Meet the Writer: Sophie Campbell

Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Sophie Campbell. You can learn more about her on Goodreads and follow her on Twitter.

Grab the Lapels: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

Sophie Campbell: I’ve always written for fun ever since I was a young girl, but I suppose the moment I decided to write professionally was when I received feedback from a bestselling author who told me quite bluntly that the black character I had written about didn’t make sense as not only was her English too perfect but she seemed far too intelligent for someone of her race and class. It was made clear that unless I changed the character’s ethnicity so that she was either white or mixed race, readers would not be able to relate to her. 

The experience was extremely disappointing, especially given that the author wasn’t that much older than me and had grown up in a diverse city. Yet she had no qualms with telling me that in fiction people of color can only behave in a certain way, and that a relationship exists between a person’s level of intelligence and their race, an attitude that is typical amongst most people who work in the British publishing industry, from the literary agents to the acquiring editors. Writing gave me an opportunity to address some of these prejudices by writing diverse characters that do not conform to editors’ assumptions. 

GTL: What was the process of writing and researching your book like?

SC: I knew I faced an uphill battle with my book Breakfast at Bronzefield as the core theme is to challenge the stereotypes people have of women in prison that tell us they’re either drug users, sex workers or uneducated women of color. Stereotypes that have remained unchallenged for decades. When is the last time anyone read a female prison memoir written by a working-class white woman, or woman of color for that matter? 

A lot of my research involved going to the archives and reading up on reports published about women in prison over the last ten years by the UK Ministry of Justice, which is the equivalent to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The writing and research stage were definitely the highlight of the publishing process as I was able to challenge some of my own biases. I realized that some women who find themselves in a cycle of reoffending have often been put on that path by an institution that is happy to provide them with a gendered education that does not bring them one step closer to gaining meaningful employment once they leave, meaning only 8% of female prison leavers in the UK go on to re-enter the job market. The fact that so many women leave prison with no home to go to sends many of them down the wrong path. It was also interesting being able to look back on my experiences and explain why so many professionals have certain beliefs about women in prison, such as the fact they’re more likely to be suffering from a mental health issue. What I learned from being in prison was that many women claimed to be ill in order to receive a lower sentence, especially as female defendants are disproportionately more likely than men to receive a harsher sentence as a result of gender bias that punishes women who don’t conform to the frail and well-behaved stereotype.

GTL: What was the process of publication like?

SC: As Breakfast at Bronzefield is self-published, I always knew it would be an uphill battle to get attention for the book and then Covid-19 happened, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing in the sense that some newspapers and bookstagrammers, who never in a million years would have looked at a self-published title, agreed to review the book, especially since so many leading titles had their publication date pushed back until the autumn. However, the crisis meant the publishing process took on renewed pressure as suddenly the whole country went into lockdown and what with keeping atop of my work and my studies, like most people I was having to adjust to ways of working where there’s no longer a separation between your work and your home life. Getting used to the ‘new normal’ definitely did take a long time, but if I had the choice I wouldn’t have done a single thing differently. 

GTL: What kind of writing do you wish you did more of and why?

SC: I’m still open minded in terms of the topics I’d like to write about in the future, but I’ll probably stick to the non-fiction side of things, as I like learning about the lives different people lead. Right now I’m working on a second book that examines Britain’s history of inner-city segregation dating back to the end of the Second World War, although I’m still at the research stage of things. I love thrillers; my absolute favorite is Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. I would love to write my own thriller one day, but it requires a lot of imagination to think up all those twists and turns, and although I know how to tell a good story, I don’t know if I’m quite ready to pen one of my own. 

GTL: In what ways has academia shaped your writing?

SC: I honestly could not have written Breakfast at Bronzefield if I hadn’t made the choice to go back to school. My style of writing has come on leaps and bounds, and more than that I’ve learned how to present a balanced argument and find resources to back up my points. I never had any intention of writing a memoir about my experiences, but one day I attended a guest lecture concerning women in the criminal justice system, and that’s what inspired me to write my own story. You get fed up hearing about prisons from people who haven’t lived that experience for themselves and unconsciously or not, they repeat these tired stereotypes that do more harm than good, such as presenting prisons as being filled to the brim with people of color. When I went to prison I was definitely in the minority as a black woman. 

GTL: How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

SC: It may sound strange, but I’ve actually kept my writing a secret from my friends, which hasn’t been too difficult as I chose to write under a pseudonym. In part, I don’t want to put them under pressure to tell me they liked the book even if they didn’t, but also because, like many women in my position, I’ve only told a few people about my past because it’s not so much people’s judgement you worry about, but the limits they try and place on you that may or may not be coming from a place of kindness. I remember telling one friend I planned on going back to school, and their immediate response was to tell me why bother as I have a criminal record, so no one will want to hire me regardless of how qualified I am. I’m not someone who likes compromise, and if I’m told something is impossible to achieve it will only make me try harder. 

GTL: Are you reading anything right now?

SC: Given the present situation right now I’m choosing to read books that offer an escape from everyday life. I’ve recently picked up Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark, which focuses on two magicians in London. The book took the author over ten years to write, but the writing itself is effortless, and despite being set in the nineteenth century the narrative covers themes such as sexism, imperialism, racism and class warfare. It’s a terrific read, and if you don’t have time to pick up the book you can catch the series on Amazon.

want to know more about campbell’s book? check out my review!

35 comments

    • Thanks, Laila. Both Campbell’s feelings and memoir reflect the way British society expected black individuals to behave a certain way, and that not aligning with a stereotype throws some people into confusion.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great post! I love that Campbell chose to work on Breakfast at Bronzefield as a way to challenge stereotypes and prove unhelpful assumptions wrong. The world needs more strong personalities like this, and it sounds like a lot of research stands behind her thoughtful opinions. I’m glad she had some luck getting attention for her book during this pandemic situation, and it sounds like she’ll be an author to watch for in the future as well! I’m even more excited to pick up this book now. Glad you were able to connect with her!

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    • I checked out her book on Goodreads, and based on the number of reviews she must be reaching out to a lot of folks. There are some authors whom I love who get published with a small press that doesn’t do much advertising who don’t have as many reviews on Goodreads as she does.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As always, an excellent interview. As an old white middle class guy I certainly have no doubt wrong ideas about who is in jail or why. Though the statistics in Australia are clear that POC are far more likely to be jailed than white people for the same offence. The War on Drugs mentality, the privatisation of prisons, the whole idea that people who make mistakes must be punished seems to me to have led to a system where it is very difficult for people to break away once they have been sucked in.

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    • I have NO CLUE how private prisons exist. They benefit from incarcerating people, so how is that….a thing? I guess I expect the world to be logical, and it’s just not. I should know that by know simply from how often my cat bites me after I pet her.

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  3. This was such an interesting interview. I’m glad the author decided to keep writing despite (or is it in spite?) of that rather discouraging comment from a professional writer, and I find it intriguing how she can also view the way people put limitations on her as a kind of kindness. I guess it goes to show that we should constantly re-examine our good intentions. I hope she keeps on writing – I’m definitely intrigued enough to add her book to my TBR.

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    • Reading her statements about research make me wish I were back in college with all the time in the world. I love researching, but it’s hard to read and research at the rapid pace they force on you in higher education, especially at a place with an enormous library like the University of Notre Dame.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oooh, what topic would you research on, if ever? I’ve heard higher education there is much more demanding in terms of research than it is here. A friend of mine who studied in Georgetown mentioned that he did more papers for his MS degree over there, while here the focus still seems to be classes and coursework, simply because we don’t have a lot of funding for research. It’s good for me, though, because research proceeds at a more relaxed pace.

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        • Typically the research is required for the class. You don’t get to just spend time on it unless it’s part of your stipend. Although it’s not my field, I keep thinking I would like to know more research about women who are care-giver age and COVID-19. I saw for a long time that most people who had COVID were women ages 35-50, something like that, and connected the dots that these women likely were caring for both small children and aging parents, thus being exposed to more people. I’d like to research publishing trends for books that start out self-published and then are picked up by a major publisher. I’d love to research how genre affects what men and women will read and where that began in their education.

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  4. Wow, what an inspiring woman. Even though its a short interview, there’s such a clear pattern of people telling her to moderate her expectations. And what a blow that must be to someone, and yet, she’s used it to drive her forward. Meanwhile, me, a white woman with all the resources at her disposal, I am constantly being told to ‘follow me dreams, nothing can hold you back’ but I seem to lack that furious drive and passion that this woman possesses. She’s, just…so inspiring.

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    • I heard such a confusing mish-mash of things my whole life, from “no one has to like you” to “I don’t want to tell you that you did a good job or it might go to your head,” to “you can do anything” and “with that degree, no one will turn you down.” Reality is such a complicated thing that I feel like I’m drowning in feedback most of the time. I think this is why people get so sad when the glam squad of Queer Eye leave: they’re ALWAYS positive to the person they’re helping that week, and we’re not used to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved reading this, and find Sophie’s commitment – both to her achieving professional goals AND to using her platform to defy stereotypes – so inspirational. I’m even MORE interested in reading this now (and your review already had me interested)!

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    • Hannah, I’m so glad! I think you and I were talking last weekend about how we try to read stuff that is different from who we are, and Breakfast at Bronzefield would fit that. I worry that most people are reading only Orange is the New Black because they love the show, but Piper Kerman’s experience reminds me more of a college dorm than a prison.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a great interview – and it really calls attention to the fact that all my (limited) knowledge about prison in the UK is limited to men’s prisons, and I really don’t know anything about what it’s like for women who are incarcerated.

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    • I’ve heard from different sources that there is no worse prisoner than a female prisoner. One is from a person who currently works in a facility who has listened to stories from correctional officers and another was the warden of an entire state, who said female inmates were the worst to control. I have to wonder what makes men in charge of women’s prisons think that women are just a problem and not that their unique needs are not being met while incarcerated? Women are more likely to connect with children, they can be pregnant and give birth while incarcerated, they have different physical, social, and mental health issues to address. Incarcerated men are not going through the same thing, but it’s true, we almost always think of men because they’re the majority of incarcerated people. However, the rates of women in the U.S. being locked up in increasing.

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  7. The thing the older author said to her about the person of colour in her book makes me so livid. I really hope this is changing, with books like Queenie and the gal-dem collection I’ve just read coming along and getting in front of people, showing something different from that horrible stereotype. Ugh. Well done and more power to Sophie. I’ll look forward to her next book!

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    • In the U.S. telling black people they can’t do things starts when people are children. We know that black children are told to set their expectations low, be reasonable, etc. There are roots in racism, of course. Malcolm X showed aptitude for communication and rhetoric skills when he was in school, and when he said he wanted to be a lawyer he was told by his teacher to try and be a carpenter, that that would be a good job for someone who looks like him.

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  8. Thank you for being interviewed on Grab the Lapels, Sophie Campbell! I really liked getting to know you and your writing better in this less formal venue. If you’re interested in non-fiction more than fiction, what inspired you to make Breakfast at Bronzefield fiction? I’m also curious Campbell, what did you study in school that made your writing so much better? I don’t want to assume it was Creative Writing if you are into non-fiction more…

    Great interview, Melanie. I always love the questions you come up with. Thank you for continuing this series!

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  9. Hi Jackie,

    Thanks for your comments. I can confirm the only parts of the book that were fictionalized were people’s names and identifying details out of respect for their privacy. Apart from that everything else happened as described.

    I’m currently studying a Social Sciences degree so I’ve had a lot of practice writing essays and using sources ethically, so really pleased that Melanie picked up on that :-). I’ve been to a few creative writing classes, nothing formal, but it was a great way for me to listen to different voices and figure out what type of genre I enjoy writing in. The plan was to do a biography writing class over the summer but with everything happening at the moment I’ve had to push that to the side for a bit, but currently working on another project xx

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      • Omg that’s a tough one. At the moment it would have to be Asquith Xavier who fought to end the colour bar practised by the British Railways company that prohibited people of color from doing jobs where they interacted with members of the public.

        I was introduced to him because of the research I’ve been doing to find out the people who built London’s residential districts – that is the segregated parts of it and I’ve been keen to learn more about the activists we don’t get taught about in schools.

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        • Oooh, I hear you on the people we aren’t taught about in school. I’d never even heard of Malcolm X when I got out of public school. I took an entire college course on the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and couldn’t believe how many small groups across the south were organized, people like Anne Moody, who was a leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Her autobiography is stellar.

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