Sarah Blakley-Cartwright, ALICE SADIE CELINE

Sarah Blakley-Cartwright, ALICE SADIE CELINE

Sarah Blakley-Cartwright joins Zibby to discuss ALICE SADIE CELINE, a hypnotic, sexy, and incisive debut novel that explores the complex love story between a girl and her best friend’s mother, raising questions about boundaries and relationships. Sarah elaborates on the characters in her book, particularly Celine, a bold, middle-aged woman struggling with visibility and identity. Sarah also discusses her background in the literary world, including her roles at various publications and her journey from writing YA to adult fiction. Finally, she gives advice for aspiring authors, including writing what they love, working with their weaknesses, and thinking long-term about their careers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Alice Sadie Celine.

Sarah Blakley-Cartwright: Thank you so much, Zibby. Wonderful to be here. I’ve been a subscriber for a long time. Wonderful to be on the other end of things rather than just being a listener, a more active participant.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you for listening. Appreciate every download. It all adds up. Sarah, tell listeners about your book.

Sarah: Alice Sadie Celine is the story of a girl who falls in love with her best friend’s mother, or, because we hear from everyone equally, Zibby, vice versa, the story of a mother who falls in love with her daughter’s best friend. One of the novel’s central questions is, can the daughter allow them to explore this love? It’s a thorny arrangement, no doubt, but could we permit two people to have something like that? When the idea came to me, I asked myself, what would happen if my mother had an affair with my best friend? My first thoughts were, I would be dumbfounded. Then I wouldn’t even know what to say. It would break every rule of the universe. I wouldn’t even just be jealous. I would hate them. I’d never want to speak to either of them again. Then I wanted to interrogate that first reaction and sort of felt like I had to. Why such a visceral reaction? Why such fevered boundary setting around the people that I love? Why would that necessarily feel like such a betrayal? Is that actually costing me anything? questions I started thinking about.

Zibby: Interesting. I feel like boundary setting is one of the most fundamental parts of a relationship with a parent as you get older. I feel like everyone struggles with this in terms of their own parenting. I saw you have a little one. How old is your little one now?

Sarah: Thank you so much. Swan, she’s so sweet. She is ten months old. I was just saying that I love her in a very profound way. Of course, the minute that you put a title like that on something, you call something profound, a film that you’ve seen, and then suddenly, everybody’s says, that’s not very profound. Everybody loves their child profoundly, but in this case, it is true. I guess that’s the limits of language, which is why it’s so frustrating to be a writer. There’s just no word for these things. It’s interesting. We’re talking about boundaries. I really feel both sides of the characters. I feel Sadie. I feel Alice wanting to both have the bougie family life like Sadie is after and also feeling a drive to live a sort of unorthodox life. Actually, I was never somebody who was like, I’m always going to be a mom. It’s going to be what defines me. I always saw pregnancy, actually, as kind of an unwanted thing. I used to have nightmares that I was pregnant or that I had a baby and had lost it somewhere, left it on a playground. To me, it really meant both responsibility and also — the book is about sex a lot. The pregnant body is both totally sexual and totally unsexual. It’s kind of like you’re giving up your life. Your time is over. It’s someone else’s turn. It changes everything. Life will and can never ever be the same. It’s a task you will never be finished with. I like checking things off of lists. The rest of your life, you’re a mother. It can feel invasive. In sex, someone is inside of you. In pregnancy, someone else is inside of you. You can feel very invaded, in a way. Then if you nurse, the baby is attached to your body suckling and clamped on like a barnacle. It can feel one directional, your body like a feeding machine. You can feel used. You can feel emptied out. All that is to say, I love my daughter very much. It’s complex. That’s the long answer to your short question about .

Zibby: That was great. This is the point, is to hear from you. Boundary setting is tricky. I remember one of the first playgroups I had with my twins — this is now sixteen years ago. My mom came bursting in the front door and was like, “Hello, everyone.” I was like, how about you text or call? Obviously, when you latched on this idea of a mother and a best friend, that’s plot gold. What made you start wondering about your mom and your best friend? Was it a look? Was it a relationship? Was it something that happened? Was it just your imagination running wild?

Sarah: I think the character of Celine probably came to me first. I thought about this woman who’s forty-four years old. Fifty is in sight, so she’s facing that particular challenge. It’s actually funny how in the pre-reviews, trade reviews people have talked about her as an older woman. I’m like, well, she’s forty-four. She’s not really over the hill yet.

Zibby: Not that old at all.

Sarah: It’s an age where you start thinking about certain things. I actually heard a conversation between the writer Eileen Myles and the show creator Jill Sulloway in 2016 at the Hammer Museum in LA. I had already started on the book and hit upon this premise. They’re exes. I was really inspired by the way that they approached each other to not be so attached to, this is mine, and this is yours. They’re this power couple who happen not to be together anymore, and that’s fine. It’s what Celine is trying to convey to the girls. Why take everything so seriously? That really helped me in the genesis of Celine when I was first starting to get to know her. She’s kind of a female chauvinist, which we don’t see all that often in literature. She’s bold. She’s daring. She’s a person of moderate appetites. I do think that women approaching their fifties can sometimes feel a little bit unseen, maybe for the first time, starting to be invisible to society.

Celine is so determined not to be dismissed that she thrusts herself into the center of everything. She’s an activist, but her activism is kind of partial. It’s mostly in service of herself. She’s waving the Celine flag. She’s uncooperative. She’s intractable. It can be very frustrating to be around someone like that, but it can also be really inspiring. If you think about someone who’s always reasonable and logical, that’s not very electrifying. Celine blows hot and cold. You asked me to tell you about the book, and I was like, what is the book about? It’s about this situation, but it’s also, in some ways, about how much we give up for others and how it kind of proves impossible to get out of that system and live for oneself. Celine is certainly trying. Some people can say that’s very . You should live for others. I don’t have an answer on that. All the characters were very real to me. I really didn’t want the reader to identify with one character and not another. I didn’t want you to write anybody off. I think you can tell when an author has an axe to grind with one or another of their characters. I really didn’t want that to be the case.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me about the decision to make this initial attraction happen on stage where there’s already a performative element to it and then how it became this hot-and-heavy elevator moment that seemed predetermined, which is like, okay, I’m into this book now.

Sarah: I love how you say that. That is true. It is predetermined. It’s from the minute they set eyes on each other. Part of that is the character of Alice. She is game. She’s up for an adventure. Celine kindles something in her. She awakens sexual feelings, but she also has this really broadening influence, which is very enticing for Alice who’s up on stage trying on different characters. Part of the allure of Celine for her is, she’s going to tell me who I am, which, for any of us, could be very enticing. Then as the relationship goes on, it begins to turn. Everything Celine does, even loving, is run through with an undercurrent of, how is this going to serve me? In small ways, she begins to demean Alice. I think it’s really interesting you say the performative element. An affair kind of has a performative aspect. An interlude is another word for an affair, something that breaks something in a life. I wanted to go beyond the sexual encounter. Of course, there’s, first, that elevator moment. That’s the end of the first chapter. I wanted to go beyond the hanky-panky aspect of the affair. Here, it veers into an obsessive attachment, for a time anyway, before Celine is onto the next thing. At the same time, that doesn’t undo what is true, which is that Celine helps Alice tap into something within her. Celine is trying, kind of, in her way.

Zibby: I even love the title of this and how it’s just the three women’s names. Having been through the title machinery, was this always the title? Did you think about other titles? I’m just curious.

Sarah: It’s funny, it was always the title. The names were actually really important to me. People sometimes confuse the names, which is fair enough. That is evil on my part. I actually wanted names that sound like one person, sort of three sides of a coin. A coin doesn’t have three sides back to the drawing board.

Zibby: We’ll all pretend. All good.

Sarah: That was important to me, actually. I just felt it was really important that it was equally their three stories. I think people often are most attached to Celine. I think the book is a kind of, if I can say, great — toot my own horn. I think one thing that’s great about the arrangement of the book is that it’s a close triangle — I’m drawing a little triangle in the air. You can’t see it. In one close triangle, you have a mother/daughter. You have a friendship. You have a romantic relationship. I felt that was great. That’s all contained in the title. You have those three connections.

Zibby: Amazing. You have your feet in so many aspects of the literary world. Tell me, first, how you got into this space and then also more about everything you do.

Sarah: I’ll start with everything I do. Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always tried to find other people trying to do meaningful work in the arts. That’s led me to a lot of good places. After a decade of working in the industry, I have a series — what do you call it? I edit a series for a wonderful magazine called Ursula, a magazine of art and literature. I’m the publishing director at Chicago Review of Books. I’m an editor at a magazine called A Public Space. To pick at one, at A Public Space, we publish essays, poetry, fiction, art portfolios, oral histories. Part of the point of the magazine, a specialty of the publication is that it’s eclectic. That’s why it exists. It’s won a Whiting Award a few years ago. Part of the judge’s citation was that it was a cabinet of wonders. I really feel very lucky, for a decade, to have had that kind of exposure. Where else would I expose myself to such a variety of voices, perspectives, topics, themes? In our reading life, I would be reading books about and by women, but I’m forced to read all kinds of things, which is probably the best thing you can do as a writer. Supporting other writers and helping them put their work into the world is probably the singlehanded thing that will help me survive my own publication with any dignity because I’ve seen both sides. I started as an intern. Then I became a reader. Now I’m an editor. I put in a lot of time so that I can now contribute in a way that works for me and with my writing schedule. I did the layouts. I did the copyedits. I tabled at book fairs countless times. I did slush. It all adds up to having a sense of how the sausage is made.

Zibby: Wow. What about transitioning to adult fiction? In this case, very adult.

Sarah: Red Riding Hood, my first book, was a job that was handed to me, so I actually never considered myself a YA writer. Of course, in my bios it says, YA writer transitions to adulthood. It was a wonderful and also bizarre opportunity I had very young to work professionally as a writer. Warner Bros. was developing a film with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, of all things, Appian Way. They wanted a novel to come out in advance of the film they were developing. They hired me to write a book that would tell the backstory to the front story of the film. I was twenty-two at the time. They wanted to get that perspective right of the young girl. Actually, they also hired me to write the voiceover in the film. The novel took off and had a life of its own. It became a number-one best-seller. I think it was in thirty-eight languages or something. I don’t even have copies of the book in every language. I’ve got to find those. Those would be worth having. It was just so unexpected. It had Warner Bros. and Little Brown behind it, which helped, but they never expected it to do as well as it did. I went on tour. I remember in Brazil, there was a line of two hundred teenagers waiting to speak to me. Teenagers are voracious readers. They are amazing. They are so loyal. They dress up like the characters. Half of the people were in wolf hats. Most of them were Red Riding Hood. Somebody fainted. It was surreal. It was a surreal experience. All that is to say I don’t think I’ll, probably, have that experience with this book, sadly, but who knows?

Zibby: Who knows? You never know.

Sarah: You never do know.

Zibby: You never know. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Sarah: The most very basic advice is write what you love, and not because you’ll be stuck with it for as long as you’re working, but because it’ll just be a much better book if you write the book you’d love to read. That’s really what I did with this book. I thought, I have never seen that arrangement among three women. I would love to know what happened. I would say also, work with your weaknesses as a writer rather than against them. Don’t fight them. Lastly, I would say when you’re making decisions, try to think long term about your career. Don’t make decisions short term. That would be my three pieces.

Zibby: Interesting. Very interesting. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on. Congrats again. Really exciting. This is such a highly anticipated book. I know it’s going to do great. It’s just amazing. Thank you for taking the time out to talk to me today.

Sarah: Oh, my gosh, thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you for your wonderful questions and your support for the book. It means so much.

Zibby: No problem. Thanks, Sarah.

Sarah: Bye, Zibby. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

ALICE SADIE CELINE by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright

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