In our November issue, we are thrilled to talk with author Sarah Allen about her two new middle grades novels, What Stars Are Made Of and Breathing Underwater. In this interview, we discuss Sarah’s inspiration for writing them, how she keeps her writing momentum going, and the unique way she chooses her settings.
Do you ever feel stuck in your writing? Every author deals with “writer’s block” at some point. Sarah reminds us to “create a writing routine and let your body take over” when we feel like we just aren’t getting anywhere with our story. Sometimes a little nudge is all we need to find our momentum and get back to creating again.
Here’s a fun writing prompt to help get your wheels turning:
Take a side-character from your favorite fairy tale (Maybe Grumpy the Dwarf, Red Riding’s grandma, the wicked stepmother, Gepetto, etc.) and write a short poem or story from their perspective!
An Interview with Sarah Allen
Tell us a little bit about the books you’ve written.
What Stars Are Made Of is realistic middle grade fiction. It is about a young girl named Libby who has Turner Syndrome, a genetic disorder. When Libby’s big sister comes home, and tells the family that she’s pregnant, Libby is super excited, but she also loves science and because of all the things that have happened to her, she knows all of the scary medical things that can happen. She makes a deal with the universe and her favorite real life scientist, Cecilia Payne, who lived in the early 1900s, to make sure that her sister’s baby will be born safe and healthy, with none of the problems that she herself has had to deal with.
Breathing Underwater comes out next year. It’s about two sisters named Ruth and Olivia who go on a road trip. Ruth has struggled with depression for many years so Olivia is trying to recreate some of the memories from their past to help Ruth cope with her depression. As they travel, Olivia prepares a scavenger hunt to help bring up happy memories for Ruth.
What was your inspiration for What Stars Are Made Of?
My favorite writing quote is from C.S. Lewis: “We read to know that we are not alone.” Even though I loved so many books growing up and there were a lot of characters I related to, I never saw girls like me represented in the books I read – girls with Turner Syndrome. It just didn’t exist, and I knew that’s something I wanted to address. So that’s probably what came first–Libby herself. Her voice was so clear in my head, and so easy to write! However, the opposite happened with the plot and story. While Libby came to me very clearly, the plot only very slowly emerged in bits and pieces. Some entire plot threads didn’t even happen until after I’d already signed with my agent and we were working on revisions! With the help of professors, author mentors, and my agent and editor, I was finally able to build the story for this character I cared so much about.
Do you remember writing as a child or what you first wrote?
The first thing that comes to mind is a home video that we have of me and my family on a road trip in an RV. So I guess that’s where the idea for Breathing Underwater came from. The video is of me and my little sister up in a loft and I’m telling her a story about ogres. It’s not actual writing, but it’s my first memory of storytelling and being interested in stories. I’m the oldest of eight kids so I was always trying to entertain my little siblings and tell them stories. I was lucky that I was able to take creative writing classes in middle school, so I knew pretty early on about publishing and being a writer. I remember when I was 14, thinking of all these things that I wanted to be when I grew up, and a writer was always a part of them. What Stars Are Made Of is the fourth book that I have written.
Can you tell us more about your writing process and how you keep your momentum going?
I love that word, momentum. I think, honestly, that it is the majority of the battle. It’s getting over that initial inertia of feeling like, “Oh, I have to write”, but then once you grease the wheels and prime the pump and get things going, it works and things start to flow.
My advice is about setting up physical cues for yourself. For example, I had a roommate once who had a writing robe. Every time she sat down to write, she would put on this robe. I’ve also heard that lots of people do that with hats. Letting our body take over can get us going, where we just sit down at our desk, put on our writing hat or or have our chocolate milk or water bottle or whatever cue it is. I’m also a fan of having regular appointments with yourself, sitting down at the same time, setting a schedule, etc. If you are feeling stuck, then it might be time to realize that you sat down and tried this at this desk for every day this week, and nothing’s really happening. When this happens, I’ll just go on a walk and speak into my phone. Or maybe I will go write at the kitchen table, or go sit at McDonald’s and eat something.
How do you choose your settings?
I start with character and story first, and then I think about where the story and this character are going to be the most impactful. I kind of go with my gut depending on the feel I want for the story. For my book, Breathing Underwater, the setting is a road trip. So I actually went on Google Maps Street View, and clicked my way through various parts of where they traveled on their road trip. I had to calculate how many hours and how on this day they go from here to here, and that kind of stuff. That was fun to explore everywhere from the American southwest desert to New Orleans in the south. My settings are mostly just places that I want to explore too.
What is the number one book that inspires you?
One of my all time favorites is Wednesday Wars, by Gary Schmidt. I love all of his books. I love the writing, voice, sentence structure, humor, everything! I feel like he’s one of my biggest inspirations. Gary Schmidt, all the way.
What would you tell your younger storytelling and writing self?
Oh man, there’s probably a lot that my younger self should have known! But I’d probably focus on two things: First, read as much as possible. That’s advice I think a lot of writers give, but it’s for a good reason. I’d tell myself to read as much and as widely as possible, in different genres, different forms, etc.
The second piece of advice would be to pay attention to the kind of writing I liked to do, and the kind of stories I liked to tell, as opposed to what I thought people in publishing would be interested in. It’s something I still remind myself regularly! We have to write for ourselves first, and it’s important to pay attention, believe, and follow that sort of inner muse!
A special thanks to Sarah Allen for sharing with us!
Sarah Allen is the author of What Stars Are Made Of and the upcoming Breathing Underwater (out March 30th, preorder available). She has also been published in Presence, Quarter After Eight, The Evansville Review, Cicada, and on WritersDigest.com. She grew up in the mountains of Utah where she got one MFA, and because she’s a little bit crazy, she’s now at work on a second MFA in the tropics of Florida. Other than writing poetry and books for children, she can be found singing show tunes too loudly, watching David Attenborough documentaries or, like her characters, hunting for treasure. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @sarahallenbooks!