Sara Freeman, TIDES

Sara Freeman, TIDES

Debut novelist Sara Freeman joins Zibby to talk about her book, Tides, and why she was interested in writing psychological literature about sibling dynamics. Sara shares what it was like to spend so much time with the novel’s protagonist, how her childhood as the child of a news correspondent left her feeling a little detached from the idea of what makes a home, and which books she’s currently reading now.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sara. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Tides.

Sara Freeman: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. My pleasure. Would you mind telling listeners what your novel is about?

Sara: In many ways, just not to give too many of the plot points away because I think some of the joy of the book is the reveals as they come along, but it’s the story of a woman in the aftermath of an intimate loss. She leaves behind her family in order to start a new life in a seaside town. We see her slowly piecing together not only what happened to her in her past life, but really trying to come to terms with those losses.

Zibby: I feel like you have a brother, sibling thing going on with your life. Obviously, there’s a strong relationship from the start with her and her brother and knowing that he will always bail her out and all this. Then I read your article about your brother and the mourning you went through when he got married and all that. I was just wondering if you could talk more about sibling relationships and the power of that and the place of that in your new novel.

Sara: Actually, the germ of the novel really was to write about sibling relationships, and in particular, these siblings, a brother and a sister, who have, from childhood, quite an enmeshed relationship and once they arrive at adulthood really aren’t quite able to make a life without one another. It’s not autobiographical in the sense that I think my experience of leaving my brother behind was quite — how should I say? — a little more adjusted. I was sad when he moved on to have his own family. We both became adults. I had to say goodbye to a part of my childhood. For Mara, for the protagonist of my novel, this is really unfathomable. She can’t tolerate this loss. I wanted to explore the extreme of that emotion, which maybe many of us have felt. In the end, it ends up being the backdrop or the subtext of the novel rather than the central theme right at the surface of the page. It was definitely there in the back of my mind as a driving force.

Zibby: I have a younger brother as well. He’s two and a half years younger. It’s like a fracturing when you both get married. I feel like he felt it when I first got married, and then him. I think about my kids and how they’re going to evolve. What is a healthy sibling relationship? What is not? It just raises all sorts of questions.

Sara: It really does. One of the things I noticed as I was writing about this was that there was actually very little in the psychological literature about adult siblings. I think we got really fixated on the nuclear family, on marriages, and then the sibling relationship, especially brother-sister, because I think there’s this built-in taboo that you can’t really talk about the love that you feel towards your sibling. It’s an interesting area.

Zibby: Two of my siblings have decided they want to live together forever. The other two never want to see each other again. We’ll see what happens. I’m exaggerating, kind of. Tell me what it was like writing this book. Also, I know you won this big prize and everything. Was the book related to the prize that you won for the shorter fiction, or is this a totally new story?

Sara: Totally different. In fact, I graduated my MFA nearly ten years ago when I received that prize. The ten years since have been just a lot of trial and error. I wrote another novel that I had to put into a drawer. Then once I had mourned that, because I think there’s a mourning process, I set myself this goal that I would write something quite constrained and urgent and that followed a single subjectivity. That’s how Tides came along, really with a much narrower focus. In fact, when I first wrote it, I got a little carried away. There were multiple storylines. It was set in Montreal rather than in the seaside town. Again, I had to kind of murder my darlings and find this slightly more condensed form, which this book really is, these shards of language that feel more compressed. It’s been a lot of failure and then a lot of looking at the failure and trying to see what I can salvage from that, which is a pretty good metaphor for relationships also.

Zibby: That’s true.

Sara: It’s been a bit of a long journey to get to this quite small book.

Zibby: I love that expression, shards of language. The language, you’re such a literary, beautiful writer. The sentences themselves are these little packages. They’re all very, I want to say manicured, but that’s probably the wrong word. They’re great sentences. On the sentence level, this book is absolutely beautiful. Even something like describing the community and even the main character — what is her name? I always forget the names of —

Sara: — Mara.

Zibby: Mara. Even Mara’s entry into the town and realizing that even though she’s so close to the sea, because of all the giant homes, she can’t even see it. It’s almost like the privilege of the select few who get the benefit, and everybody else in the town just gets to roam around and not even — you can feel it, but you can’t necessarily see it. As the reader, you’re feeling the breeze. You know exactly what you mean by that, which I thought was so interesting.

Sara: I’m glad you think so. That’s an interesting example of — truly, that is something I’ve noticed a lot in New England seaside towns. The privatization of the beaches, it’s actually so devastating because there are places where the coast is a public, protected place so that you can always access it. There’s something about always needing the sticker and always needing to have the proof that you are allowed to be at the ocean. On the one hand, it was actually kind of realism. On the other hand, I think it’s the way that she feels, which is that she’s shut out from family, shut out from other people’s lives, basically, and really looking in at it from the outside.

Zibby: It’s also a very stirring description of loneliness. It’s loneliness personified. What does that look like and feel like and smell like and taste like? I feel like you have us right there in the moment with her.

Sara: I’m glad you say that because in many ways, it started as a novel of relationships, her relationship with her brother, her relationship with her spouse, and then with her mother, with her father. Then I realized that I was actually more interested in her being kind of ripped apart from those relationships. What happens when we aren’t with the people who have shaped our sense of ourselves? That’s really lonely and also liberating at the same time. I certainly felt very, very alone with her while I was writing it. It was quite claustrophobic to be so alone with her, for better or worse.

Zibby: When you were writing the book, tell me about your process. I know you’ve whittled it down. No shame in that, by the way. I’m all for shorter books.

Sara: You’re reading a lot of them.

Zibby: I know. I’m like, thank you. This is nice. When I get this slim poetry book, I’m like, ah, great. The impact is not correlated with the length. Anyway, so what’s your schedule like when you’re working on a book? What else do you have going on while you’re doing that?

Sara: I would love to say that I’m one of these really rigid, disciplined people who has a very clear writing schedule. At the time, I was teaching. I was also beginning my studies. I’m a counseling school dropout. I was starting these studies. I was a student. I was teaching. I was really fitting in these slots of writing whenever I could. I did write in this most beautiful library in Boston called the Boston Athenæum, which has a really wonderful, quiet, and incredible atmosphere of study. That was great. That was for the first draft. Then the second draft, I quit my jobs and I gave myself four months, a semester, to really write this new draft, which is the shape that it took on. I tend to be quite extreme. I like to have lots of time to do the more intensive work. Then I’ll work maybe five or six hours a day very, very intensely. I couldn’t put it to sleep. I was just so obsessed.

Zibby: I think you need that, though, to get through anything. There’s eight million reasons not to finish a novel.

Sara: It’s also why it took me so long.

Zibby: What do you like to read? What are some of your favorite books, or what are you reading now, or both?

Sara: When I’m thinking of the genealogy of this book, I definitely think of Elena Ferrante, specifically Days of Abandonment; Natalia Ginzburg, The Dry Heart; even Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays; just these condensed books where women either unravel or come back together. I was actually just speaking yesterday to Jamie Quatro. I don’t know if you’ve read her. Her book, Fire Sermon, has that same kind of intensity. What am I reading these days? I’m moving away from these more condensed books of feeling and have been really enjoying some good old social realism. I’m actually just starting The Corrections. I’m fifteen, twenty years late on that. I’ve read some of his other work. I’m really enjoying that and just trying to be back in the world of the family drama. I’m sensing myself moving in that direction at the moment.

Zibby: Interesting. Is that what your next book will be about?

Sara: I have a feeling I want it to be — I’m like, okay, I did this one character. Now maybe I can invite some more people to the party, have a few more consciousnesses on the page. I think that would be a nice challenge for me. This was such a pointed project.

Zibby: Where did you grow up? How did you know you wanted to be a writer? What was your earlier life like?

Sara: I’m originally from Canada. I was born in Montreal. My dad was a foreign correspondent for a Canadian newspaper, so we moved around quite a bit as kids and ended up in Berlin and London. I think the travel and the being an ex-pat and an outsider really, probably, shaped the way I thought of myself. I still don’t think I have such a solid sense of home, which I think, as a writer, is quite useful because you’re always sort of looking in a little bit from the outside, which helps for observation.

Zibby: Interesting, then, that your character was essentially homeless at the beginning.

Sara: Yeah, I wondered about that a little bit. I’ll talk to my therapist about that.

Zibby: I’ll be your psychoanalyst for the day.

Sara: Oh, please. Bring it on. Certainly, I think this dislocation and feeling out of place and figuring a place out is something I’ve done all my life and I imagine I will always do.

Zibby: Interesting. Wow. If you could give an aspiring author some advice, what would it be?

Sara: Obviously, read a lot. It’s more that I think once you get in the rhythms of other people’s language, then you start to kind of figure out your own rhythms. Also, to stay away from other people’s advice to a certain extent. I’ve gone down the road of really listening so closely to my favorite writers’ advice, then realizing, hmm, maybe this wasn’t quite advice for me. This was for them. Just really thinking of your own intuitions around language, narrative. What’s alive to you? What’s interesting to you? Following that without thinking too much about the external world, even though that’s very difficult.

Zibby: What advice led you astray? What was advice that didn’t work for you?

Sara: I’m trying to think. I had this obsession with reading all of these Paris Review interviews. Then I’d hear writers writing, for instance, every day at a certain time and that was the thing that made them, and realizing that I couldn’t do that. It didn’t work for me. In fact, when I sat down every single day, it was kind of crap. It was better for me to just wait until I had something that really moved me to write. I think it’s just parsing out what is going to be useful for you, trying it out, and then maybe not thinking it’s the word.

Zibby: Got it. Awesome. That makes sense. Sara, thank you. I told you this would be easy, stress-free.

Sara: Thanks, Zibby. This was great.

Zibby: Thank you. Really, you’re a beautiful, beautiful writer. I’m glad you didn’t give up. You’re super talented. It’s really a joy to read your sentences.

Sara: Thank you so much for taking the time and for all the work you do promoting and helping writers find readers.

Zibby: No problem. Take care. Thanks so much.

Sara: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Sara: Bye.

Sara Freeman, TIDES

TIDES by Sara Freeman

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