Sarah Vaughan on her timely thriller Anatomy of a Scandal

Sarah Vaughan interview

Yesterday I reviewed the brilliant Anatomy of a Scandal, whose publication and release into an audience reading about #MeToo, sexual abuse, and a whole host of other issues directly affecting was the best accident ever. It is borne out of author Sarah Vaughan’s own #MeToo experiences, and her her work as a political journalist.

If you think this means it’s going to be an intense (this is putting it mildly) read, you’re right. This is a thriller that is going to make you realise just how often you’ve seen men like James, and women like Sophie or Kate — and how much further things have to go.

What in your experience influenced the central plot of Anatomy of a Scandal?

I literally dreamed the plot. I’d been having a discussion with two girlfriends about a footballer who’d been convicted of raping a young girl and who was appealing against that conviction. I felt unsettled at the way in which the media judged the girl, and I suppose I started thinking about what we’d now call my own MeToo experiences.

I’d previously been a political correspondent on The Guardian and I’d seen how a few politicians could treat the truth flexibly, or at least how one had when it came to his having an affair. Before I became a lobby correspondent, I’d also been covered various high-profile trials and was intrigued by the drama of a court. So all these aspects – and my experience reading English at Oxford in the Nineties – fed into the dream and the novel.

It might be a massive understatement, but the timing of the release of Anatomy of a Scandal is everything. Thus far, have you had any reader feedback (or general interaction) about Anatomy of a Scandal in relation to the changes moving through our awareness/society right now?

It’s what everyone’s picked up on. I actually finished and sold the novel a full year before the Harvey Weinstein revelations broke so this wasn’t written in reaction to that news – as some reviewers have thought – but before it. That coverage of the footballer in the rape case meant the issue of consent, and of misconduct by successful men, was in the ether.

It’s been uncanny how, in the UK, the issue of sexual misconduct has focussed on MPs and how some details of their behaviour have tallied with details in the novel. But readers are also seeing parallels between Anatomy – with its focus on entitled, powerful men – and the President’s Club charity event, investigated by the Financial Times, at which young hostesses were sexually harassed and groped. I hope that, now that the elephant is blundering round the room, and society’s unable to ignore the issue, readers will keep seeing parallels.

If there was one thing you’d like readers to know about Kate, Sophie and James to get them in to the book, what would it be?

Kate, who’s written in the first person, has a real desire for justice. Outwardly, and professionally, she appears confident and successful but she’s damaged and flawed. Sophie puts her family above everything, including perhaps what’s best for her. Her sense of self has diminished but I think many women will sympathise with her situation. And James? Although he has some good qualities – he’s a loving father – he’s a narcissist with such a strong sense of entitlement that he believes he’s always right.

I read an interesting review of your book that said Anatomy of a Scandal is not about rape, but about male privilege and toxic masculinity in our society. In writing about toxic masculinity, about women and their power (and lack thereof), what did you know you had to get right in the story?

I think it was the Independent that said that. I disagree that rape – or more particularly consent – isn’t at the heart of Anatomy of a Scandal: to me, it’s the novel’s central issue. But I would agree that the novel very much explores this kind of excessive male self-confidence and entitlement.

I think I just reflected what I’d observed – in Westminster, in journalism, at Oxford, in life as a woman. It wasn’t a question of knowing I had to get something right: this depiction of male entitlement, and female self-doubt – and Olivia initially refuses to identity what occurs as a rape because surely he didn’t intend that? – is played out everywhere. It was integral to the story and so, I hope, the depiction of it evolved quite naturally as I wrote.

What would you like readers to come away with about the women in Anatomy of a Scandal?

I was at a book event last night and a young woman came up to me and said the ending gave her hope for the female characters. I’d like readers to share that sense of optimism. I’d like them to feel that characters can change and develop, can shrug off their demons and reinvent themselves, and that, in life, we can do this, too.

This is one of those books that needs to be on your TBR list. Sarah Vaughan’s writing is exquisite as she draws a picture of a situation that is awful and familiar, with every word essential to the story. Whatever you’ve heard about this book, it’s better.

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