Meet Sarah Clarke Author Of A Mother Never Lies

Parenting, adoption, lies and secrets, they're all packed in to Sarah Clarke's brilliant debut A Mother Never Lies. She tells Thriller Women about her road to getting published, the challenges of writing her second book and riding high above Richard Osman in the Kindle charts! Plus what's her favourite writer's tip? 

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TW: Sarah, huge congratulations on the publication of A Mother Never Lies. Can you tell us about your journey to publication with HQ Digital?

SC: Thank you J I know the publishing industry can be slow, but my experience with HQ Digital has been the opposite. I submitted my manuscript in January 2021 and was contacted by my now editor a few days later. She really liked the book, but wanted me to change one (quite major!) aspect of it. I then spent a month redrafting, plus coming up with two additional book ideas. In March I was offered a three-book deal (cue: dancing around the kitchen!) and have spent the summer writing my second book, in between doing the edits for my first. A Mother Never Lies was released as an ebook in late August and the paperback and audiobook come out on 28th October.


TW: Where did your inspiration for the story come from and how long did it take you to finish the first draft?

SC: My inspiration came from reading an article about adoption in a specific set of circumstances and the ramifications of that. But I can’t say more without giving too many plot clues away! I wrote my first draft as part of the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course and it took nine months. But I finished that in the summer of 2019 and there have been plenty more drafts since then…


TW: What made you choose adoption as a theme for the novel?

SC: I think that I chose parenting as a theme rather than adoption. Initially I wanted to explore how it feels to be a mother without a child. The further into the book I went, I also started thinking about how parenting is for adoptive parents – and the balance between allowing the child to develop their genetic or early life identity, while also making them feel like a fully-fledged member of the family.


TW: You’ve been riding high in the Kindle charts alongside Richard Osman! How have you found the experience of publishing your first novel? Do you read all the reviews online or do you keep your distance?

SC: It has been the most amazing few weeks. Like most authors, I have had my fair share of disappointments and rejections along the way, and there were times on my submission journey when I considered giving up. So to see readers buying my book, reading it, writing such amazing reviews. It really is a dream come true and I wake up smiling every day. But yes, I am a nightmare for reading reviews! I read every one. So far, they have been mainly positive, and some have been so beautifully written that they’re a joy to read. I’d actually like to give a shout-out to my Pigeonhole readers who gave such lovely and positive reviews early on and really helped with my pre-publication day nerves.


TW: When do you write, and what are you bad habits as a writer?

SC: I pretend that I love structure, and daydream about having set writing times. But in reality, I write when the stars align of having some free time and the words flowing – plus a tight deadline always helps! For my ‘other job’ I am a freelance copywriter, so my working day revolves around writing anyway (once the kids are packed off to school and the dog has been walked) but it depends on how much work I have on as to when I can fit in book writing. I’m a bit of a fidget, so my bad writing habits revolve around not settling to it if there are too many distractions around.


TW: Was there a ‘now or never’ moment in your life that made you want to pursue fiction writing as a career? Or did it happen more organically?

SC: I’ve always dreamed of being an author, but I didn’t do much about it until my youngest child went to secondary school and I had a bit more time on my hands. That’s when I signed up to the Faber Academy course and started writing A Mother Never Lies. It did feel like a ‘now or never’ moment at the time, but with hindsight I don’t think it’s ever too late to start writing.


TW: How did the experience of writing your second novel (due to be released in February 2022) compare with your first? Was it more of a challenge?

SC: I’d heard about ‘second book syndrome’, but I actually found writing my first draft quite easy. However, that all changed when I read it through for the first time and realised how much editing it needed… with only six weeks to go until my deadline! So July was a stressful month trying to turn my manuscript into something I felt proud of before I went on holiday. I didn’t succeed, but luckily my editor gave me a short extension, and then my holiday gave me the headspace to figure out what I needed to do. By the time I submitted book two in early September I was really happy with it. So yes, writing my second book was more of a challenge, but I’m hoping it’s prepared me well for book three!


TW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received over the years when it comes to writing?

SC: Early on into my Faber Academy course, my tutor Julia Crouch reminded me that I needed to ‘be’ my character – not just in how they spoke and acted, but in how they thought, and observed the world around them. As a copywriter for whom words are everything, this was a lightbulb moment for me – to put character before my urge to write beautiful descriptions with clever metaphors etc.


TW: What genres and/or authors do you read for pleasure?

SC: I read a lot of psychological thrillers and love many authors in my genre – too many to list here. I also read books that fall under the genre of ‘woman’s fiction’ (although I’m not keen on that description!) I listen to audiobooks too, and tend to choose non-fiction for those. I recently listened to The Devil You Know by Dr Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne. It was absolutely fascinating, and helpful from a writing point of view too – I kept taking the dog for extra-long walks because I was so engrossed!


Quick fire questions: 

TW: Your favourite novel or novels?

SC: Oh too hard! Will anything by Gillian Flynn do??


TW: Your favourite film or TV series?

SC: True Romance


TW: Your favourite holiday destination?

SC: Morzine in the French Alps


TW: Your favourite restaurant/cuisine?

SC: Anywhere that does all-day breakfast!


TW: Your favourite tipple?

SC: Bottle of San Miguel


Thanks Sarah!



Exclusive A Mother Never Lies extract:


Prologue

She pushes hard against the wound. Her hands slip and slide in the blood as it seeps out across his chest. They start to shake uncontrollably. There’s too much blood. But she can’t let him die. She made a promise; the two of them against the world. She lets the tears flow but won’t allow herself any more weakness. The panic needs to be kept at bay.

She has never done a first aid course or paid much attention to those public service adverts on TV. She doesn’t really have a clue what to do. But her instinct tells her to stop the blood. To plug the hole. She rips off her jacket – ignoring her own injuries – and screws it into a ball. She pushes deeper into the wound. Does he flinch? She thinks so. That’s a good sign, she decides. He’s not dead yet.

Today was supposed to be special. How could it have ended up like this, a scene of such horror? But as she pushes and prays and whispers, ‘C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,’ over and over, the faint sound of an emergency siren reaches her. ‘Thank you,’ she gasps through the tears. Seconds count with a wound like this; that’s something else her instinct tells her.

Dark green uniforms start running in her direction. Relief floods through her. Someone will save him. Not her, but someone.

She has to believe it.

Because how could she possibly survive without him?


Chapter 1

November 2019

Phoebe



He’s asking if I’m okay. I want to answer him. He’s got kind eyes. But I can’t speak. I can only breathe. At least, I can only breathe in.

‘Do you need a paper bag? Shall I get you a paper bag, love?’

My chest is huge now. It can’t expand any more. What happens next? Will my lungs explode? Why the hell can’t I just breathe out?

‘Here you go. Do you want to take it? Can you do it yourself, love?’

Shit. I’ve dropped the bag. My hands are shaking. My fingers are numb.

‘Ah, she’s dropped it. Should I do it for her? Should we get someone? Jen, you do it. She won’t want my fat thumbs all over her face.’

I can’t breathe in now either. I might faint. I want to faint.

‘Give it here then, you big oaf. Her lips are going blue. Hurry up!’

Paper crinkles around my lips. I know how this works. But I need to blow out first. Pollute the air with glorious carbon dioxide.

‘Do it, Phoebe, do it!’ my brain screams. Suddenly, my breath rushes out into the bag. I suck it back desperately. Again. I’m hooked now. In and out. In and out. My mind clears. I want to cry. God, I am crying.

‘There, there. Nothin’ to be embarrassed about. No one even noticed ’cept Dave and me. All them young ’uns rushing around, heads stuck in their phones. Would have left you for dead – wouldn’t surprise me.’

Left me for dead. I sometimes wish things had turned out that way.

I’ve been back in London for two weeks now. The city has moved on over the last fourteen years, but I haven’t been here to move with it. And now the smallest thing can knock me off track. I used to love the noise, the frenetic energy of too many people vying for the same space, but not anymore. Of course, I know this fear is not really about being away from the city; it’s about what happened before I left.

This evening I thought I’d be okay. Completely exhausted after a day on my feet, I was impatient to get home. Eyes down, I ignored the jostling commuters, and the slouchy teenagers, and made it onto the platform without a problem. But then I saw them, huddled together in their dark coats, and they looked so similar that it took me right back to that night. And that’s when Jen and Dave found me.

‘This is our train now. You going to be all right? You keep the bag, it’s fine. Dave has stuffed his sherbet lemons in his pocket now; they’ll be gone in a flash anyway.’ I nod at Jen, wiping away my tears and smiling widely to show her just how all right I am.

‘You take care of yourself,’ Dave adds, heaving himself onto the train. He looks a bit embarrassed now. I’m not sure whether that’s down to him hesitating with the paper bag or Jen exposing his sugar habit, but I like him more for it either way.

‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘Thanks for saving me.’ I know I sound dramatic. But however many panic attacks I’ve had, they still make me think I might die – like faulty adrenaline levels really can override vital organs.

‘It was nothing, love,’ Dave mumbles, and then the doors close and his sloped shoulders gradually disappear inside the busy train.

Now I’m worried about Dave and Jen. I don’t even know where they’re heading, so it’s hard to know when I can relax. When I can be certain they’ve arrived safely. I feel the panic start to bubble again in my stomach; new tears prick at my eyes. I need to stop feeling like this. I need to get off this platform.

I turn back towards the exit and focus on my breathing as the tide of commuter traffic carries me along. Down the stairs, back through the turnstiles – my new Oyster card registering my failed attempt with a disappointed beep – and out onto Old York Road. I half expect to see ambulances, police cars. Flashing lights and paramedics rushing past. But it’s just a regular Wednesday evening. City workers filter out along the various residential streets, heads down, collars up against the November wind. A few don’t make it further than the Anchor pub where the big screen is on, ready for some football game or other.

The fresh air calms my nerves but I’m tired. I would be home by now, if I could just have made it onto that train. Not really home, of course. But at the moment, it’s the best I can do. Instead, I have nearly an hour’s walk ahead of me. There was a time when I would have hailed a black cab without even thinking about the cost. Not anymore.

I know the underpass will get me there quicker, but its dark shadows and hidden threats put me off. So instead, I wait impatiently for three different green men to flash me across the multiple lanes of Wandsworth Bridge roundabout and on to York Road. Then I begin the long walk eastwards, the traffic droning past relentlessly. I watch a skinny cyclist with a flashing head-cam hurl abuse at a white van driver, who just gives him the finger and swaps lanes. And at one point I’m forced to step off the pavement by a homeless man curled up against a bus stop, causing some cyclist-type road rage myself. But I suck in the smell of Middle Eastern food drifting out from the grubby caf├ęs and share a half smile with a young mum herding her kids and it feels good to be back. I’ve missed this.

When I get to the Volkswagen dealership, I can’t help pausing, remembering a visit from a lifetime ago. How good it would be to waltz into that showroom now, actually buy a car, instead of yielding to some misplaced loyalty and leaving empty-handed like last time. Although I waddled more than waltzed back then. I need a car now more than ever, but I can’t see my Universal Credit stretching that far. As I continue staring, I notice the salesman looking at me suspiciously through the giant glass panes. Clearly I don’t look like a prospective customer anymore either. I drop my gaze to the pavement and keep walking.

Eventually I peel off York Road and head south into Battersea. I know plenty of people who don’t like this area – its perfect skin of Edwardian townhouses hiding an underbelly of council-flat blocks – but I do. I’m sure it’s partly the familiarity of growing up here. But more than that, I like that everyone – the wealthy and the struggling – walks down the same street, grabs last-minute shopping from the same corner shop. I’ve never managed to work out where I sit in the British class system, so it’s a relief to be somewhere where everyone fits in.

It’s not even seven o’clock when I arrive at my old childhood home, but the sky is black and I feel ready for bed. I dream of sinking into a hot bath and then crawling underneath my duvet, giving my aching body as much rest as possible before I go out again tomorrow. My father will be in his study by now, pretending to read an old script while chain-smoking his way through a packet of Marlboro Reds. I feel a momentary pang for a nicotine hit of my own, but I know I’d be crazy to start down that road again.

I assume my mother will be asleep, or more accurately comatose, after gradually working her way through her daily dose of gin. Unfortunately, I’m proved wrong.

‘Is that you, darling? Your father’s in a foul mood so I’m in search of a drinking partner. Come have a G&T with me?’

I stifle a sigh. ‘Actually, I was going to run a bath . . .’

‘Can’t do that, I’m afraid, darling. No hot water. Boiler’s on the blink again. Luckily the fridge is in full working order so the tonic’s lovely and cold. It’s Sicilian lemon, darling. Divine.’

Her shrill voice and heroic attempt at enunciation can’t hide the fact that she’s probably been drinking these divine gin and tonics since lunchtime. But I can’t refuse her. She’s given me somewhere to stay after all.

‘Sounds great, Flora,’ I reply. My parents have never been fond of traditional titles, so it’s been Flora and Paul for as long as I can remember. They’ve never been fond of traditional parenting either. There was a time when I couldn’t wait to get away from them; now I’m grateful for their charity.

As I make my way into the front room, I can’t help noticing the decay. This was a splendid house once, although it had already started its downward spiral when we moved in forty years ago. There is still evidence of its former glory, the beautiful ceiling roses in both living spaces and the sturdy oak newel post guarding the staircase. But now the neglect is more obvious. What’s left of the carpet is stained with red wine spills, and the windows are spotted with fluffy green mould. Everything is covered in a layer of dust and nothing seems to work properly. Except the fridge, of course.

‘Any luck, darling? With the job hunting?’ Flora asks, while handing me the perfect gin and tonic, weirdly out of place in this shabby setting.

I look closely at her face to see if I can spot any trace of suspicion. I’ve told her that I spend my days looking for work; she wouldn’t approve of my real purpose, so I’ve kept it to myself for now. I’m relying on her not knowing that job hunting is mainly carried out at home in front of a computer screen these days. ‘Nothing today. Maybe tomorrow.’

‘And ahh, did you cope okay?’ At least she has the good grace to appear concerned. I know she doesn’t understand really. She’s had her fair share of trauma in life too, but she has always found solace in a bottle, letting the numbing effects of alcohol carry her pain away.

‘Yes, all good. It was a sunny day so I decided to walk.’ I hope she won’t grill me further. Even in her drunken state I worry that she can see right through me. For all her hands-off parenting, she always had a way of knowing when I was keeping something from her.

But she just throws me a quizzical look and – miraculously – chooses discretion. ‘Well, you don’t need to rush things. And walking is wonderful exercise, of course. You’ll be fifty before you know it, and you can’t take that slim body of yours for granted forever.’

I look at her slight frame and silently question her logic, but I’m glad she’s moved on.

‘Perhaps you should take the day off from job hunting tomorrow, darling? Give those legs a rest. You’ve got your dole money after all. We could do something maybe? Just you and me?’

She’s looking for forgiveness, I realise. For my childhood, perhaps. For not doing more to save me when she had the chance. I stare at her. She was a young mum, and beautiful too, but time doesn’t stand still, and she’s looking her sixty-eight years now. Age spots poke through her cheap cover-up and her once signature chestnut mane has reduced to a slender tangle of home-dyed strands. Her wide smile looks almost ghoulish, lips painted with an unsteady hand and teeth discoloured by years of neglect. But her eyes still sparkle, the depth of their blue undiminished.

‘Thanks, Flora, but I should probably keep looking. I can’t imagine it’s going to be easy to find something and I want to pay my way.’ I feel guilty about lying, but not enough to stop. I’ve been so patient, I can’t wait any longer.

‘Don’t be silly, darling, we don’t need more money. We’re fine!’

I look around me. Everything is falling apart. The boiler needs replacing, and I’m not convinced the creaking central heating system is going to last the winter. Fine is not a word I would use, but for now, there’s not much I can do to help.

At least they own the house without any mortgage to worry about. They bought it with the proceeds from Paul’s sole film role when I was eight. We all had such high hopes back then. First Hollywood, then the world. But the film got slated by the critics, so it was soon back to scraping a living in regional theatres and the like. I remember it was around that time that Flora went on a health drive – doing Jane Fonda workouts in front of the TV, leaving bowls of cemented All-Bran everywhere – and I sometimes wondered whether she secretly enjoyed his failure, saw it as a chance to rekindle her own acting career after it was brought to a crashing halt by my unwelcome arrival. It didn’t last long though – the contentment or the healthy living. And she never made it back onto the stage either.

‘Maybe Saturday,’ I suggest as a way of bringing the conversation to an end. But I realise I mean it too. Suddenly I feel a surge of love for this old woman with a twinkle in her eye. I need to forgive her. We’ve all made some bad choices, none more so than me.

And what am I back in London for, if not to find forgiveness?


More about A Mother Never Lies:

Some truths can't be told.

I had the perfect life - a nice house, a loving husband, a beautiful little boy.

But in one devastating night, they were all ripped from me.

It's been fourteen years, and I'm finally ready to face the past.

I'm taking my son back.

He just can't know who I am...or why we were torn apart ...

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