Sarah Zachrich Jeng, THE OTHER ME

Sarah Zachrich Jeng, THE OTHER ME

Guest host Alisha Fernandez Miranda interviews debut author Sarah Zachrich Jeng about The Other Me, a mind-bending speculative thriller about a Chicago-based artist who suddenly finds herself living an alternate life in her Michigan hometown. Sarah talks about her brief career as a rockstar, her fan-fiction gateway into the writing world, and her character-development process. She also describes her publishing journey (it all started on Twitter’s Pitch Wars!), her tricks for balancing writing, parenting, and a full-time job, and the “book two syndrome” she is currently experiencing as she works on her second project.


Alisha Miranda: Hi, everybody. I’m really, really excited to welcome Sarah Zachrich Jeng to the podcast today. Sarah, thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sarah Zachrich Jeng: Thanks for having me. I’m so glad to be here.

Alisha: We’re here to talk about The Other Me. I really just have to tell you I completely devoured it in one sitting. I was just saying to Sarah before we started recording that we got two copies, and I gave one to my mom, who read it before me. She was constantly texting me asking me if I had read it yet because she wanted to talk about it. She was so into it. Then when I started it, I just was gripped, completely gripped from the very first chapter. Well-done for creating such a propulsive narrative and a novel that really made me think about this other life, other me’s.

Sarah: Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.

Alisha: Why don’t you start by telling everyone on the podcast who maybe hasn’t read the book yet, what The Other Me is about?

Sarah: The Other Me is a speculative thriller. It’s about an artist named Kelly who lives in Chicago. On her twenty-ninth birthday, she is at her friend’s art opening when she walks through a door and suddenly finds herself at her own surprise birthday party at her hometown in Michigan. She’s stumbled into this alternate life where instead of leaving her hometown and going to art school, she married a guy from her high school and settled down with him. Pretty early on, as soon as she gets over the initial shock, she finds that she can remember things from both of her lives, the one in Chicago and the one in Michigan. She needs to figure out how this happened, why it happened, and if it can be reversed. The book has elements of domestic suspense. It’s not really science fiction, but it has elements of that as well.

Alisha: Where did this idea come from? What was your inspiration?

Sarah: It’s kind of a long progression. I spent my twenties playing in bands. I hadn’t written in many years.

Alisha: We’re going to talk about that, by the way. I really want to know about that.

Sarah: Eventually, I got a grown-up job. I had a kid. I needed a hobby that wouldn’t keep me out until two in the morning every night. I had been writing fan fiction for several years. Then around 2015, I had this idea for an original novel. I was thinking about this classic wish-fulfillment tale of guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy moves mountains to get girl back. Usually, it’s framed from the male point of view. It’s very romantic and positive. I wanted to write it from the woman’s point of view. She has her whole life going on. What happens to that when this guy swoops in and takes over her narrative? I was thinking about that Talking Heads song, ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ where he says, “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.” That was kind of the seed.

Alisha: First, I need to know, what were you writing fan fiction about? What are you a fan of?

Sarah: It’s a smaller fandom. I don’t want to be judged on that writing, so I keep that aspect private. Everyone has their old writing that they never want anyone to see. It’s still out there.

Alisha: I’ve interviewed a couple people for Zibby’s podcast who started in fan fiction. I have never written fan fiction, but now I’m like, why haven’t I written fan fiction? It’s not so dissimilar to your book, actually. It’s basically taking characters that you love and putting them in a totally different situation. You get to make all the rules. That’s so cool.

Sarah: It’s great. It’s a great way to get started.

Alisha: Can we talk about your music career? Do you play an instrument? Do you sing?

Sarah: Now I say that I’m retired. I don’t play anymore. I played drums in a band for a long time. I’ve played bass guitar. I’ve sung. I sang backup. I played keyboard in a hardcore band. That was my first band.

Alisha: Oh, my god, that’s so badass.

Sarah: I moved around. It was mostly local-level bands. We never toured or anything. It was a lot of fun. It was basically hanging out, screwing around with my friends.

Alisha: Then you became a web developer as well, so you have that element.

Sarah: I still am.

Alisha: You’ve got this very right-brained and very left-brained, these two paths. Do you see it like that, or do you see them as two sides of the same coin when you’re developing or coding and then you’re writing or making music?

Sarah: I think there’s creativity in both aspects of it. I’m a Libra, so I have to be balanced. My day job right now is both aspects, design and code. Both sides of my brain get a workout, and as well in writing a novel. You have to keep track of all these different plot points and reveals and who knows what at what time. In this book, I had spreadsheets and diagrams and all kinds of stuff. As well as being creative, it’s also kind of analytical.

Alisha: What was the biggest surprise for you in moving from writing fan fiction to putting together your own full-length original novel?

Sarah: Gosh. You do have to do a lot of characterization in fan fiction. You have to know your characters really well. Creating a character from the ground up, multiple characters, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of fun too. I did all the character backstories and everything. I rewrote this novel so many times. A lot of that is character backstory that didn’t make it into the novel but informed the character. That was quite a bit different from writing fan fiction. In fan fiction, you have this baseline where people already know the characters going in. You have to introduce readers to strangers, pretty much, when you’re writing your own fiction.

Alisha: When you were writing about Kelly in particular, who I think is really — she’s really well-formed. She’s very human as a character in a way that not everything she does you think she’s making all the perfect decisions in her life. Did you approach that more from, you kind of had her fully formed in your head? Did you go on this journey with her? What was your approach to writing Kelly like?

Sarah: I wanted to make sure that she made bad choices. I wanted to put some ambiguity in there. She arrives in this new life. She doesn’t know what’s going on. As she finds out more and as she gets more into it, there’s some ambiguity and ambivalence there. There are compensations to this new life that she has. I wanted her to feel doubt. She makes mistakes. In her life in Chicago as an artist, she’s maybe not helping herself as much as she could. I just wanted to make her real like that. I also wanted to make her as far away from myself, personality-wise, as I could. She’s extroverted. She’s this intrepid person who goes and investigates. If I were in that situation, I’d probably be like, oh, I’ll just sit back and see what’s going on.

Alisha: This new life is fine.

Sarah: I’ve got a hot husband, a nice house. Probably not, but I wouldn’t have been quite as active as her. When you’re writing a novel, your characters can’t just sit there.

Alisha: I love it. One of the questions I wanted to ask you — my book is coming out next year. It’s a memoir. It really does explore me looking back on all of these other paths I could’ve taken in my past and then actually going to do them via a series of unpaid internships, which you can read all about in February. I think we’ve all imagined this concept of another life. What if you hadn’t broken up with that boyfriend? What if you had taken that job that you didn’t take? If you had the chance to go back and relive a different version of your life, would you do it?

Sarah: When I look back on my life and how my choices have led me, I mostly feel relief. I’ve made bad choices, like everyone else. I’ve been very lucky that they didn’t affect my life permanently. I feel like I’ve ended up where I’m supposed to be. If I could go back, I’d be terrified that I’d end up in a dark place. I wouldn’t want to go back.

Alisha: You don’t want to end up on the darkest timeline. It’s true.

Sarah: No. Your book sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read that.

Alisha: Thanks. Not a plug. I would like to go back for a day or a couple of days, maybe. Not forever. I would be so curious to see what would be the same. This is also something that comes up in your book. What is the same about this character who has gone down this different path in the space-time continuum? I do think it would be so fascinating to find out what things, they would always be part of you, they would always be part of your story, and the things that just absolutely wouldn’t. It’s definitely a novel that spurred all of these different questions about everybody’s own life and themselves. The book’s been out now for a bit. What’s the reaction been like from readers?

Sarah: A lot of people have told me something to the effect of what you just said. It made them think about their own choices and their own paths that weren’t taken or that they wish they had taken. It’s so cool to see the reactions people have. Some people are really into the friendship aspect of it between Kelly and Linnea. I wanted to make that a little bit poignant with her losing her best friend, literally. I was happy to see that that hit with some people. I’ll get emails from people, and they’ll just make my day.

Alisha: Can you tell us a little bit about the publishing process? How did you get it published, basically? What was that like for you?

Sarah: I took a few years to write the novel and rewrite it. Then I entered Pitch Wars, the Twitter program.

Alisha: Oh, cool.

Sarah: Well, I didn’t get into Pitch Wars, but the author that I sent my manuscript to, she gave me some really good feedback and introduced me to an agent that she knew. The agent had me revise and resubmit the novel. Then she offered me representation, the agent that became my agent. After a few more revisions, we took it out on submission to editors. My experience is super not typical. I found out in the process of writing my second novel how not typical it is. I was on sub for seventy-two hours.

Alisha: Wow, that’s amazing.

Sarah: We were all really floored. It was May 2020. She sent the book to my editor on Thursday. Then we got an offer on Monday. I’m standing in my driveway on the phone with my agent watching my daughter roller-skate. Everything locked down, so it was kind of surreal anyway. I’m just like, what is happening? Is this really going on? Is this my life right now?

Alisha: Have I gone through a doorway and gone into another life? Has that happened? That would be very meta, actually.

Sarah: It was really crazy.

Alisha: I was just going to say that your story about watching your daughter roller-skate, I do find having kids, being a parent — then these really exciting things happen. Ten minutes later, you’re just knee-deep in someone’s disgusting, muddy laundry that you’re having to soak before it goes in or these real juxtapositions in your life that happen when you’re —

Sarah: — It really keeps you humble.

Alisha: People think that writing is very glamorous. Lots of elements of it are, I suppose, but most of it is just not really. Has that been your experience as well?

Sarah: Yeah. For me, writing is sitting hunched over my computer at six in the morning looking like a gremlin.

Alisha: What’s your process like balancing writing and the software developing you do? Are you really disciplined about it? Do you just write whenever?

Sarah: I get up every morning at five. I try to write for two hours. It doesn’t always come out. I’ll do something, like research, write, plot, whatever. Then when I’m on deadline, I have to do a little more at night after work. Usually, it’s just that two hours in the morning, and on the weekends.

Alisha: God, I would be absolutely — there’s no way I could do anything at five in the morning, much less be creative. I guess it’s probably nice to have quiet time where there’s nobody .

Sarah: I started when my daughter was a lot younger when she would need more during the day, so I couldn’t. By the end of the day, I was just fried. I was like, okay, I’m going to start going to bed at nine thirty, ten, and get up at five and just do that. I became a morning person forcibly.

Alisha: That’s pretty impressive. That’s good to know that people can do that. I interviewed someone for the podcast that I run on Zibby’s network called “Quit Your Day Job,” who’s a travel agent, this weekend. She was saying she gets up at four every day, works for a couple hours, and then goes back to sleep. She’s an insomniac. She just does that.

Sarah: Whatever works.

Alisha: That’s a method. I guess you’re right. Tell us a little bit about this second novel that you’re working on.

Sarah: It’s another speculative thriller. It’s about two women who were best friends in college. They had a device that lets them switch bodies with each other.

Alisha: I already love it. Keep going.

Sarah: That gets them into some trouble. That trouble ends their friendship. Then years later, their lives intersect again. It’s about what happens then. It’s kind of like dark Freaky Friday meets The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Alisha: Dark Freaky Friday, I love it. Are you approaching this book differently given everything you learned going through it the first time?

Sarah: I will say that book-two syndrome is a thousand percent real. It hasn’t taken longer, objectively, than writing The Other Me, but it feels like it has because you’re under deadline. You have people waiting on you. You have people giving feedback. There’s a lot more pressure. It’s harder in that way. I definitely have approached it differently from the writing standpoint too. I’ve plotted this book a lot more meticulously before I wrote it. With The Other Me, I just wrote and rewrote and plotted very loosely before I wrote and then fixed everything after. With this book, I’ve been a little more meticulous. It’s still in edits. We’re still working on it.

Alisha: Do you have a pub date for that? Do you know when it’s coming out?

Sarah: Not yet.

Alisha: Do you have any curiosity to explore different genres or do anything totally different with your writing?

Sarah: Yeah. I’ve been reading so much romance since 2020 that I would totally go in that direction. I know it’s super hard to break into. I’m thinking about some ideas. We’ll see.

Alisha: I feel like I could see that, actually, seeing your writing style. I could totally see that you’ve got a romance novel buried within you ready to come out.

Sarah: Fan fiction is very romance heavy.

Alisha: That’s one of the best things about it. I definitely need to get into reading more fan fiction, for sure. Do you have a community? How do you find community in what you do as a writer?

Sarah: I have a group chat. A bunch of authors from my publisher got together on a chat. We still talk all the time. It’s kept me sane through this whole process because we can talk to each other and commiserate and celebrate each other’s successes. That’s been really a lifesaver.

Alisha: That’s awesome. You’ve already done a bunch of careers. You’re still doing several. What else would you do if you could do absolutely anything? Is there anything else you would do?

Sarah: If I could, I’d write full time. People are like, what are your hobbies? I’m like, my hobby was writing until I got a book deal.

Alisha: Now it’s another job.

Sarah: Now I have to find some new hobbies. I have a really full life. I love my life. I don’t know. I don’t think I’d be doing anything else.

Alisha: I love that. I love that especially from someone who’s written a novel about someone living a whole different life of theirs. I think that’s amazing. We always like to end these podcasts asking for advice for aspiring writers. What would you say to someone listening to this? Maybe they’re writing fan fiction dreaming of their book deal or dreaming of their own original project. What kind of advice would you give?

Sarah: I would say you’re probably going to have moments of self-doubt. I’m sure there are writers who don’t, but I’m not one of them. It’s helpful to have a strategy to deal with that. You can keep a folder of nice things people have said about your work. You can read bad reviews of books that you loved.

Alisha: That’s such a good one. Do you do that?

Sarah: You got to proceed with caution there because it’ll also show you how nit-picky readers can be. You’re just like, what are they saying about my book if they’re saying this about this other wonderful book? If you have a little bit of pettiness in you, it does help, which I do.

Alisha: Sometimes you’re in the mood. Are those your strategies for overcoming self-doubt?

Sarah: I’ve done that. Sometimes you look back at your own writing and you’re like, you know, this is pretty good, actually. Maybe I’m not a hack.

Alisha: I have been working on a novel. My husband is always like, “How are you feeling about it today?” It depends on the day. Some days, I’m like, this is the worst thing that anybody has ever written. Some days, I think, this is not the worst thing anybody’s ever written, which tends to be as far as I get. I love the idea of having little strategies and keeping nice things people say about you because this is definitely a field where there’s plenty of self-doubt, plenty of rejection that you just have to live with. I think those are really good approaches. Maybe roller-skating with your daughter can be .

Sarah: I don’t roller-skate because I tore my ACL the last time I was on roller skates.

Alisha: Oh, no. God, a roller-skating injury.

Sarah: This was years and years ago.

Alisha: So you just watch? You’re a roller-skating spectator.

Sarah: I just watch. I bicycle.

Alisha: Also a great sport. Sarah, it’s been amazing to talk to you on the podcast today. Thank you so much for joining us to talk about The Other Me.

Sarah: Thanks for having me.

THE OTHER ME by Sarah Zachrich Jeng

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts