.
“It was a startling coincidence of events. The first two chapters were written on the day I conceived Ruby and the rest of it was written before she was born,” said Kate.
“I was eight months pregnant when I sent the book to agents and I could not believe the response. I was so naive then but I thought I’d give it a punt and I think that’s part of the reason I have been lucky.
“Writing the book was one part of many things I was trying to change in my life.”
Kate admits the first draft of The Stranding was ‘so rough’ when she submitted it.
“I can’t imagine anyone doing that without a pregnancy brain and a feeling that time was ticking,” said Kate.
“I waddled to London and had these meetings with agents heavily pregnant, to the point I fell asleep on the Tube. Once I had my agent I started making edits before Ruby was born but had to stop when I was induced. I gave birth on December 9, 2019, and got the edited draft to my agent before Christmas.
“Then, just a week before lockdown last March my mum and my then two-and-a-half month-old baby and I went to London for big meetings with publishing houses. It was quite surreal as people were starting to get get scared about Covid and some were wearing masks.”
Through those meetings, Kate found her publishing house Coronet, which is an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton.
Coronet is preparing to release The Stranding on June 24, while Kate has already started writing her second novel.
Bringing up a toddler while writing is a new challenge, but one Kate is relishing.
“My aim as a writer is to produce a body of work and that’s what I am working towards. At the moment I am working around having a small child and knowing writing is my source of income is quite a pressure. But I so enjoy it and it is really exciting to think about sharing different stories,” she said.
Kate is also aware of the interest her decision to become a single mother by choice generates.
“Parenthood is something we can do that is life enhancing. I don’t think it is the only choice. I am really pro people who choose not to be parents,” she said.
“Looking at the world today you could think ‘why be a parent?’ – and that does come into The Stranding a bit. In different situations people have different choices – I am interested and accepting of all of those routes. But I am aware of and realise that family, however it comes, is essential to a rich life.”
Kate moved back to Suffolk in September 2019, but says she has not been able to take full advantage of being back in her home town due to the pandemic.
“It is lovely to be back here,” she said. “When I was growing up, as a teenager this place felt like it was at the end of the earth. Now I am back here it just feels like a much nicer suburb of London. I love my house, the architecture in the town is beautiful and the countryside around here is wonderful. A lot of the things I miss about London I can get here.”
Billed as a story about the hope that can remain even when the world is changed beyond recognition, The Stranding has already won praise from bestselling author Marian Keyes, who described it as ‘gorgeous and original and captivating’.
And Kate thinks her book could be just the tonic people need as we start to emerge from lockdown.
“It has been an interesting journey to see The Stranding getting into people’s hands – the early readers have said it was a reminder and celebration of the things that matter in life,” said Kate.
“In the book, the thing they miss about life before is the people. Everything else is replaceable.”
- The Stranding is published by Coronet in hardback, eBook and audio, priced £14.99, on June 24. Pre-order here.