Sadie Jones' dreams of becoming a successful screenwriter never reached reality. Years of effort yielded nothing but her short career as a novelist could not be more different. Her debut book, The Outcast, is easily one of this year's hottest fiction books with glowing reviews - from the UK to Australia to Canada to the US - accumulating by the day.
A British mother of two married to an architect, Jones' career transition is paying dividends and she is rather taken aback by the international attention and the speed of change in her life. Suddenly she is flying across the Atlantic for media interviews and being named on the Orange Prize for Fiction long-list besides the likes of Anne Enright's The Gathering.
"The idea behind the book is to look at someone who is damaged. Someone who is an outsider," said Jones. "Once I had that thought in my head, the book took on a life of its own very quickly."
That broken person is Lewis Aldridge, who sees his mother drown. Set in the English commuter county of Surrey in the 1950s where counseling did not exist and a stiff upper lip was essential, Lewis struggles to make sense of life as a teenager after the drowning. Boozing, burning, and self-harming are followed by prison, and the latter half of the book continues after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. The novel offers menace, dark moments, and simmering relationships, and probably could only have been written by someone who is a parent.
"I had been thinking about writing a 1950s melodrama but in the end I set the book in the 1950s because it was a chance to isolate Lewis – it was a time when there were no websites to help him and nobody would understand him," added the author, who was born in 1967. "The book isn't about the 1950s, I just used that decade to tell the story. Sometimes, I feel I've lived through the 1950s because there is so much about the decade in our culture."
Surrey is full of well-to-do dormitory towns and villages – communities linked to London by a train station. The bread-earners leave on the 8.05 and come back on the 5.08. On the weekend, each community stirs into life. Think of Connecticut to the all-powerful metropolis of New York.
"Surrey is so small. I think there is a deadness to it because there are so few people living there full time," said the 40-year-old Jones, who lives in London and would probably be labeled as a ‘soccer mom' if she was North American. "The book isn't about teen angst – there is often no reason behind teen angst but Lewis has a reason for what he does, the drinking, the self-harming, the urge to be self-destructive."
The book took around a year to write and the process began after she gave up on being a screenwriter. "I was a struggling screenwriter, unemployed," she said. "I simply couldn't climb the ladder. I have one credit on a film that made me a tax-payer for one year. I didn't turn into an author because I had a plan – I just wanted to stay sane and keep writing."
The Outcast began life as a script before becoming a book but Jones was so insecure about its new format that she put the manuscript away "because I was embarrassed by it."
There was nothing to be embarrassed about. The Boston Globe wrote "Jones has written a novel that stands apart from rote imitation, and The Outcast offers the welcome promise of a literary career of originality and distinction." On the other side of the world, the Sydney Morning Herald said "For a young writer making her fiction debut, Sadie Jones writes with astonishing confidence and focus."
Although her second book is in the works, Jones is still juggling the dual life of full-time mother and part-time up-and-coming novelist. "I write from 9am to 1pm while the kids are at school and sometimes for longer if things are going well. I don't have time to be blocked, but I don't get much writing done in the school holidays.
"The reaction to The Outcast has been overwhelming, it's been lovely. I'm amazed people like it. This whole experience is new for me but I am enjoying it. I still can't walk past a bookshop without going in and looking to see if the book is on the shelves. When I ask the assistant if they've heard of The Outcast, they often say ‘You what?'
"My family has been immensely supportive. My husband is very proud and happy. The kids have been great too but I can't let them read the book – I just keep saying ‘there are adult themes.'"
In the UK, The Outcast has received extensive media attention. It has been BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime with actress Emma Fielding as narrator – it's a highly influential slot. "It was very odd hearing a female voice telling the story," said Jones. "I'd never heard it in a female voice in my head. It was also abridged massively but it certainly wasn't a bad experience."
Jones lists her favourite authors as Richard Yates, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Iris Murdoch with soft spots for Salinger and Capote, and she admits coming from a "weird artistic family." Her mother, Joanna, was an actress. Her father, Evan, was a playwright, poet and screenwriter. Her sister, Melissa, is also a writer.
Perhaps the great irony of Sadie's rapid rise as a novelist is that the movie rights to The Outcast will undoubtedly be snapped up soon and it will probably receive the Hollywood treatment.... something she wanted all along. "I'm 40 now and I've been banging on the door for a long time. Its good that people are talking about me now," she said.