Interview with Sarah Gailey

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Hugo and Campbell award finalist Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they are a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. Their most recent fiction credits include Mothership Zeta, Fireside Fiction, and the Speculative Bookshop Anthology. Their debut novella duology, River of Teeth, was published in 2017 via Tor.com. They have a novel forthcoming from Tor Books in Spring 2019. Gailey lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with their two scrappy dogs. You can find links to their work at www.sarahgailey.com; find them on social media @gaileyfrey.

Julia Shelton: Do you brainstorm with other people when writing a story?

Sarah Gailey: It depends on the story! For longer pieces, I do a lot of story development with my agent, DongWon Song, and my editors. If I’m really stuck on something, I try to visit my friend Sharon (who is a genius), and we share a bottle of wine and unpack everything that’s not working about the plot. I also benefit enormously from my beta readers, who help me spot things that aren’t working in early drafts.

JS: Considering that your twitter username is @gaileyfrey, do you watch Doctor Who? If so, who is your favorite doctor, companion, villain?

SG: I certainly do watch Doctor Who! I think Eccleston is a seriously underrated doctor — he had some heavy lifting to do with the reboot and performed admirably — but the soft spot in my heart is reserved for Matt Smith’s doctor. He brought a complex, layered enthusiasm to the role that reflected a thorough understanding of both the needs of the narrative and the needs of the audience. I’d be lying if I said Amy wasn’t my favorite companion, and of course my favorite villains are the Weeping Angels.

JS: How would you describe your style of writing?

SG: Wow, this is a tough question! It’s like asking me to describe my walk — I only know it from the inside. My approach to writing comes from a place of trying to interact with the role stories and narratives play in the development of culture and societies. I like to look at the stories we tell about ourselves and each other, and the way we try to fit ourselves into stories we’ve heard before, and the way we try to change our lives by telling new stories about the things that have happened to us. All of my characters are operating within that framework.

JS: Where is your favorite place to write?

SG: There’s a teashop in Portland where I can write for hours, and it’s where I do some of my best work. I wrote this piece on the first female Doctor there, and I’ve been working on some extensive novel revisions there. I also do a lot of writing at home, on a desk that DongWon built, surrounded by letters from loved ones — it’s an environment that reminds me of how supported I am in my work, and that I’m writing in a context, not a vacuum.

JS: What are some themes that you find difficult to breach while writing?

SG: I struggle to write about parenting and family dynamics. In my upcoming YA novel, it was important to me to include healthy, nurturing family dynamics for my characters, and it was incredibly challenging to get that right while still including tension. I also have a hard time pushing my narrative to be more vulnerable with my readers — letting go of the illusion that the story is under control can take readers to an exciting, uncomfortable place, but it also means exposing the raw places that the narrative comes from, and that’s a scary thing to do.

JS: What do you think is the best way for an aspiring author to grow in their writing?

SG: Reading things that are written by people with perspectives that differ from one’s own is, I think, crucial to good craft. It’s also been immensely helpful to me to engage in critique and workshopping of other people’s work: doing so gives me a lens into things I’d like to strengthen in my own writing, and also helps me to better understand story structure outside of the immersion with which I experience my own narratives. Seeing someone else’s story and trying to understand why it works the way it does is enormously helpful to me as I try to understand how and why I construct my own stories.

JS: Do you prefer writing nonfiction or fiction?

SG: I love both. I find nonfiction to be challenging in a different way, because instead of creating something that’s true, I’m trying to get the reader to see something the same way I do — I can’t rely on the reader’s imagination as much, and I need to be more clear than evocative.

JS: What do you think are some of the realities of being an author that a lot of aspiring authors don’t consider? Were there some aspects of the business that surprised you when you first started out?

SG: I had no idea how much time things take in the world of publishing. The work that happens behind-the-scenes in publishing is huge — there are a thousand moving parts and a ton of people who need to coordinate in order to make a book happen. The scope and scale of the industry is enormous and learning about how that machine works has been totally fascinating to me.

JS: What are some of the challenges of balancing all the aspects of a writer’s life and maintaining an online presence?

SG: Learning to manage a brand identity is a major challenge. My online brand is largely a curated reflection of the way I am in real life — I tend toward absurd, dry, slightly more adult humor. As I prepare for my books to be marketed, I’ve had to start paying more attention to how my online brand might impact the way that booksellers and buyers view the material I produce. For instance, how will horror readers view my Twitter feed, and how is that different from the way high school librarians considering stocking my upcoming YA novel view it?

JS: Do you ever doubt your writing ideas in the beginning? What advice do you to keep from getting discouraged and to power through the self-doubt?

SG: I always doubt my writing ideas. I doubt them until I’ve written the last word of the book. To keep from getting discouraged, I rely heavily on outlining. When I get to the middle part of the novel, where everything feels like a mess that can never possibly come back together, I remember that I wrote an outline that made sense at the time, and if I follow that map, I’ll get to a coherent story eventually. I also try to remember that other people thought the idea was good when I pitched it: the agent, the editor, my critique partner — these people wouldn’t say ‘great idea’ if the thing I’d proposed sounded like garbage. My critique partner and I also engage in WIP cheerleading: she has access to whatever I’m writing and can pop in whenever she wants to leave notes about things that are working well. That helps me to remember that I’m doing a fine job, even when it feels like the story is going to kill me.

JS: Do you have a strict schedule for writing or what-not or does it change day-to-day?

SG: I structure my writing schedule based on project management guidelines — so, my schedule is based on deliverables. I set deadlines for when chapters of projects need to be completed, and then I have some flexibility in terms of my daily output. So long as I’m meeting my self-imposed deadlines (currently a chapter every 2-3 days), I can write whenever it feels best.

JS: What would readers have to look forward to in your upcoming biweekly newsletter?

SG: My biweekly newsletter, which readers can sign up for here, includes original essays, poems, and short stories. I’m also planning to start sending out recipes along the lines of my champagne potatoes recipe over the course of the summer!

JS: Are there any specific literary techniques that you enjoy including in your stories (foreshadowing, certain tones, irony, etc.)?

SG: When I’m working on a piece, I rarely consciously think of including these aspects in the writing. That said, when I’m in the editing process or in discussion with friends, I notice a few structural things that come up repeatedly. I like to use nesting story structures, where various parts of the story work in parallel to build themes and tension. I also lean heavily on visceral sensory images to ground my prose.

JS: How do you nail down all the aspects of the world in your books and make it a complete reality for the reader? Do you make lists or timelines about how their stories are going to go before writing? Or do you just dive on in and let the stories come to you?

SG: I outline my books extensively. Usually, I start with a handwritten outline to get the story arc/pitch out of my brain and onto paper. Then, I do a deep dive into the narrative structure and character elements in an outlining spreadsheet I developed for the purpose. The exception to this is my nonfiction: I typically let my nonfiction work develop as I’m writing it. In my second draft of a nonfiction piece, I pick out the important themes from what I’ve organically discussed and strengthen them to help bring a coherent thesis to the piece.

JS: Was River of Teeth always going to be sequel when you started with the idea?

SG: Originally, River of Teeth was going to be a standalone. I got some very important early-reader feedback that made me reconsider the plotline, the ending, and my treatment of the characters, and I wound up expanding the book into a two-book arc that follows through more on the way the characters survive and cope with the events of book one.

JS: I love that Hero from River of Teeth is nonbinary as you don’t see many characters at all that use they/them pronouns. Will you write more nonbinary characters in the future?

SG: Absolutely! I strive to reflect real communities in my writing, which means a lot of queer characters of various gender identities. Nonbinary representation is especially important to me, so you can expect to see they/them pronouns in a lot of my work.

JS: Will your future project set to debut in spring 2019 be a series or standalone novel? What themes, characters, or really anything should readers prepare for in your next novel?

SG: My Spring 2019 debut will be a standalone. It’s the story of a private investigator who’s hired to solve the murder of a faculty member at the magic school where her estranged twin sister works. It’s focused on themes of duality, identity, longing, loss, courage, and acceptance.

PRR Writer, Julia Shelton

Image credit to © Raj Anand 2017

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