Sarah Elizabeth Schantz is a fiction writer living on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, with her family in an old farmhouse surrounded by century-old cottonwoods, open sky, and coyote. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and have won a few other literary awards from journals like Third Coast and organizations such as A Room of Her Own. Her debut novel, Fig, debuts from McElderry (a division at Simon & Schuster) on April 7, 2015. Visit her website at www.sarahelizabethschantz.org.
BWW: What kinds of writing projects are you working on?
SES: Aside from promoting the release of my debut novel, Fig, from Simon & Schuster, I am working on my second book which is tentatively titled, Roadside Altars. I thought I had this whole book writing business figured out seeing that I actually wrote and sold one, but I’m learning that every book is its own beast, and makes its own demands. I actually finished the first draft of Roadside Altars in 2014 but it just never felt right. I’ve decided to switch it from third person to first, which really means I’m writing another book. Roadside Altars is about a teenage girl named Krystal Rassat, who like her mother and grandmother, was born with the gift of sight. However, Krystal begins to question this when she discovers that the lump on her left shoulder—what she’s always been told was her “mark,” is actually the remains of a twin sister she absorbed in utero—a syndrome known as Vanishing Twin. Essentially, Krystal embarks upon a road trip/journey to find out who she is and each chapter follows the twenty-two major arcana cards from the Tarot deck. While there are a lot of esoteric elements to the book, it is not fantasy. Krystal grows up in a trailer park, is a metal head, and thus the book is gritty and realistic with moments of magical realism. Like my first book, Fig, it also explores mental illness—this time instead of OCD and schizophrenia, I am looking at manic depression and borderline personality disorder, and as usual, the rather blurred lines between “crazy” and “not crazy.” I’m also interested in telling a road trip story about a young woman who travels alone and manages to take care of herself along the way without a lot of help from others. Furthermore, I’m interested in the parallels between “magic” and addiction, and I’m interested in poverty—both real and imagined.
BWW: What do you like about being a writer in Colorado?
SES: I’m not really sure how to answer this question. I was born and raised in Boulder, and to top that, I literally grew up in a local independent bookstore, The Rue Morgue. That said, I was a crazy teenager (and when I say that, I mean that I was really crazy–crazier than most crazy teens). I was antsy. I couldn’t sit still. I hated going to school. I hated small talk. I loved sitting at Penny Lane Coffee House and drinking too much coffee and writing and listening and talking to all the nomadic souls that wandered in and out of that café. It was the 1990s then and there were a lot of wanderers who came through Boulder and it was hard not to leave, so I did. I ran away again and again, and finally when I was fifteen, I dropped out of high school and lived on the streets here and elsewhere—I hitch-hiked and hopped trains around the country, living in squats, sleeping under bridges, doing migrant work, etc. Some of the places where I stayed the longest include: Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Eureka, California, and rural eastern Tennessee. I ended up having my daughter, Story, in Tennessee, but then we moved to Boulder by accident. We were on our way to Ithaca, New York (where my parents ironically used to live and first started what would become The Rue Morgue), but we ran out of money, broke down, lost our dog, and all the other bad things that happen in country and western songs and so we just never made it to the East Coast.
I’m glad we stayed because my parents got to really be grandparents to their grandchild, and we were able to heal some of the wounds that came from me leaving home at such a young age. My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about four years ago and I got to take care of her with my dad while she died at home and I am forever grateful for that experience.
I do love the mountains here, and the weather (for the most part), and the plains, and my friends, but honestly, I wonder how much longer I can afford to live in Colorado. I have a love-hate relationship with Boulder in particular. Ironically, the Boulder I spent so much of my youth trying to flee is the Boulder I now miss—the Boulder I do not see when I go into town (we live in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of the city). I’m tired of all these new buildings that look the same being erected all over the city. I miss the less perfect, less “bubble-like” Boulder of yesteryear, but I also understand the hero’s journey, and the fact we can never go home.
I’m a total introvert but I do have friends—people I grew up with as well as new friends I met while I was in graduate school for writing at Naropa. I do feel incredibly grateful to the community of writers and artists I know here. For example, I’m making a book trailer for Fig and would not have been able to do so without the writers and artists who are helping me. I have one friend who is doing all the film editing, another who took all the photographs and videos, and another who acted the role of Mama and did the singing for the soundtrack. Not only am I grateful to them for the amazing talent and tremendous skills they brought to the project, but the fact we can do all of this on trade since we’re all dirt poor. Collaboration can be a beautiful thing. That is what I value about this place, but I think I’d value it about anywhere. I’m just lucky that my roots dig deep. As a debut author, it helps to live in the same town where my parents owned and operated one of the most successful bookstores. I have a lot of connections here I wouldn’t have elsewhere. I just wish there was more diversity in this town as I think diversity is absolutely integral to art and innovation.
BWW: Who or what are you reading right now?
SES: Well, because I’m teaching Creative Writing I for the first time at Front Range, I’m reading the textbook, Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway, but I’ve also been looking back at all the writing books I read back when I was a “beginner” writer, and it’s rather fascinating to return to the “beginner mind.” I was worried about the notion of a textbook for creative writing but I shouldn’t have been—so far, it’s a great book and really helps bring structure to my lesson plans. It’s far more experimental than I’d anticipated and the sample literature is as excellent as it is diverse. The two main books I’ve turned back to, and use to augment the other assigned reading are: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Stephen King’s fabulous craft memoir, On Writing. I’m also reading all my students’ writing. That said, my stack of “To read” books is forever growing into a series of towers placed here and there in the bedroom since the bedside table wasn’t big enough to contain them. Right now, I’m reading The Incantation of Frida K. by Kate Braverman and re-reading Sylvia Plath’s poetry.
BWW: What do you hope to get out of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop?
SES: I’d like to add more writers to the community of writers I already know. I love the idea of the space this workshop creates—the salons, and the events, and the support we can give each other. Being in conversation with other writers helps feed the drive I just discussed. I might prefer staying at home all the time writing in my nightgown and never going out unless I have to teach or pick my daughter up from school or get groceries, but I do like other writers, and I love talking about writing and it’s probably good for me to get out more.