My Life In Books: Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan was a political journalist before she started writing psychological thrillers – including Anatomy of a Scandal, which was made into a Netflix series starring Sienna Miller and Michelle Dockery. To mark the publication of her new book Reputation, we asked her about her reading habits, favourite authors and top book recommendations…
By Sherri Andrew /

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What Are You Reading Right Now?

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I can’t believe I haven’t read it before – I feel sure I must have in my 20s. It’s so good on the topics of privilege and carelessness, toxic masculinity and, of course, it has the most sumptuous location that’s almost a character in itself. The writing’s exquisite – I’ve been underlining phrases – and I love the way in which Fitzgerald captures the hazy torpor of this New England summer and the tension between the characters, while consistently building and maintaining suspense.

Which Book From Childhood Will Always Stay With You?

Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. The job of parents in children’s fiction is largely to be absent, but here the father’s a maverick hero and the father/son relationship is such a loving one. Like Fantastic Mr Fox, my other favourite Roald Dahl, the protagonists want to steal from the corrupt rich – in the animals’ case, because they need to live. And of course, we’re cheering them on all the way. 

Any Children's Books You Sometimes Revisit? 

I revisited Dahl when I read to my own children – and obviously the adult experience of reading them is very different to a child’s one. But a book has to be pretty special for me to return to it. I raced through Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series aged 13, and I’ve just started rereading some. I’d forgotten what a balm they are, and how astute the innocuous little-old-lady sleuth is.

Which Books Made You Want To Write?

I was a late starter, only writing fiction from the age of 40 because I didn’t have the confidence, or a sense that I might have a ‘voice’ or stories worth telling. But I can distinctly remember reading Jane Austen and DH Lawrence as a teenager – Pride & Prejudice and Women in Love – and being bowled over by what they were doing with language. Later, I remember reading more commercial fiction: Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Kate Atkinson’s Brodie detective stories, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and then psych thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. I think all these different influences combined in the end.

When & Where Do You Read?

I’ve just been on holiday and read on the beach, plane and by the pool – but usually I read in bed, and I try to read at lunchtime, when I’m on my own in the week. I also read in the car while I’m waiting for my kids to do their various activities. In an ideal world I would meet Stephen King’s dictum of reading two hours a day, but I have two teenagers, a dog and a husband, and I need to fit in a bit of exercise, too. 

Print Or Kindle?

Both. I far prefer print, but my bookshelves are groaning, and I also read under the covers when my husband’s asleep so Kindle fits better with that. I find I read faster on a device – so it’s good for reading proofs – but the reading experience is less immersive, and I tend to remember less of the book.

Do You Belong To A Book Club? 

I belong to two – and I invariably fail to read the books in time because I’m caught up reading proofs for other authors. Either that, or I’m frantically skim reading the afternoon before they happen.

How Do You Choose What To Read?

I have a teetering pile of proofs and it’s often the one that I know has to be read next. I’m also currently reading a lot of non-fiction for my current project, so much of my reading revolves around that.

Favourite Non-Fiction Book?

All the non-fiction I’m currently reading is political so I’m not sure I’d term any of these long-term favourites. But I found it interesting reading Kate Fall’s The Gatekeeper alongside Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MP’s Wife. Both document the same period in the Cameron years and Swire’s can be refreshingly acidic. 

I was a late starter, only writing fiction from the age of 40 because I didn’t have the confidence, or a sense that I might have a ‘voice’ or stories worth telling. But I can distinctly remember reading Jane Austen and DH Lawrence as a teenager.

Do You Have A Favourite Author?

No, although there are contemporary authors whose books I’ll always buy like Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson, or my friend Claire Fuller. I love thriller and crime writers like Paula Hawkins, Louise Candlish, Erin Kelly, Ian Rankin, Chris Whitaker, Imran Mahmood, Harriet Tyce, Lisa Jewell, Lucy Foley, Liz Nugent, Lucy Atkins and Eve Chase.

What's Been Your Favourite Read Of 2022 So Far? 

I loved Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age. That’s your cue to go and get a copy now. 

Which One Novel Will Always Stay With You? 

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies because it taught me so much about writing from a closed, third person perspective and because Cromwell seduces you until you realise how ruthless he is. But I also have to mention, The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley, Room with a View by E. M. Forster, Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Rebecca by du Maurier.

Do You Read Poetry? 

Not enough. However, I feel so grateful to have studied it as part of my English degree. Only last week an allusion to John Donne made its way into my current project. The same thing happened with TS Eliot and it happens a lot with Shakespeare, too. I’ll probably edit out the allusion – I don’t want to sound pretentious – but the theme Donne was writing about will inform the chapter. To be honest, plays are probably as big an influence on my work: The Duchess of Malfi whispers through my new book Reputation.

Which Book Would You Give As A Gift? 

Anything that I’ve recently loved, and sometimes books I’d love to read myself that have been well recommended. I try to suit the book to the recipient, though, so ideally it’s a book they’ll love at least as much as me. I recently bought my husband, who’s a foodie and loves Italy, Stanley Tucci’s Taste

What Was The Last Book That Made You Cry? 

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller.

Are There Any Books That Have Helped You Through Difficult Times? 

When the pandemic hit, I couldn’t read. My husband’s a doctor and I was worried about him, as well as about my parents and my children, so it was as if I couldn’t invest emotionally in fictitious characters when there were real-life people to be concerned about. But yes, books are a great way of transporting yourself from difficult situations and giving yourself a brief reprieve. It’s why I read at night: to immerse myself in something distinct from the never-ending to-do lists.

Favourite Literary Character?

I’ve a soft spot for Tom Ripley.

What One Book Should Everybody Read In Their Lifetime?

I hate being prescriptive about books, particularly since my daughter’s dyslexic and I’ve come to realise my expectation that everyone should enjoy reading just isn’t the case. Anything that moves them, excites them, transports them, or makes them think differently. 

What’s Your Favourite Film Or TV Adaptation Of A Book? 

I think it’s very difficult coming to a film or TV adaptation when you’ve already read the book – you have your own strong ideas for characters. Having said that, I’m very proud of the Netflix adaptation of Anatomy of a Scandal. What was so fascinating was that I didn’t feel precious about my characters and was happy for the plot to be tweaked. It feels both very faithful to my thriller – particularly in its depiction of entitlement and consent – and something distinct. And now, when I think of Kate, I see Michelle Dockery, and Sophie is Sienna Miller.

Books are a great way of transporting yourself from difficult situations and giving yourself a brief reprieve. It’s why I read at night: to immerse myself in something distinct from the never-ending to-do lists.

Tell Us A Bit About Reputation…

Reputation is my third novel about women and judgment, and my second political thriller. It’s about a female Labour MP called Emma Webster who stands trial for murder when a tabloid journalist with whom she’s become entangled is found dead in her home. But it’s really about the pressures women face when navigating public life. Emma faces jeopardy from all angles: she thinks she’s being stalked, she’s trolled online, sent abusive texts, and has to contend with her constituents. She also has a 14-year-old daughter, Flora, who is learning about social media so there’s a strong parallel there. Reputation was partly inspired by an interview I read with the Labour MP Jess Phillips, in which she spoke of having nine locks on her front door and a panic alarm by her bed. At the time, in May 2019, other female MPs such as Luciana Berger, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry also spoke about the abuse they’d received. I wondered what it would be like to live under that sort of pressure and how a character might react if they felt so consistently under threat? It seemed like a perfect scenario for a psychological thriller. 

Final Question – What Are You Working On Next?

I’m very superstitious about revealing anything until it’s written and I know my publishers love it. But it’s fair to say I’m still interested in judgment and power, and I haven’t switched genres. I’m excited about it.

Watch Sarah Vaughan on the third series of The Sky Arts Book Club on Wednesday 14th September at 8pm on Sky Arts. Episodes will air every Wednesday night at 8pm, including a Christmas special on Wednesday 14th December.

Reputation by Sarah Vaughan (Simon & Schuster UK, £8.99) is out now. Visit Waterstones.com


Inspired? Read Sarah’s Top Picks Below…

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