Sally Hepworth is a rule breaker.
The Melbourne-based, international best-selling author, and mother-of-three doesn’t stick to the rules when it comes to her work and describing her home life. But when we catch up, it’s the fashion rules that she breaks that we discuss first.
A bright blonde, Hepworth regularly sports a trademark bold red lipstick, and wears citrus yellow with abandon. It may seem superficial to note that when we’re there to talk about her extensive and excellent body of work, but commenting on each other’s fashion is how Hepworth and I originally connected on Instagram. More importantly, her defiance of the ‘rules’ reflects her character: she’s not a woman who feels obliged to follow them as many of us do.
“Most of my blonde friends are too afraid to wear red lipstick,” I tell her. “They worry they’re going to look like a clown.”
Jessie Stephens recommends The Family Next Door on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues after.
Hepworth laughs at that, and admits, “A woman once asked me if I was dressed as a clown! She noticed my red lipstick, and I thought she was going to say something nice, but instead she said that!”
When I add that my blonde friends are also reluctant to wear yellow as it clashes with their hair, she exclaims in surprise, “Yellow is one of my favourite colours!”
With that important issue addressed, I want to talk about how, much more significantly, Hepworth is a rule-breaker when it comes to fiction written for, and by, women.
The author wrote her break-out novel, The Secrets of Midwives, while on maternity leave with her second child in 2015. It was an instant hit domestically and internationally, and it was the highest selling Australian debut novel of the year. Hepworth has since written The Things We Keep, The Mother’s Promise and the recently-released The Family Next Door.
As an Aussie mum, Hepworth naturally canvasses various issues about Australian domestic life. But each novel has at least one unique, well-researched and carefully crafted focus on a certain aspect of women’s health, such as early-onset Alzheimer’s, social anxiety, post partum disorders, and childbirth – and how those challenges are overcome. The result is that Hepworth’s characters are far from one-dimensional ‘female fiction’ stereotypes.
Over the course of her books, Hepworth has revealed a detailed knowledge of a variety of female psyches, genres and characters, demonstrating that she knows Aussie women well. Which is why her work is so relatable.
It’s also clear that Hepworth believes in powerful women. For that reason, Anna from The Things We Keep is her favourite character. “She was an extreme sports junkie who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzehimer’s. The courage she had to face that was really inspiring,” she tells me.
So does her intimate understanding of women mean that Hepworth is surrounded by a large female network?
“Yes! I’m one of those women who has lots of girlfriends, and no male friends.”
I ask Hepworth if, with that circle of women around her, she’s ever accused of basing characters on someone she knows?
“All the time,” laughs Hepworth. “But the truth is, I’d never get my real friends to do the things my characters do, so they’re definitely a mix of real-life, fiction – and a little bit of me.”
The other reason why Hepworth’s work is so relatable is that as a person, she’s very relatable, too. Speaking of herself and daily life, Hepworth breaks another rule – that of appearing perfect – and is keen to impress that she’s a “hot mess”.
“People often ask my how I do it all, and I just tell them I’m a working mother like everyone else,” she says.
“I work four days a week, with set hours – just like any working mum. Writing is my job.”
But Hepworth makes it clear that it’s not easy, and she doesn’t do it alone. The mum of Oscar, Eloise and Clementine, tells me:
“On my recent book tour in America, I got a call from school to say that my daughter had been found swinging upside down on the monkey bars – with no underwear.”
A school mum friend rushed in with face-saving underwear.
“I’m so lucky I have an amazing group of friends around me who save my life every day.”
But, bucking society’s pressure to present the image that she excels at life because she’s independently an over-achiever, the author mainly credits her husband, and her babysitter, for her work productivity – for being able to have her job.
“My husband is a real partner. Financially, at home and with the kids, we equally share all of the work.”
She insists, “I’m not a magician.”
Hepworth says that it’s important that women share how they “do it all”, so other women know no-one is better than anyone else at the motherhood gig.
“I have to work as hard at is as everyone else. There are good days and bad days.”
She adds, cheekily, “And on those days, undies are optional.”
The Family Next Door (Macmillan Australia, $29.99) by Sally Hepworth is on sale now.