Sarah Vaughan | 'I am fascinated by why people are willing to put themselves in the public eye'

Sarah Vaughan | 'I am fascinated by why people are willing to put themselves in the public eye'

"I couldn’t stay away from Westminster. It’s a beautiful setting and the stakes are so high,” says Sarah Vaughan pictured below, who, with her third novel with Simon & Schuster, returns to the seat of power that played such a pivotal role in the smash hit Anatomy of a Scandal

Reputation is about a fortysomething female MP called Emma Webster, who proposes a bill to curb revenge porn. Like all female MPs, Emma regularly receives online abuse, and her anxiety ramps up to a hundred when her daughter, Flora, is accused of a crime and her involvement with a tabloid journalist means Emma ends up in court on a murder charge. The tagline for the novel is, “Reputation: The story you tell about yourself and the lies others choose to believe”, and Vaughan says: “I am fascinated by why people are willing to put themselves in the public eye—particularly women, who experience extreme misogyny, trolling, stalking, which places them in massive jeopardy.”

The germ of the story came from an interview with an MP who had nine locks on her front door. At the same time former MP Anna Soubry was receiving death threats and Heidi Allan (a former MP in Vaughan’s own constituency) had experienced a constituent posting a photo of her house surrounded by scaffolding on Facebook, then saying he had bought rope and inviting others to join him. The implication was that this constituent wanted to hang her. 

“I thought: ‘What would it be like to live under that level of threat all the time?’ I also started to wonder about how it might make your judgement alter, if you are living with that intense sense of anxiety. I would see death threats from all corners. How do you possibly exist like that?”

The book is also an exploration of the effects of social media on teenage girls. There are “myriad ways” in which women and girls are made to feel unsafe, says Vaughan, who has two teenage children herself. Her daughter is nothing like Flora, she stresses, but like most parents she is aware of how corrosive social media can be, because the cloak of anonymity it allows enables teenagers to be really vicious. Vaughan was herself bullied as a young girl and says she “wouldn’t have survived” if she had grown up in a world where people can send anonymous messages to each other. Flora is a hugely sympathetic character but makes a split-second, life-changing decision that feels horribly plausible. “I’m not Flora, but I wondered what it would be like to retaliate,” says Vaughan. 

The other question posed by the plot is the role of the media in politics. Is Mike the journalist friend or foe? Vaughan loved writing about political lobbying (she used to write about politics for the Guardian), and thinks that it is because of her journalistic background that the stories are so precise, despite the complex plots. “I am determined to be realistic,” she says.

Competing demands
Emma Webster is a woman of around 40 who is facing a crisis in her life, like the protagonists of Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Scandal and her 2020 novel, Little Disasters, which was about a paediatrician who has to make a very difficult professional decision about an old friend. All of these women wrestle with the demands of careers and families, and there is something about turning 40 that makes women reassess, says Vaughan, who faced a similar struggle after giving up her job at the Guardian after a difficult second pregnancy. “I have really wrestled with being someone who was quite high-flying and had a pretty good career. Suddenly I was at home, seeing my doctor husband having a good career… There is a huge tension for women between succeeding successfully and being the primary care-giver.”

After a period of “ineffective” freelancing, she stood up on her 40th birthday and said, ‘I’m going to write a novel’, and Vaughan is “immensely proud” of how she reinvented herself. Her first two books, The Art of Baking Blind and The Farm at the Edge of the World, were published by Hodder, but it was Anatomy of a Scandal (written out of contract) that propelled her to success. 

That book, published before anyone was talking about the #MeToo movement, is about a Tory minister who is accused of rape, his stay-at-home wife, and the female barrister who is prosecuting his case. It was an instant bestseller, reaching number eight in the Original Fiction chart and topping the Kindle charts, and in 2020 it was chosen as one of Richard and Judy’s 12 best novels of the previous decade. 

It has also been turned into a Netflix six-part series, starring Rupert Friend, Sienna Miller and Michelle Dockery. David E Kelley, who was behind “Big Little Lies”, and Melissa James Gibson (“House of Cards”) show-ran, co-wrote and co-executive produced the series, while S J Clarkson (“Jessica Jones”) directed and produced. There were a lot of women’s eyes on the material, meaning the final drama was sensitively handled, says Vaughan, who was able to be on set during filming last March. 

She has seen the first four episodes and says: “It feels incredibly faithful to the tone of the book; nuanced and thought-provoking. It looks sumptuous and the three leads are incredible—so much so that it made me cry.”

Diverging narratives
The Netflix drama made Reputation a better book, because she was giving notes on drafts of the script while writing the novel. “The court scenes were written in the autumn of last year as I was learning how scripts work. I learned so much in doing so: not least how telegenic settings such as the Old Bailey, the Strand, Westminster and historic London are; but it also reiterated how the structure of a court case allows for different points of view and diverging narratives.”

Little Disasters has also been optioned, by Rough Cut TV, headed by Ash Atalla, who is better known for making comedy shows. This would be his production company’s move into high-end drama and Vaughan would be “really proud” if this story made it to the screen, because it is about something that isn’t talked about often: maternal OCD. The character, who is suspected of having harmed her own child, is essentially gaslighting herself and female mental health is something that hasn’t really been portrayed, she says. 

In terms of novels, there will be another book coming from Vaughan after Reputation (S&S acquired Reputation in a two-book, seven-figure deal), although it is still in the early stages. It will also feature a strong female lead and will be about control and power, and reputation to a certain extent. 

“Anatomy... was sold a year before the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the eruption of #MeToo. Reputation was written in the shadow of this, and as I completed it, to the accompaniment of news stories about the murder of Sarah Everard,” Vaughan says. “If misogyny is an overarching theme, then it seems there’s still lots to write about.”