Sara Cox: ‘There were some tears, some “I can’t do this”’

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Radio 2 DJ Sara Cox has come a long way since the 1990s when Channel 4’s The Girlie Show made her one of the original ladettes. In 2019, her memoir Till the Cows Come Home: A Lancashire Childhood became a critical and commercial success; now comes a debut novel, Thrown. Tapping knowledge gleaned while presenting The Great Pottery Throw Down and grappling with themes from loneliness to infertility, it’s a funny, touching story of four very different women who meet at a ceramics class on a housing estate near Manchester.

Have you described yourself as a novelist yet?
No! I’ve not got used to talking about it. It’s just you and the book locked away for so long that when it’s out there it’s exciting but quite scary as well.

Does it feel strangely more exposing than publishing a memoir?
I honestly think it does.

Which of Thrown’s quartet of women is most like you?
They’ve all met with different frustrations and I guess there’s a bit of me in each one. So Louise never got to follow a career in art and I’ve always regretted not doing art at school. Then there’s Becky, who’s in a dysfunctional relationship, and there have been times when I’ve been in relationships that haven’t been particularly healthy.

What about Sheila in her purple jumpsuits?
She’s very much a mashup of Bette Midler and Betty from Coronation Street but my mum is convinced that Sheila is basically her.

Did you learn things about yourself while writing it?
I’m a big ticker-off of things on a list – I just want things “ding!” done and you can’t really do that with a book. I did it arse-upwards really and kind of planned it after I’d written it. I sent it in and it came back with lots of notes.

How did you take the feedback?
There were some tears, some pushback, some “I can’t do this!”, but I’m really pleased that I listened and I didn’t just go off on a big huff.

What was the best part about writing it?
I felt like these ideas would just bubble up, like they were coming from the characters. It was a bit like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. The ending came to me in the middle of the night: I was half-dreaming, half-awake, and I thought: “Aaah! That’s what’s going to happen!”

What question would you ask if you were interviewing yourself about Thrown?
The question would be: are there any real-life people in there? I rather squiffily said to a group of neighbours they would all get a namecheck – and they do. There’s also a couple of coppers in it and they might be called Glover and Garvey because I love Fi Glover and Jane Garvey.

Tell me about the setting.
I grew up half on my dad’s farm but half on a little council estate nearby. I liked the cosiness and wanted to reflect that. I could also picture the layout in my mind – the community centre, the little doctors…

Are you still a farm girl at heart?
Don’t get me started. I’ve been in London longer than I lived up north but on my dad’s side I come from generations and generations of farmers and then it’s screeched to a halt with us five – we’re lawyers and artists and NHS workers. I think a bit of that might come through in my next book. The dream is a smallholding one day – I’ve got a horse now, Nelly, so I’m getting there. She’s really my escape.

Do you listen to music while you write?
Yes, mainly to block my husband out, in the nicest possible way. It has to be instrumental – I can’t have words. I hope I’ve not got tinnitus from stuffing my noise-cancelling earbuds in and booming Max Richter straight into my brain.

What about podcasts?
I listen to more audiobooks. I’m not really good with my own thoughts in a quiet room – I don’t know if it’s something I should be worried about. When I’m doing mundane things, I just want a little chat going on in my ear. Likable, largely middle-class men in their 50s are my thing at the moment. I’ve got Louis Theroux, Adam Buxton, David Mitchell and not remotely middle-class Bob Mortimer, whose And Away autobiography is great.

How do you organise your books?
Get this: my cleaner has organised them by colour. It’s not great and I’m too polite to say anything. I don’t know why I’m whispering – I don’t think she reads the Observer.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?
It’s called Metronome. It’s quite different to what I go for but I really loved it. I thought it was by a woman because the female protagonist is so well written, but it’s by Tom Watson, an annoyingly young man. I loved Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry as well.

What kind of a reader were you as a child?
I read all the Judy Blume books and obviously The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Riders and Polo combined some fruity frolics and horses and that blew my 15-year-old mind. English lit A-level really brought Shakespeare to life – I read Romeo and Juliet with my sister before she went away to London, cuddled up on a top bunk.

Do you have a favourite writer?
My most honest answer is probably Victoria Hislop or Philippa Gregory. I met Philippa Gregory actually – she was very nice but I fangirled her a bit and I don’t think authors are really into that. I’ll tell you who I want to read more of – Maggie O’Farrell.

Is there a book you haven’t been able to finish?
The one I’m embarrassed not to have got through is A Little Life because everybody bangs on about it. It’s looking at me now. It’s like there’s a forcefield holding me back from around page 60.

Who’s your favourite literary hero?
Little Shuggie Bain, bless him. He’s so sweet and so heartbreaking trying to look after his mum – it absolutely broke my heart – and I’m really excited about Douglas Stuart’s new book.

Thrown is published by Coronet (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply