Jamming their broken feet into skates: Sean H. Doyle talks to Sarah Rose Etter.
Sean: Tongue Party is, for a lack of any better way to put it, a motherfucker. This book is immense. Layered. Full of so much heart and depth and oh my — so much real human emotion. All of the stories seem to have this tenuous membrane that connects them to one another — was this something that happened serendipitously, or was there a moment during your composition/birthing of these stories where you realized they were connected or became aware that you could connect them?
Sarah Rose: I just wanted to create a character that had to go through hell. Maybe that’s sick in some weird way, but I wanted to create this young woman that you had to watch grow through trauma and pain.
Everything bad happens to Cassie in these stories. Parts of that were funny to me, there was a black humor to it. So combine her with the mouths and the hunger and the food – and that became Tongue Party.
Sean: One of the things that I loved the most about these stories was your use of surrealist imagery. Stories like “Koala Tide,” which filled me up with an almost childlike wonder about how you can blend the real and the surreal so easily in such a short expanse. Is this something you just naturally pull out of the ether, or is this something you have worked hard on — this ability to take imagery that wouldn’t necessarily be considered “realist” and insert it into a story that has very real emotions and a very real trajectory?
Sarah Rose: The surrealism is just me toying with language. I like the way certain words sound together and want to build something new out of that, which usually leads to something surreal.
Put the words “sequin” and “guillotine” together. What world would a sequin guillotine exist in? What would happen in that place and how could you make it into something believable? And how could it still evoke emotion?
Sean: Tongue Party won Caketrain’s chapbook contest and was selected as the winner by Deb Olin Unferth. What was it that compelled you to submit it to the contest? What was that process like — did Caketrain give you a heads up about where you were as they culled through the submissions? How much anxiety did you have?
Sarah Rose: I’d had a crush on Caketrain for years. You just look at those books and you want to stockpile them. The way the paper feels, the cover designs. Those books just always look so damn good.
So when they sent some kind words about a story I withdrew, I whittled down my thesis from grad school and sent it off to the contest.
Sean: How did that feel — was it fulfilling? I’ve never entered a contest of any kind, so I am curious.
Sarah Rose: To be honest, I’d sort of written it off and forgotten about the contest.
But it was the night before Thanksgiving, and I was at my parents’ house, in the bathroom putting my makeup on to go out for drinks. I checked my phone, got the acceptance email and started screaming and crying.
I guess I should lie here, act like I was reserved and professional. But I was thrilled. It was one of those amazing moments of your life when everything turns to this glittery crystal and shimmers. It was wonderful. I won’t ever forget that.
My mother heard me screaming in the bathroom and ran upstairs. She started banging on the bathroom door, yelling, “ARE YOU PREGNANT?”
And the screaming turned into me cracking up, saying, “NO, NO, IT’S A BOOK.”
Sean: That is a fantastic image.
I am sure there are a lot of writers out there who go back and forth about entering their work into contests — I know it has bounced around inside of my head from time to time. Is it something you would do again? Is it something you would recommend?
Sarah Rose: I always heard in grad school: DO NOT ENTER CONTESTS. NEVER PAY TO HAVE YOUR WORK READ.
But then I got to work with Caketrain. And that just spit in the face of all that advice.
I got this publisher that just rose up to meet my work at every step of the way. They understood what I was doing. Their edits, their suggestions, the artwork they found, the very first cover mock-up they sent. Caketrain nailed everything. I found so much more than just a publisher, I found people as dedicated to my work as I was.
So it’s hard for me to say DO NOT ENTER CONTESTS. I just got through a honeymoon period with two fantastic people running a fantastic press. I’m going to miss working with them, more than anything. So I’d tell everyone, enter the Caketrain contest. I’d scream that from my deathbed, sloe gin fizz in my wrinkled hand.
Sean: Obviously, anyone with even the most rudimentary Google skill set can see that the reception Tongue Party has received has been wonderful. Have you been surprised at all by some of the reaction out there in the Great Big World about the book?
Sarah Rose: Writing is such a solitary thing. You create a book in this vacuum. If you’re lucky, you get a few sets of eyes on it. But you don’t know until someone pulls back the white curtain and everyone can have it whether it’s worth anything. I really wasn’t sure what to expect.
The reviews have been wonderful. And I’m really happy about that, thrilled. It doesn’t feel like my life. It’s fantastic.
But it’s important to just stay grounded and keep working. And my dad is calling me once a day, joking that I need to quit writing creepy stuff and write the sequel movie script to “In Her Shoes 2,” starring Cameron Diaz. So, for every good review, he’s keeping me in check.
Sean: Sounds like you also have some pretty great support from your family — what has that been like?
Sarah Rose: My parents have done everything they possibly can to support what I’m doing. They don’t always get it and sometimes the stories worry them.
But they’re the ones driving me to the airport to fly to Chicago to do a reading, picking me up from the train station when I get back from Baltimore, making sure I don’t have to pay for parking. That’s what real love is. Making sure someone doesn’t have to pay for parking.
Sean: I’ve witnessed you read live, and you are a badass who brings it, 150%. What is it about reading to a room full of people that brings that out in you?
Sarah Rose: I’ve been to enough readings where everyone just wanted to be asleep or drunk or dead rather than hear this story just carry on and on. I don’t want to do that.
Watching other people read well has helped a lot. I remember watching Amelia Gray read from Threats at AWP this year, that made something click for me. I was reading like a lunatic. Seeing her read made me reign it in a little. Read it like it matters, like the world is about to end, but don’t destroy yourself.
I can’t read my work without being tied to it, without being emotional about it. I hope I never get to a place where I can read my stories in a monotone voice, quietly.
Sean: You mentioned obsession with themes and ideas earlier — I know you have a job in The Straight World, but how often throughout your day do you find yourself obsessing over an idea or an image that you might want to explore?
Sarah Rose: I get two words in my head and then the first line. I let the first line sit in my head for a few days and the back of my head gets to work. Then the whole thing comes out.
As for obsessing at work, I’m usually pretty swamped so that’s not really the place for obsessing. I do that while I’m sitting in traffic, staring at the back of a stranger’s head, daydreaming about marrying him.
Sean: This is the part where we talk about something that is quite important to both of us — hockey. I know you are an extremely passionate Flyers fan. How hard has it been for you this off-season watching your beloved team get traded away and sold off? Have you been able to channel the spirits of Bobby Clarke and Dave Schultz into some new writing?
Sarah Rose: Even though you’re a Rangers fan, this is my favorite question of all time.
The trades have been rough. I expected Carter to go. But watching Richards get traded really ripped my guts out. I loved him. No question. There are goals he scored you can’t forget – that one against the Habs in the playoffs last year, when he lured Halak out of the net, fell and still scored. How do you not love a man forever after a goal like that?
I hope I’m writing with Clarke and The Hammer on my side. I was at the game when we lost the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Blackhawks. I just remember sobbing so hard, like someone had shot my dog.
But that Stanley Cup run was a big part of the reason I sent Tongue Party out, too. I looked at all these guys, jamming their broken feet into skates every night, getting their teeth knocked out and finishing a game, playing through concussions – and still scoring goals. And I thought, if they can do that every night, you can get some rejections on a pile of paper.
So the trades have been hard. I was in love with my team. But I am excited because I have no idea what to expect when they hit the ice. But there are positives. I love the Bryzgalov and Talbot pick-ups, still love Laviolette and Pronger. Hopefully Jagr and his mullet put some goals up. Plus, we’ve still got Giroux and JVR. So we’ll see. But I promise they’ll do better than the Rags, no question.
Sean: I love it. I love the amount of passion you have for your team. Much respect.
Which guy on the Flyers would you be most excited to hand a copy of your book over to?
Sarah Rose: I’d have to say Meszaros. Or maybe Hartnell. Those two might dig it.
Sean: When I read interviews/discussions between writers I always cringe when I see the standard “What’s next for [insert name here]?” question. I’ve already read in other interviews that you’ve given that you are working on a possible full-length that may or may not contain characters from Tongue Party. Looking forward to that, but we’re going to roll a little differently here — What do you NOT want to have happen in the next six months or so?
Sarah Rose: I hope I don’t get pregnant.
Sean H. Doyle lives in Brooklyn, NY. He works hard every day to be a better person. His writing can be found at www.seanhdoyle.com.