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Meet the Newcastle-based Author of Fertile Ground
April 2024
Reading time 3 Minutes

Local author Sally Grey tells Living North how she got into writing, and the inspiration behind her debut novel, Fertile Ground

In a worryingly believable take on our future, Clementine struggles with infertility in a society threatened by overpopulation and an extremist movement against pregnancy. She returns to her childhood home to mourn the death of her parents and reconnects with the people there whilst tending to her mother's thriving vegetable patch, until she discovers her mother's hidden laboratory and the truth that could affect the future of everyone's life. We spoke to author Sally Grey to find out more about her debut novel.

Tell us about yourself and your background.

I grew up in a tiny, quiet village in North Yorkshire, surrounded by farms and wide open spaces. I moved to Newcastle for university when I was 18 and never really left. Now, I work for a marketing agency, writing content for a variety of different clients. I’m lucky to be close to my family – my parents and sister are always my first editors when I start writing something new. Of course I love to read and write but I’m also quite a social person and spend a lot of time catching up with friends and eating out. I’m a huge foodie and I can definitely bake a good cupcake, but I can’t cook actual meals to save my life. I even once managed to burn soup!

How did you get into writing?

I’ve always loved both reading and writing – from a very young age I had a notebook where I would write all my story ideas down. I still fill notebooks with my initial ideas and snippets of writing. I started to take my writing seriously when I took my first creative writing module at university and received some encouraging feedback from my tutor. That’s when I started to think that maybe other people would enjoy reading my work and I began sharing my pieces more widely and gained the confidence to submit my work to magazines, agents and publishers. Once I start to write about characters that I love with a storyline that feels gripping and pacy, I feel almost compelled to keep going. I can’t stop thinking about the characters, and the lives I’ve created for them, until I’ve got them down on the page.

Where did your ideas for the characters and their stories in Fertile Ground come from?

I wrote the bulk of Fertile Ground during the Covid-19 lockdowns. I had moved back home to my parents’ house in the North Yorkshire countryside and I started thinking about the isolation, worry and fear I would have felt if I had been completely on my own in such an unusual situation. This is where the initial idea for Clementine’s character came from. A lot of my characters and their backgrounds will evolve from a small point like this and, one day, they just show up in my head almost fully formed! I know what they look like and how their personalities interact with one another – then I try putting them into different settings and situations and writing about how they would react. I also took a lot of inspiration from my surroundings and the nature I could see during my early drafts. I would sit at a desk facing my parents’ back garden and watch the flocks of birds nesting in the trees. We also had a pheasant who would parade around our garden and he ended up becoming quite an important character in the book. Luckily, the real pheasant didn’t meet the sticky end that my fictional one does.

What was your inspiration for writing Fertile Ground?

A huge inspiration for me was the way in which some people reacted to the lockdowns and the clear abuses of power we saw from those in charge at the time, breaking their own rules. These negative standpoints came together to form the extremist group #stopoverpopulation that my characters discover. The more recent news about the overturning of Roe vs Wade and the control that strangers, often men, are able to have over women’s bodies also informed Fertile Ground. I think it’s a kind of insanity that someone entirely unknown to a woman can decide whether she should go through a pregnancy, endure a birth and then care for and raise a child without taking into account her thoughts on the situation. I started to think about the extreme opposite of this viewpoint and what it would look like if someone was denied their own fertility because that’s what someone else thought was best.

How have readers been reacting to Fertile Ground?

The reaction has been amazing! I’ve had so many lovely messages and reviews from people who have read the book, telling me about their favourite scenes and the plot twists that they didn’t see coming. It’s so surreal to hear people talking about the characters and the story that I just made up in my head. I love it when readers tell me about their interpretations of the book and how different people have been able to take different messages from it.

How does it feel to have your first book published?

It feels brilliant, but also a little overwhelming! Publishing a book has been a dream of mine since I was small, so for it to actually come true almost doesn’t seem real. I’ve had some great support from my publishers – The Book Guild – and my friends and family in helping me market and promote Fertile Ground. I am also part of a lovely community of bookstagrammers and authors on Instagram who have been there to offer advice and some who have even posted reviews of my book on their pages. It’s been lovely to receive images of the front cover of my book on the tube, on an aeroplane and even in another country, with readers telling me how much they’ve enjoyed it. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do some of the promotion, like radio and newspaper interviews, without the support of everyone around me.

What challenges did you face in writing it?

I think the writing process is the easiest part for me. Once I have an idea that grips me, I’m able to get into the flow of writing and just let the story unfold on the page. I almost let the characters take over and put them into different situations, writing about how they would react. The challenge for me comes during the editing process, when I have to decide which scenes to keep and which ones to cut. I have loads more interactions between my main character Clementine and her brother Billy and even some flashback scenes featuring their parents that I decided not to include in the final novel because they didn’t move the story along. Pace is really important to me – I like a book to feel fast and exciting – so I often end up editing out some of the quieter scenes.

Advice for budding writers?

Don’t be afraid to put your work out there – submit to competitions, send your work to agents and open publishers, let friends and family read your ideas. Also, don’t put yourself down if you get knocked back – the submissions process is full of rejections, but this doesn’t mean your work isn’t good, it just isn’t to that particular person’s taste. Always try again and keep submitting!

Sally's Favourites: Ouseburn, The Great Gatsby, Mother Mercy, Murder They Wrote with Laura Whitmore and Iain Stirling, The Heifer

Your favourite place to walk?

I love walking down the Quayside and through Ouseburn.

An item you couldn’t live without?

Probably my laptop – it’s where I write up all my ideas and order new books!

A book / series / podcast you recommend?

The podcast Murder They Wrote with Laura Whitmore and Iain Stirling – great if you love true crime!

Your favourite book of all time?

That’s a really tricky one! Probably The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I love the faded glamour atmosphere of the 1920s.

Your favourite places to eat and drink?

The Heifer in Scorton is a family favourite – it has a great menu and lovely atmosphere. For drinks, Mother Mercy in Newcastle has a great range of cocktails and gorgeous décor.

What’s next for you?

I hope the opportunity to write more books! I’m currently putting together a few short stories and I have a novel-length piece that could act as a sequel to Fertile Ground, following some of the same characters but set years in the future. I also have a couple of author appearances set up for later in the year where I’ll be part of an author panel – and I hope to be able to do some book signing events too! 

Fertile Ground is on sale in all good bookshops now.

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