“I’m always telling Dad that country people are far too trusting. Everyone may know everyone in small towns, but can we ever truly know anyone?” (Deep Water)
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Sarah.
Thank you for having me, Joy!
Where are you based and how are you involved in the Australian YA community?
I live in south-east Melbourne, not too far from the beach, which is such a pleasure because I grew up in suburban Sydney and the beach was an hour’s drive away so we rarely went. Melbourne is a great place to live if you’re a writer or a reader because there are always book launches, festivals and author events to attend, and the YA community here is incredibly supportive. I try to keep active within the Australian kidlit community by attending author events and conferences, as well as online in places like Twitter and Facebook writing and illustration groups. I’ve met so many wonderful creators and readers through these avenues, and it keeps me connected with what’s going on within the industry.
Your debut YA novel, Small Spaces is an outstanding psychological thriller that has won and been shortlisted for many awards. Which award has meant the most to you?
I’m truly grateful for every single award nomination, especially since I used to joke to my husband that I don’t write the kind of books that get nominated for literary awards. I see my books as very commercial, so to win the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature and be shortlisted for things like the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Queensland Literary Awards is a surprise and a thrill. And, of course, to be recognised as an Honour Book by the Children’s Book Council of Australia will always be a huge career highlight – when I was a kid, books with a CBCA sticker on them were a big deal and were always eagerly borrowed from the library.
Small Spaces and now Deep Water. Do you have your next title in mind?
Yes I do! I think you can probably guess it’s a two-word title and may or may not be phobia-based. It’s another YA psychological thriller.
Deep Water (Allen & Unwin) is another ingeniously plotted and brilliantly characterised YA novel. How do you maintain such high literary quality in your writing without sacrificing fast-paced, enthralling plotting?
Thank you for such a lovely compliment! First and foremost, I write to entertain. My goal is always to have readers so engrossed they don’t want to put the book down, so I work really hard in the planning stages of pacing and structure, the revealing of clues and red herrings and so on. Once I know what my key scenes are going to be and where I need my reveals to happen, it gives me the space to concentrate on getting the characters, descriptions and setting right. And I never write down or simplify anything for my teenage audience.
Your structure successfully and suspensefully moves between Chloe in the present and Mason in the past. Why have you used this form?
In my early drafts of Deep Water, I had it all set in the present from Chloe’s perspective, but as the story and characters grew in my head, I realised I needed readers to understand the circumstances of the Weaver family and where they fit into the town of The Shallows, otherwise it felt like only half a story. Showing Mason’s perspective leading up to the night Henry disappeared alongside Chloe’s perspective three months after the fact meant I could explore the Weaver family’s dynamics beforehand alongside the fallout for everyone afterwards. It also meant I could create a ticking clock device to increase the tension up to the night Henry disappeared and reveal the circumstances of that night in a more creative way without just being a big info dump.
Why is Chloe such a loyal friend, always trying to fix things and now determined to find her younger friend Henry Weaver who is missing?
There’s a big element of guilt for Chloe because she turned Henry away the night he disappeared, so she feels responsible for not being there when he needed her and believes that by finding him she won’t have failed him a second time. But it’s also in Chloe’s nature to not let things lie. She’s naturally curious and pragmatic, so if she believes the answers are there to be found, it’s a struggle for her not to investigate.
She is part of a close friendship group even though some are changing, drifting or breaking away. What is the game Impostor they used to play? Who is most likely to watch her back?
Impostor is a game Chloe and her friends invented as kids where they tried to perfect the art of lying. They would each come up with a silly story with a made-up word slipped in there, and it was about trying to read each other’s body language to figure out exactly which word was the impostor. Some were better at the game than others, and this becomes important early in the story when Chloe realises Mason Weaver is lying to her face. In terms of those who have Chloe’s back, it’s definitely her neighbours and close friends, the siblings Sabeen and Raf Nolan. And a number of adults in Chloe’s life are looking out for her too, though she can’t always see it.
Why have you called your setting The Shallows and Shallow Reservoir and how do these places enhance the mystery and atmosphere?
The town’s name changed a number of times during the various drafts, and it was ultimately when I realised how water was a recurring element throughout the story that I chose to change it to a water-based town name. I wanted a name that felt somewhat unnerving and sinister, and at one stage I was playing with the word harrowing, and variants for a town name like Harrow and The Harrows. So when I decided to switch to a watery name, The Shallows felt like it echoed that uncomfortable feeling whilst also enhancing the water theme.
You portray adult characters well and realistically. Which adult do you have a particular soft spot for?
I really loved writing Sergeant Ben Doherty. He’s another character who originally had a very small role, but I kept finding opportunities for him to be more involved in the story because I love the difficult dynamic he has with Chloe and how they are at odds with one another even though they are both working towards the same goal.
Why have you explored domestic violence with the mother as perpetrator?
The trajectory of our lives can drastically change with one (or several) wrong turns, or simply for reasons out of our control. For Ivy Weaver it’s a bit of both, and her frustration about where her life has ended up fluctuates between hopelessness and highly destructive behaviour. Ivy’s also been a victim of domestic violence herself, and I was interested in exploring how this affects the relationship she has with her sons and how her resentment at her situation translates into her treatment of them. It also creates questions for Mason about his genetic predisposition, knowing both his mother and father have these violent tendencies, and his fear that he’s just like them.
Why is it difficult for young men to ask for help?
I wish I knew the answer to this! Especially since I have two teenage sons. I think there are definitely some deeply-ingrained societal attitudes about how young men shouldn’t show emotion or weakness that are still filtering down to new generations of kids no matter how hard we try to eradicate them. This leads to young men bottling up their emotions instead of talking about their issues and fears, which results in the creation of more problems instead of solving any.
What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?
I’m currently reading Katya de Becerra’s newly-released YA novel Oasis, an archaeological thriller set in the desert near Dubai. I’m also lucky enough to have an advanced reading copy of Lili Wilkinson’s new YA psychological thriller The Erasure Initiative, which I can’t wait to start reading because I absolutely loved Lili’s gripping survivalist YA novel After the Lights Go Out.
How can your readers contact you?
You can find me on Twitter (@sarahlepstein), Instagram (@sarahepsteinbooks) and Facebook (@SarahEpsteinBooks), or you can email me via the contact page on my website www.sarahepsteinbooks.
For a writer who seems to have appeared out of nowhere in the last few years, Sarah, you have quickly created an illustrious and indelible place in Australia’s YA landscape. Congratulations on both Small Spaces and Deep Water and all the very best with both books now and into the future.
Thank you so much for such kind words, Joy! And thanks for the great interview questions.
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