Sarah Thankam Mathews joins Zibby to discuss her dazzling debut novel All This Could Be Different, a 2022 National Book Award Finalist, New York Times Editors’ Choice Pick, and Vogue Book Club Pick! Sarah explains her choice of setting (Milwaukee!) and describes her protagonist’s desire to be loved and understood as she slowly embraces her queerness. Finally, she talks about her own upbringing in Oman, her early love of books, her tumultuous, mid-pandemic publishing journey, and what it was like to find out about her National Book Award nomination.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss All This Could Be Different, a National Book Award shortlist candidate. Congratulations.

Sarah Thankam Mathews: Thank you so much. It’s so lovely to be here and be talking to you, Zibby.

Zibby: You too. For listeners who don’t know yet, what is your book about?

Sarah: All This Could Be Different is, in some ways, a classic coming-of-age story. It also does some interesting and slightly different things with the form. In a sentence, it’s the story of Sneha, this young Indian woman who’s fresh out of college who moves to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city where she knows nobody, and reckons with, over the course of a year and then some, but mostly over the course of a year, reckons with her first job, her first love, and her first real friends.

Zibby: Wow. I have to say, Milwaukee came across as a pretty small town after this book, how everybody she meets, she sees again. Not everybody. I’ve never actually been to Milwaukee, so this was really interesting for me. How did you pick Milwaukee?

Sarah: There were multiple pieces at play for me. One, I lived in Milwaukee after undergrad. It was a really important and formative time in my life and one that, at the time I was writing this book in my late twenties, I finally felt like I had perspective on. Part of it was just autobiographical inspiration. I also really wanted to, in some ways, write a love letter to this city that I think is often underestimated and passed over, like much of the Midwest is, when it comes to East Coast summations of the middle of the country. Then finally, Milwaukee has a very interesting political history, and a radical political history. That’s something that comes up in the novel as well.

Zibby: What made you move there after undergrad? What were you doing?

Sarah: I took a job that required that I move there.

Zibby: You’re going to stay vague about it?

Sarah: That is the answer. There are many things in my novel that are drawn from and inspired by real life, but at the end of the day, it isn’t a memoir. I’m thoughtful about how I talk about it. In so many ways, I really approached this novel, which is not the first novel I’ve ever written — it’s the first novel I’ve ever published. I approached this novel with this question of, “What do I want other people to think about? What do I want readers to think about?” much more than I thought about, “Here, let me tell some facsimile of my story.” I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to work, much like my protagonist, a contract job as a consultant.

Zibby: Nice. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. It doesn’t matter. Of course, it’s not a memoir. It’s a wonderful novel. We can get back to that. I was just curious. I was just totally curious. I went to business school. A bunch of people who graduated went there to work. Anyway, doesn’t matter. Your novel deals a lot with relationships and the hunt for love, acceptance, connection, and all of that through many means, be it Craigslist or dating or walking for an hour to go to a bar that might be the right kind of bar. Tell me a little bit about this quest for belonging when you are a character of a certain — honestly, it’s not just her age. We all really look for love and belonging. It’s such a human thing. Of course, there’s the overlay of her sexuality. She keeps it somewhat hidden, at the beginning at least, and so much so that her good friend Thom is shocked by the news. Tell me about that and how you wrote about it, how she navigates it, and all of that.

Sarah: 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. This is someone who, for many reasons of personality and personal history and values that she was raised with, really moves through the world with this feeling of investment in what I call masculinity. 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, in some ways, associates real danger and pain with being known and being emotionally intimate, she really walls herself off. At the same time, the paradox is 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. There are a variety of ways in which you see Sneha, the main character, move when it comes to this question around connection, like when she’s going to the dyke bar or when she’s deciding to try out the newfangled invention, at the time. It’s set in 2013. That’s dating apps that aren’t Craigslist, like the OkCupids and whatnot. You see her try in this really flailing way to connect. In many ways, she’s just acting on desire more than she’s acting on our human need to connect and be emotionally intimate. Then you see her change over the course of the novel.

Zibby: Very true. What do you think makes people feel more comfortable sharing? Do you think it was how she grew up? I know she’s a fictional character, but let’s psychoanalyze her. Why not? What is it that makes some people feel like they have to put up these boundaries to our good friends versus not?

Sarah: I think there are many pieces of it. I think the biggest determinate factor is, do we feel safe? Do we feel seen by certain people? Can we count on their continued witness? Can we count on them to show up for us? The reality is that as a novelist, I’m a little bit weary of a certain kind of really pat or causal psychological view of characters, especially when it comes to trauma. While, in so many ways, I’m really glad that we live in a world that, compared to ten years ago, there’s a lot more openness and mainstream awareness of trauma, I think that it can lead, in life and in fiction, to a certain kind of one-to-one, A-to-B, “You are this way because of exactly this thing that happened to you” way of thinking, which I think flattens people. With that being said, there are many ways in which Sneha, my protagonist, really deeply needs to heal. You see parts of that healing in the book. I think you have to make inferences at some of the healing that happens offstage during the time period that’s not talked about. Ultimately, the novel’s title is All This Could Be Different. It is one that functions at the macro and structural level. It also speaks to the main character’s desire and reckoning with changing internally, with leaving a certain kind of shame behind, with 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 really deeply 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?

Zibby: You had a really powerful scene where she walks in on her friend Thom having sex with some woman who’s lying down. He’s standing up. This is now getting very explicit, but whatever. She uses it as a referendum for an example of all that is problematic and that she rejects, this submissiveness of women and loss of identity as a consequence of an overpowering relationship. Can you talk about that?

Sarah: Yeah, of course. For those who haven’t read it, it’s not a huge spoiler. It’s a tiny scene, so I’ll just talk about it. Basically, there’s this big, fun for me to write of a house party in Milwaukee right before Christmas. A lot happens at this house party. Sneha eventually meets somebody who becomes her love interest. Before that or independent of that, she has this big fight with one of her two best friends, whose name is Thom. Thom is a straight white dude bro, a little bit of a Bernie bro, if you will. She has this massive fight with him. It’s not something that’s reconciled. Then later, she comes back to the house looking for her keys. She happens to catch a glimpse of him having sex with his girlfriend. She sees this, again, glimpse. She’s not watching for ten minutes. She sees this instant of a moment with her dear friend and the woman he’s dating. The woman is really passive and really quiet. He’s certainly the more active participant. She just feels this deep pain.

What she says is, this is what everyone wants from me, to be laid out before a man’s hunger, to be taken, to be quiet. It’s not that the novel thinks that heterosexual sex or sex where a woman is submissive is bad in any way. It’s more that you see in this moment, this character’s piercing pain at a lifetime of being a gendered subject. Sneha, she’s not super woke in any sense, positive or negative. She is very much an everyman in a lot of ways, other than her queerness and her immigration status. She just wants to live a regular life and have some peace and be left alone. That’s how she moves through the world. I would argue that’s, on average, how the majority of people move. She had this true moment of thinking about her parents and her family and her culture and large parts of the culture that she’s come into, American culture, that aren’t okay with certain things about what she desires and how she wants to move in the world. That’s really what you see in that scene.

Zibby: Interesting. You summed that up a lot better than I did. I knew you’d know what I was talking about, at least.

Sarah: It’s totally a thing. Part of what the book is interested in is the reality that we all have specific desires. Sneha’s desires are not going to be identical to her friend Tig’s desires, are not going to be identical to your desires. Part of what the book cautiously argues is that paying attention to the specificities of our desire, that can be part of the sharp edge of the wedge to finding a larger freedom. Sneha, over the course of the book, leaning more deeply into her queerness, and not as this hidden functional and almost shameful thing, allows her to take certain kinds of risks and engage in certain kinds of acts of imagination that are bigger and push against society in some other bigger ways later down the line.

Zibby: So interesting. You mentioned earlier that this is your first published novel, not your first novel. I think many people can relate to that. Tell me about the journey to getting here and what happened with the other ones and when you started writing novels and all of that.

Sarah: I’ll try to keep it short. I have always loved writing. I grew up in a very particular place and context. I grew up in Muscat, Oman. I certainly always loved books and reading. 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 loved books. I’ve always wanted to write, but I never necessarily thought about it as a career until maybe my mid-twenties. A lot of that has to do with child-of-immigrant things and my own relationship with certain kinds of risk and ambition for myself. I wrote my first complete novel when I was sixteen and showed it to my three best friends at the time. I really never thought about getting it published or what have you. I wrote it because I wanted to read it. I think that’s fundamentally how I have continued to approach writing at some level. At some point, I thought, okay, I actually want to write a book that other people can read.

For seven-something years over the course of my twenties, I worked on this big doorstopper immigration novel. In many ways, that novel showed me how to write a novel in the sense that I made every kind of mistake one could possibly make while writing it. At some point, 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 sort of 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 that novel while on pandemic unemployment. I had lost my income because of COVID. It really came from this place of urgency as well.

Zibby: How did you go about getting an agent and getting it published? What was that like?

Sarah: I think that — sorry, I had a moment of being like, how did I do that? feel this way, but it feels like, for me, ever since the pandemic in particular, time just is this weird lava lamp where I’m like, what did happen? Basically, I came to the end of writing this book. I showed it to a bunch of my friends and close people to get their feedback. What felt so notable to me was how much I loved the manuscript. It had been such a long time since I’d written something that I loved and felt proud of. It’s not a feeling that comes super easy to me. At the same time that I was incorporating the first rounds of feedback from my people, people in my life, my first readers, I thought, okay, my savings, which are not substantial to start with because I had recently come off of two years of an MFA, which is possibly one of the only graduate degrees that lowers your earning potential — I just felt like I had a very short runway, and so I was moving as fast as I could in all these ways. I had made a list of agents. While I was incorporating my friends’ feedback, I feel like I was reaching out to everybody I knew through the internet in some way or through my MFA program to ask if they liked their agents.

One person was like, “I really love my agent, Bill.” I think you should consider talking to him. I reached out to him. I also talked to a couple of other agents. I really felt a deep connection to Bill, who is and was my agent and really has cared for this book and believed in it in a way I needed. There were so many ways in which I was really lonely in my writing life because of feeling a sense of failure around the past project for so long. Then Bill and I worked to edit the novel over three weeks. Then he was like, “Let’s go.” He took it to a bunch of publishing houses. Then it got bought by Viking right before Christmas of 2020. It was really this wild sprint that I think only was made possible by so many circumstantial things, everything from COVID to this huge worry I had about paying my own bills. I think all these things really contributed to me trying to write as fast as possible.

Zibby: I’m so glad that worked out. That’s such a great success story. I love it. So efficient.

Sarah: It’s a complicated thing to talk about. I think it’s totally true for me to say that it took me eight years to write All This Could Be Different because there’s no way I could’ve written it without the previous project and everything it taught me. It just informed so many decisions I made.

Zibby: It’s almost impossible — I feel like anyone who writes a first novel, you should just be like, this is your practice run. You wouldn’t try to play a whole tennis match without playing tennis a little bit. You need a little practice.

Sarah: Absolutely. I think it’s so true. I do agree that that’s something that we should tell people more because I think that there’s something very painful about letting a first novel go. I think a lot of that, for many people, has to do with the emotional investment. Often, we start writing novels because of things we hold very closely and deeply.

Zibby: That’s true. There should be a special Word file for just the first novel. It’s a different color or something.

Sarah: Totally. I say all that — I think it’s also good for me to remember it’s good to not over-extrapolate from one’s own experience. The fact of the matter is there are a ton of incredible debuts from people who, they did publish the very first novel they wrote.

Zibby: That’s true. I know.

Sarah: That’s amazing. It just wasn’t my experience.

Zibby: We will try not to hate them.

Sarah: I love that.

Zibby: Are you working on a new book now? Do you have another one coming out soon? What’s the deal?

Sarah: I’m not under contract for anything. My personal belief is I need to write something that I like enough before I let anyone else see it. I’ve gotten a little bit more superstitious with writing. I’m working on what I hope will be a new novel. I’ve not sold it or anything, mostly because I need to finish writing it.

Zibby: Then what was it like finding out you were nominated for the National Book Award?

Sarah: Zibby, I cannot express sufficiently 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 certain kinds of attention for it. As far as prize stuff, I think I’d maybe hoped for some small, stalwart, first-novel-appropriate awards. There were all these ways in which the National Book Awards was really not on my radar. I came back from — I have a little balcony garden. 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 came back to my phone inside my apartment and saw a bunch of missed calls. It’s very revealing in a comical way of how my brain is constructed that I thought, oh, my god, something terrible has happened. I called my agent, Bill. My first question was, “What’s wrong? You can tell me.” First, 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 was very clearly having to do some over the phone. It was pure comedy, pure clownery on my part. Also, it was a very me way to respond to the news and find out about the news.

Zibby: What a scene. That can go in your next novel. There you go, a jumping-off point. I’m so excited for you. I will actually be there. You’ll be the belle of the ball. Maybe I’ll wave from —

Sarah: — I would love to meet in person and say hello.

Zibby: I’ll be rooting for you. What an honor. So exciting and really inspiring.

Sarah: I spent a lot of time talking about the shock of it and the narrativized piece of all of this, but what I feel now is that it’s an intense honor. I’m crushed with gratitude. It’s so cool. I’m saying that very genuinely. It’s so cool to be part of this particular cohort, both of longlisters and shortlisters. I have not read every single book on the longlist, but I’ve read a few of them. I’m en route to read more. They’re all so insanely talented. It feels very cool to be in this company, is a big part of what I feel. 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.

Zibby: Wonderful. You should. It’s great. Thanks for chatting today.

Sarah: Thanks for a lovely conversation.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Sarah: Bye

THIS COULD ALL BE DIFFERENT by Sarah Thankam Mathews

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