#LoveOzYA Q&A with Sarah Epstein
Sarah Epstein is a writer, illustrator and designer, who grew up in suburban Sydney and now lives in Melbourne. Small Spaces, her first novel, is out now.
Welcome to the LoveOzYA blog, we’re so happy to have you here!
Thank you so much! It’s my pleasure.
Let’s go back to the beginning…have you been telling stories since you were a kid or was writing something you fell in love with as an adult?
From a really young age I loved creating my own picture books with coloured textas and any paper I could find lying around, and I used to draw my own comic strips as well with googly-eyed characters a bit like Garfield. By my teen years I’d moved onto writing poetry and short stories, and I started a lot of novels when I was around 15 to 17 but never got very far with them. (Decades later I’d learn this is because I’m a plotter and I really struggle to get going on a novel if I haven’t worked out exactly what the ending is going to be.)
After high school I studied design at university and embarked on a graphic design career before returning to my writing roots after my first child was born. I found it easy to tap into that 15-t0-17-year-old voice again, like picking up where I’d left off.
Tell us about your new book.
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 17-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 have a favourite OzYA book when you were growing up?
Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein is one of the first novels I remember reading multiple times because I enjoyed it so much. It’s probably more middle grade than YA, but I was the same age as the protagonist when I read it (in Year Six) and on the cusp of YA.
I also remember being totally engrossed in Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park because I’d never read anything like it before – the time-slip storyline was both exciting and completely nerve-wracking to me.
And John Marsden’s So Much To Tell You really struck an emotional chord and stayed with me for a long time.
Did you have anyone that encouraged your love of books, reading and writing when you were younger?
My mum was an avid reader and was always having books home delivered by Doubleday Book Club – it was like Christmas every time she opened a box and decided what she was going to keep and which ones she’d send back. She really modelled reading to us kids because she always had a book on the go and would discuss and swap books with her friends all the time.
Mum always bought us books for birthdays and Christmas, and she’d often read to me and my brother and sister before bed, books like The Magic Faraway Tree, Snugglepot & Cuddlepie and The Magic Pudding. My mum’s ever-growing bookshelf became a haven for me as I got older and was hungry for more and more books to read, so I’d be reading my Babysitters Club books one day and Stephen King the next.
I can definitely say it was my mum who fostered a love of reading in me, which is what led to my interest in writing my own stories.
What do you think sets Australian YA stories apart from those set internationally?
It’s everything from the descriptive settings and lingo, to the multiculturalism and laid-back attitude. For Aussie readers, finding a heartfelt or gripping story framed within the familiarity of our streets, cities and country towns, our music and pastimes, and our unique turns of phrase, really speaks to our own experiences. And I hope, for international readers, this passion we have for our home and our stories is like a breath of fresh air and captivates them from the first page until the last.
Do you have a favourite bookshop or library?
I love them all! Like most people, I can browse bookshops and libraries for hours. There’s a special kind of buzz when you enter one – a mixture of possibility and feeling right at home. I spend so much time leafing through children’s picture books and reading jacket copy and the first page of novels, making decisions about which ones I’m going to take home. I’ve never met a bookshop or library I didn’t like, and I’m always so reluctant to leave all those lovely shelves of books.
What was the last book you read and enjoyed?
I’ve been in a reading slump for the last couple of months due to my dad falling ill and passing away, so not a lot has been holding my interest. But I did recently finish A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window which I really enjoyed. Psychological thrillers and mysteries are my go-to genre if I really want some unputdownable escapism.
Aside from writing, what else do you like to do to explore your creativity?
Heaps of things! I’m an all-round creative person. I love to draw, design, paint, craft, do DIY on my house, decorate cakes, you name it! I’ve always been artistic and find myself getting very twitchy if I’m not using my creative energy in some way.
I’ve worked in graphic design for over twenty-five years and also started illustrating again around four years ago. It’s ideal when I’m able to combine all of my creative skills together, which I did recently when launching my novel. I designed all of the book swag for my launch party goodie bags as well as banner artwork, plus my event invitations and a whole bunch of social media imagery. I’m working on more opportunities to combine my art skills with my writing.
What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve received?
The worst piece of advice is that “real writers” must write every day, which is simply not true. I agree that having a regular writing routine is essential if you ever want to finish a manuscript, but writing every day is just not feasible for a lot of people due to their families, lifestyles, work situations and energy levels. Some days you just need to veg out in front of Netflix instead!
It’s too easy to feel down on yourself about your output levels if you measure it by how many words you write every day. As long as you keep turning up at the keyboard to add words to your manuscript when you can, you’re a “real writer”.
A great piece of writing advice that’s helped me enormously over the years is: you don’t need to draft your scenes in order or write your way neatly from point A to point B. If you’re feeling stuck, just jump ahead and pick up a random scene midway through, then figure out how to write yourself into it later.
I often jump forward to an action scene or snippet of dialogue, something I know is definitely going to be important to the story, and bang out the words as they’re coming to me. Then I figure out where I want to slot it into the story later and how I’m going to get my characters there. It really helps you get over the mental block of the dreaded white page.
What do you love about OzYA?
I’ve been welcomed into the OzYA community with open arms and so much support from other Aussie authors, industry folk, book bloggers, booksellers, teachers and readers. Perhaps it’s the scale of our kidlit industry compared to other countries, but it certainly feels like a connected family where everyone has your back. It’s so great for Aussie kids and teens to have access to so much home-grown talent and be part of such a thriving community.
Small Spaces is published by Walker Books Australia. Find out more about it here.