Author Sarah Butler on 'Ten Things I've Learnt About Love': Is Home Really Where the Heart Is?

When we ponder the meaning of “love,” we tend to imagine grand Hollywood romances or blissful walks on the beach. But Sarah Butler’s moving inaugural novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love (The Penguin Press), paints a more heartfelt portrait of love, demonstrating how love can both heal and hurt relationships of all kinds. Familial love is a particularly complex beast, and Butler explores this genre delicately and with poise.

Ten Things alternates between the perspectives of Alice, a restless soul and the resident family misfit, and Daniel, similarly emotionally lost and homeless for upwards of thirty years. With his health failing, Daniel is kept alive solely by nurturing the hope of someday meeting the daughter who doesn’t even know he exists—the consequence of a passionate love affair with a woman he has never quite forgotten. Alice, drawn back to London to visit her terminally ill father, is also haunted by a past relationship, as she attempts to determine her place within her family and within the world at large. I talked to Butler about the themes in the novel and what inspired the creation of the book’s deeply complex characters. (Warning: A few spoilers at the end of the interview!)

BUSTLE: Before each chapter, there is a different “Ten things…” list. What inspired you compile these lists?

SARAH BUTLER: The book initially had three sections. Alice was the first section, then Daniel, and the third section was where they met. At first, I only had Alice write the lists, just to get a sense of her personality. She struck me as the sort of person who was always trying to fix herself, and I associate lists with that kind of a person—someone who’s always trying to put things in order. Then, I realized that these lists helped me tell the entire story in unique way. It was the first time I’d written a novel in the first-person, and in many ways that form restricts where you can go and what you can tell, so the lists gave me a way to expand the story a bit. It was actually my editor who said, “Have you thought of giving Daniel lists as well?” and that was the point when I decided to make lists a part of the whole book, rather than just a section. They were also quite fun to write!

Another unconventional technique you use is the second-person form in the chapters from Daniel’s perspective. Why? Does it tell us anything about Daniel’s character?

I did that right from the start, and I did it because he’s always talking to her, to his daughter. His whole life was about trying to communicate with this woman, and even when he meets her he can’t really tell her what he wants to tell her. It felt like a natural thing to do, because his character is always yearning; he’s constantly oriented towards this idea of her, so it made sense to me that he was constantly addressing her. Part of it, also, was that I wanted the reader to have this sense of this other person in his life. It was about that relationship, and it seemed like the right kind of tone to demonstrate his thought process.

I found it fascinating that Daniel has synesthesia, a neurological condition which causes him to see numbers, letters, and words as colors. Why did you make this choice?

When I was at university, I met a girl who had synesthesia, and I had never heard of it before. She had it with taste, so every letter had a really, really specific taste. Sometimes you learn something that lodges itself in your brain, and this was the case for me with synesthesia; I had always been fascinated by it. I’m really drawn to that idea that someone has such a different perception of the world. I’m also quite a visual person, and I’m interested in color. The first story of mine that was published was about a man who collected colors—he isn’t Daniel, but there are definitely resonances there. So I’ve had this fascination with color, and I thought about this girl I knew who had synesthesia, and they kind of came together in the character of Daniel. For me, it was that link between the visual and language, this idea that he would try anything—even writing in color, in a way—to connect to his daughter. Also, he sees the world in a slightly different way. I was writing about a city that I know well, so giving him something that I don’t have but am fascinated by allowed me to explore the city in a slightly different way.

You run a literature consultancy called UrbanWords, which focuses on creative works that explore the relationships between person and place. Can you describe what you do?

“Literature consultancy” is probably a really bad term, because I do a lot of different things. At the moment, the majority of my work is focused on writing residencies—working as a writer on different kinds of concepts, particularly in cities and in places undergoing urban change. I sort of fluctuate in terms of what I do and what my position is, but I’m basically focused on finding ways for writers to be active in the world other than by just writing books. It’s been about finding a social role for writers. I’ve gone from working with architects on thinking about regeneration projects in east London, to doing public art commissions, to being a writer in residence in various unusual places, like the Underground in London.

I’m very interested in how stories are told, and whose stories are told. It’s all about representation, telling stories that aren’t always heard, and—though it sounds like a massive cliché—working with people who are less listened to in society. In a way, this links with Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, because in it I write from the perspective of a marginalized character (for lack of a better phrase).

What kind of research did you do to learn about the lives of the homeless in London?

I volunteered at homeless shelters in London. There’s an organization in the U.K. called Crisis, which does a lot of work with homeless people. They have this event called “Crisis at Christmas,” and they have a lot of volunteers who run the shelters as homes for homeless people over the Christmas week. I volunteered there quite a few times, and I also did some night shifts in shelters around London. I learned a lot from observing there, and also from a bit of reading. I read Stuart: A Life Backwards , a really brilliant book written by a journalist and a homeless man together. So I did a bit of reading, but it was mainly from volunteering and talking to people, and walking around London and imagining. Throughout the whole writing process, though, I was trying to strike a balance, because I didn’t want to write a book about homelessness, per se, but I didn’t want to romanticize it either.

Ten Things can be viewed as your love letter to London. What do you love most about London? Is there any specific place that’s special to you?

I grew up in Manchester, where I live now, but I moved to London in 2004 because an ex-boyfriend was living there. I actually hated London, and I didn’t want to go! Most of my friends from university lived there, and whenever I visited them I would say to them, “Why do you live in the city? It’s expensive, it’s dirty…” But someone said to me, “Give it two years, and you’ll fall in love with it.” When I broke up with my boyfriend after about two and a half years, I thought I would just leave, but I realized I had become attached to this place. Before I moved there, I thought it was huge, unfriendly, fast, and aggressive. But working there and meeting people tied me to the place.

I was working in East London and living in North London, and my work took me to a lot of different places, so I have a very intimate connection with very specific—and very random—places in London. I did a couple of projects with a photographer in Elephant and Castle in South London, which is nowhere near a particularly attractive place, but I love it. I hate shopping centers, and it’s got this horrible, run-down shopping center, but I love it because I spent a lot of time there, because I know people there, and because I’ve engaged with it. I love Hamptsead Heath, where the book is set. But I also like the slightly random places. Greenwich—where Daniel’s story starts out—is where I did my first ever writing residence, on Greenwich Peninsula. So I have a connection to the places where I’ve worked.

I suppose I have a real love-hate relationship with London. I guess anyone in a big city does. I feel like I know it better than any city I’ve ever been in, but also, I can never know all of it. So it feels like it’s never-ending, and I could spend my entire life there and still discover things.

Despite Alice’s nomadic lifestyle, her relationship to the house in which she grew up is very emotionally complex. To what extent do our relationships with something such as a childhood home have actual value? Or is a house really just a house?

In a way, Daniel is more at home than Alice is, and Alice is more homeless than Daniel. What is it that makes a home a home, and how can we be at home in a place as vast as London? Does a home necessitate bricks and mortar? On a personal note: I bought a house in London with my ex-boyfriend, we broke up, and I had to leave the house. Not that I’m bitter, but I had spent a year and a half decorating it and really investing in it, both emotionally and financially. So I’ve been through the experience of feeling like I have a home and I’m rooted, to just having nothing.

I spent three months essentially homeless, in the sense that I was living with friends, sleeping on floors, and wandering around London. It was an interesting experience for me because that was the point when I thought I’d leave London, but that was also the point when the city held me, and I realized I had all these friends and I could bicycle around in the rain to stay with whomever. That made me consider why I missed that house so much, and how I could be at home without a home. It’s an interesting and quite complex issue, that we relate bricks and mortar to the home, and I was trying to question that to an extent.

The themes of wandering and homecoming percolate throughout the book. At one point, Alice defends her lifestyle to her sister by insisting: “I don’t think it’s running away. It’s living.” Is it possible to balance personal freedom and familial responsibilities?

I do think we have to find that balance between wanting to settle and wanting to explore. I think it’s a generational thing, also, because nowadays we can just get on a plane and go anywhere in under 24 hours. I suppose it’s something that I struggle with a lot; do I want a family, do I want to stay here, do I actually just want to fly off and live in New York? I think it’s great that we have those kinds of choices, but people have to negotiate these choices. In a way, it’s about trying to find freedom within stability. In Alice’s case, at first she travels because she’s running away. She is searching, just like Daniel is searching, but she’s searching for some kind of meaning. I think you can travel in different ways: You can travel to run away, or you can travel to explore. Alice is toeing that line. But in the end, her “going away” is a slightly different “going away.” It’s more positive, because she’s not just abdicating from her life.

Alice’s relationship with her sisters is pretty strained, to say the least. But one of the things we learned about love in this novel is that it is far from a straightforward concept. How do the Tanner sisters demonstrate this idea?

Families fascinate me. I don’t have sisters, but I was interested in that dynamic, and in the kind of love that isn’t necessarily a choice. Even in romantic relationships, we sometimes look at them and think, “What is going on here?!” We create these ties between humans that allow for great generosity and also great cruelty. It’s complicated, isn’t it? Penguin Group had done a book club kit for the novel and asked me to write a list of ten books that had taught me something about love. When I read over the list I thought, “This is a really depressing list!” They were all about how complicated love is. As a novelist, I’m interested in the things that aren’t so straightforward.

Some of the most vivid characters in the novel were the ones who were also most notably absent from the novel, such as Alice’s mother and father. What does this teach us about our relationship to our loved ones?

I was very conscious of this when I was writing, because Alice’s mother, Julianne, is the one who ties Alice and Daniel together. She is so important to the story—she underlies everything, yet she was never really there for Daniel and she was never really there for Alice. Writing someone who isn’t there was an interesting challenge. It also shows how people are always, in a way, made up of other people. Someone actually told me that this book was more about loss than about love. But the two are intricately connected.

Julianne symbolizes that connection, for both Alice and Daniel. Neither of them really knew her. She’s quite an unknown, and I tried to focus on how we project the idea of a person who’s not there. In the same way that Daniel projects an idea of Alice, they both project an idea of Julianne. We tend to make people up and turn them into what we want them to be or what we need them to be, and their absence allows us to do that. In my next novel, one of the most present characters isn’t actually there. So, I guess that’s just my style.

Photo: Eva Sajovic