Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein

Inside the CBCA Shortlist

Small Spaces (Walker Books) is shortlisted in the Older Readers category of the CBCA 2019 awards.

Something happened in Tash’s past that continues to affect her life. As a child, she saw Mallory Fisher taken from the carnival by an “imaginary monster”. She told the police. Now Tash doesn’t trust her memory and fears small spaces, especially the small space inside her head. Her psychiatrist told her that she invented Sparrow, her menacing imaginary friend who made her play games and locked her in a box, because she wanted attention when her baby brother was born.

Mallory, her older brother Morgan and their parents move back to the NSW mid north coast where the novel is set. Mallory is now fifteen, mute and home-schooled and Morgan and Tash tentatively rekindle their friendship. Mallory’s seven-day disappearance in the past, Morgan’s guilt at losing her and Tash’s shame at the red-herrings she gave the police and not being the one who was taken, still impinge on their lives.

Flashbacks told in Tash’s childish voice and newspaper articles and therapy transcripts written in a clinical tone are juxtaposed with her current struggle to be truthful and her longing to be trusted. The ominous atmosphere is heightened by the cacophonous carnival setting of the past and the disquiet of its derelict skeleton in the present as well as by Tash’s Aunty Ally’s decaying house “with its crack-riddled stucco like the caked-on face paint of a leering clown”. Despite Tash’s hard-won escape from her childhood fears and fabrications Sparrow may be back and “Coming to get you. Ready or not.”

Small Spaces has also been shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Australian Book Industry Awards, the Readings Young Adult Book Prize, the Aurealis Awards, and longlisted in the Indie Book Awards.

Sarah Epstein’s website is https://sarahepsteinbooks.com/

Using the book with students:

Structure & Text Types The novel is structured into ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ sections. Students find differences in the style [e.g. newspaper articles, transcripts of psychiatry sessions, Tash’s childish voice in italics] in ‘Then’. What is their purpose?

Photography & Visual Arts Tash wants to study photography and Morgan is gifted in the visual arts. Read the written description of Morgan’s art on page 140. Transform this into a black ink illustration of a wardrobe. Then read about their collaborative Dreamscapes project, pp 376-8. To represent vulnerability, loneliness and fear of being misunderstood, students creatively replicate their four montages of “photos of the abandoned carnival, pages 174-182, overlaid with Morgan’s ethereal sketches”. “Feverish scribbles” could also be added. These could be used for Cutscenes below.

Cutscenes Students are instructed that Small Spaces may be adapted into a video game and that, in small groups, they will be writing a cutscene. A cutscene is not interactive and is used between scenes to break up the gameplay. It can be used to develop the storyline or characterisation or to add information or atmosphere. It could be a simple animation, live-action, computer graphics or text interludes with speech bubbles. Students will need to decide where in the story their cutscene will be shown. They can research cutscenes further before beginning. For example, recent Pokemon series use 3D cutscenes and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers uses two different styles of cutscenes. The abandoned carnival, pages 174-182, and derelict house could inspire atmospheric settings. The short carnival scene of the two balloons floating away, page 167, could form the basis of an animation. The art or mixed media montages from Photography & Visual Arts above could be used.

My interview with Sarah Epstein about Small Spaces

Small Spaces is such a riveting, scary story, I was worried that I would still be reading when night fell. I was still reading … but had to keep going even though I knew I would be terrified. Congratulations on your stunning thriller, Sarah.

Thanks so much! It’s a pleasure.

What is the significance of the title, Small Spaces?

For Tash, the protagonist of the story, it’s a very real phobia stemming from incidents that happened to her as a child. But from the opening lines of the novel it’s clear that it also refers to Tash’s psychological state and whether she can trust her own mind – the small space inside her head. In broader terms, it’s a reflection of how we all can sometimes feel isolated, lonely and vulnerable in our own small spaces, and forging connections and trusting others can often be challenging and scary.

You’ve used a distinctly Australian setting. In which area is it set and why?

The story is set in two fictional locations – the small coastal town of Port Bellamy, and the rural area of Greenwillow and Willow Creek – which are about an hour’s drive apart on the NSW mid north coast. When I’m brainstorming a novel, I picture scenes very cinematically and start writing before I know exactly where the story is going to be set. Then I have to stop and start researching areas that tick all the boxes of my fictional setting and can feasibly accommodate all the major plot points and any secondary locations that are referenced in the story. I was born in NSW and wanted to set a story there, and having visited the mid north coast a number of times, it really helped me narrow things down, and became the perfect setting for the story.

Could you introduce your major characters to us …

Tash is seventeen and in her final year of school, craving independence and planning her future at an interstate university. But earning her parents’ trust is difficult because of childhood behavioural issues that seem to be cropping up again. Sadie is Tash’s best friend, the one who knows her best and her fiercest ally, trying to help Tash navigate through her phobias and unsettling memories. Two of those unsettling memories return in the form of Morgan and Mallory Fisher, a brother and sister who shared a disturbing day at the carnival with Tash nine years ago during a summer holiday at her Aunt Ally’s house. And then there’s Sparrow, Tash’s imaginary friend from childhood who looms heavily throughout all aspects of the plot, past and present.

Why have you given Tash an interest in photography and Morgan a gift in the visual arts?

This stems from my own creative background and the design degree I completed at university which included both visual arts and photography. I knew I wanted Tash and Morgan to collaborate on a project that played into the themes of the novel, and art was such a huge part of my life when I was a teen. It came very naturally to give Tash, Morgan and other characters in the story a creative outlet to express themselves.

Could you tell us about the ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ structure?

As soon as I started writing, I knew a large number of flashbacks would be required to properly explain what happened in Tash’s past. But I didn’t want to tell all of these in the passive past-tense voice of Tash recollecting them, because I felt this would dilute the tension and affect the pacing. Instead, I wrote these chapters in present tense using Tash’s childhood voice so the reader can see how things played out in real-time through her eyes. I also introduced therapy session transcripts and newspaper articles written in a clinical tone, so readers can form their own theories about what happened based on other evidence that isn’t skewed by Tash’s point of view.

As you wrote, how were you able to lay out the plot without giving too much away?

It wasn’t easy! I really had to think about the order I wanted snippets of information revealed because of how the past and present chapters feed into one another. There was a lot of shifting scenes and chapters around, and I had a large colour-coded plot outline which I’d lay out across my desk to give me a clear overview of what was happening and where. I had to pare back scenes and dialogue in revisions so as not to be too obvious, but at the same time reveal enough so that readers wouldn’t become frustrated about the storyline being too vague. It’s a real balancing act, and some days I cursed myself for choosing such a complicated narrative structure.

Without causing you to give away spoilers, which part of the plot, characterisation or symbolism was difficult to resolve?

I found the climax the most challenging part to write – I wanted it to do so many things while at the same time be fast-paced and absolutely gripping. I think endings are always tricky – they need to feel completely satisfying for the reader while tying up all the loose threads and illuminating the story’s themes. I never start writing a story until I know how the ending is going to play out. Then my challenge is figuring out how I’m going to get my characters there.

Carnivals and funfairs are some of my favourite locations in literature. They’re supposed to be fun but often are the opposite. What is so creepy about these places and what gives them (particularly derelict ones) such potential for horror?

I think for me the crowds and bustle of a busy carnival always poses the threat of a lost child, or the potential for someone to be swallowed up by it all before their companions even notice they’re missing. There are so many nooks and crannies to lurk and hide in! The noisy rides and all the squealing is so distracting and jarring, and there’s always exaggerated character art leering at you everywhere you turn. Carnivals are a bit too much of everything all at once, which makes us feel a bit queasy and disorientated. Derelict places add a whole other layer of creepiness because they conjure up ideas about ghosts and dead things. Plus, they’re deserted, so if anything bad happens, nobody’s coming to help!

For whom have you written this book?

It might be a cliché, but I definitely wrote this book for teenaged me. This is exactly the sort of story I was craving when I was a teen but had difficulty finding – something twisty and gripping, but with characters my age and themes I could relate to. I loved Christopher Pike’s books but struggled to find them in my school library and local bookshops (which was my whole world since the internet and online shopping didn’t yet exist), so I read a lot of adult crime and horror novels in my teens. But many of those stories were a hard slog with themes and situations that were very adult. I wrote this novel for teen readers who enjoy thrillers and creepy stories, but want characters and situations they can see themselves in.

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