Q&A with Sarah Tierney
In her debut novel, Making Space (Sandstone Press, £8.99), Sarah Tierney draws on her single twenties in south Manchester to ask why we hold onto things we don’t need and let go of the things we do. The author now lives with her husband and daughter in Derbyshire.
Miriam is a TV production graduate in Manchester. Has Media City failed to deliver for people like her? I can’t comment on Media City (I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never actually been there). However, I do work in the media in Manchester so I see a lot of young people trying to get established in an industry where there are more graduates coming through than there are graduate jobs. Like a lot of graduates, Miriam doesn’t end up with the job she studied for at university. Not everyone finds their calling in life at uni – I think you’re more likely to discover it afterwards, when you’re no longer following a prescribed path through academia, and you’ve got time to think and drift.
Your own MA in novel writing appears to have been more worthwhile. How did it help you as a writer? It taught me to think about books as entertainment rather than as art. As an English graduate I was used to thinking about themes and imagery and critical theory, rather than about how a story keeps you hooked through plot and character. So that shift was important. Also it changed my career path. Before I did my MA I worked in admin. After it I worked as a journalist and copywriter. Employers started seeing me as a writer, and gave me writer’s jobs. A course like that is a badge to say to the outside world “I’m a writer now”. At the time, I needed that because I wasn’t confident enough to focus on writing without some kind of external validation. Nowadays I know that the only thing that makes you a writer is writing regularly. And you don’t need an MA course to do that. All you need is your commitment to your work.
Your life in Derbyshire with your child and husband is a bit more grown up than Miriam’s single life in south Manchester. How easy was it to revisit that lifestyle now you’re removed from it? I was still living in Whalley Range when I wrote the first few drafts of Making Space so I wasn’t removed from the setting. But I wasn’t single – I’d just met my husband – and the feeling of being more settled allowed me to think about a time when things weren’t going so well. There was no way I would have written about being lonely in my twenties when I was lonely in my twenties. I’m not that brave. You don’t want to have a bad day then relive it all over again that night by writing about it. I tend to write about things I have some distance from. It gives me a sense of perspective on them – and that perspective is more fixed and stable so I’m not constantly rewriting to reflect my changing feelings and thoughts.
Miriam rejects prescribed femininity by throwing out her belongings and by living alone. Why did you decide she then should be drawn towards the antithesis of this – a photographer in the fashion industry and a hoarder? When she throws out her belongings she’s rejecting herself – she feels like she’s lost her way and she doesn’t recognise the person she’s become. So she gets rid of everything and creates this empty space in her life. Then she meets Erik, and fills it with him. She’s lonely and he gives her attention and I think that’s the main reason she’s drawn to him. I think his hoarding pushes them apart rather than draws them together. It’s the barrier between them. However, it does make them similar in that Erik hides from his problems by burying them in stuff, while Miriam tries to solve her problems by getting rid of all her stuff. It doesn’t work for either of them because the things aren’t “the thing”. They’re not the issues that need sorting out.
Can we ever escape the onslaught of words and images that come from the beauty and fashion industries? Nowadays we have a lot more choice about which media we consume, so we can filter out publications and adverts that don’t make us feel good about ourselves. In the past, beauty and fashion magazines were more of a dominant media for young women than now. Now you can curate your media, and block or mute or unfollow those that are spreading bad vibes or self-doubt. So yes, I think you can escape it, but you need a level of awareness to do that – to be able to step outside it and say, I’m not buying into that any more because it isn’t making me happy. Spending a lot of time surrounded by those images certainly doesn’t make Miriam feel any better about herself. Magazines love selling the idea of a transformation or a “new you” but it’s a fantasy to think you can transform yourself that easily. In Making Space I tried to show how someone might really change their life – it’s gradual and halting, and sometimes you go backwards or get lost along the way. And sometimes you realise that accepting yourself as you are is the only change you need to make.
To what extent do you think we define ourselves by our possessions? Some possessions can feel like they’re an important part of who you are, but it’s what they stand for that’s important, rather than the possession itself. So a photograph or a postcard may be a link to a certain person – but it’s the person who has shaped who you are, not the photograph of them or the postcard they wrote. I think we’re defined much more by our experiences than by our possessions. I think we certainly try to define ourselves by our possessions, because it’s a short cut and it’s a very appealing idea – that we can change who we are just by changing our clothes or car or the pictures on our walls. But you can’t change your past, or undo the things that keep you awake at night. It’s really hard to change how you act and how you think (though I think it is possible). It’s much easier to buy things than it is to look at what’s really missing in our lives.
Are you a hoarder or a minimalist? Like most people, I’m somewhere in between. But since I’ve had a baby, I’m definitely veering more towards hoarder territory – partly because babies accumulate so much stuff – even before they can walk and talk! Our attic is crammed with baby clothes, equipment, toys, books. I could take it all to a charity shop but, of course, we get attached to possessions so it’s not that simple. I don’t want to lose the memories of when my daughter was a tiny baby, and those memories are tied up in her clothes and toys. Babies change faster than we can process that change, so there’s a tendency to hold on to their things in an attempt to slow it down.
Published in The Big Issue North, 24th April 2017