Sara Barnard: An Exclusive Interview on Beautiful Broken Things

Sara Barnard: An Exclusive Interview on Beautiful Broken Things

Hi Sara! Beautiful Broken Things is ultimately a book about friendship. How important do you think the friendships we have as teenagers are to our identities and experiences?

I think they’re central. The teenage years are where we really start to learn who we are, and so the people who are around us at the time are naturally part of that. The way you are treated by your friends and the things you do with them are the experiences that will shape who you are and who you’ll become as an adult.

What was your friendship with your best friend at school like?

I went to a girls’ school and was part of a big group of friends that was full of its own alliances and feuds. But my best friend wasn’t really a part of all of that – we lived fairly close to each other so we used to spend time together after school, and that’s how our friendship grew. We used to spend literally hours sitting on a wall near our school talking. She was – and still is – the kind of person who could make anything – especially ordinary things – fun. The level of trust and understanding I had with her was so much deeper than any of my other friends – and that’s the heart of what it means to be a best friend, for me. It’s not something you can plan; it’s either there or it’s not. Sometimes it’s lifelong and earned, like with Caddy and Rosie, and sometimes it’s instantaneous and inexplicable, like with Caddy and Suzanne.

Do you think friendships between teenage girls are different from teenage boys?

Probably, yes, but I think so much of that is to do with how boys are brought up and the expectations on them. With girl friendships there’s a cultural emphasis on physical and emotional closeness, but when it comes to boys the focus is usually more about the jocularity and ‘banter’. Girls have best friends; boys have ‘bromances’. It’s such a shame! Boys should be encouraged to cry together, too.

It’s rare that teenage friendship is explored in novels in as much depth as Beautiful Broken Things. Why do you think that is?

I think as a culture we’re trained to want the love story! We’re so used to it that it’s somehow strange to invest in a story that doesn’t involve the high stakes of the will-they won’t-they coupling.

A lot of communication between teenagers now takes place online and so there’s a whole new world of social norms and practises to navigate. For example, it’s a big deal when the other two can’t contact Suzanne. How do you think this has an impact on teenage relationships?

I think it has a huge impact. When I was younger it was normal to be uncontactable at times, but now that idea is inconceivable. Imagine going home and knowing you won’t talk to your friend until the next day – madness! But now teenagers – and the rest of us – are completely interconnected. You’re never really alone anymore. And that has it’s upsides and downsides, of course.

Why do you think teenagers are attracted to a bit of rebellion over sensible good girl behaviour?

I think it’s the age where it’s safe to test the boundaries (if, like Caddy, you’re lucky enough to have boundaries). You have very few responsibilities, and so there’s much less to lose. If you get hurt, you might miss school for a while and it might be boring, but you’re not having to take time off work and not getting paid, and you don’t have a family to provide for, etc. You have people to look after you if it goes wrong – in adulthood, you’re meant to be looking after yourself.

Caddy’s been getting mixed reviews from readers. Why do you think that is? What do you think of her as a person?

I admit I was surprised at some of the more negative takes on Caddy from readers! In my eyes she is naïve and a bit thoughtless, but it all comes from a good place. She worries that she’s ordinary and wishes for a ‘significant life event’ rather than being grateful for her own good fortune – I know some readers have been very frustrated by that! But I’ve also had plenty of readers say how much they related to that feeling at that age.

Out of the three main characters, why were you drawn to Caddy to tell the story?

I was really interested in exploring the aftermath of something traumatic, and how that affects someone young while they’re still learning who they are. I wanted to know how it impacted new relationships they made, not just for the young person themselves but also the other people they met. Giving Caddy the voice in the story seemed like a natural solution, because there’s so much she doesn’t see or understand, but she still wants to help, and that’s the reality for people who have a friend like Suzanne. It’s such a complicated relationship, and I wanted to explore that from Caddy’s optimistic head. It would have been a very different story from Suzanne’s point of view.

Birds have significance at several points in the story – not to mention we start every chapter with a beautiful silhouette of birds – why did you feel birds in particular were poignant to the story?

That was a happy accident – I didn’t set out to include birds, but they kept cropping up as I was writing. But as motifs go, I don’t think they could get more perfect for this book. That idea of freedom and taking control of your life (by spreading your wings) is so poignant for the characters in Beautiful Broken Things. Plus, it’s Brighton. There are seagulls everywhere!

The book cover is gorgeous! What did you think when you first saw it? Did you have an idea of how it should look in your head?

I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen! I tried not to have any ideas of how it should look, because I trusted my publisher to design something perfect, and I wanted to be surprised! I couldn’t be happier with the cover – Rachel Vale and the arts team at Pan Macmillan did a gorgeous job.

This book not only features characters who are suffering from mental health issues, but comments on how it affects the people around them. How did you get to the heart of these experiences?

I did a lot of research over the years, reading blogs, talking to people, etc, but what it really comes down to is knowing the characters, and that’s about empathy – the only thing I think is absolutely essential to be a writer. All the research in the world isn’t going to do any real good unless you are thinking about the character as a real person with a real life. If your friend has bipolar disorder, you don’t think of them as “the one with bipolar disorder” (I hope!), and that’s how I try to approach it in my writing. I would feel like I’d failed if people came away from Beautiful Broken Things thinking about Tarin as “the one with bipolar disorder”. I wanted to represent mental health issues as part of life, for everyone involved.

Caddy comments on the words and terms used around mental health and how they’re hard to relate to a person you know. Do you think mental health is still misunderstood as something that happens to ‘someone else’?

Yes, and that’s just one of the many ways it’s misunderstood. I think there’s a tendency to think of mental health as something separate, when it’s always a part of a person. We think things like, “Depression looks like this” when it never will – it will look like your friend or your uncle or your mother. The person comes first and they don’t change at the point of diagnosis, and that was quite an important thing I wanted to put across.

Beautiful Broken Things has been praised for its focus on the aftermath of abuse. What inspired you to focus on that rather than the abuse itself?

I actually wrote Suzanne’s story many, many years ago, when I was much younger, and her character stayed with me. As I grew I would wonder what she’d be like at 18 and 21, for example, and how she’d change after the abuse was over. The idea of the “after” really appealed to me as something worth exploring properly, and because I don’t think there is enough of that in YA – the what happens next?

Caddy sets herself three goals for the year – get a boyfriend, lose virginity and experience a significant life event. Did you have any goals as a teenager? What three goals would you set yourself this year?

Not in such a specific way as Caddy, though I do remember having a friend who told me she had decided to lose her virginity in the following year and thinking it was a stupid goal to have! I’m not really a goal-orientated person. I’m too lazy! As for now, I’m just trying to take things as they come and try and enjoy it all.

If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, at what age would you want to speak to yourself and what advice would you give?

At the risk of sounding pretentious, I don’t think I would! Everything that happened – even the bad choices – had to happen to get to this point, and I’m happy with how things have turned out up to now. I might use the time to go and visit someone else at 14, though, and give her advice that I couldn’t at the time.

Is there a message that you’d like readers to take from the book?

I guess it would be that pain doesn’t always look like we think it does, and helping someone you love is often about doing what they need, rather than what they want. Also, if they wanted to go and hug their best friend, that would be great, too.

Who was your favourite character to write?

I always love writing Suzanne, but Rosie is a lot of fun to write because she’s so blunt and she will just say what needs to be said, even if no one wants to hear it. I wish I was a bit more like that, so it’s great to live vicariously through her, sometimes!

What was your favourite scene/moment/quote in the book?

Anytime when the three girls are together is fun for me, especially when Rosie is trying to teach Suzanne French. But my all-time favourite scene is the night when Suzanne turns up at Caddy’s window with cookies to apologise. It’s such a pivotal moment in their friendship and it still makes me happy to reread it.

Are there any people or authors who particularly inspire you to write?

My dad is a professional writer and he was incredibly supportive and encouraging when I was growing up. He never let me think that I couldn’t be a writer one day – it was always a given. Now I’m older, I realise how lucky I am to have had that level of support.