The Sweetest Debut: Sarah Sweeney on Dropping Everything to Write — and Blake Shelton as Muse


The Sweetest Debut is a regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Today we talk to essayist Sarah Sweeney whose debut book, Tell Me if You’re Lying, came out with Barrelhouse press this month. She shared her inspiration with us as well as her choice to put everything aside, pack up, move and focus on her writing.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Tell Me If You’re Lying is about the crazy shit I was told as a kid, and the crazy shit I did as a kid.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

Our family — but mostly me.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I wrote the essays over a period of years without ever realizing that I was writing a “collection,” or ever trying to. They just kind of serendipitously came together and spoke to each other in a way that felt authentic and satisfying.

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times.

The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck is a book I always return to.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her. It’s fiction, but the way the stories weave and relate and jump through time while presenting an evolution — or devolution — of character was something I wanted to emulate.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I just finished HBO’s Insecure and I loved it so hard. I also love Top Chef and all those horrible Bravo shows: Vanderpump Rules, the Real Housewives. I love Chelsea on Netflix.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

I saw Bridget Jones’ Baby with a guy I’d had a fling with. Afterward, we ate nachos in a bar.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

I like listening to sad and atmospheric music and always gravitate back to anything by Bon Iver or Brian Eno, as well as Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83, On the Water by Future Islands, and Nocturne by Wild Nothing.

Who is your fashion icon?

Debbie Harry and Keith Richards.

If you could buy a second home to be your writing-only retreat anywhere in the universe, where would it be?

Greece! I’ve never been, but I’ve felt compelled to go there since I was a little girl. Hopefully I’ll make it there in the spring.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library for working?

Silent library. Just anywhere silent — I recently went to a residency on Martha’s Vineyard and had this cottage in the woods all to myself. I had a fireplace, a bathtub, a personal chef who dropped food off to me every other day. I could’ve stayed there forever. Except for the chef popping up, I was totally isolated and it was the most productive writing time I’ve ever experienced.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I’m a crazy perfectionist. I obsessively go back and reread and rewrite my work; if I’m not satisfied with what’s already on the page, it’s impossible for me to move forward.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

Right now, I’m getting by on a wing and a prayer. Sort of — I’m freelancing for a record label and publishing essays and reporting here and there, but I left my full-time job in March so I could full-time devote myself to finishing my next book.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

Living in Mexico! I came to Mexico to write and live cheaply, and, so far I’ve done both. Before coming here, I was in a big rut, so I gave up my job, my apartment, I donated my car. I needed to totally revamp my life from the ground up. Freeing myself from those back-home constraints put a lot of pressure on me to finish the book, which I needed.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be ?

Blake Shelton. That man fascinates me. It’s horrifying and true that I find him attractive — there’s something so earnest about him that I respond to. I think he could use a wild night on the town and a good romp in the bed with a bad girl. Maybe then he’d have some new material and stop writing horrible songs like “Sangria.”

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

I want to write a book about all the women Blake Shelton has told, “your lips taste like sangria.”