For Educators, For Readers, Q&A 2 years ago

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Sarah Epstein for NIGHT LIGHTS

Sarah Epstein is the award-winning Australian author of young adult stories, including Small Spaces, Deep Water, and several short stories. Sarah has recently launched a contemporary YA series, Leftovers, and a new YA thriller, Night Lights, under her own imprint.

#LoveOzYA’s Bianca Breen recently chatted to Sarah about Night Lights – a YA thriller that’s out of this world.

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For those who may not have read it yet, can you tell us what NIGHT LIGHTS is all about?

NIGHT LIGHTS is about 16-year-old Owen and his family who are visiting a former gold-mining town called Wooralla for a two-week holiday in a remote mountain cabin. The town is known for its history of UFO sightings, and from day one of their stay, creepy and peculiar things start to happen. Owen tries to keep his little sister safe while piecing together exactly what’s going on and why their family holiday has spiralled into chaos.

Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

I’ve always been fascinated with UFOs ever since I was a kid, because there’s something so awe-inspiring yet terrifying about the idea of our planet being visited by extra-terrestrials. It’s a topic that I find endlessly entertaining, and I always knew I’d incorporate it into one of my novels one day. I just couldn’t figure out what form my story might take. Then, a few years ago, I heard a news story about a family in Victoria who had fled their home on a strange family road trip, and they were completely vague to the police and media about the details of why they were running, how they all got separated, and why all of the family members agreed to go along with it in the first place. Straight away this story captured my imagination, and my writer brain scurried down lots of weird rabbit holes with theories about what really happened. And down one of those rabbit holes my imagination conjured up Owen and his family, and a little cabin in a UFO town called Wooralla.

I loved flashing between the past and the present. What was the creative decision behind choosing to tell the story that way? Had it been your plan all along?

Yes, I always wanted to open the story with Owen and his little sister in a dire situation, and then jump back to the beginning of their family holiday to recount, day by day, how it all went wrong. I knew that the place where the two timelines converged would answer some questions for readers, but not all, and it’s at that point the story starts building towards the climax. A big reason for splitting the timeline was to draw readers into the sense of chaos and confusion that Owen and his family are feeling, and drip-feed answers to readers at the same time Owen is discovering them himself.

I’m completely shocked that Wooralla isn’t a place that exists, it felt so real! What went into the town’s creation?

The location of the town is based on small towns I’ve visited in the West Gippsland region of Victoria just south of Baw Baw National Park. But the layout and topography of the town, the businesses and tourist attractions, and the UFO history of the area, are purely fictional. When I create settings for my novels, I always base my fictional towns on real locations to help ground them in authentic details. Then I weave in the fictional elements so they become places that feel familiar but not enough for readers to get hung up on.

One of the things that really struck me about this novel was the characters – their personalities and the complex ways they formed relationships with each other. What’s your process for creating characters, and what is it that’s important to you in their creation?

I always seem to write stories with complicated family dynamics even though at first glance that’s not what the plot is about. But complex family relationships always reveal authentic character motivation, so my stories tend to be equally plot- and character-driven (at least, that’s what I aim for). It’s important to me that my characters act in believable and relatable ways given the situations they find themselves in, but also given their histories, their goals and fears, and the relationships they have with those around them. We all have reasons for why we act certain ways and say the things we do, and most often that’s tied into our past experiences. The challenge for writers is to get enough of that down on the page so that characters are acting in ways that make sense for their situation and backstory.

Tell us… Do you believe in UFOs?

Most of the time I’m like Erin, one of the characters in NIGHT LIGHTS, who tells Owen: “Scientists say there are something like two trillion other galaxies in the universe. There has to be other living creatures out there somewhere. Although I think most of the UFOs we hear about are hoaxes or have other explanations.” But every now and then I read about something eerie and unexplained, and I’m all ready to throw on a tinfoil hat and a ‘I want to believe’ T-shirt, and run around like Graeme from Wooralla’s UFO Museum, telling everyone to “Keep your eyes on the skies!” Either way, it’s a subject I will never grow tired of.

This is the second novel you’ve self-published. How are you finding the experience?

I love the freedom of having full control over every aspect of publishing my books, and I’m enjoying the feeling of forward momentum instead of the long and frustrating timelines of traditional publishing. I’ve always been entrepreneurial, so running the whole show suits me down to the ground. But it’s not without its challenges. It’s a tonne of work to get the books ready to release, and even more work again to get them across the sales platforms and figure out how to market and promote them. But I relish learning new things and putting my full skillset to work. Building up a big backlist of titles for my readers is my goal, and not feeling uncertainty about whether or not a book will be acquired by a publishing house, and whether or not that publishing house would be a good fit, is freeing. I was feeling very despondent about my publishing future before, and now I feel energised and excited about what I’m building.

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