Sam Baker (who is currently the editor-in-chief of RED Magazine) has kindly answered some questions for us about her job, her writing and her new novel 'The Stepmothers' Support Group' which is out TODAY!
I do long days on Red – I try to get into the office early, say 8, if I don’t have a breakfast, because it’s quieter and you can get more done. That said, I faff around on the internet first thing like everyone else. I can spend hours doing my twitter admin and updating my website (www.sambaker.co.uk). Then my average day is a mixture of meetings: editorial ones – planning issues, discussing photographers, writers, cover stars etc, editing copy; and commercial ones – maybe seeing advertisers, discussing flatplanning with the ad team, looking at budgets (been a lot of that this year, sadly), talking about marketing. Most copy editing gets done at the beginning or end of day, meetings and staff stuff take up the bit I’m actually paid for!
Then weekends are spent writing – usually my novels, but lately I’ve been writing a lot of articles to promote SSG. It’s interesting how much stepmothers strike a chord, far more than I’d anticipated. We try to be in Café Nero by ten and then we stay either til we’ve done 2000 words or til 2pm whichever comes first.
You edit a major Women’s Magazine (Red) Where the heck do you find the time?
Weekends and holidays. All my spare time, basically. Plus, I’m married to a writer too (novelist Jon Courtenay Grimwood) and writing is his job and his hobby, so he’s happy to work 24/7. Lucky for me. We set up camp in Café Nero on saturdays and sundays. I can’t write at home very often because I work-avoid frantically. When I was freelance for a few months I had the emptiest laundry basket south of Watford!
Can you tell us about your latest book ‘The Stepmother’s Support Group?
SSG is about five women who come together and bond over finding themselves in a stepmother situation. They’re not all stepmums, Clare is a single mum, but the group is her idea because both her best friend, Eve (who’s in a relationship with Ian, a widower with three children) and her sister, Lily (who’s with Liam, a guy ten years her senior with a small daughter) are ‘stepmums’. Clare and Lily had a stepmonster they hated when they were growing up, so they also bring the stepdaughter’s perspective. Well, Clare does! Gradually they are joined by Mel (a divorcee who’s about to meet her partner Vince’s daughter for the first time) and Mandy who’s trying to ‘blend’ her three sons with her boyfriend’s son and daughter. The SSG meets on the first Tuesday of every month and we see them in between experiencing the ups and downs of all sorts of modern relationships – like I said, Clare is a single mum, Mel is a divorcee and she’s not sure she’s over her ex. Their relationships won’t all make it and there are some surprising changes of heart along the way.
It’s about stepmothering specifically, but also modern relationships in general and female friendship in particular. The way female friendships can be really no-holds barred, your friends can say things to you that you wouldn’t take from anyone else and how, if a friendship falls apart, it’s the worst break up of all.
What is your writing process like? Are you a planner or a diver inner?
I’m a planner, but only because I have to be. If I tried to keep magazine and book in my head at the same time it would all start to bleed into each other (which could be interesting!). I have to turn my brain off of my novel writing on Sunday night and turn it back on on Saturday morning, so I need really detailed plans to help me get the characters back easily. That’s not to say I always stick to them though, especially when I’m on holiday and get a run at it, the characters tend to wander off and do their own thing.
My planning starts with the top one line, what is this book about in one sentence (it’s a cliché but it’s absolutely essential). Then I do the synopsis, the chapter breakdown and character biogs for each main character. I might also look at the issues that arise through the novel (in the case of SSG single motherhood, teenage pregnancy and bereavement, as well as stepmothering) and weave them through, then I look at the chapter breakdown by character to check I haven’t lost anyone along the way.
Do you think your work in journalism has helped you with your fiction writing? If so, how?
It certainly helped with SSG because, although I’m a stepmum myself, it was through Red that I saw the glaring lack of anything that spoke to stepmums. There are a few non-fiction books but many of them are American. Also, I think you can do a lot with fiction that you simply can’t with non-fiction.
One in ten children live in a stepfamily now – it’s not an odd or peculiar thing (although it can sometimes feel that way), it’s been normalised as modern relationships changed. But whenever we did a piece on stepmums in Red we got an avalanche of response(even when I just wrote very briefly about being a stepmum in my eds letter I was inundated with requests to do interviews). That got me thinking that there was a gap in the market. Plus I had my own experience to build on and an untapped audience to research so I was able to speak to lots of women about their very varied stepmum experiences (and plenty of stepdaughters had their say too!).
What was your journey like to becoming a novelist?
Rocky! Whilst I was very lucky – I got my first deal when I was editor of Company and I’m well aware my job helped me get both my agent and my book deal – my first couple of books were, how shall we put it, not that successful! Then I had the idea for The Stepmothers’ Support Group, and Jonny, my agent, found Lynne, my editor at Harpercollins and it was like this big meeting of minds, seriously! She’s a stepmum too and she instantly got what I was trying to say with SSG.
What is your all time favourite Women’s Fiction book and why?
This is too hard! There’s just too much fabulous women’s fiction to choose from. How about I cheat?
My favourite women’s fiction by an American: The Friday Night Knitting Club (but I also love Jennifer Weiner).
My favourite women’s fiction by a man: One Day by David Nicholls
My favourite classic women’s fiction – Valley of the Dolls; But then there’s Heartburn by Norah Ephron which is one of my all-time favourite books
My favourite Brit women’s fiction – I don’t know how she does it by Allison Pearson because it captured a generation.
But all-time – guess it would have to be Heartburn. It’s just wonderful. So funny and heartfelt and spikey; right from the heart and for the jugular. Plus recipes! The perfect mix.
What’s next for Sam Baker?
The Christmas issue! Oh, the other Sam Baker. I’m into the first draft of my next novel which is called (tentatively) What to Wear to Your Best Friend’s Funeral. It’s about a group of friends who met at university and the one who’s the ‘mother’ of the group, you know the type, the one who always does everything first/best (kind of annoying but you can’t help loving her) is dying of cancer in her mid-thirties. She thinks they can’t function without her so she leaves each of them a letter telling them what to wear to her funeral so they’ll have one less thing to think about, but also bequeathing each of them a part of her life (I say a part because it’s not things exactly, more... Relationships). That’s where the book starts.