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Issue 1785 (PDF)
The student newspaper of Imperial College London

Keep the Cat Free

An Interview with Sarah Underwood - Bioengineering Graduate and Soon-To-Be-Published Author

Books Editor Zanna Buckland speaks with Imperial alumnus and soon-to-be author about her upcoming novel

The Odyssey Cover


in Issue 1785

Did you read The Odyssey? And if so, when?

I read a lot of the stories within The Odyssey, because they’re in things like Percy Jackson, and those little books of mythology you get as a kid, but I actually started and finished writing without sitting down and reading the whole thing. I have various translations; there are parts that are very beautiful and readable, but it’s so long, and written in a ‘prose-y’ way that’s kind of impenetrable.

That’s what will be good about your book; it will be an easier read, but you’d also get to know the stories of The Odyssey.

Yeah. There’s a massive gap in the market, particularly in YA. There’s a Jaci Burton book that just came out, called ‘Medusa’, but that’s illustrated and on the younger side. Largely mythology has bypassed YA, which is why this is quite fun, because I love Greek mythology and YA, so it’s a little fun melding of my favourite things.

What actually inspired you to write the novel? It was partly your love for Greek Mythology, but was there anything else?

I read an article about the story. It’s a reimagining of the story of Penelope’s maids. If you’re not familiar, they aid and abet her in deceiving suitors, so she doesn’t have to marry while her husband is away. They believe he’s dead, but she has unwavering faith that he’ll return. The maids eventually betray her. It’s not clear why – some translations say they’re sleeping with the suitors, some give them more grace –  but they then get murdered, brutally. There’s not much more on them, it’s one of those things you snag up on because it feels they haven’t had enough mention to suddenly be pivotal. I definitely stumbled on the idea. There are a lot of books that look at smaller, less well-known stories, like Madeline Miller’s ‘Circe’ – Circe is in The Odyssey, and underutilised – it gives her more nuance, and her own agency. I wanted to do that for Melantho (the only named maid), so I gave her more depth in her motivations, and vengeance. In The Odyssey she dies and there’s no consequences, no vengeance, there’s nothing, and I didn’t love that. Why Greek mythology? I’ve just always loved it.

Did you do much writing before you stumbled on the idea?

Not really. I always wanted to be a writer, but a novel is a big commitment. I had bits and pieces but hadn’t really done much with it. I used to do short stories because it’s ‘one and done’. I wanted to commit to writing, so during the pandemic I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing else to do, why don’t I give this a go?’. To be honest the first draft was pretty shocking, but I was lucky the idea was pretty solid. I feel that a first draft is for getting everything on a page, and now I’m working on my second novel I’m going back to basics. I just need to write something, then I can smoothen the edges and make it consumable and readable.

How closely would you say your novel follows the original plot? Does it follow alongside? Is it a prequel or sequel?

There’s definitely a fork, but up to the point where the maids are hanged, it’s very faithful. In my book it’s revealed through flashbacks, then there’s divergence where there are massive consequences, rather than nothing. The advantage of Greek mythology is that, within a certain range, you can’t really be unfaithful to it, because it’s about oral storytelling and making it better in your eyes. Homer’s Odyssey isn’t the only version of the story. So quite faithful; if anything, it’s a sequel.

Your book has been described as a ‘feminist reimagining’ of The Odyssey. Which part would you say reflects that the most?

The concept was to give voice and agency to these characters that I felt were used as convenient plot devices and not given their own complex narratives. Greek mythology is pretty bad when it comes to women. Natalie Haynes’s ‘A Thousand Ships’ and Pat Barker’s books look at the women and tell their stories. My book is feminist in terms of women actually getting something that isn’t what I would consider a poor hand.

So, giving them a little bit more power?

Exactly, or at least a bit more choice. At least justification for their actions rather than ‘they did it because they were whores’, which is what most translations of The Odyssey imply. So, giving them more complex motivations than simply being sex-crazed betrayers.

It was also described as a ‘sapphic’ reimagining, so there are some LGBTQ+ themes in there. What inspired you to include that in the story?

Sexuality is complex when you look at the Ancient Greeks. They didn’t classify it in the same way we did. There are lots of ‘gay’ relationships that weren’t really the same as how we see them now. Achilles and Patroclus are quite famous, and Zeus and Ganymede, but lesbian and queer women relationships were not really ‘allowed’. As a queer woman, I want to read about them, but publishing is slow to change. We’re seeing more representation now, but it wasn’t around when I was in my teens; only in the last 3 or 4 years. So, I wanted to write something for myself as a teen. Considering queerness also adds more complexity to their stories.

Do you read much in your spare time?

Yes, a huge amount, and you have to as an author. I’m impressed by authors who can write competently without reading much. It betters my writing – I can read critically and see what doesn’t work in books I don’t enjoy, and vice versa. It also enables me to keep on top of market trends, because when you’re working for money, you have to consider what will be most saleable and marketable. If you aren’t on top of trends in writing style and content, you lose relevancy.

Do you have a favourite book, and genre?

Genre-wise probably YA fantasy. That’s what I write, and what I read most of the time. It’s escapist and doesn’t require too much thinking to enjoy it. That’s what’s great about them – they have these layers of depth that can be unpacked when you read them again. In terms of favourite books, probably ‘The Song of Achilles’; it’s excellent, and I read it when I was 16, so it was quite formative. Similarly, I read the Percy Jackson books when I was around 10 to 15, and absolutely loved them. They’re not necessarily the best books I’ve ever read, but I read them when they were pivotal for me.

How did your book get discovered by the publisher?

Traditional publishing has various layers; the top is my publisher who acquired the book and paid me, beneath that is my agent. She represents me, helped me edit, submitted to publishers, negotiated my contract, and pay, and does various other things for me. The stage of ‘discovery’ is where you query agents; you send out a pitch, synopsis, and extract – normally the first chapter. I queried my manuscript quite widely and had several offers. My agent is incredibly clever and understood exactly what I was trying to do. There’s a misconception that books get ‘discovered’ online. I know very few people for which that is the case, and it normally comes down to foreign rights. It’s difficult to sell something that’s been published online, because why would a publisher buy something that was available for free online? It’s not in their best interest, and you get copyright laws involved. One of the best things you can do is networking with other writers; they might make referrals, suggest an agent, or even reach out to them, and you’re likely to get more attention. I don’t think publishers are scouring the internet, because they have so much to do and get agented submissions which tend to be higher quality.

Did you look for an agent personally, or, as you said, did someone refer you to one?

I did a mentorship scheme, which was really helpful. It’s called Pitch Wars – published authors take unrepresented authors as mentees. You submit your work, and they mentor you and help you revise your manuscript for 3 months. Then there’s a showcase for agents to request from. It’s a way to get noticed quickly, although it’s incredibly hard, because it’s a very short window to revise your whole book. I basically rewrote mine – my mentors were fantastic, and had a great vision, but it involved deconstructing it and putting it back together. It added two new points of view; I wrote about 60,000 words in two months. It was sort of a referral, because their names were on it, saying we mentored this person, and agents will know these books are likely to be of a higher quality than what they see in their submission box. I had 6 offers from American agents through the scheme, and just 1 from a British agent. My agent is actually married to one of my lecturers.

Where did you find the mentorship scheme?

I found it on Twitter. My number 1 piece of advice for aspiring writers is to get on Twitter. There’s so much you can only learn from having someone look over what you’ve produced and highlight where you’re going wrong. It exposes you to incredible opportunities and people. It has bad sides as well, obviously, but it’s where I met a lot of established authors who have been really generous with their time.

It must have been really exciting to land this book deal. Is it something you expected or hoped to achieve?

I always wanted to be published, and there was definitely a tipping point where I thought ‘I’m going to be published’ before I sold it. I didn’t expect it to be this scale; to sell as quickly as it did. We went out on submission, my editor read it overnight, and offered on it the next Wednesday. I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was, and everyone prepares you, saying ‘the average advance for an author is about £10,000, it’s very low, you can’t live off it’, which is an important thing to brace yourself for. To have every expectation I had completely blown out of the water was amazing. I remember my agent rang me with the news, and I was just sobbing. It is very slow; I couldn’t announce the deal until 4 and a half months later. You have this massive thing, and then have to shut up and not say anything because it’s all under wraps. It’s definitely an experience.

You said that you’re writing your second novel?

Yes, I have 2 under contract –the second I haven’t written yet. A 2-book deal is quite common, and ideal because you know they’re not going to sink your first book and have no other investment. I have to hand in a first draft of the second book by next summer, then everything will be done before the first one even comes out. Lead times in publishing are incredibly long. It makes it all very bizarre – by the time you get to publication you’ve forgotten what happens in the book. Even in the 4 months between editing and selling, my editorial letter had all these things in that I couldn’t remember. It’s a very long process, but I’m excited.

Is the second novel going to follow on from the first?

It’s completely unconnected, the next one is set on Dartmoor – I’m from Devon – and it’s Austen-era, 1807-ish. It’s about a young woman who makes a Faustian deal with a bog demon to resurrect her murdered lover.

Is it based on folklore from around that area?

Yeah, the initial spark was this grave called Jay’s grave, which is unmarked and at a crossroads. Crossroads burials were reserved for sinful people, suicides, unreligious people, prostitutes. No one knows who this woman was, but flowers were appearing on her grave out of nowhere. I love the idea of this woman, who was basically forgotten, but someone cared enough to keep putting flowers there, and hundreds of years later as well, so there’s the supernatural aspect of maybe a ghost. The theory is it might have been a woman called ‘Kitty Jay’, so the title is ‘The Lovely Grave of Kitty Jay’, and I wanted to give Kitty a story. Then you need a character to put the flowers on the grave for hundreds of years, so I had to make someone immortal, or cursed. It’s fun to incorporate things specific to Dartmoor because it has these rich and particular aspects to it that enrich a narrative. The fact that it’s creepy and boggy, and people get lost on the bogs, imagine lights in the distance and go towards them and drown. There are scientific, normal explanations, but it’s fun to play around with it. I’m excited to have the energy to write it, because I’m doing my postgrad now, but I’ve got a full plot planned out and I’m still close with my Pitch Wars mentors, so I’ve talked through it with them. I’m hoping it will be good, and if not, my editor will fix that.

You mentioned the scientific side of folklore and mythology. Did your scientific background influence your writing at all?

It’s easy for me to say no, but I’m very rigorous with my research, and the way I approach writing is not the artsy way that others tend to expect. I’m a massive planner, break things down, set specific targets, and I’m very deadline-oriented. What I learned in my degree, such as understanding how to work to a deadline, has been helpful. A degree like Engineering helps your ability to take feedback, because you get a lot of feedback and not all of it is nice, so that braces you to be less precious about your work. Still, every time I get an edit, I’ll have a day blocked off to cry about it! There are definitely advantages, and the life experience is important. It would’ve been hard to go straight from school into writing. I’m never going to get direct experience of living in Ancient Greece, but you learn about interpersonal relationships at university, which you can adapt and lift and put into your novels.

So, not the content but the approach to writing?

Yeah. Once I’m more removed, I might consider writing something science-related, but right now, I keep them separate, because at any one point I’ll hate one or the other. I’ll be hating my life in terms of maths and statistics and want to write, then other times I’ll not want my book near me and want to do something logical that has a formula. Once I’m no longer in education I might end up with more crossover.

What did you enjoy about The Odyssey? And we heard a bit about your criticisms, but what other things did you find weren’t so great about it?

The appeal of The Odyssey is it’s incredibly clever. Odysseus and Penelope are very clever, there’s layers and layers of deception and trickery, and it’s delightful. Particularly with the watered-down version we give to kids, it’s your classic fun adventure story of getting from A to B. It feels like you could break it down into episodes of a TV show, with the Cyclops, the Harpies, the Clashing Rocks and Sirens. You have all these interesting mythological creatures, and it could be your first exposure to them. In terms of criticisms, the portrayal of women has got to be one; Penelope’s character is loyal wife, waiting for Odysseus, and he’s sleeping his way around Greece (some people don’t think he did that, but I’m definitely in the camp of ‘he was having sex with everyone’). It’s a bit tiring. She’s also often portrayed as blameless when it comes to the maids, and I think, ‘if she’s really that clever and manipulative, could she not have found a way out?’. It’s a classic, but also has bad aspects to it, so it’s fun to pick at.

You studied Computational Bioengineering here at Imperial, can you tell us a bit more about your background?

It was one of the streams of Biomedical Engineering – mostly general engineering with a tiny bit of medical science – then in my final year I pretty much exclusively did coding. I have an MEng, and now I’m doing my MPhil at Cambridge in Epidemiology, because I’m a bit more interested in the medical side than the engineering.

Was choosing Epidemiology anything to do with Covid-19, or were you already leaning towards it?

Everyone always jumps to that; I was definitely already veering that way. My final year project was looking at fungal infection and modelling it, which is very much epidemiology. Covid is one of those things I don’t find that interesting. I find fungal infections fascinating, and deeply frightening, because we don’t know how to deal with them. The most horrifying thing I can imagine is a fungal epidemic, because we have no defenses; it would be rough. But it turned out I’m good at stats, so I went for medical statistics. The actual course is Population Health Sciences, with different streams again, so I applied for Epidemiology, but I can switch over to Health Data Science, Public Health, or something else. It’s not all just Covid, fortunately, because that would be quite dull.

When you started studying Biomed, what kind of career were you planning to pursue in the future – did you have a plan?

Honestly, I applied to Cambridge because I don’t want to graduate, don’t know what I want to do. I was delaying the inevitable, but now I’m definitely taking at least a year to be a full-time novelist, and if I’m bored, I might do a PhD. I’m fortunate to be able to say my deal supports me and gives me scope to hang around for a couple years and experiment. Writing was always what I wanted to do most, but when applying to university it’s not a particularly practical choice. I probably would’ve ended up in consulting, or something equally as cliched for an engineer. Now the goal is just to be ‘full-time writer’ forever, which would be very fun. The best thing is getting to go everywhere. In 2023 when I debut, I’ll be out in the States, in Australia, going through Europe, and doing the Con Circuit and signing tours. That’s going to be amazing because you’re travelling but it’s either paid for or tax-deductible. The writing itself can be fun, but the best part is getting to share it with other people, connecting with people, and them saying, ‘what you’ve done is good’. I feel very much like a dog being trained, getting little nice things and thinking, ‘great, I’ll just carry on doing that!’. It’s great when you go into the office and meet your editors and PR and marketing teams, and they do their little marketing plan presentation, and I was in my chair crying. It’s everything you held inside your head, and suddenly 30, 40 people at your publisher have read it, and are working out ways to distribute it into readers’ hands.

Would you say not being so perfectionist is something you got out of your degree as well?

I got to the point in my degree where I would think ‘ah, the deadline’s coming up – is it done? Probably not’, and I think I have the same attitude with my edits. My last edits probably weren’t that good, but I got to the deadline and thought ‘well, these are done’ and handed them in. Some creative writing degrees are quite formulaic because someone is telling you how they write. You can’t tailor the course to how everyone writes, and I think it’s quite individual – It’s nice to do it unimpacted. It’s funny people always assume I’m doing Classics or English, and I say, ‘I don’t know anything about Classics, I Googled everything!’. It gets to the point where you’re putting in loads of time for tiny improvements, and I’m not going to that.

What advice would you give to Imperial students about university life and work in retrospect? Especially for students who like to read and write outside of university as well?

It’s easy to get caught up trying to do the maximum amount of work for your degree but reading and writing was so beneficial for my mental health. When I’m happy and not stressed, my work is better; they go hand in hand. If you’re killing yourself every day over the last few marks, you’re just going to have a terrible time. My overall advice would probably be: it’s not that deep. A 2:1 and a first – are they that different? Probably not. I know so many people who did what they wanted and didn’t necessarily get a sky-high first. The differences are smaller than you expect. You’re working towards one thing for 3 or 4 years thinking ‘I have to get a first’. Obviously, it’s nice to, but you don’t have to. Prioritise yourself. The things you do outside your degree will often be what makes you happiest and more interesting to an employer, but also as a person. We don’t need to revolve our entire lives around employability, and it’s not necessarily a good thing to do.

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