Sarah May: War on the home front

Versatile novelist Sarah May has followed up her stint in the strife-torn Balkans with a darkly comic return to Thatcher-era suburbia. Emma Hagestadt meets her
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It's hard to think of a young novelist more difficult to pigeonhole than Sarah May. At the age of 26 she burst onto the literary scene with a bold futuristic debut, The Nudist Colony (1999). Next came Spanish City, (2002), a historical novel set in a northern seaside resort, followed a year later by The Internationals, a shrewd political satire debunking Western involvement in Kosovo. Now, the genre-hopping May has once more defied expectation with a deliberately kitsch domestic comedy lampooning the Thatcher years.

"You are meant to come on to the market as this finished product," says May, scooping up toys in her south London kitchen. "But actually I've learnt so much since I started. My latest novel is the one I'm proudest of."

The Rise and Fall of the Queen of Suburbia (Harper, £6.99) is a hyperbolic farce revolving around the residents of a housing estate near Gatwick airport. In a dark-hued soap that owes more to Mike Leigh than Desperate Housewives, May says she wanted to talk about "intelligent women who never found their place" and to "understand where we are now".

Our guide to life on Pollard Close is frustrated wife and mother Linda Palmer. A "spirit level" of Thatcherite values, she spends her days working out with the Green Goddess and spying on her neighbours. Fascinated by their interior décor, sex lives (more thrilling than hers) and dinner-party menus (cheese and chocolate fondue), Linda is a woman whose hysteria "can't be contained" behind the pampas grass of number eight.

May is no stranger to suburban life. Born in Northumberland, but brought up in a cul-de-sac near Horsham in West Sussex, she says that her own childhood was "very much" the inspiration for the book. "I think I thought it was hell, as a child, because nothing ever seemed to happened - of course it did, it just happened out of sight. A stained sheet is much more interesting than a clean white one."

While mocking Linda Palmer's suburbanite pretensions - and by extension the Thatcherite credo - May's novel exposes secrets and lies of a more intimate nature. Pollard Close, like Desperate Housewives' Wisteria Lane, is a "way of talking about really important issues", including the "darker places" of marriage and motherhood. "In the past I've shied away from domestic," says May. "Then I decided: I'm going to get as domestic as I can, but also as big as I can. Reading [Jonathan] Franzen's The Corrections was a huge influence, and showed me I could do it. "

In person, May, like her books, is an attractive mix of the serious-minded and the suggestively subversive. She's a writer with a hearty appetite for social embarrassment: Queen of Suburbia culminates in a drinks party that makes Abigail's look smart. Yet her fiction is also concerned with fleshing out the bigger picture: sexual dysfunction, depression and maternal rage. "Even at her most hideous," says May, "I feel very very warm towards Linda." Against an entertaining backdrop of telling circumstantial detail - the collapse of Laker Airways, the Brighton bombing - the novel, like Franzen's, builds up a page-turning portrait of family life. Emotionally excluded by both her husband and lumpish teen daughter, Jessica, Linda's thoughts turn to murder. Instead of which, she runs over the family pet, with hair-raising results.

Using comedy "to explain tragedy" is something that May discovered while working on her third novel, The Internationals. Set in and around a Macedonian refugee camp during the Nato bombing of Serbia, it was "very much a novel that arose out of a situation". In 2000, she spent three months in Skopje where her husband, Benjamin, was working as a drama therapist for the charity Care. "While I was there, I happened to read some really terrible journalism about Srebrenica and that started me wondering: how do you talk to a world that is worrying about whether their Waitrose shopping will arrive in time?"

The novel, with its ambitious cast of depressed diplomatic wives, dignitaries and displaced nationals, exposed some unpalatable truths about how the work of foreign aid workers and NGOs is viewed. "The Kosovan children didn't understand what the hell we were doing there," says May. "Why didn't we go home, where we could drink all the Coke we wanted and watch widescreen TV?" According to her, The Internationals posed no more of a challenge than writing her current novel. Breakdowns and extra-marital affairs follow the same course whether they take place in the Balkans or Biggin Hill. "Suburbia is life at its most banal. But for people who've been through something like Kosovo, it's what they dream about. Suburbia is meant to be the place where nothing happens."

Although she is now happily ensconced in bohemian East Dulwich, May's own personal life hasn't been without its hiccups. "I had my first son, Gabriel, when I was 19," she says. "There was a feeling that because I was middle-class I should have known better. Despite all my compulsive reading as a child, I was incredibly naïve. I remember thinking that I would be pregnant for 18 months."

May embarked on an MA in creative writing course at Lancaster University, but hadn't thought through how she would write, study and take care of a baby. "I kept notebooks during this period that eventually became the basis of The Nudist Colony." Moving to London, where she worked for a pharmaceutical label translator and later in the loan syndication department of a Japanese bank, she finished her first novel under the desk. "I really liked working for the Japanese - nobody said more than they had to."

Critics often describe May's prize-winning debut as experimental, but May says she couldn't have written The Nudist Colony any other way. "I wasn't deliberately trying to find a new voice. I now think that if I wrote it again, I'd write it as a children's book. I've learnt so much technically since then. I've just reread Jane Eyre. The sentences are so long, broken up by endless semi-colons. There's a really beautiful inherent rhythm to it. "

Aside from the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, May doesn't read many women writers. "I don't want to be a woman writer. I want to be a writer," she says, with a passionately held conviction about the power of literature that has something pleasingly high-minded about it. "When I go to dinner parties and say I'm a writer, people always give me a sales fact about JK Rowling. Or ask me what I do for my day job."

Judging from May's bookshelves, there's room for pulp fiction among the Victorian greats. American crime novels are a current obsession. "My characters don't always necessarily tell the truth, but they're always truthful. The truth isn't always palatable or desirable, but crime writers make it addictive."

May's second son, William, three today, is due home for his birthday celebrations. Are coffee mornings in East Dulwich so very different from those of her Horsham childhood? Doesn't it all boil down to a question of taste? May's work in progress, a sequel to Queen of Suburbia, intends to answer just that. "My next novel will be set around here," says May. "It's very much about the Blair years, and in order to understand what we're going through at the moment I had to go back to Thatcher, real time".

Particularly interested in the "cyclical nature of women's psychosis", May is keen to catch up with the adult Jessica, Linda's CND banner-waving daughter. "When you're a teenager the idea of nuclear war is far more tangible than comparing hire purchase deals on a washing machine," she says. "But what happens when children grow up? What have Thatcher's children become?"

Intuitive beyond her years - she's still just 34 - May has clearly made good use of her time on the school run. "Whatever society says, marriage is a fascinating institution," she says. "You make friends with another mother, and then you meet their partner... and then you think..." she smiles, further illustrating her point with a Rubik's cube-style flourish of the hands. "I feel sorry for the men."

"Queen of Suburbia is very much a book about families and the small society that families are," concludes May. "If you learn how to survive your family, then chances are you'll survive the big wide world. The bottom line is that the majority of parents love their children and the majority of children love their parents. There just happens to be infinite room for manoeuvre between all this love."

Biography: Sarah May

Sarah May was born in Northumberland in 1972, but moved to Horsham, West Sussex, aged two. She studied English at London University and creative writing at Lancaster. Her first novel, The Nudist Colony (1999), was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Spanish City (2002), was awarded an Amazon Writers' Bursary. She has also worked for a TV production company and a Japanese bank. The Internationals (2003) was inspired by a visit to Macedonia after the 1999 Kosovan crisis. The Rise and Fall of the Queen of Suburbia is published by Harper Collins. Married to theatre director Benjamin May, Sarah May lives in East Dulwich with her two sons Gabriel and William. She doubts if she will ever make it North of the River.