Interview with Ally Malinenko, author of This Is Sarah

coverI’m a big fan of Ally Malinenko’s work, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting her novel This Is Sarah for months now, so when her publisher put out the word that they were looking for participants in Ally’s blog tour to promote the book, I jumped on board and asked to do an interview.

For those of you unfamiliar with This Is Sarah, here’s the promo text from the back of the book:

When Colin Leventhal leaned out his bedroom window on the night of May 12th and said goodbye to his girlfriend, he never expected it would be forever. But when Sarah Evans goes missing that night, Colin’s world unravels as he transforms from the boyfriend next door to the main police suspect. Then one year later, at her memorial service, Colin makes a phone call that could change everything. Is it possible that Sarah is still alive? And if so, how far will he go to bring her back?

As Colin struggles with this possibility, across the street, Sarah’s little sister, Claire learns how to navigate the strange new landscape of life without her sister. While her parents fall apart, Claire remains determined to keep going, even if it kills her.

THIS IS SARAH serves as a meditation on loss, love, and what it means to say goodbye.

You can catch up on some of the excerpts, blog posts, and interviews Ally’s been doing the past couple of weeks by visiting her website. But once you’re caught up, here’s my (amazing!) interview with her:

The title, This Is Sarah, tells us this novel is all about Sarah, but the write-up suggests it’s really much more about her boyfriend Colin and her little sister Claire as they deal with her disappearance. What made you decide to tell this story as one of absence? And why this dual perspective, rather than one or the other?

Before Colin became the Colin of This is Sarah, he was the sole inhabitant of a ghost story. At the time, I referred to him as My Furious Boy. Once the ghost story morphed into a love story — I started to see what it was I had been trying to talk about — the subject that I had been dancing around from the first few moments with him. It was not a haunting per say, or at least not the traditional kind, nor was it a love story. It was a story about loss. About, as you say, absence and what it means when something that had always been there, is now inexplicably gone.

When I first submitted This is Sarah to Bookfish, back when it was a novella, they accepted the story and mentioned that the emotions were so real that they feared I had suffered losing someone in such an unresolved way. I have, thankfully, never known the pain that accompanies an abduction or a runaway. But I have lost people, people that I had been unable to say goodbye to. People that had left me with so many things unfinished and unsaid. It is from that place of wondering what if — what if things had gone differently — that I pulled out Colin and Claire.

The title, This is Sarah, obviously refers to the voicemail that Colin hears on a daily basis (Hi, this is Sarah. Leave a message) when calling her, but it also alludes to a restoration. This is Colin’s version of Sarah. This is who she was to him. This is what she meant to him. And then, this is Claire’s Sarah. This was her big sister. This is what she loved. This is what they shared. In their own ways, both characters paint a different version of the same girl on the cusp of womanhood. To Claire, Sarah was energy and light, she was older, wiser, more beautiful than Claire could ever image herself being. To Colin, Sarah was goofy, talented, energetic, sexy; his girl next door and the love of his life. The person he laughed with and the person he made love to.

For a long time Colin was the main character — and to me, in many ways, he still is. The book is, ultimately, Colin’s story. But Claire’s place grew as the novel grew. I realized that to truly tell this story, to show the emptiness — the black hole that Sarah’s vanishing ripped in this small universe — it had to come from more than one perspective. I needed to hear both their stories.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about YA as a genre (or a nongenre) and adults reading YA. You’ve said in another interview that “the whole YA thing is really more a marketing idea,” but in terms of us readers, what do you hope adults can get from reading a novel about teenagers?

This has been a hot button issue hasn’t it? All that talk about what adults should or shouldn’t be doing — arguments about what YA even means; who it’s for; who it isn’t for. Twitter was full of pro-YA campaigns and anti-YA campaigns. Truthfully I found the whole thing really ridiculous. Read whatever the hell you want to read and screw the judgment.

That said, yes I did say that the “whole YA thing is really more of a marketing idea” because it is. YA books, as in books written with adolescent characters, have existed for a long time, but the YA “section” of book stores are pretty recent. The term gets bandied about now in a way it didn’t years ago. It wasn’t really until the late-80s that YA became a selling point in itself. Right then marketers realized that kids wanted to read about themselves and bam — thus was born YA literature and since then it has morphed into the marketing monster that it is today.

And it’s mushrooming still. There is the newly penned NA category (New Adult). This means your characters are in their early twenties and “figuring things out” and it’s okay to have sex – even graphic sex.

YA means that they’re 12-18 and figuring things out, i.e. the PROBLEM NOVEL. Kissing is okay but keep your clothes on.

And this is where I have a problem with labels. I find it troubling when I see writers on discussion boards batting around possible plot elements based on fitting this “genre.” That’s not how you should be writing. I doubt JD Salinger gave a rat’s ass (can I say rat’s ass here?) if it was okay for Sunny, the hooker, to visit Holden’s room. Do you think he wondered if he was sending the wrong message? What will agents or editors or, even more importantly, marketing people think? After all, Holden is only 16. Not old enough for NA. We’re getting wrapped up in these definitions and bypassing doing our job — which is to tell the story we want to tell.

Okay, back to your original question since I’m rambling . . . what can readers get out of reading about teenagers? I don’t know. I know what I get out of it. I read lots of books, both ones categorized as YA and ones categorized as Adult that deal with teenagers. When it comes to emotions, the only difference between a 17-year-old and a 30-year-old is that a 17-year-old lacks the tools to control his emotions — to rein them and compartmentalize them and rationalize them. Or maybe a 30 year old can’t really do that either and just fakes it better. I don’t know. I just know that when I read things written from the point of view of a 16- or 17-year-old everything feels bigger, heavier. More raw. I like the intensity of it. When you were a teenager and you were alive you were ALIVE and when you were dying, you were DYING. I think it’s good in this pill-popping emotionally suppressing world to remember that we are inherently sensitive creatures. We live and die by our passions.

You mentioned in an earlier interview that you purged a lot of emotions writing this book; that “they’re right when they say that writing is cathartic.” I think a lot of nonwriters or new writers expect finishing a book to feel jubilant, like you’ll break out the champaign, but this is about the absence of emotion. What DID you do when you finished the first draft of this?

I had a scotch on the rocks. Just kidding — it was seven in the morning! I did what I do every morning after writing. I got ready for work and walked five miles to my job at the library. I listened to some music and I thought what I wrote. I asked myself if I really felt finished. I told myself I did. I asked myself if I was happy with what happened in the story. I told myself I was and wasn’t like anyone finishing a novel. Was I jubilant? Not even a little. But I was proud of the story I told. I was proud of Colin, especially. In a short span of time he took a journey that it took me decades to complete. And because writing this book was cathartic, I felt lighter.

I’m a huge fan of your short fiction, but this will be the first long-form fiction of yours I’ve read. How do you distinguish your short fiction from your longer-form work, like this novel?

This is Sarah is only the second long form piece that I’ve had published and it started out as a long short story/novella. I have a sci-fi novel (read: tome) that I’ve been working on for a while (read: forever). That book, called Palimpsest, was always a novel. My first book, Lizzy Speare and the Cursed Tomb, was a novel. I feel that the distinction for me is that I can see in advance the expansive nature of the long form things. I know a novel is going to be a novel (except Sarah, obviously. That one snuck up on me).

Plus I feel like my short stories, like “Paper Heart,” could never be a novel. That was just a snippet of time, my little Turkish love story/bedtime story/Romeo and Juliet thing. I think that more often than not the story informs the length.

This started out as a novella and then evolved into a novel. What made you take the leap and expand the story? 

Actually that really all blossomed out of conversations I had with Mary, one of my editors at BookFish. She and I were talking about Claire, who had a smaller role in the novella than she does in the final draft, and we were discussing the effects of Sarah’s disappearance on her and what it meant in relation to Colin — the three of them are all points on the same triangle — and I told Mary that I had a few ideas about how to tie Colin and Claire together more and she said go for it. So I started writing. Three weeks later, I had a novel. It wasn’t really on purpose or even expected. In talking with Mary I was able to see the book through someone else’s eyes, which any writer will tell you is like looking in a magic crystal ball – and that allowed me to see the threads that needed to be expanded and tied together. I was lucky to work with a group of editors like the people at BookFish. To call them flexible would be an understatement. And they were champions of this book from day one. That always helps too.

Sometimes your work has an almost magical quality to it, like your story “Paper Heart,” and sometimes it’s much more realistic, but in all cases your style seems to be one of meditative simplicity. You’re not one for flowery flights of prose, yet with your stark, short paragraphs, you manage to evoke such strong images and emotions, and there’s a poetic honesty to your language. Where does that come from? 

Meditative simplicity? I like that. Can I steal that? I am definitely not one for flowery flights of prose. And there is one very good reason for that — I’m terrible at it. I mean really, it’s cringe-inducing. I’ve certainly tried. I’ve struggled to sound more lavish and each time I wound up sacrificing story-telling to style. I think that ultimately is the difference. Maybe I’m not so much a writer as I am a story teller. It’s the same thing with me as a reader. Sure, fancy prose can wine and dine me and I might get all swoony but I’ll be bored stiff by the end of the night if it doesn’t add up to something substantial.

Also, while being verbose is nice and pretty and shows that you’ve got a good vocabulary (all things that I like) it’s all sort for show because under that is the bloody pumping heart of the story. And if you can’t do it — like I can’t — you shouldn’t try.

Look, if you want to say that your character was about to cry – that’s all you have to do. Just say it. One thing always happens before you cry — that heat rises up behind your eyes. That’s all you need to tell me. Then I’m right there with you: tight throat, stunted breath, eyes welling. I’m there.

I think my stark short style also comes from the fact that I started out as a poet. I didn’t write my first story (discounting the ones I did when I was a just a little girl) until I was in my first short story college class at 19. After that, close to another 5 years went by before I bothered again. But the whole time, I was writing poetry and trying to tap into the one line, the one word, that meant exactly what I wanted to say. The perfect word, so to speak.

What’s your deal with Antarctica?

Okay . . . I’ve got a thing for Robert Falcon Scott. He was a British explorer who maybe, probably, sort of doomed his entire expedition to a horrible death trying to reach the South Pole. In his defense a) the ponies were a bad idea, b) Roald Amundsen LIED and said he was going to the North Pole and then hightailed it down south creating a race where before there was nothing but a scientific exploration. Definitely NOT the gentleman’s adventurer. Also Amundsen killed and ate his sleigh dogs on the way. Just saying. And c) 1912 wound up having one of the worst winter seasons on record. Even if they had better depots (maybe Scott’s fault) and even if they only brought the 4 intended men, instead of 5 (definitely Scott’s fault) they would have most likely perished in the storm.

I’ve read about 7 different books on Robert Falcon Scott’s 1912 expedition. I spend some free time going through his hut on google maps. I’m a wee bit obsessed. That said, you can’t make this stuff up – Scott’s mate, Captain Titus Oates, knew he was going to die of starvation and frostbite and was unwilling to slow his companions down so he left the tent in the middle of the snow storm, saying “I’m just going outside and may be some time” and then walked off to his death. I mean my god, if that doesn’t typify the Age of Exploration, I don’t know what does.

You’ve been on the blog tour for a bit now, and we’re learning a lot about you and your novel. What do we not know yet that we need to know before we all start reading your book?

Wow, that’s a tough one. I sort of feel like I’m cheating by manipulating your otherwise uncontaminated reading. But hey, I’ll take it. Is there one thing you need to know before starting This is Sarah?

If there is one thing I could tell you – one thing I could warn you it is this – my characters act like real people. And by that I mean they’re going to do and say and think and act in ways that the reader might not like sometimes. Colin and Claire are both far from perfect. They are just young people in a really difficult situation. They lead with their hearts not their heads. Just like I did back then.

Hell, just like I do now.



Ally Malinenko is the author of the poetry collection The Wanting Bone (Six Gallery Press) and the children’s fantasy Lizzy Speare and the Cursed Tomb (Antenna Books). She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.

Amazon | Website | Twitter | BookFish Books | Goodreads


Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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