#LoveOzYA Q&A with Miranda Luby on SADIE STARR'S GUIDE TO STARTING OVER
Miranda Luby is an author, freelance journalist and copywriter living on Victoria’s Surf Coast. She was shortlisted for the Text Prize for her debut novel, Sadie Starr’s Guide to Starting Over.
Miranda chats with #LoveOzYA’s Julia Faragher about the book, the Text Prize and writing complicated characters.
What is Sadie Starr’s Guide to Starting Over about?
Sadie Starr’s Guide to Starting Over is about a 16 year old girl who isn't really happy with how her life's going – with her friendship group, with her school marks, with her diet and a secret crush she has. Her family moves interstate and she decides to use the chance to start over, reinvent herself and become the best version of Sadie that she can.
At her new school, she meets a girl named Alexa, who is the ringleader of this popular all girl feminist group. The group at the school is sort of ‘cancelling’ a male student for allegedly stalking another female student. Then Sadie finds out a secret, which is that the alleged stalking is a lot more complicated than initially seems.
Sadie gets involved and as she tries to fix things, it all gets very messy, which is not something she copes well with as a perfectionist. And the old Sadie that she was so desperate to leave behind begins to creep back in.
The book explores and critiques perfectionism and black and white thinking, such as getting perfect grades/failing, dieting/binge eating, girlboss feminism/a more productive kind of feminism. What made you want to explore the spaces in between all those things?
It’s something that interests me on a personal level. I think a lot of people can relate to a perfectionist type of thinking, and I'm certainly one of those people. It's taken me a long time to, in my own life, find the nuance in both my personal thinking and my thinking about social issues. I struggled with that a lot as a teenager.
So for me, it was just natural to want to explore something in a way that if I had read more about this as a teen, then it probably would have really helped me. I think it's a really common issue and it's relatable for not just our personal lives but in our social discourse. I thought that would make a good premise.
Why did you write a long distance friendship/romance?
I didn’t think of it as saying ‘I want to write a long distance romance’, but certainly it reflects that black and white, all or nothing theme again. So things don't go well for Sadie and she decides, ‘well, that's it. I've screwed it up now. We can’t even be friends anymore.’ It’s that all or nothing.
Then as they reconnect throughout the book and the relationship starts developing again in a new direction. Sadie needs to accept that all of your relationships are never going to be exactly how you want them to be. And if you want to keep these people in your life when they're trying to help you, you need to accept that sometimes you have to be vulnerable and they have to see your ‘weaknesses’. To me, that's just another way to reflect the theme.
Long distance is always tricky. You make things tricky for your protagonist from a plot point of view.
Sadie Starr was shortlisted for the Text Prize. What was the process of applying, being shortlisted and then published by Text?
Really exciting! Obviously, being shortlisted was such a special moment. I think a lot of people with these prizes, they say a similar thing: they send it off and they try not to think about it. You have to have confidence in your work, but only a few people get shortlisted and it's okay if you don't. So the call, I think, does come as a surprise!
Then a couple of weeks after that my editor, Jane, called me up and said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. You didn't win, but we'd love to publish your book anyway.’ Which was just such a surreal moment. And I just felt so proud that I had achieved this dream that I'd wanted to for so long. It was in the middle of the pandemic (which it still is!) but in that part of it. We were going through the editing process, which was really challenging and rewarding creatively. My editor was just incredible to work with. You go through all these steps and then you hold it in your hands, which is a very bizarre moment.
There’s a lot of emotions that come up that you weren’t necessarily expecting. It’s quite vulnerable putting your work out in the world. But then you start to get some feedback from people, particularly teenagers, saying things like ‘this book’s helped me’ or ‘I really relate to Sadie’. For me, they’re the best moments so far. Even if it was just one person that this book connected with, I'm pretty happy with that.
Did you work on Sadie Starr for a long time before entering the Text Prize?
Yes, a bit on and off. Like a lot of writers, working on a few books, sometimes at the same time and going back and forth between them. As a perfectionist, I got to a point with it where I didn’t know how to go any further and I gave it up for six months and decided that it wasn’t working. Actually, that was the most helpful six months, not touching it. I came back to it and realised that I needed to tell the story more truthfully than I’d initially planned, particularly around Sadie’s binge eating. So it’s a tricky question when someone says, ‘How long did it take you to write the book?’ It depends. But that was still writing even though I didn’t touch the book. So it’s been percolating for a long time but it’s a subject I’ve been interested in my whole life.
I loved how the characters weren’t ‘good’ people or ‘bad’ people, they were very complicated. Do you have any advice to writers on writing complicated characters?
The advice is as simple as just recognising that no one really is good or bad. I think we know that inherently. I think something tells us deep down that most people have good motives, even if you can't see them or they have a very good reason for acting the way that they are.
So I think just trying to show that on the page as much as possible. And just recognising that perhaps putting yourself in that character's shoes helps as well. If I was behaving in that way, what would be the reason for it and what's going on in that person's private life that we don't know about?
I think that's such an important thing, particularly with mental health. For example, Sadie's someone who perhaps on the surface doesn't look like she might have an eating disorder but is really, really struggling. And like Jack with his OCD: again, on the surface, you may not know how much this person is struggling. So just recognising that we are all very complicated and digging that one layer deeper.
How did you approach writing Sadie’s parents and making them an important part of the story?
Sadie’s parents initially came to me from a plot perspective in that same way that writers do try to make things difficult for their protagonists. So I thought, ‘What kind of parents would Sadie need to make her problems worse, to make it harder for her to ask for help?’ And that would be a really image-obsessed mum and a dad who she believes bases her self-worth on her grades.
And then so I had these parents and initially they seemed like really bad people because that's all I’d put into the story so far. And it was in the editing process that those characters began to develop because of course I thought parents want the best for their children no matter how they're behaving. Almost always they have good intentions and they love their child. So I knew there was more to this story than that. And there was probably a reason they were behaving the way they were behaving. So that's why I slipped a little bit of their own backgrounds, their relationships with their parents as well, to just hint at the fact that we are all products of our history and that when we're behaving in a certain way, there's a reason for it.
So, they are complicated themselves. They probably both need some help themselves. And I think by the end of the story, they've grown just enough to understand that they need to support their daughter in a different way than perhaps they have been so far.
Is there anything in particular that you'd like your readers to take away from the book?
If there’s a message in the book, it's to give yourself and everyone a little bit of a break, seeing ourselves and the rest of the world with a bit more nuance. To me, that's an act of kindness, questioning why someone might behave in a certain way if the story's slightly different than you maybe thought it might have looked like on the surface. ‘Maybe I'm not just greedy and lazy when I'm binge eating, maybe there's a mental health issue going on here.’ So giving ourselves and each other a break, being curious and asking questions rather than judging and throwing labels around. And just going easy on ourselves because it's tough to be human and it's tough to be a teenager. Everyone really is trying their best.