Interview with Sarah J. Schmitt


About the Author: “Sarah J. Schmitt, author of IT’S A WONDERFUL DEATH, is a former K-8 school librarian and Youth Service Professional for Teens at a public library. She has run after-school writing programs through local high schools and continues to teach writing to teens with her interactive school visits.  Prior to immersing herself in the world of the written word, Sarah earned her Master of Education degree from Indiana University where she worked with recent high school graduates as they acclimated to college life. She’s had the honor to serve on the William C. Morris Award Committee sponsored by ALA/YALSA and the Young Hoosier Book Award for Middle Grade Committee as part of the Indiana Library Association. She is currently serving on the Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award Committee (ILF). Sarah has taught classes at the Indiana Writing Center and presented workshops and presentations at Midwest Writers Workshop, the YALSA Symposium, and Children and Young Person Division (since renamed Youth Services Division) Conference. She lives near Indianapolis with her husband, two kidlets, and a cat who might be part ninja.” (Bio taken from author’s website; headshot taken by Louis Schmitt and sent by publicist.)

Find Sarah J. Schmitt on the following platforms:

A huge thank you to Sarah J. Schmitt for the following interview and to Isabella Nugent for arranging it! Don’t miss Sarah’s latest novel Where There’s a Whisk (out now from Running Press Kids!). Check out our review of Where There’s a Whisk here!

Wendy Waltrip: First off, I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of your latest book, Where There’s a Whisk, and I absolutely loved it! Would you mind briefly summarizing the story and characters for those who aren’t yet familiar with it?

Sarah J. Schmitt: To start, thank you so much! It’s so nerve-racking for me to send my books out in the world for everyone to see. I’m so glad you liked it. Where There’s a Whisk is about not letting the cards you’re dealt in life dictate how far you can go to achieve your dreams. Peyton hasn’t had it easy. Her dad’s in jail and as a result, her mom hasn’t been able to really provide a stable life for Peyton. But she’s always been able to turn to baking when life gets to be too much. When she gets the chance to compete in a reality baking competition, she’s determined to win the grand prize: a full-ride to the culinary school of her choice. But when she arrives on set, it becomes clear that reality TV is anything but real. She has to figure out who she can trust, and who’s willing to throw her under the broiler to win.

WW: What inspired you to write Where There’s a Whisk? What came to you first? Was it the idea of a cooking competition for teens combined with a reality TV show, the characters, or something else?

SS: I was inspired to write Where There’s a Whisk after a school visit. The day I was going to be working with the entire eighth grade class, a list was published in the media that ranked the county the school was in as one of the worst counties to live in the entire state. And you could see by the faces of the students that they had heard all about it. Now during my school visits, the students and I create a full outline for a novel in thirty minutes or less. So, that’s what I did. And the story they came up with collectively was dark and heartbreaking. It was only later that I found out several of the students had contributed experiences from their own lives. At the end of the day, when I was sitting in my car, I couldn’t keep the tears from falling. Not just because these 13 and 14-year-old kids had experienced some pretty awful things, but that they had been willing to share them with me. And then I was angry about the rankings. Because these students had the same level of untapped potential as students in the “best counties.” I went home that night and created Peyton. I hope she’s someone who those students might be able to relate to. I also wanted her to show them that the hand you’re dealt in life can be really miserable. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t still have dreams and that with hard work, persistence, and let’s be honest, a little, sometimes, a lot of luck, you can overcome those obstacles. I know it sounds idealistic, but if even one teen that reads this book is inspired to dream big and go for it, I did my job. As far as why a cooking competition? We are huge fans of all of Gordon Ramsay’s shows. From MasterChef to Kitchen Nightmares, we’re all in.

WW: In Where There’s a Whisk, Peyton struggles with her confidence, especially when put to the test during the Top Teen Chef competition. What message are you hoping to pass on through your characters about self-confidence and believing in oneself?

SS: I struggle with self-confidence on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter how well I do at my job or if my books fly off the shelf, I wake up every day battling imposter syndrome. But the truth is, making your dreams reality is one of the bravest things a person can do. Because it means betting on yourself. If nothing else, I hope readers of this book are inspired to make their dreams manifest for themselves. There will always be someone telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. Unless it’s a judge, maybe take their words to be suggestions…that you can choose to ignore.

WW: One of my favorite elements of Where There’s a Whisk was how all the competitors interacted with each other and bonded throughout their time on the show. What was it like writing such a large cast? Were there any characters that were particularly difficult to write? Did any characters come easily to you?

SS: It was so difficult to write a large cast like this. I wanted them to all have distinct personalities and to let their stories shine through, which is hard when every couple chapters one (or two) of them get eliminated. In the original manuscript, there were ten characters, the competition was ten weeks long, and I still struggled with keeping all of the characters out of the shadows. In the end, much like a TV show, there was so much that we had to edit and cut for word count and time. Lola was actually a character that came from combining two original cast members. She probably created the biggest challenge, just because she was created last and sometimes I never felt like I had a good handle on her character. Paulie came easiest to me. Other than Peyton, he was the one that just flowed. I loved his laid-back attitude which created a nice contrast to Peyton and the pressure she put on herself.

WW: Throughout Where There’s a Whisk, Peyton grapples with trying to figure out what’s real and what’s scripted for the show, as well as trying to maintain her authenticity even though some think it may not make the best ratings. What would you like readers to take away from the portrayal of reality television in this novel?

SS: Great question. We live in a world that is meticulously scripted to the point that reality and fiction are hard to distinguish. We filter our images and only post the best pic out of the fifty we took on Instagram. I love social media. I really do. What I hate is that it leaves people feeling like they don’t measure up or that everyone has a more glamorous life than they do. Top Teen Chef may be an exaggeration of this, but the truth is, reality isn’t real. And here’s a big secret. It’s not just teens who struggle with this. Adults deal with this, too. I know it’s cliché, but to quote Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

WW: What were your favorite moments in Where There’s a Whisk to write? Were there any parts that you found more difficult to write? Do you have a favorite quote?

SS: I loved the scene at the pizza parlor. It was, in my opinion, super sweet. Which is nice because it came right after the part that was most difficult for me to write: Peyton’s breakdown after the Broadway show. Both of those scenes are bookends to Peyton’s journey, but I tried to write both with the prospect of hope. As for a favorite quote, I don’t have one that stands out, but anytime Paulie and Hakulani are bantering back and forth between each other, I find myself smiling.

WW: What originally drew you to the literary world? Have you always wanted to be an author, or is that something that you found out later in life? What does a typical writing day look like for you?

SS: I’ve wanted to be an author since I was in fourth grade. I loved reading. I loved the idea of controlling characters and making them do what I wanted them to do. I loved creating worlds I would want to live in. But it wasn’t until I was much older that I actually found the courage to not only write, but to send my darlings out into the world. As for a typical writing day, there’s not one. I have my own pair of teenagers that I am attempting to get to adulthood and as a result, my schedule changes daily, sometimes hourly. Right now, my goal is to block off a couple of hours every afternoon to write. I’ll let you know how that goes.

WW: On a fun note, if you had to use three fictional characters to describe yourself, who would you pick?

SS: Oh wow. This is a fun question. First would be Luna Lovegood. Like her, you can normally count on me to have some random fact to announce that brings the conversation to a halt while everyone tries to figure out what I’m talking about. Second would be Piglet because, given the chance, I would never venture out into the world where things can hurt me, but I can sometimes be brave. And Lorelai Gilmore because I don’t see what is wrong with mixing tacos, burgers, and egg rolls in the same meal.

WW: Having now gone through the entire publishing process, if you could give any advice to the version of yourself just starting out (or to any aspiring authors out there), what would it be?

SS: Have patience with the process. Being creative is so full-filling, but it can also take a long time. Make sure you are writing (and reading) what you love. There will always be readers out there. I’m convinced that being successful in writing is tied as much to persistence as it is to talent. But also keep working on your talent.

WW: Finally, what’s next for you? Do you think you’ll ever revisit the world of Where There’s a Whisk in a future book?

SS: I’m currently working on a story that will allow fans of Whisk to see Peyton’s life before the show, but only for a hot minute. Other than that, Top Teen Chef will not be renewed for another season. BUT, there is a chance you’ve already met the main character of a future book. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

PRR Assistant Director, Wendy Waltrip