Maggie Jankuloska was lucky enough to chat with Y.A author Sarah Epstein whose debut thriller ‘Small Spaces’ was published by Walker Books earlier in April. Sarah shared her insight on publishing trends, shared her writing habits and gave advice to emerging writers.
Your debut Y.A novel ‘Small Spaces’ is a thriller dealing with trauma, sinister imaginary friends and dark childhood secrets. What can you tell us about the plot and where did the idea for the novel come from?
Small Spaces is a story about Tash, who had a gruesome imaginary friend called Sparrow when she was a child. She watched Sparrow lure a young girl away from a carnival but no one believed her, and she came to accept that Sparrow wasn’t real. But now seventeen-year-old Tash is starting to see her imaginary friend again, and it has her questioning whether Sparrow actually does exist, or whether she’s more dangerous to others than she thinks. The seed of the story was my fascination with children’s imaginary friends and where they come from, and how it might affect relationships with family and friends if a childhood imaginary friend reappeared many years later. I wanted to explore a story about a character who is desperate to win the trust of others when she isn’t even sure she trusts herself.
Did you always know that ‘Small Spaces’ was going to be a Y.A novel? What drew you to Y.A as a writer?
Yes, as soon as ideas for this story started coming to me, I knew it would centre around a teenage protagonist who was struggling for independence. I’d previously written two (currently unpublished) YA manuscripts, so it was a natural progression to write this one for YA readers too. My journey to writing YA started back in high school when I wrote a creepy short story for Year Eleven English, and my teacher loved it and told me she was dying to know what happened next. The thrill of writing a dark page-turner stayed with me, and decades later when I wanted to try writing my first novel-length story, I used this as my starting point. I found my sixteen-year-old voice came through very naturally and I could easily tap into those same emotions, frustrations and challenges I felt as a teen. As I started reading YA more widely, I found the taut plots, character arcs and themes of self-discovery so appealing, and very suited to the types of stories I wanted to tell.
You have worked as a graphic designer and you are a mother to two sons. How did you make time for writing? When was the time you decided to pursue your dream of becoming a writer?
I started writing again after my first son was born (he’s now about to turn thirteen). We were buying and receiving lots of picture books at the time and it reignited my passion for the books I’d grown up with and the many home-made picture books I’d crafted at the kitchen table as a kid. I started out writing picture books during my son’s naptimes, but the more I wrote the more words started to take over, and I soon realised I wanted to explore much longer-length stories. I was also running my own graphic design business part-time, and then I had my second son, which made writing time even tighter!
I soon learned I needed to allocate regular times to write, and then protect this time fiercely. My kids’ naptimes were the only times in my day I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted. I had to make the most of small blocks of time because it’s all you get until they grow older. Once my kids started school, I was able to split my day into two work sessions – school hours for my design business, and after my kids’ bedtime for writing. Having a regular writing routine is the difference between ‘dabbling’ and actually getting a manuscript completed. And, of course, connecting with other writers on social media, especially those in a similar situation, is enormously helpful and inspiring. It helps to know you share the same aspirations (and sleep deprivation) with other writers.
In your opinion, what makes a fantastic thriller, especially a thriller for younger readers?
I think a strong hook is essential to draw readers in, followed by lots of questions and convincing red herrings, although some of those questions should be answered along the way so as not to completely frustrate the reader. I like to give readers a lot of information so they can start forming their own theories, and then throw in a twist or two in the hopes of turning those theories on their head. And the pacing needs to be pretty tight overall – slow patches will encourage readers to put the book down, and you definitely don’t want that! Although a little breather here and there is good for the reader because an unrelenting fast pace will make it an exhausting read.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Y.A novels?
A huge misconception is that YA novels are dumbed down or a basic read compared to adult novels, which is most definitely not the case! Every single chapter, sentence and word in a YA novel has to work incredibly hard to hold teens’ interest. Teens are astute and critical readers who won’t hesitate in putting a book down and moving onto something else if it’s not hitting the mark. A lot of adults also believe YA is only for teens, but often the character arcs and themes in YA novels are completely relatable to adults as well. And the misconception I find funniest is that YA books (and children’s books in general) are quick and easy to write, which is not even close to reality for the reasons stated above. You can lose a young reader so easily at any point in the story because they just won’t make allowances for a slow plot or unappealing characters like an adult might when reading adult fiction.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?
Rejection is by far the biggest challenge on a daily basis, whether it’s during the submission process or unfavourable critiques and reviews of your work. The manuscript I wrote before Small Spaces landed me a US literary agent and made it to acquisitions twice at a large US publishing house. But ultimately it was still a ‘No’. Trying to pick myself up and write something new after my previous work (and my ego) was battered with rejections for the best part of a year was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I almost quit several times, because who volunteers to put themselves through something so brutal? We’re not supposed to take those rejections personally, but it’s not easy to separate yourself from your work.
Writing is not for the fainthearted. Do you have a self-care practice when it comes to writing?
Agreed! It sure isn’t. It definitely takes a certain kind of tenacity and stubbornness to dig deep and keep going. I find it toughest when I send out new work for feedback, because nothing really prepares you for a very thorough, and sometimes blunt, critique. I find it easier these days to read through the feedback straight away and then put it aside, giving myself a chance to mull things over in the back of my mind and return to it when I’m feeling stronger. The knee-jerk reaction is to rush in and defend your work, but it’s really not helpful for your mental health or your growth as a writer. I also do not agree with the writing advice that you need to write every day or you’re not a real writer. This just puts unnecessary pressure on you and makes it easier to be disappointed in your output. There’s nothing wrong with taking breaks! I often remind myself that I’m good at other things and have other interests. And sometimes simply switching off the computer and going for a nice long walk helps to shake off the writing stress and get rid of writer’s block.
Do you have a writing routine or a favourite place to write? How was ‘Small Spaces’ written?
The bulk of Small Spaces was written between the hours of 9.00pm – 2.00am every night because I worked on my design business during school hours. Some nights I was very productive, and others I’d throw in the towel early and watch Netflix instead. But there was enough of a consistent routine to keep the story moving forward. I’m lucky enough to have a rumpus room at the back of my house which we converted into a creative studio, so I always write in there. I struggle to write in cafes and other public places because it’s too distracting. The routine of coming into my studio helps me separate my writing time from family time, which is always a juggle when you have kids and work from home.
Which authors have inspired you and shaped you as a writer?
I have different inspirations depending on which genre I’m writing, so for Small Spaces my greatest inspirations were Rebecca James, Gillian Flynn and Liane Moriarty. I love all of Rebecca’s #LoveOzYA thrillers and when I read Sweet Damage and Beautiful Malice I was inspired to write something mysterious and suspenseful. I find the darkness of Gillian Flynn’s twisty plots and flawed characters mesmerising, and the non-linear narrative of Dark Places encouraged me to look at an alternative storytelling structure for Small Spaces. And Liane Moriarty’s ability to craft compelling mysteries that hold readers’ interest and keep them guessing to the end is a skill I find endlessly inspiring.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received and what advice would you give emerging writers?
There’s no one piece of advice that sticks out more than others, and I’m still learning more and more as I go along. Now that my book is about to be released, I’m heeding the advice about how subjective reading is, and how you can’t please everyone so don’t try!
For emerging writers I’d say, based on my personal experience: listen to your gut, because it’s usually right. Whether it’s a story that’s not quite working, feedback that doesn’t sit right, or industry people you’re dealing with, let your instincts guide you about what’s right for you and your writing.
For more information on Sarah Epstein and ‘Small Spaces’ www.sarahepsteinbooks.com