Following a lengthy career in psychology, Sara Pascoe turned her hand to writing fiction. What inspired the switch? And where did the ideas for her magical works come from…?
Sara Pascoe, a vocational psychologist since she was little, arrived in Bournemouth 16 years ago. The author, who lived in many places in the USA, where she is from originally, is certainly enjoying living in such a multicultural town and has been more involved in activism by starting her own organisation. After 30 years of working as a therapist and in neuroscience research, she decided to focus on her second passion: writing. Something she always enjoyed doing but never thought would do professionally. Nowadays, Sara has published three books, one related to psychology, and two works of fiction for children and young adults. Her love for animal behaviour, her experiences with foster kids, and other moments in her life inspired these two magical books. But the adventure doesn’t finish there! Sara is now writing two scripts — one for a family fantasy-comedy feature; the other for a TV series inspired by her own novel Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn’t Ask For!
WHERE ARE YOU FROM ORIGINALLY? HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN BASED IN BOURNEMOUTH SINCE YOU MOVED TO THE UK?
I’m originally from the USA and moved to the UK when I was in my 40s. Up until that point, I never lived anywhere for longer than seven years. I moved as a kid a few times and then lived in different parts of the US after I left my parent’s house. I mostly loved it — getting to know different places — and the US is big enough that the culture is different in different parts.
My husband is from North London and we met while he was working in Washington DC. I ended up following him back to the UK about two years later. For our first 14 months in the UK, we lived on the edge of an idyllic village called South Nutfield, near Redhill in Surrey. David still had to go to London for work, and I got a job with the NHS in Bromley.
We decided to move to Bournemouth after a lot of house-hunting, and have been here in the same house now for 16 years. This is a completely new experience for me.
HOW HAVE YOU FOUND LIVING IN BOURNEMOUTH FOR THIS LONG AFTER CHANGING PLACES SO OFTEN BEFORE?
I lived in small towns when I was a kid, but then I always lived in big cities as an adult: Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles… Obviously, moving to Bournemouth and living here has been very different because it’s a small town and I had to get used to it. But certainly, I love living in Bournemouth. Having nature and green everywhere, being able to go walking everywhere, living in a multicultural environment with people of many different nationalities…
Also, living in Bournemouth made me get closer to activism. I have always been proactive in activism, but here I got more involved. Specifically, in 2018, I founded SOS (Save our Shores), a collection of organisations and people working together to stop further oil drilling in the areas of our protected marine zones in and around Poole Bay, and to reduce the extraction of fossil fuels in Dorset.
YOU WORKED IN PSYCHOLOGY FOR OVER 30 YEARS… WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE THAT PATH? WHAT ROLES HAVE YOU PERFORMED IN THAT FIELD?
I had wanted to be a psychologist since I was about 11. When we cleared out my dad’s house after he died, I came across an old essay I’d written at that age. The assignment must have been to write about your professional aspirations. I banged on about how I wanted to be a psychologist, but couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a clinical psychologist and do therapy, or be a research psychologist. That cracked me up because it made me sound awfully serious for a kid, and I ended up doing both anyway. I’d always been interested in animal behaviour since I was really little, so I think psychology was a natural outgrowth of that.
I’ve been very lucky in having had a lot of interesting and some amazing adventures in neuroscience research, public policy including in the US Congress, and a very rich and moving career as a therapist.
YOU ARE ALSO A WRITER — HAVE YOU ALWAYS COMBINED YOUR JOB AS A THERAPIST WITH WRITING?
My desire to write was a long-simmering one. I did a lot of writing in my psychology research and policy work, and I tinkered with fiction, on-and-off, for decades. Over time, I enjoyed this professional writing more and more. Looking back, I think it was an excellent writing experience in meeting deadlines and making the writing serve a purpose. Whether that was a clinical evaluation for the courts, a policy brief, or an academic paper. This taught me not to be precious about my writing and to welcome critiques.
On another note, our own personal stories are a huge part of our psychologies and how we feel about ourselves and our lives. And retelling our life story is an essential aspect of therapy, so in that way, the power of narrative is at the core of both psychology and of course, writing. I have enjoyed writing since childhood, but I never thought about publishing books or doing it professionally.
YOU HAVE PUBLISHED THREE BOOKS SO FAR. HOW DID THESE IDEAS COME TO YOU? WHAT DID YOU WANT TO COMMUNICATE WITH THEM?
In some ways, psychology and story writing are similar in that they both have a story. Either fictional narrative or human life stories at their core. And a lot of writing is inspired by, or has its seed in real-life experiences.
The psychology book, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: The Essential Guide was the work I got by applying to an advert in a writing magazine. It was just around the time I was winding down my private therapy practice, so it allowed me to think about and pull together what I learned worked best over the decades. It was a very rewarding thing to do. Unfortunately, that book publisher, Need 2 Know Books, has since gone out of business. Re-publishing the book is something I’d like to do, eventually, but just don’t have the time at the moment.
The fiction came about differently. Both Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn’t Ask For (YA, historical fantasy) and Oswald the Almost Famous Opossum came out of various life experiences I’ve had.
Oswald came to me when I was living in a funky little town on the border of Washington, DC. The Washington Post ran a weekly column about local animal rescue. And some of the animals’ antics made me wonder if they were trying it on – doing these things on purpose just to get into the newspaper. A ferret on a bus, or an owl on a toothbrush holder. Plus, I had an opossum and a few raccoons who visited my house nightly and I’d give them my leftovers. The story centres on Oswald, a rather supercilious opossum who is determined to become famous and sure fame will make him happy and his best human friend, a boy called Joey, who tries to help him in his quest. So, the story is about what really makes us happy, and what’s really important. Spoiler alert: it ain’t fame.
Being a Witch came from my experiences working with foster kids. I still do a small bit of work with a local foster agency. I find the situation of being fostered very moving and inspiring. Knowing that if you’re a pain in the ass, the adults can toss you back is horrendous to me. And of course, most kids in care have had disruptions to their early relationships with adults, which in and of itself leaves a trail, including possible brain changes. And then to ‘age out of the system’ is wild to me. I would sit in these meetings with maybe eight adults and this one kid, all trying to steer the child’s life in the right direction. It must feel like being a bug under a microscope.
The other part of Being a Witch came out of a stray cat who seemingly fell from the sky into our lives. This was when we were living in South Nutfield next to the farm. So my husband surmised that the cat must have fallen off the back of a witches’ broom.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE HARDEST AND MOST SATISFYING PART OF WORKING AS BOTH A PSYCHOLOGIST AND WRITER?
The hardest part of being a psychologist was never so much in my clinical work, as in my research years in neuroscience. At that time, there were even fewer women scientists, and as a female, in the field, you were often dismissed and not believed. Sexual harassment was rampant, and the other professors would often protect the perpetrators. This is going back a long time ago, and things have changed considerably — thank goodness.
In writing, the hardest part is the self-promotion. I enjoy doing interviews, talking to people at book fairs, or giving talks, but trying to get these opportunities is the hard part. You have to ‘knock on a lot of doors’ before you get a ‘yes’, like any cold call sales work.
The most satisfying part — it’s all about connecting with others. That’s at the heart of what’s rewarding in both psychology and writing. In psychology, of course, it is gratifying to help and to know or hope you’ve eased someone’s suffering. And if you have been lucky enough to do so, it’s always and only if you’ve been able to connect in a kind, empathic and honest way. Sometimes these can be odd moments, even by accident or when you think you’ve made a mistake. Like when you go to check on a client because you realise they’re likely attempting suicide and you burst into tears when you see them alive. And that, more than the months of therapy, makes them know they’re valued.
Writing is also about honest connection and it’s always about the feeling. Stories are really an emotional ride on the scaffolding of a plot. Whatever you’ve experienced is likely to resound with millions of others — at least in the core of the experience.
Research shows that when we listen to a story we like and get into, we align our brainwaves with the storyteller’s! This makes so much sense to me, and I’m sure the same happens in music or art. When we ‘get’ something, in some sense we are reverse-engineering the brain patterns and feelings that the creator of that work had in the making of it. And the fact that there is intrinsic joy in this tells us that it’s good for us. For the most part, we find pleasure in those experiences that have some benefit to us. Anyway, it gives me great pleasure when someone says they connected with one of my books. When it made them feel things, like laugh or cry.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRED YOUR LOVE OF WHAT YOU DO?
A number of friends, experiences and teachers over the decades have all melded in me a love and passion for story — the power and joy of it. When I was about 13, I had a new best mate who knew all of the Marx Brothers movies by heart! They’re a wacky, now long-gone comedy team. She was very funny generally and would quote lines at all sorts of times. In senior school, I was always part of the plays we did in supporting ways such as making the sets, walk-on parts, and so on. I adored the team experience of that, and screenwriting and, of course, screen production is a highly collaborative process. Much more so than, say, novel writing. I’ve also had some very helpful and inspiring teachers across the years, and now as well.
IS THERE ANYONE THAT INSPIRES YOU OR THAT YOU REALLY ADMIRE IN YOUR FIELD?
I get inspired by lots of wonderful works, not necessarily just writing. I greatly admire a lot of folks who are not fiction writers. These include Noam Chomsky, Ibram X. Kendi, Nancy MacLean, Juan García Esquivel, Luis Barragán, and Nile Rodgers among others. Recently, I’ve been listening to a French band called Deluxe, and I find them very inspiring. I admire several screenwriters and directors including (but not limited to) Ben Ketai, Lena Waithe, Melina Matsoukas, Tina Fey, and Aaron Sorkin.
DO YOU HAVE ANY UPCOMING PROJECTS YOU WOULD LIKE TO TELL US ABOUT?
I’m currently working on two scripts — one for a fantasy comedy feature; the other for a TV series inspired by my YA novel Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn’t Ask For. This is being possible thanks to a course about scriptwriting I did in London when I moved to UK, and also one company in Los Angeles is really interested in this. Adapting my novel into a script is really challenging, but I’m particularly excited about this project because if we’re lucky enough and it gets made, it will be about both emotional healing of this kick-ass girl and activism! In the TV script, the foster girl, Raya, joins with an underground band of psychic-activists.
WHAT IS YOUR DREAM OR END GOAL?
My end goals are to have some of my screenwriting made into films or series, to play the bass with a band that gigs locally, and to get back to visual arts.
Click the links to find out more about Sara’s works Oswald the Almost Famous Opossum and Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn’t Ask For. You can also visit Sara’s website for more information. For more local Literature stories, click here. And you can also follow HQB Media on all our social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.