Sara Barnard's Where the Light Goes is a powerful YA novel exploring grief, toxic fame and social media. Sara graduated in 2010 and became a content writer at an international online healthcare company in London - but what she had always wanted do was to be a writer. Sara had written 'countless stories' by the age of 13, the same year that she wrote a story about a girl. After many re-writes, that story became Beautiful Broken Things which was published by Macmillan Children's Books.
Where the Light Goes (Walker Books)
In Where the Light Goes, award-winning author Sara Barnard explores grief, toxic fame, and the real lives that lie behind the lens of social media. Her novel follows Emmy, who has lost her famous sister to suicide, and explores what happens to those left behind after her death.
Here, Sara Barnard discusses why she wanted to explore grief and suicide in this novel, and to shine a light on fame and the toll it can take, particularly on young women.
5* Review: 'I highly recommend this book for teenagers as so much can relate to life as a young person living in today's modern world. '
Q&A with Sara Barnard
1. Can you tell us about you as an author, and what have been your highlight moments in your career?
I've been writing for as long as I can remember! My dad was a copywriter when I was growing up, so seeing someone writing was very normal for me. I used to write stories by hand and on our family Amstrad computer. I enjoy writing emotion-led character stories set in the real world. I love exploring emotions and trauma through fiction - in a lot of ways, I think it's how we find the most truth.
My highlights are the books themselves, their characters and their readers. When you have a character who is close to your heart, and then someone comes to you and excitedly tells you how much they mean to them as if they are as real to them as they are to you, that's very special. Sometimes people send me songs that make them think of one of my characters - usually Suzanne! - and that is my favourite thing.
2. Do any of your books stand out for you?
They all do, for different reasons! Goodbye, Perfect won the YA Book Prize, so that is very special. Destination Anywhere was nominated for a German award, so I got to have a trip over there and meet my German publishing team, so that was also very special. But my debut Beautiful Broken Things and its follow up Fierce Fragile Hearts have my whole heart. The characters mean so much to me.
3. Can you tell us about your new YA book, Where the Light Goes?
It's about a 16-year-old girl called Emmy, who has just lost her very beloved and very famous older sister Beth to suicide. There's a huge public outpouring of grief for Beth - or, more accurately, her famous alter-ego 'Lizzie Beck' - despite the fact that she was treated very badly by the press and social media in life.
Emmy struggles to deal with all of that alongside her deep and painful grief for the sister she loved so much, while also trying to figure out how her life can carry on without her, when she'd always planned to follow Beth into stardom.
4. What prompted you to explore grief and bereavement in this novel, and difficult issues around suicide?
I had experienced a bereavement by suicide a couple of years before I started writing this book, and so I had a lot of complex emotions and thoughts I needed to work through myself. I had all of these feelings that had nowhere to go, so I had to find some way to get them out. I think it was always going to find its way into a book, and then Emmy and Beth came along in my head, and I knew they were the characters to explore it with.
I'm a support volunteer with the Samaritans, so it's a topic I'm very familiar with and feel very strongly about. Suicide is often either shied away from or dealt with quite badly in fiction, so I wanted to make sure it was done right, with an understanding of the Samaritans' guidelines as well as the people who are most affected.
5. Were you nervous about writing this novel, given how sensitive these areas are and also the emotional demands of writing the book?
I feel like I should say yes to this question, but the honest answer is no! I am at my most confident writing about emotions, the heavier the better. I knew it would be emotionally demanding, but in an important and cathartic way. I find writing fiction a really good way for me to work through and process certain experiences and emotions, and this book is a great example of that.
6. The relationship between sisters Emmy and Beth was incredibly close, even if difficult at times, and is beautifully described through Emmy's memories. Why did you decide to focus on two sisters for this story?
It could only ever have been about Emmy and Beth - their relationship is central to the story. In many ways, it is the story. I'd always wanted to write a story about two sisters, but nothing had ever felt quite right. I know now that was because this story was waiting for the right time.
7. Beth was part of a popular girl band. Why was it important for this novel that she was famous?
I wanted to put a spotlight (sorry) on the toxicity of fame, because I don't think it's something we talk about enough. Young women - also men, but especially young women - are so exploited and abused in the public eye, but it's treated like something normal and expected, when it isn't and shouldn't be. I wanted to give readers the sense of the real person behind the headlines; the Beth behind the Lizzie Beck. If they can feel that empathy for the fictional Beth, maybe that will help them to empathise with the more real-life celebrities, who are all just people too.
8. You use a variety of different media to tell the story - texts, clippings, social media, verse. Why did you want to take this approach, and particularly the social media comments shared by Emmy?
When you experience this absolute punch of unexpected loss and grief, you can't even think in complete sentences, and I wanted to reflect that on the page. My original idea was to have the whole book composed entirely of different media, with no prose at all until at least midway through the book. I wanted it to feel very fragmented and dissonant, which is how Emmy's mind is in this period. But the thing with writing a book in dissonant fragments is that it feels… very dissonant and fragmented! It wasn't a smooth reading experience at all, which was to the detriment of the story. So I reworked it to include a lot more prose, which allowed more of a sense of Emmy's feelings and emotions about what was happening, as well as just showing it on the page.
With the social media posts, I wanted to show how Emmy was impacted by the kinds of things people said about Lizzie Beck, both before and after she died. As readers are in Emmy's head, I wanted them to view the kind of post they'd already be familiar with, something seemingly tame like 'lol you can't sing' posted under a singer's video, but see it from Emmy's perspective, where someone is saying this about her very vulnerable sister. And then ratchet it up a gear to the kind of abuse Beth was receiving on a daily basis.
9. What would you like your readers to take from Beth's experiences?
If it is just that there is a real person underneath the gloss and the headlines of a celebrity, that will be enough.
But also, the thing with Beth is that she had a difficult life and she was very unhappy, but she loved Emmy so much, and Emmy loved her right back. Emmy was a light for Beth in life, maybe more than Emmy realised, and that is a very special thing. We can all be that for people we love in their lives, even when they're struggling. And even though Beth died, it doesn't diminish how important their relationship was in her life, and how much that love and care mattered. That can be a hard thing to remember if you lose someone, especially to suicide, but it's so important.
10. How did you feel when you saw this as a finished book? Have you started writing another novel yet?
I was very proud to see the finished book. The design team at my publisher, Walker, did an incredible job and it looks amazing.
I haven't started a new novel yet. This one took a lot out of me! I'm waiting for the right thing to come along.