Tell Tell: Thanks for being here. I have Sara Elaine Smith with me, and I'm super excited. She was born and raised in Greene County, Pennsylvania. She's studied at the Michener Center for Writers, UT-Austin where she got and MFA in poetry, the Iowa Writers' Workshop where she got her MFA in fiction, and Carnegie Mellon University with a BA in English and creative writing. She's worked as a metadata analyst. She signed an NDA, so she can say no more than that. She was a college teacher, a proofreader, a copyeditor, design consultant, waitress, and ghostwriter. Her work has received support from the MacDowell Colony, the Rona Jaffe Wallace Foundation, and the Keene Prize for Literature, among other generous entities. She's the author of the novel that we're talking about today, Marilou is Everywhere, from Riverhead Books. It just came out in 2019. And it's a story in which one girl goes missing and another tries to take her place, but discovers the consequences of abandoning her own life. She's also the author of I Live in a Hut, which was the 2011 winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's First Book Prize. And her work has appeared in publications like FENCE, jubilat, Tin House, and Gulf Coast, among others. I am so excited to have you with us today, Sarah.
Sarah Elaine S: Thanks. I'm really excited to be here. Thanks for setting this up.
Tell Tell: I was creeping on your work, and I noticed that Michael Schaub from NPR said something about your work. And he said, "Fiction debuts this accomplished don't come along very often at all, and Marilou is Everywhere proves that Smith is a writer of immense talent and rare imagination." I agree. "Her voice is nothing short of angelic and this novel reads like a miracle." And I am really interested in your voice in this novel. And I want to talk more about this voice and how you nurtured it.
Sarah Elaine S: That's a question that I've been asked a bit, actually, on tour. And it's one that I don't always know how to find my way into because, for me, I really try to just listen. The writing process is trying a whole bunch of stuff out, waiting for something that feels alive and magnetic and surprising, even to me while I'm writing it. And then just tuning into that and listening to it. And so I wish I could say that I constructed it, that I went to my lab, and I thought, "Okay, I'm going to make it a little bit more this and a little bit less like this." But it's really like Cindy's just a person that I like listening to. And while I was working on the book I tried to get better and better at emptying myself out and just listening to what she would notice and what she would say.
Sarah Elaine S: And one thing that I think kind of goes into that, too, is not trying to judge her or edit her. And that's something whenever I think people maybe call their writing [inaudible 00:03:16] might be some of what they're describing, is that she'll describe something in a kind of unusual way. She'll use a word that isn't really the word that we've all agreed to use to describe a certain thing. And it's next to it or adjacent to it, but it's just a little bit wrong. And leaving those wrong things in is, I think, a really crucial part of her voice.
Sarah Elaine S: This is something that I actually used to teach a lot on the first day of my fiction classes. We would read the last sentence of The Great Gatsby, which is a beautiful sentence by all accounts. What is it? I never remember it. It's like, "We beat ceaselessly into the past." It's one of those classically beautiful fiction sentences. And one of the first assignments I give my students is wreck this sentence. Retain the meaning, but make it sound just awkward, horrible, stupid. Do something. Overdo, underdo. Do something to take the sentiment here and break it in all of these little ways. And the reason for that is that every time you read one of those sentences, there's a whole person there. There's a whole character there. The way that somebody's language doesn't work, or doesn't work the way that you expect it to, can often be an indicator of their mind and why they're different from other people. And so that's something I suggest to everyone. If you're writing something and you're sort of feeling like it's not dialed in or it's not a specific character yet, to see if there are any of those things that you're trying to edit out or that you're telling yourself, "Oh, no, no, no, no. That's wrong. That's wrong. I have to take that out." Because sometimes that is where the texture is.
Tell Tell: That's really interesting. And so I'm wondering now about the actual editing process. So, of course, when you're structuring the book, it sounds like you were careful not to over-edit that voice. Did you ever get into a situation with the editor or the publishing house where they wanted to cut certain things, and you were like, "It's got to stay?"
Sarah Elaine S: Not that much on the sentence level. I really just love and adore my editor. And I appreciate so much that she did an amazing job of holding me accountable for things making sense that has a lot of appreciation for the wildness of the book. And so most of, I think really almost all of, her edits where she was like, "This is maybe a little bit too rich," I would be like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I see it. I see it." And I actually was taking out things kind of the whole time. My ear has been changing as I get older, I guess, where I like plainer language now than I used to. And so I went back and took out a lot of stuff that I was like, "This is just a little too gooey. It's too showy." You know what I mean? It feels too full of itself. And so a lot of her edits were just really good notes in that way, where she was helping me take it away from the place where it would maybe distract. And that's something that I personally dislike about writing that's pretty, is when it's distracting and it sort of keeps you from the characters. So she let me keep a lot of crazy stuff.
Sarah Elaine S: There's a part early on where they're in a convenience store/grocery store, which is a thing we have a lot of in Greene County, where I'm from. And Cindy is going around and writing things in the dust that are on the lids of these cans, and she writes the word babies all over them. And even while I was writing that I was like, "That is quite strange. I have no idea."
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. I was just like, "Okay, Cindy." And anytime that I've read that section on tour, I have this little moment of marvel like, "How? Everybody let me get away with this." This book has been read and edited and proofed by so many people and everyone was like, "Yeah, that seems about right."
Tell Tell: Well it does. And that's the interesting thing is I think the way that you let the character sort of run wild. I think that is the difference. And that's something I think a lot of people who are listening are interested in, because I think there's a big difference between creating a character and making it do what you want versus sort of letting it live.
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. I think that's really important, and I think you can tell. I've done that character creation exercise, that I feel like it's a staple of creative writing books and classes and stuff, where it's an inventory of questions that you fill out about your character. And I've always just had a really hard time getting an actual person out of that. And I don't know why that is, but I think... I was just reading a book this week called Story Genius by Lisa Cron, and the log line is something like, "using neuroscience to write compelling fiction." And one of the things, she talks about that, and she talks about how you think that those things are going to get you to a... I don't know, a substantial place with the character, and they kind of don't. They're actually more superficial questions than they seem. And so the way that somebody talks has always felt a lot more personal to me, or a lot more indicative of something kind of deeper within in them about where they're coming from or what they want. You know?
Tell Tell: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think it's interesting, too, because the way we speak is also a reflection of the way we think, the ideas that we have, the sort of make-up of a person, whereas these sort of questions, this creative writing activity, kind of reminds me of the Facebook surveys that you might do like, "What's your favorite color? When's the last time you cried?" And that's a part of a person, you can get an idea. But you don't get the whole thing of it. And I'd love to hear what this journey was like. When you started writing Cindy, did you know it was going to be a novel, or what was that process like?
Sarah Elaine S: I did. I was like, "I'm going to write a novel, damn it." I'm swinging for the fences, and I don't know how to do this at all. So my process was to write a thousand words a day for 90 days. Because I'm just a extremely disciplined person. For whatever reason, that is one of the qualities that helps me do this thing, is that if I tell myself I'm going to do this, I'm just going to do it. For whatever reason, I have that thing in me. And that's the way that I usually approach stuff that I don't know how to do, is I break it up into chunks of something that you do every day. And I'm just like, "Well, I'm going to do it every day." And I don't know how that's going to end up with this thing being something I can do, but I trust that the discipline of doing something every day will teach me eventually. And that's usually been true for me. Although that is a really labor-intensive way to write a novel if you don't know how to write a novel, but-
Tell Tell: Well, did you plan it from the beginning? Are you one of the novelists with your whiteboard and your Post-its?
Sarah Elaine S: I wish. I wish. Seems great, you know. I wish I could do that.
Tell Tell: I don't know.
Sarah Elaine S: I haven't figured out how to do that yet, and maybe I will at some point. But, I just really could not figure that out for the life of me. And so my process was a lot more to create this primordial ooze, this hundreds of pages of I don't know what, and then to go back in later and find what was really alive in it. I made an online course about this same process. It's called Here Be Monsters because it's kind of like the way on medieval maps that whenever there's a territory that no one's investigated yet, instead of going there, sometimes we just put a lion or a beast of some kind, and we're like, "There're monsters there. We can't go there." That's kind of how I feel about discovering the material that really resonates for me, is that I have to go into the unknown to get it.
Sarah Elaine S: And that's what happened. I wrote a thousand words a day for 90 days, and the resulting document was like a novel only in the sense that it contained enough words to be a novel. That's it. That's all I was going for, and I was fine with that. And when I reread it, I found this little 30-page chunk that had Cindy and her brothers in it. And it's a section that is almost word-for-word exactly the way it was in the book. It's maybe one of the only things that has stayed the same through every single draft. It's the scene sort of toward the beginning where they're trespassing, and they go into this pond to bathe and to fish and stuff. And I don't remember writing it. So it was kind of gift. It was almost like my gift for doing all of that work and dealing with all of that uncertainty. And so that's how I found it. And, like I said, it's a time-consuming and labor-intensive way to discover that, but it also seemed like some way of bypassing my inherent editing self and judgements to get to something that I really, really felt in my heart.
Sarah Elaine S: And so that's sort of what the course is. The course, it's really like a series of 90 emails that you get from me, which each one is sort of like a pep talk or an idea of where to start today or a question that might send you in the direction of that stuff. And just because that's the only way that I know how to write.
Tell Tell: Well, I think it's really interesting. And I know you have an MFA in poetry and fiction, and I'm wondering how those play with each other. Because I'm also a poet, and when I think about a novel, it's this huge... It's uncharted territory, like you said. There's a monster there, and how do you go in that?
Sarah Elaine S: Well so the way that I write poems typically is one draft. And I feel like you're not supposed to say that or whatever. I remember in school a lot of the time, the assignment at the end of the semester would be a portfolio where you show your revisions. And so sometimes I would backtrack.
I would go back and be like, "Let's make that kind of stupid here…” Because for me, writing a poem is almost like the sitting down, the container of time where I sit down and I think about those things. And so it's almost more of a meditative practice to me than a thing that I labor over. And that's also reflected by a lot of the poets that I like. I really like Bernadette Mayer, people who have this, it's like a freeness. It's sort of like, instead of revising the poem, I'll just try again tomorrow to find my way with something different. So, obviously, nobody can write a novel that way. That would be nuts. That would be... No, no, no, I won't say nobody can because someone can. It would be amazing.
Tell Tell: …but I don't know how that would work. And it sounds like this document that you came up with after the 90 days, it's not something you could just send to an agent. Right?
Sarah Elaine S: No. It's not something I would show to anybody. And here what's funny, I was talking to a friend about this just a few days ago. She was saying like, "You know, people say that, and I don't really believe them. That it's that bad or that the writing is that bad." And I thought about it. And I was like, "You know, the thing is that the writing sentence to sentence is not bad, but taking the whole thing as a story that makes sense, it is deliriously nuts." You know what I mean? And it's barely even a story. And that's the way in which it's bad. It's not like the individual sentences don't make sense. It's like if you were trying to read it start to finish, if you excerpted a paragraph, you would be like, "I don't believe you. This doesn't seem that bad." But if you took a 10-page chunk you would be like, "None of these characters are in the same place. I don't know."
Tell Tell: So what do you after that? So after you went back and you found this, you said this little chunk that became the scene in the book where they're at the lake, I think it is.
Sarah Elaine S: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Tell Tell: What did you do then? So you sat with it. What came next?
Sarah Elaine S: Next I did my whole process again, my whole 90 days.
Tell Tell: With this little starting point?
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. I started with that. Because I was like, "These are the people, and I don't totally know what's going to happen to them or how this is all going to happen to them, but they're my people, and they're really interesting to me, and I really care about them. I don't know that much about them, but I care about them." And so I did the whole thing again with isolating them as the characters and that place as the place. And so it was still really messy. You know what I mean? It was still really messy, but I kind of got closer and closer to it. And I did a few drafts like that. And I'm also a pretty fast writer, so that's part of why this works for me, I think.
Sarah Elaine S: And the reason that I did this, the whole reason, is that that poetry mindset is something that's so strong in me, that I needed to find an override. You know what I mean? Because otherwise, when I'm writing a poem, I don't go on to the next line until the line I'm working on seems right, and it seems like it's coming out of the one before that. And I kind of write short stories that same way. And it's possible. It is possible to write short stories that way. It takes a little bit longer, but I feel like my second draft is like somebody else's fourth draft practically. You know what I mean? And so it works for those two things. It had worked for me, so far, to go by feel and to not move on until it felt right. And for a novel, it was just not going to work. And so this pattern was the override button. And it needed to be pretty much like that in order for me to let go enough to see what else could happen. And so it's definitely not everybody's writing style. And it might not even be mine forever. It might change.
Sarah Elaine S: I'm working on something new now that I did that first wild, messy draft, and I did that second, slightly more concise draft. And it feels a lot closer to me because I think I have a better sense of how... You really do, your story really does need to be about something. It really does need to organize itself. That's what the process of trying to write a novel with a poet's brain was like for me.
Tell Tell: And so after that, what were the next steps from that point, from your finished draft, to when you got it published?
Sarah Elaine S: I'm really lucky. I had an agent already. And that is because agents come to places like the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and you sign up and you can talk to them. And this is really seriously one of the great benefits and privileges of being a student at the workshop, that people will just kind of give you a line of credit with like, "Okay, maybe your work's interesting. I'll take a look at it." And it's never a guarantee, it's not like everyone at the workshop gets signed. You know what I mean? It's not in the bag or anything, but it is way easier than all the other ways. And so I can't speak to those ways at all. And I know that a lot of this process, for me, was radically different in that it was so much easier because I had this great agent from the beginning.
Sarah Elaine S: And my agent is big into reading the work and sort of being a first editorial voice before it goes out, which maybe doesn't work for everyone. It works great for me. And she read a million drafts of this book, and really helped me get it to a place where it was a lot closer than it would have been. I wanted to sell the book I think two years before she was like, "Okay, now we're going to do it."
Tell Tell: What was the whole process from the time you started that first 90 day experiment, sort of, to when your agent submitted it out?
Sarah Elaine S: A lot of that was I would send a draft to her, she would read it, and she would give me really in-depth comments about, "You know, I think that this is really working. This is the place where I'm still getting confused. And this is another place where, here's what I'm getting, but I don't think that's what you're intending." Really good editorial letters. And I would give it another shot. And I wrote more new drafts kind of like a tennis player smashing a tennis ball back over the net. Just like, "Okay, here it is." I just did that insanely, just like a maniac. And at the time I was working a full-time job. I was a contract worker in the Google building, not a Google employee. I am contractually obligated to not misrepresent myself as a Google employee. People always laugh when I say that because people are like, "Dude, I don't care." But- They're unionizing now, which is super cool. My former coworkers, all of the contract workers at Google, are unionizing. It's awesome-
Tell Tell: So that was like a 9-to-5, or what was that like?
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. That was a 9-to-5, and the only reason that I could write while I was doing this job, is that it happened to be in the Google building where they feed you breakfast and lunch. And so my care and feeding was largely underwritten by Google.
Tell Tell: Awesome. You didn't have to worry about cooking, what to make for breakfast.
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. That stuff is really serious. That is a really serious gift of time. And so I would do all of that. I would work, I would go to the gym, I would attend to whatever obligations I had in my community that evening. I would usually get home around 8:00 or 9:00, and I would write for two hours and go to bed, and wake up at 5:30 or 6:00 and go to work. And I did that for years. I've forgotten about that. I've just forgotten how much work that was.
Tell Tell: That's intense. I'm a little bit... I'm like, "Are you okay?" That's a lot of work. First of all, just waking up at 5:30 in the morning is a lot.
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. Totally. I don't know. It sounds really... I'm just like, "That sounds unlikely now."
Tell Tell: It sounds more really dedicated, like you said. You were determined. You were like, "Okay, this is what I'm doing." Was there ever a moment where you... I always hear about novelists getting to a point and they're like, "This isn't working. I want to give up." Did that happen for you, or were just like, "I'm going straight ahead?"
Sarah Elaine S: I did have some moments where, it's not like it all totally fell apart to me. I've had that happen with short stories, where I've changed too many structural things, and it's like I carry it home in a bucket, and I'm like, "I don't think I can help you anymore." But that didn't quite happen. But I wrote the ending so many times, and I just couldn't find it. I just couldn't find it for a long time. And that makes sense. The ending is so important. You know what I mean? It really is the other part of the container that the book is in. And the container is the meaning of the book. And it matters so much.
Sarah Elaine S: I really wanted to punish Cindy. That's why I wrote so many endings. I wrote some really dark endings for her. And it was because I felt like I had this responsibility. She does something really awful, and I thought, "Well I have this responsibility to punish her," as the writer. And that just kept on not feeling right. And then so-
Tell Tell: What did those punishments look like?
Sarah Elaine S: Oh, man. She killed herself in a bunch of them, which I feel bad saying.
Tell Tell: I didn't expect that one.
Sarah Elaine S: In some of them, in a lot of them, she was a slightly older, present-day adult version of herself telling the story retrospectively. And in the present day she had a child, or she was a fully-fledged responsible person. And in various ways, she was kind of beginning to skate on some of those responsibilities and sort of, almost begin empathizing more with her mother, who just wasn't there. Why a mom would want to leave. And that would have been a great book, too. I really think that would have been a good book, too. But the way I was writing it, I was really just, oh boy, just throwing a lot of suffering at her. And that wasn't the right ending. And sometimes I just thought... Initially I really wanted to write a cool book, and to me those cool books are merciless and dark.
Tell Tell: I think your book is pretty cool.
Sarah Elaine S: Thank you. Thank you. I'm really glad to hear that. I don't know what I was thinking about here, but I felt like, "Oh man, the cool people, they write these books that are just so heavy and the blurbs are like 'unrelenting-'" [crosstalk 00:27:46] whatever. And that's what serious fiction is, and I want to write serious fiction. And I kept thinking, "Man, maybe I'm just too much of a wimp to write it." You know what I mean? Maybe this is something wrong with me, that I don't have the backbone to be that writer. And whenever my editor was telling me, "I think you should go in this other direction." The fact that I don't know, and I'm like, "I guess. I'll try it." That was something wrong with me, being too indecisive. And so I really internalized that. It didn't ever feel to me like, "This book has all of these problems." It felt to me like I don't think I'm the strong enough person who can do this.
Sarah Elaine S: And it turns out that actually I'm really grateful that I was a little bit more egoless about the revision process because incorporating the things that people reflected to me, every single time when I look back at it, made the book a million times better. But that was a real leap of faith at the time. And I did have a lot of those moments where I was just like, "I'm just not one of these cool writers who can write these insanely dark books." Which I know is funny because this book is not not dark.
Tell Tell: That's what I'm thinking. It actually is dark. But when you think of cool writers, who were you thinking of? What novels were you thinking of?
Sarah Elaine S: Ottessa Moshfegh, primarily, who I really love-
Tell Tell: You know what's funny, I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation right before I read Marilou is Everywhere. I was like, "I need a really good book." And I'm so glad I happened upon Marilou is Everywhere. When you were writing, is there anything you wish you knew while writing this novel?
Sarah Elaine S: Oh, gosh. I think I taught myself, or I learned a lot about, the structure of story while I was writing it. And actually when I was trying to figure out the ending, another thing I did was I read a lot of screenwriting books. A lot. And they're so helpful. I recommend this highly to anyone writing fiction because on the one hand, you think, "Well, formula is kind of not what I'm going for. I want this to be singular and exciting." But I think that story is just story. It's this sort of beautiful, mutable thing that runs through every narrative thing that we love, and it's not that different in Law & Order: SVU than it is in Madame Bovary. And I realize a lot of people would disagree with me about that, but I think it's true. I think what happens next, what happens next, is something that... It's almost like a creature that we've evolved this kind of symbiotic relationship with.
Sarah Elaine S: And the things that would have made it a lot easier that I wish I had known where just that there are ways of paying attention to that specifically, in the story, that they don't necessarily have to do with plot or voice. You know what I mean? It's more about what the characters are doing, what the actions that they're taking show about them at these different stages. And it's kind of like the secret skeleton of the story. And so this took me a long time, to figure out how to make those changes. Because at first, oh boy, I just write these huge chunks of memory, dream, description of landscape, and nothing's happening. Nothing's happening. And that's my tendency as a writer, that's the thing that I always have to be aware of about myself and kind of work against it a little bit. And thinking about story and how people change. What they want, and how they change. I feel like that might have saved me some time. Or maybe there was no way to save myself any time, which is also probably true.
Tell Tell: So what does happen next? What are your next plans for writing?
Sarah Elaine S: So right now I'm trying to write a screenplay version of Marilou is Everywhere…not that anyone has asked me to.
Tell Tell: Well I was going to ask, if this was a movie, who would you have play the characters?
Sarah Elaine S: You know, I'm not sure if the ages of all of these people would be right, but I feel like Storm Reid would be a really good Jude character, if she were old enough by the time that the movie started. You know what I mean? A little bit more in teenage time, but I think she would be great. I've always sort of imagined Anjelica Huston being Bernadette. But there are a lot of fantastic actress who I think would be really amazing, but I feel like she would be a lot of fun. I don't really have anyone in mind for Cindy because I almost feel like it would be really great for it to be someone who isn't a face yet.
Tell Tell: Like an unknown.
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. Actually, someone asked me this question for a blog where they have you write a little treatment of what you think your book would be like as a movie, and I said for that that I think Virgil and Clinton would be played by two HVAC repairmen who just happened to be there on the day that they're casting, who are real-life brothers and haven't acted in anything. And I feel like that is just totally right, that's who I would want.
Tell Tell: Was that your vision? So with this screenplay, you're just approaching it the same way you did the novel?
Sarah Elaine S: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I feel like maybe more than most people, I have a tremendous sense of, "I'll just figure this out." I will figure it out. I will Google it. I will get the books. I will try, and I will figure it out. And I wonder what that's from? I know it's not everybody's default setting. Sometimes I wonder if it's because I'm an only child, and so the idea of I don't know how to do this, and it's just me here, so I'm just going to start trying to find out. I'm going to start looking up the answers to these questions.
Sarah Elaine S: Or if it's maybe something... I had this really great English teacher, Mrs. Hatfield, in middle school and high school. The book is dedicated to her actually. And she was really good at teaching us how to teach ourselves how to do things. She was the faculty advisor for the literary magazine and the newspaper. And I remember, especially in the literary magazine, sometimes we just didn't know how to do something layout-wise or something technical about how do we make this set of pages into an actual book. And she would just pull out the manual for InDesign and be like, "Well let's just sit down and figure it out." So that's kind of what I'm trying to do. I'm just reading a bunch of screenwriting books. And some of them are not that useful because they're like, "What is character? How do you do character?" And I'm like, "No, no, no, no-
Tell Tell: “I'm passed that.”
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. Some of them just give the same kind of advice that I feel like a lot of writing books have, and it's not screenwriting specific. And so I'm still in the very early stages of this, but I'm listening to a bunch of screenwriting podcasts that have been really helpful, and reading all of these books and just starting, in whatever way makes sense to me. Because I think starting is really hard. Starting is the hardest part. And part of my, I don't know, my technique to break it down into every day chunks is to be like, "Okay, the decision of whether to start or not, I am taking off the table. I'm going to start. I'm not going to wonder about it. I'm not going to think, 'Should I be writing today?' I'm going to just do it." And then I will learn from what I've done and sort of refine it. And so that's one thing that I'm working on.
Sarah Elaine S: And also I have a second novel that is... I'm going to start on the third draft soon, and I feel really excited about that. It feels like its own thing. And that was some advice I got, actually from a lot of people. If you can possibly start something new while you're waiting for your book to come out, it will help you so much. Because then you won't feel like, "Oh my God, I need this book to do well. I need everyone to love it." And so I'm working on this new book that is totally different. Super strange. Just super strange book. And another book where I keep writing things where I'm like, "Oh, God. Okay." But it's great. And it takes place in the desert, and I'm going to work on that.
Sarah Elaine S: Those are the two main things right now. And also, for right now, I'm trying to... I like working a lot, and I am, like I've said, really, I don't know. I can get myself to do a lot of work. But right now I'm also trying to take a little bit of time off. I just came back from the second part of my tour, and I haven't accomplished very much except for putting away my clothes and doing my laundry. And I'm trying to just sort of let that be enough for a few days, too.
Tell Tell: Yeah. It sounds like a lot. How do you feel about the difference between writing a novel and touring for your novel? Because- [crosstalk 00:38:18]
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. They just couldn't be more different. They're just such totally different things. I've really... Hi, catso. Who's this cat?
Tell Tell: She wants to be famous. Her name's Michiko.
Sarah Elaine S: She should be. She's a cutie. What's her name?
Sarah Elaine S: Michiko.
Tell Tell: Have you read The Great Fires?
Sarah Elaine S: I haven't.
Tell Tell: It's really great. But his lover was Michiko.
Sarah Elaine S: Oh! Jack Gilbert. Oh my God. Yes, I do. I was thinking fiction first, but yeah.
Tell Tell: So for your next book, are you going to... Does that mean you get to go to the desert for some time?
Sarah Elaine S: I've actually already spent some time there last winter. My boyfriend has a cabin in Joshua Tree, and we drove out to California and stayed there for about a month last winter. And I was working on this book. And I never realized that I was such a place-based writer. Never thought of myself that way, and didn't know what people really meant by that even. But it occurs to me, working on this second book, something that's similar that I would have never expected out of myself is that the place where it's happening matters a lot to me, and being really specific and writing from the experience of being in those places is really important to me. It has some kind of power that I don't know how to describe. I don't know what it is exactly that... There's some residue of it in the book. Somehow you know that it's from that place.
Sarah Elaine S: And so we're going back this winter, which is great because I do have to do this revision. So I'm going to do that, and have a few things on my list to specifically check out while I'm there. And I love the desert. I'm sort of surprised by... It's not some place that really has a lot in common with where I'm from. Although I was realizing when I was on tour last week, I was driving through the Upper Midwest, and there are these stretches of northern Iowa that are kind of desolate. You know what I mean? They are spacious in sort of the same way. And my dad is from Storm Lake, Iowa, which is all the way up there, and a lot of my family is from that part of the country. And I thought, "Maybe I do have some of this in my blood." Because there's something about the just continuity of space in these places that feels really exciting to me.
Tell Tell: And where are you living now?
Sarah Elaine S: I live in Pittsburgh.
Tell Tell: Okay. Interesting. So you guys are driving to Joshua Tree again?
Sarah Elaine S: Yes. And I love driving. I really do. I didn't always love it, but maybe about five years ago I quit drinking, and for some reason, that was one of the big personality changes that I got early on, this love of driving. And somewhat maybe because it's kind of like another way of emptying out. It gives my surface brain enough to do. Because there really is always something you have to do. You have to keep your attention focused is a specific way. And because of that focus, it gives me enough up here to deal with that it lets everything else kind of empty out. And I just love that.
Tell Tell: That seems kind of similar to writing as well.
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. It really is. I think it really is. It's a very discursive process. And it's a tempo for seeing things that feels really nice to me. Where you see landscapes change, you sort of... We were talking about this the last time that we drove out there, how there are these moments where you see the first indication that you're in a different place. When you're driving from Texas into New Mexico, all of a sudden you see something that you think, "Now I'm in a different place." Or when you drive into Joshua Tree, Joshua trees only live at this one elevation. They live in just such a specific set of circumstances that there's a boundary to where they'll live and where they won't live. And so when you're driving into that area, there's always a first Joshua tree that you see. You know what I mean? You always sort of feel aware that you're entering a new place. And I guess maybe that makes sense about why I would like that so much, because it is a way of seeing these granular, specific things that change, that change while you're leaving one place and going into another.
Tell Tell: Yeah. Absolutely. And when you are writing this, are you also working full-time, or are you writing full-time?
Sarah Elaine S: No. I quit my job.
Tell Tell: Yay!
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah, I know. Whether that was a great idea or a horrible idea-
Tell Tell: Good idea.
Sarah Elaine S: ... remains to be seen. I feel like it's been pretty great for me. Because of the discipline and the structure, I think I've managed to set up my day so that I get a lot of things done. And it has let me do more to tour for the book than I might have been able to do otherwise. My publicist is really awesome, and she's like, "I'll set up, if you're going to be traveling someplace anyway, let me know and we can set something up for you." And so I feel like I have the opportunity to do more of that than I would have. So I really want to take advantage of it, and just go to as many places as possible.
Sarah Elaine S: To get back to your previous question about touring, it's really fun. It's really fun because I still kind of can't believe that people I don't know have read the book. I see people holding it and I'm like, "Where did you get that?" Not in a give it back kind of way, but just like-
Tell Tell: It's kind of a big deal, right?
Sarah Elaine S: I don't know. And I'm happy not knowing. Very happy not knowing. I'm happy to not give myself too much of an invitation to think about that stuff because I already have a tendency to do it, and it can be very preoccupying. And so I'm just never going to read Goodreads again. I'm just not going to ever look at it again. I'm never going to read the Amazon reviews. You know what I mean?
Sarah Elaine S: It seems like people though are connecting with it, which is just, what a joy that is. And the thing that I love the most about going on tour is the Q&A, which surprises me because I sort of went into it being like, "Okay, I have to get ready for this Q&A." My first-
Tell Tell: What's the weirdest question someone asked?
Sarah Elaine S: A lot of the question are just amazing because I would never think about them, and they're really sweet and observant. One of my favorites, somebody asked me like, "You know, there are a lot times when Cindy sort of sums up a lot of stuff by saying 'and things like that.' And what do you think she's up to when she does that?" That was truly a fun question to answer because I did not have an answer for it. And I was like, "Oh, gosh. Well..." And that was a really fun question, really nicely observed. And then, honestly, nobody's asked me a question that I felt like I had to defend myself against, and that's what I thought that was going to be like. I thought it was going to be hardball, and I would have to really defend myself from people. That's just not been the case.
Tell Tell: It's interesting, I think as when we write something, when we produce something, we expect maybe some type of backlash. But it sounds like it's not there, and maybe that's [inaudible 00:47:07]. I imagine people coming to your reading, people who want to interview you, they genuinely care about the work, and I think that's probably exciting.
Sarah Elaine S: Yeah. It is. It is totally exciting. And it's just really... I don't know. It's just very touching to me, and I really enjoy it, truly. It's a humbling thing. It's a very humbling thing. So so far, that's just been a lot of fun. And it's also fatiguing to be traveling around, and I kind of so far have a little bit underestimated how fatiguing some of those things would be. But it's part of that, from what I've heard from other writers, that's part of the deal. The exhilaration, and then also the constant what time is my train? When am I supposed to be at this place? What am I supposed to do again? Who am I talking to there? What's their name? A lot of detail recall.
Tell Tell: It's a lot. And so we're getting closer to the end, and I think you're sending me a Spotify playlist, right?
Sarah Elaine S: That's right. Yes.
Tell Tell: You are. So I'm going to post this below the interview. But do you have any final words of wisdom for people who are watching this and who are thinking, "Oh my God. I want what she has."
Sarah Elaine S: You can get it. That's my main... This'll sound funny coming from someone with two MFAs, but I don't think MFAs are it. I don't think they're the final word. And I think that one of the best things that an MFA can do for people is to give them access and make that a little bit easier. Truly, that's a thing. And then the other things is to put you in orbit with other people who are doing this. So that you see somebody who's kind of like you and you think, "They did it. I can do it." And I think that that's what really matters the most. And so I say that just because I think that everybody has an amazing novel in them, and I want to read everybody's amazing novel. The specific process that works for me might not work for everybody. And I don't want to discount the fact that, I'm sure has made it easier for me to have the Iowa Writers' Workshop thing on my CV, but I really think that everyone... The process of seeing what you've written and seeing what's going on with it, and then trying something else and responding to it, I think that that's the actual gig. And that's something that sometime people I think leave MFA programs, and they're sort of dumbfounded that, "Well, I just have to write now?"
Tell Tell: What do I do?
Sarah Elaine S: Right. Like, "Wait a minute. I thought something else was going to happen." And like, "No, dude. Eventually, you just have to figure out how to get the writing done." And so I want to say that that's the case. And there are a lot of things, a lot of stuff that I've learned about writing, I've also learned in books about writing. There are a lot of things that I've taught myself, and I think the feeling that other people somewhere might know more about how to do something or they just might innately have that, I don't think is so true any more. You know what I mean? And so I hope in whatever way that can be empowering to people. At the end of the day everyone just has to write. And at the end of the day, that's always kind of hard in the same way for everybody. And so I would say to people, "Don't wait to be qualified in whatever way you think legitimizes you because any writer, nothing qualifies them except for writing." And so, happily, that's available all the time.
Tell Tell: Hell yeah. That's awesome. That's brilliant advice. And I think if anyone wants to buy the book, I will post information on where to access it below. But this was super fun. Thank you so much for spending an hour with us today.
Sarah Elaine S: Thank you. This was a blast. And I'm just really grateful to get to talk about these things with you.
[Thanks for Rev.com for this transcription and/or any errors that you see in it!]