Sarah Alexander spoke with fellow author, and fellow Brit, Caroline Leech about her YA debut, a contemporary novel about loss and grieving, just published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA and by Usborne in the UK. Sarah’s a member of the Sweet Sixteens, an online group for YA and MG authors debuting in 2016. Caroline rolls with the Swanky Seventeens.
ABOUT THE NOVEL
Five years after the drowning of her twin brother, Scottish sixteen-year-old Elsie Main confronts tempestuous seas—and her family’s tragic past—as she tries to remember what really happened that fateful day on the beach. One minute Eddie was there, and the next he was gone. Seventeen-year-old Tay McKenzie is a cute and mysterious boy that Elsie meets in her favorite boathouse hangout. When Tay introduces Elsie to the world of freediving, she vows to find the answers she seeks at the bottom of the sea.
A young adult debut that will appeal to fans of E. Lockhart’s WE WERE LIARS and Jandy Nelson’s I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Alexander grew up in London with dreams of exploring the world and writing stories. After spending several years wandering the globe and getting into all sorts of scrapes, she returned to London to complete a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College in 2013. She works in publishing and lives with her husband and two chickens. THE ART OF NOT BREATHING is her first novel.
A CONVERSATION ABOUT ‘THE ART OF NOT BREATHING’
Caroline: What came to you first—freediving or Elsie? And are you a swimmer or freediver yourself?
Sarah: Elsie and her mum came to me together, almost fully formed. I always wanted to write about loss and grief, and also about an interesting mother/daughter relationship, so they came as a package. I had the seaside setting in my mind, but it took longer for the freediving to emerge. In the end, the themes of suffocation, isolation and escape combined with the seaside setting led me to the underwater world.
I’m actually a scuba diver, though I have tried freediving. I don’t go very deep because that’s really scary, but I like to go a bit beneath the surface to see what is down there. I love the water, especially having that space to myself where no one can speak to me and interrupt my thoughts. I’ve not dived in Scottish waters, but I have dived all over the world. In Brazil, I even dived in an underground lake. To get to it, I had to rappel 300ft into a cave, and then the scuba gear came down on the rope. Once I’d had a scuba around, I then had to rappel myself back up.
Caroline: There are several serious issues addressed in the book—bereavement, parental separation, fat-shaming and eating disorders. Did you set out to make them part of the book?
Sarah: It was always going to be a story about loss and grief, and all the characters have their own way of dealing with it. Elsie discovers freediving, her mum Celia drinks and stays out, her dad is absent. And I always wanted to write about male eating disorders. I didn’t know it would be in this book, but it just came with Dillon. I realized that there was a real physical connection between starving your body of oxygen and starving your body of food. So though the issues weren’t really at the forefront, as I got to know the characters they each told me how much pain they were in.
Caroline: Elsie smokes, drinks, steals, skips school and generally disobeys every instruction anyone gives her, yet we still know she is a decent person at heart. How did you know you could maintain Elsie’s good soul amid all the “naughty” stuff she does?
Sarah: I’m not sure whether I knew that I could or not. I just knew that she had all of these amazing qualities that no one else saw, and she was really the one that held her family together. She does all the caring, she looks after her mum, she keeps any eye on Dillon and also on Eddie when he was alive, so for me that was always at the core of her. And the badass stuff was her being a typical teenager and thinking, “What can I get away with?” She just tries things. I think that’s what drove her character forward. She doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and that’s what I love about her.
Caroline: So how did you, as a writer, get to this point?
Sarah: Luck! No, that’s not entirely true. A lot of it is to do with luck, and the rest is just bloody-mindedness. It took me two years to write this book. I started it when I was doing my creative writing MA. I wrote a chapter for a class that I was taking, and to my surprise, everyone loved and said, “you’ve got something there”. So I went with it. Fortunately, an agent loved it too, and she made me do endless revisions until she thought it was ready to go out on submission.
Caroline: And what is your writing process – every day or weekend binges?
Sarah: Both. Sometimes I block out all Saturday and Sunday, and write all day and all evening, and then other times, I’ll just do half an hour before work, half an hour at lunchtime and again after work, and that’s enough. And then I’ll spend a day bringing all those bits together. I didn’t really have a plan with THE ART OF NOT BREATHING, I just had an end-goal in mind, and knew I had to get it finished by a deadline I set myself.
Caroline: So what’s next? Another book?
Sarah: Yes, it’s work in progress… in my head and partly on paper… and in my phone… and on post-it notes… and on the back of my hand. It’s a standalone contemporary about fear. Fear in terms of being afraid, and also about not being afraid of anything.
Happy ending or realistic ending?
Realistic, even if it’s painful.
How’s your diet—caffeine and sugar or herbal and fiber?
My favorite writing snack is carrot sticks… with wine. But if someone brings me a cake, I won’t say no.
Playlist or peace and quiet?
Usually peace and quiet.
What are you reading right now?
REBEL OF THE SANDS by Alwyn Hamilton which was recently published. She’s awesome.
And the big question: do you consider yourself Scottish or English?
British! (25% Scottish, 25% Welsh, 50% London)
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Caroline Leech is a Scottish writer who somehow found herself in Texas. As well as writing YA fiction, she blogs a lot, reads a lot, and almost always has an audiobook playing through her headphones.
Caroline lives in in Houston with her husband and three teenage children. Caroline’s debut, WAIT FOR ME, is set in Scotland in the final months of World War Two and will be published by Harper Teen in early 2017. You can find Caroline online at www.carolineleech.com.
To celebrate the release of THE ART OF NOT BREATHING, Caroline and Sarah are giving away two copies of the book – one to a reader in the United States and one to a reader in the United Kingdom. For five different chances to win, visit either Caroline’s blog or Sarah’s blog and use the Rafflecopter entry form for either the US or the UK, depending on where you live.
You can also read an extended version of this interview on either author’s blog.