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.