WomensHistoryReads interview: Sarah-Jane Stratford

Given that she's lived in both America and England, it's not surprising that Sarah-Jane Stratford drew from both countries for her novel RADIO GIRLS, which it places an American-raised secretary in the context of very British history: the early days of the BBC. We talked about Barbara Kingsolver, Hilda Matheson, and the Hollywood blacklist -- enjoy!

 Sarah-Jane Stratford

Sarah-Jane Stratford

Greer: What's the most recent thing you read that blew you away?

Sarah-Jane: A short story, ‘Homeland,’ by Barbara Kingsolver. I love her work, I don’t know why I haven’t read these stories before, but anyway it was one of those stories that I read and then went right back and read again. I haven’t done that since I read Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet. What I found in this story, and it’s a mark of all of Barbara Kingsolver’s work, is that the world is so precise. It’s a tiny town in Tennessee, 1955, a time and place most of us don’t know, and she makes us know it intimately and feel a part of it, so that we’re inside those people’s lives. I wanted the story to go on and on, and yet it is perfect just as it is. 

Greer: If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

Sarah-Jane: I’m going to make a case for one of the real-life characters in my novel Radio Girls: Hilda Matheson. She was the first Director of Talks for the BBC when radio was brand-new in 1926, and she was the one who inherently understood that radio could have a tremendous reach and influence, and be a force for democratization in bringing ideas and stories to people who might not otherwise hear them. She was adamant that radio must be easily accessible and creators must be free to air a wide range of programs. Under her aegis, radio went from being a fad to a phenomenon, with a huge variety of subjects discussed and debated, and books reviewed and read from. Librarians wrote the BBC to say subscriptions were soaring, and local poetry reading groups forming, even in towns where most people had at best a grade-school education. Hilda also understood that such a powerful voice could be dangerous, used to propagate untruths, and that there had to be standards and safeguards. Sadly, she was summarily forced to resign as politics turned more conservative in the 1930s, and the BBC did the exact opposite of what she had suggested –- becoming less political just at a time when people desperately needed more facts. She went on to write the first book on broadcasting, which was used as a textbook for the industry well into the 1970s. She created the blueprint for what would become NPR and I feel that a lot of her philosophy applies to the Internet as well. She’s definitely someone more people should know about. I love this quote of hers regarding broadcasting, which can be used as an argument for net neutrality:

“If we have the sense to give [broadcasting] freedom and intelligent direction, if we save it from exploitation from vested interests of money or power, its influence may even redress the balance in favour of the individual.” 

Greer: What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Sarah-Jane: A lot of people know about the 1950s blacklisting of people in Hollywood -- mostly writers -- who were accused of being communist subversives. What’s less known is that a number of women writers were also accused and lost their livelihoods. I was inspired to create fictional versions of two women in particular, who went into exile in Britain so that they could continue to work and avoid being watched by the FBI – or worse, being subpoenaed and forced to testify about their politics. A real-life woman, Hannah Weinstein, created a television show called "The Adventures of Robin Hood," which was hugely popular in the 1950s. Some viewers recognized that the show’s plots tended to highlight the mistreatment of disadvantaged people at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Very few knew that the entire writing staff was comprised of blacklisted writers, using pseudonyms so that the show could continue being broadcast in the US. My fictional writer becomes a member of the Robin Hood staff, and attempts to make a new life abroad, where all the exiles wonder if they’ll ever be able to live freely in America again – or even if they’re really free of the FBI abroad. I’m deep in revisions now, looking towards publication in spring of 2019. 

My question for you: There have been a lot of quality literary adaptations lately. Is there one in particular you’ve seen that you thought was exceptional, and can you talk about what made it so good? Also, any news on a possible adaptation of Girl in Disguise

Greer: I hate to admit that I'm old enough to have been waiting 20 years for something, and yet, it's totally true. That's how long I've wanted to see Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace done right and in 2017 that finally happened on Netflix. It's an extraordinarily faithful adaptation and totally worth the wait. (I went on about it in-depth for The Chicago Review of Books.) As for Girl in Disguise rights -- hope springs eternal. I have an excellent film agent at CAA and from time to time I hear whispers of possibility. If anything comes to fruition, I will most definitely share with the world!

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For more about Sarah-Jane and her books: http://www.sarahjanestratford.com