Interview with Sarah Franklin

In Sarah Franklin’s latest novel – How to Belong – one of the main characters has narcolepsy and cataplexy. Narcolepsy UK asked Sarah about the book, her motivations for writing about narcolepsy and how she set about researching the condition.

Q: What is How to Belong about?

A: How to Belong tells the story of two women, Jo and Tessa, who both move back to the small rural town where they grew up and end up sharing a house. Initially wary of each other, the novel charts what happens when their tentative friendship causes changes in their lives. 

I was really interested, in this novel, in the concepts of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’. What happens if, in order to become your ‘true self’, you feel you need to leave the place where you were raised? And what happens if, and when, you decide to return? Will you have changed and, more to the point, what about the place and the people you left behind? So many people have either chosen to leave their childhood home, or stayed, and I thought it would be really interesting to explore all sides of this. 

I also really, really wanted to write about ordinary people, living ordinary lives, rather than the elevated and exotic lives you sometimes see in fiction (though they can be fun to read about!). The characters in this book work as a plasterer, in the local Co-op, in the nearby factory, and they’re worried about the cost of school uniform and how to finish the house renovations. Jo and Tessa both do work that’s considered typically ‘male’ – Jo is a butcher and Tessa is a farrier – and I was keen to see what happened if you subvert those societal norms. 

Q: The novel has two female protagonists. Tell us about Jo and Tessa.

A: Jo is in her late twenties. She left home to become a barrister, but is disillusioned with London life, her job and the misogyny she finds in her workplace. When her parents announce they’re retiring from the family business – a butcher’s shop – Jo decides to return to her roots and persuade them to let her continue the family legacy and provide a service to the community she holds so dear. She’s also hugely looking forward to reconnecting with her friendship group, particularly her oldest friend Liam. Things don’t pan out as Jo expected, and she’s forced to readjust her expectations both of herself and of rural life. 

Tessa is a farrier who has moved back to the cottage she inherited when she self-sabotages her only chance at happiness due to fear. A traumatic incident in her childhood led Tessa to lead a very insular life, a habit that became entrenched as she grew older. She’s back very much against her own best interests, and although he’d rather live alone, financial pressures force her to take in Jo as a lodger.

Q: Tessa has narcolepsy and cataplexy. How did you set about researching the sleep disorder?

A: I have a good friend who has narcolepsy and cataplexy. Before I even started to write the novel, I asked her permission to include elements of it in the book. She was enormously generous and not only agreed but said she thought she might find it cathartic to chat about life with narcolepsy and cataplexy. We had lots of discussions, which were hugely helpful for understanding the invisible aspects of the condition – how you feel, and how it affects your life. Tessa is nothing like my friend, but her experiences were invaluable. I really, really, wanted to make sure I was portraying the condition accurately, and that really helped. I also read everything I could get my hands on and spent a lot of time on forums for people with narcolepsy and cataplexy. Narcolepsy UK gave feedback on an almost-final draft and helped to steer me (hopefully) to an accurate portrayal.

I tend to be research-inclined whatever the subject – to make sure I was writing properly about being a farrier, our local farrier took me out with him for the day, and the local butcher very patiently showed me how to make sausages! In my ‘other’ life I’m an academic, so research is a big part of the process. This went double for narcolepsy and cataplexy.

Sarah Franklin is a senior lecturer at The Oxford International Centre for Publishing. She is the author of two novels, Shelter (2017) and How to Belong (2020), both published by Bonnier Zaffre.