“I used to sing [her album More Than Meets the I, under the name SAM, was released in 2003], and sound is pivotal to me: how sentences flow, rumble, and roll. My background in journalism strengthens me in weaving the story, and the acting and presenting helps tremendously with writing dialogue. I feel that each sidestep I’ve ever made has added significantly to the thing I love doing most: writing.”
But even with the writing, she has continued to take sidesteps. Find Me Gone’s history is a case in point. It was first published in Belgium in 2015, and received praise and an awards nomination, but then the next year, she “remixed” the book and published a new version of it with a different title. Why did she do that and what version are we reading now?
“This is an important point for me. Look at art these days: it’s very much alive. Songs are being mixed and remixed, works of art constantly evolve, a play is never the same on the last performance as it is on opening night. I think this dynamic is at the heart of what art is about. But when I look at literature, I don’t see that dynamic. When a writer delivers her novel, the work is usually done. The book is printed, shelved, and will remain the same forever. But you can tell every story in so many different ways; we do it all the time when we share stories with friends. Not one version is the same, so why would books be obliged to freeze in time?
“By ‘remixing’ my novel, I wanted to call for more playfulness and dynamics in contemporary literature. When my book went into a second printing, I decided not to tell a different story, but to tell the same story slightly differently. It’s not a completely new idea, of course. Vladimir Nabokov always kept changing and tweaking his novels. He said, ‘My pencils will outlast their erasers.’
“Find Me Gone is in fact the third version of this story. I combined the two earlier versions and added brand-new chapters in English. This is not simply a translation – I have reworked the novel – and for me, the English version is the ultimate one. For now.”
The novel itself is haunting, emotional, a story filled with secrets. In a small Belgian town in 1996, two twelve-year-old girls, Hannah and Sophie, are inseparable, all the more so because that summer girls start disappearing. And then it is Sophie’s turn. After a school dance, she fails to return home, and is never seen again.
Eighteen years later, Hannah is living in New York City, a successful columnist for a fashion magazine, but restless, adrift, and still obsessed with disappearances. Fed up with writing about the “It girls and the perfect parties,” she quits her job to write a book about three women who fascinate her, all writers, all who vanished: Agatha Christie, who went missing for eleven days in 1926 at the height of her success, and never spoke about it to anyone; Barbara Newhall Follett, an American prodigy whose novels at the ages of 12 and 14 became sensations, but who, at 25, left her house in Brookline, Massachusetts, one day and was never seen again; and Virginia Woolf, 59, filling her pockets with stones and walking into the river.
“Talented, wise women who raised their voices and then suddenly became silent. Why?” Hannah wonders. But the things she ends up exploring, the things she discovers, force her to confront the questions and memories she has suppressed for so long.
What happened to Sophie? The answer will come as a shock. Whatever you think is the truth – you’re wrong.
As Hannah pursues the research, her three subjects themselves, as seen through Hannah’s eyes, become living characters in the story. How did the author become interested in these women? Did she herself feel a special kinship?
“As a child, I used to read everything there was in the house, and when I had finished reading all my books, I used to sneak into my parents’ bedroom to steal books from their shelves. My mother loved Agatha Christie. My father is an avid Stephen King fan. I must have been ten when I read their books. Later, I was completely mesmerized by Virginia Woolf, her writing and her person. When I discovered Barbara Follett, she inspired me: so very young and talented, completely in love with words.
“I noticed that I mirror myself in the writers I love, comparing their ways, habits, stories to mine, often using them as an inspiration. But then I thought: who am I to presume I know anything about them? Am I not simply reducing these great women to ‘flat characters’ sticking their lives onto mine, as Hannah describes it in Find Me Gone: ‘click, drag, drop’?
“I decided to use this fascination in my novel; this tender line between ‘real’ authors and how my main character Hannah draws on them to solve the mystery of her best friend Sophie.”
Meuleman also learned a bit about the writing processes of the three women, and these exerted their own influence on her, even while she crafted her own.
“Agatha used to talk to herself and tell herself stories out loud during long walks on the English moors. In my case, it’s a little more prosaic. I usually sit somewhere in the back of a café with a cappuccino and quietly mumble the lines of a scene behind a laptop.
“I’m tremendously inspired by music. I love to write scenes with my headphones on, choosing a specific track to accompany the scene and then playing it on repeat. I can listen to one particular song again and again and again, for an hour or as much as it takes to get the scene finished. It’s a dreamlike state.
“As for the story of Hannah and Sophie itself, it was there before I started writing it down. I love creating tension and twists, but a truly suspenseful novel with a believable yet unexpected twist demands a lot of plotting and discipline. Suspense is such a delicate balance. You continuously need to ‘see’ the story through the eyes of your reader – where do you leave her guessing, where do you plant a clue?”
The creation of that writing process even extended to the chapter titles of her book, all of which are titles of movies, songs, or books.
“I wanted them to be more than just informative ‘road signs’ in the novel. I wanted the words to convey a certain mood in just a few words, and what better to use than titles of familiar movies and songs? When I say to you Candle in the Wind, these four words tell you so much more and convey more meaning and feelings than perhaps ten pages of text could.”
How much of Hannah and Sophie are in Meuleman herself?
“I was born in a seaside town in Belgium and lived in a village close to Bachte-Maria-Leerne, where Find Me Gone is partly set. Just like Hannah and Sophie, I attended a girls’ school and was taught by nuns, which must make it sound like I’m seventy years old. In fact, in Belgium, tradition is important and the tradition of girls’ schools and uniforms lasted for a very long time. I walked around in a dark green uniform for eleven years and I guess that’s the reason I still don’t wear green to this day.”
What about the fashion magazine Hannah quits in disgust? Has Meuleman herself felt that way? Another sidestep: “Let’s just say that as a Vogue journalist, I’ve been granted a look behind the scenes. I’ve marveled at the glamour and the beauty of the rich and famous, but have also glimpsed the much more ambiguous world underneath.”
That doesn’t mean that Meuleman shies away from personal topics. Her regular column in Vogue, “Some Like It Hot,” tackles every kind of gender issue – sex, equality, infidelity, body issues, falling for the wrong man, being “the other women” – often illuminated by very intimate stories of her own. That was difficult to do at first: “I struggled with the column because the subject matter was incredibly personal. But soon it proved to be the perfect format for me to talk about gender topics in a playful and open way. And the response was very positive; one of the perks of social media is that you can actually see how people share the story and continue the conversation about a topic you introduced or a question you raised.”
It’s a perk she sees, too in the television show she created, Sarah’s Savages.
“It’s an art show that focuses not only on the work of art, but also on the artist. I traveled from India to France to America and many other countries, where I was welcomed by the artists in their homes and their families. With this show, we wanted to break the barriers people sometimes feel when they think of modern art. Art is not hard or complicated! It’s the work of a person, using her imagination to create something beautiful or meaningful. And I’ve met so many beautiful and inspiring people during the show.”
That sentiment extends to the people she’s met along the way in publishing: “I think the success of every new author starts with someone believing in you. Writing may be an activity you do alone, and, yes, it can be really lonely sometimes, but getting a book ‘out there’ is something you do as a team. I’ve been very fortunate that my literary agent Cecile Barendsma of Cecile B Literary Agency ‘discovered’ the book and recognized its potential. And then my editor Laura Brown of HarperCollins signed the book, and Find Me Gone’s journey began. I worked closely with Laura on the English version, and now the wonderful and resourceful team of Harper Perennial is launching the book.
“It can be really daunting as a new author to get your debut novel out there, especially when you’re from a tiny country like Belgium. But, so far, the response has been incredible.”
Her next book is also a suspense novel, set this time on a mysterious group of islands. As with Find Me Gone, it’s structured in brief, fast-paced chapters, “and it will have twists and an edge, but that’s all I can tell you now!”
One thing seems certain, though. No matter what steps, or sidesteps, she takes, this is one writer who will not disappear.
Find Me Gone is now available to purchase.
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ABOUT SARAH MEULEMAN:
Sarah Meuleman is a Belgian author, Vogue columnist, and journalist. Find Me Gone, her first novel, will be released in the US and Canada October 2018 and in the UK in January 2019. It was nominated for the Bronzen Uil prize for best literary debut. ‘This clever, dark, and engrossing debut will suck readers in with its great story, exemplary writing, and spot-on pacing. With a wonderful twist at the end, this page-turning thriller is highly recommended.’ – Library Journal STARRED review.