Hamish Downie’s Five More Questions With Contrarah aka Sarah Louise Dean

Editor Note: Hamish has another in his series of Five Questions With…

Hamish came up with this idea because he was accumulating too much material for his Famous News Sushi column and asked if he could do these mini-interviews. Why would we say no?

Thank you Hamish for being such a trooper for us. We really appreciate all for your hard work.

Let us know what you think of these interviews in the comments below.

TGG: Today we welcome back Contrarah, up-and-coming UK filmmaker, and host of the hit podcast “Beyond Bechdel”. We interviewed her back in the early days of this column before it was spun off from News Sushi. You may not know that she’s also an accomplished novelist, and I had the privilege of reading her debut novel, “Doll’s House”. Without further ado, could you tell us a little about what your novel is about?

SLD: The book follows Doll Tessier from her teenage years to adulthood. Doll’s provincial life is changed when she meets an intriguing stranger, Mei Liu, who manages kodoku – or professional friends. Mei trains Doll to provide friendship to people for money as a way to escape poverty. Later, tiring of kodoku life, Doll meets James Devonshire, a wealthy, troubled man of Mei’s acquaintance, who has been indoctrinated into a misogynistic cult. With Mei’s help Doll uses her skills to get closer to James. Doll discovers that James is involved much deeper in the cult than anyone imagined, and the reasons for his strange behaviour come from an unexpected source.

TGG: Readers are not ready for what a page-turner this book is. It reminded me a little of Margaret Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye”. Could you tell us about your inspirations for the novel?

SLD: Sure! About 5 years ago I became very interested in 2 different subjects I had read about. One was the rise in incel groups for
disaffected men who were finding growing female empowerment to be a threat to them, and sought solace in male friendships online. The other was the loneliness of people in big cities and the rise in people wanting company but finding it difficult to make friends. People were now paying “professional friends” known as kodoku to spend time with them. I found the idea of transactional friendship to be fascinating, because I think all friendships are somewhat transactional and because there’s something incredibly sweet and sad in these friendships. What drew a person to do this job and what drew a person to pay for friendship. Then I realised that these two groups are at odds with one another idealistically speaking, yet also have things in common. I wondered, in a fictional narrative, how would an incel and a kodoku meet? Could a female professional friend change the mind of an incel by gaining his confidence? And what led both of these people becoming who they are.

TGG: The novel deals with some very unique worlds. What did you learn while writing the novel?

SLD: This is a good question! The obvious answer is that I learned far too much about how incel groups operate during my research, which was a tad depressing! Although I hasten to add the events depicted in the book are more outlandish than I found in my research! I also learned that having many characters in a book is time-consuming in the writing, trying hard to give them unique personalities – working from different points of view. I wanted every character to have personal motivation and to elicit empathy even if readers can’t sympathise with them. Technically, I learned a lot about plotting. I’m not a writer who plots the entire story first and then writes it. Instead, I start with an idea and build and build with chapters and see what comes out in the mix. But as this book reveals mysteries, after I wrote the first draft I went back and forth through maybe 4 drafts, adding parts and changing the order of chapters many, many times. I wouldn’t advise this approach!

TGG: This would answer one of Ben’s questions! So, the novel touches on the institution of the British Public (For US/Australian readers – Private) Boarding School system, both how it raises children, and also the fallout from the institution in adulthood. This is a theme we’ve seen in “Another Country”, “Harry Potter” and even in Rupert Everett’s autobiographies to name but a few. Why do you think this institution is such a large part of the British identity? Sorry for such a big question that probably requires an essay to answer.

SLD: I can talk about my interest. I went to state school but then worked in a field where I met lots of people who had Private
schooling, plus I love Harry Potter so to some extent I glamourised it in my head. Perhaps to exorcise my demons I looked at how it can be a breeding ground for positive and negative ideas while also enjoyed conjuring the structure and locations on the page. Class is a huge part of British identity all the way back to royalty and feudal systems, but although they’ve largely gone today, public school remains, and distils this in an identifiable palatable form. I hadn’t thought about it til now but I also grew up near Eton and saw the boys in robes often so that must have been an influence!

TGG: A little birdie tells me you are working on a second novel. Are there any teasers that you’d be willing to share?

SLD: Ha ha! The novel is a love story, about fear of intimacy and what we’re wiling to do instead of taking leaps of faith. It asks whether it’s possible to control our feelings and whether happiness comes from the known or from surprises. Each chapter alternates between the two main characters Izzy and Jake. I’ve been struggling with finding a title for it for 2 years!

TGG: Finally, how can we best support you? Where can we buy your book, and are amazon or goodreads reviews more helpful?

The book is on amazon as an ebook and I’ll shortly be making it available to print. Please read it! And yes all reviews on goodreads
etc gratefully received. Please also tweet me @contrarah

Buy book here: https://www.amazon.com/Dolls-House-Sarah-Louise-Dean-ebook/dp/B07PV2M91L

Leave a review on Goodreads:


Catch up on our first interview (scroll down):

Listen to our interview with Contrarah on my podcast:


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