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Author Snapshot: National Book Award Finalist Sarah Thankam Mathews

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Sarah Thankam Mathews grew up between Oman and India, immigrating to the United States at seventeen. Her dazzling debut novel, All This Could Be Different, follows Sneha, a young Indian woman on a quest for belonging, as she begins to embrace her identity and yield to her desires. It’s the story of a college graduate who moves to a new city, knowing no one, and seeks her first job, her first love, and herself.

In September, All This Could Be Different was named a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. In the weeks leading up to the event, Sarah Thankam Mathews sat down with Zibby Owens for an interview on Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. Here are highlights from the interview—listen to it in full here.

Tell us about the title—what inspired it?

I think the title speaks to the main character’s desire and reckoning with changing internally, leaving a certain kind of shame behind, and leaving a certain kind of loneliness behind. I think that has to do with choices. I think that we, as adults moving through the world, moving through a capitalistic society with a great deal of loneliness, are asked to make some choices and answer some questions for ourselves. What are the relationships we want to have with other people? What does friendship mean for us in our individual lives?

You’ve said the book is a “classic coming-of-age story”—how so?

In a lot of ways, All This Could Be Different is the study of an essential paradox at the heart of one very specific person. She is somebody who struggles with a certain kind of emotional openness. She talks at various points early in the novel about believing things like sex are private matters, basic functions of the body. At some point, she compares it to using the bathroom. Because she doesn’t want to be known and associates real danger and pain with being known and being emotionally intimate, she really walls herself off. But at the same time, she deeply wants to be known and wants to be loved.

Over the course of the novel, you see the ways in which deep, abiding relationships and honesty, first and foremost with oneself and then with the people close to you, really enacts this force of change in her life. You see all the ways in which she ends up a really different person, a changed person, because of it.

This is your first published novel, not your first novel. I think many people can relate to that. Tell us about the journey to getting here.

I have always loved writing, books, and reading. I grew up in Muscat, Oman. I didn’t have as much access to books as I would’ve liked, but they really were this portal for me—a very quiet, shy kid—to learn about the world, to learn about people. I’ve always wanted to write, but I never necessarily thought about it as a career until maybe my mid-twenties. I wrote my first complete novel when I was sixteen and showed it to my three best friends at the time. I never thought about getting it published—I wrote it because I wanted to read it. I think that’s fundamentally how I have continued to approach writing at some level. But then I thought, okay, I actually want to write a book that other people can read.

For seven years or so, I worked on this big doorstopper immigration novel. In many ways, that showed me how to write a novel in the sense that I made every kind of mistake one could possibly make while writing it. I was faced with the reality that I needed to throw it away and start it again from the beginning in order to make it work. That didn’t feel like a great idea for me, partly because I’d moved on from the emotional questions that I was holding most deeply at the time I was writing the novel. I decided to put it away and work on something new. That something new became All This Could Be Different, which I wrote in this wild fever dream mostly over five months in 2020. I felt obsessed with All This Could Be Different when I was writing it. It felt more real to me than my real life. I wrote it while on pandemic unemployment so it came from this place of urgency as well.

What was it like finding out you were nominated for the National Book Award?

The day I found out, I came back from pruning these roses that I’d planted in memory of my grandfather, who I lost last year and who was really important to me and who taught me how to read. I looked at my phone and saw a bunch of missed calls. My first thought was, Oh, my god, something terrible has happened. I called my agent. My first question was, “What’s wrong? You can tell me.” What he said was, “Oh, you don’t know.” Then he said, “You’re longlisted for the National Book Award.” I just burst into tears.

I cannot sufficiently express how shocked I was. I don’t mean that in a fake-humble way. I had dreamed big for this book in certain ways: I hoped for certain kinds of reviews; I hoped for small recognition. I’m crushed with gratitude. It’s so cool. Everyone on the list is so insanely talented. It feels very cool to be in this company. It’s also not lost on me that it’s been rare to have this many South Asian finalists. No writer of South Asian heritage has ever won the National Book Award. I just feel like there are all these ways in which, regardless of what ends up happening the night of the announcement, it feels less like this individual achievement. I feel more aware of, this is one more move on the part of a certain kind of collective of writers and people. It’s one that I feel happy and proud to be part of.

Hear more from Sarah Thankam Mathews about her writing inspiration, journey to find an agent, and her next project on Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.