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

Sarah Crossan: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Here Is the Beehive is so good. I love how you did it in a poetic style. It’s almost like one big long poem. I want you to tell listeners what it’s about. Then tell me about your decision to make it styled in this way, please.

Sarah: It opens with Ana Kelly who’s a solicitor, an estate lawyer, getting a call from a woman to say that her husband has died and that she took care of the last will and testament. Ana realizes very quickly in this conversation that the woman is referring to her lover and a man that she had been having an affair with. This is how the book opens. We learn straight away that her lover is dead. It’s how she deals with this grief. The book takes place in — it’s sort of a parallel text. You have the past where you see how she met Connor and how that relationship blossomed. Then you also have the present tense. We see how she copes with the loss of this person who she cannot tell anybody about. She has to grieve alone because of the secret nature of that relationship. She has things about her life that come out through the book. I think the reader is, on occasion, surprised by things that we find out about her life. Writing in verse, it wasn’t a decision at all. It just happened that way. I’ve written lots of YA novels, children’s novels in verse. I started to do that when I read the wonderful Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse which won the Newbery Medal in the eighties. I was teaching that to a sixth-grade class in New Jersey. I thought, my goodness, what is this way of writing? It’s amazing. I started to write that way at that time. I haven’t been able to let it go. I have written some prose novels. This is my first adult novel. I felt it had to be written in verse, really.

Zibby: There you go. I loved, actually, in the first few pages, trying to figure out who everybody was. I read a couple passages again. I was like, no way, is this really what’s happening? I couldn’t believe it, the way you had it set up and just sitting there, this lawyer with the run in her stockings getting this horrific news and then the devastation that followed. It’s the combination of horrible secrets with affair and love. You got all the ingredients. I was reading it this morning as my kids were crazy. I grabbed a little scratch paper and wrote this by hand, a quote from your book. You wrote, “We plan for death, make sensible decisions while gorging on life, but no one intends to die.” I loved that quote. Tell me about that thought behind that and all of it.

Sarah: I think that we always believe we’re promised a tomorrow. I don’t know that we are. This book was written before COVID, but I think COVID has made that perfectly clear to all of us. What house have you chosen to live in or apartment have you chosen to live in? Who have you chosen to live in that space with you? Those things become glaring and have become glaring in the last six months. I just wanted to imagine a world where something was taken away suddenly and then the collapse, the aftermath of that. For me, it is absolutely a book about grief and who is eligible to grieve. I think that a lot of people come to the book really disliking this character because the setup is sort of exposing for them. A lot of readers have reacted quite violently and said, well, she was having an affair. Who cares how she feels? I think that’s a really interesting reaction. Women particularly have had very, very strong reactions to the book; young women, perhaps stronger reactions than older women who have scars and know that life is complicated. That’s been really interesting for me, that it has polarized people. I have people saying they love the book and then people hating the book. It’s been a good one for book groups. I’ve chatted to a few book groups. In the nicest possible way, people say they don’t particularly enjoy the character. As I say, I think that’s because it’s kind of exposing for the reader. It’s not really about the character. I think it’s about the reader and what the reader is bringing to that story.

Zibby: Your book already came out in the UK. Is that where you had the book groups?

Sarah: Yeah. The UK and Ireland have had some book groups. It came out on August 20th over here.

Zibby: It’s like ESP. You get a little glimpse forward of what’s going to happen over here, a little test marketing run. Not really a test market. It’s an enormous market. Where did writing from grief come from? Have you gone through something yourself? Is this something that you just wanted to tackle? Tell me where the feelings of this came from.

Sarah: I’ve experienced grief, not in the same way that the character, Ana, has experienced grief. I wanted to also write about secrecy in grief. I think there are a lot of things that for a lot of people, they grieve silently, whether that’s that they have — doing the research and speaking to lots and lots of women, I didn’t just speak to women who had affairs. I spoke to women who were going through grief. Then I just tried to talk to women generally about, what is a secret that you keep? In terms of the relationships that women have had in their lives, the secret the women have kept, having an affair with a coworker, a relationship with someone of the same sex, someone of a different religion, a family member, a teacher or a professor, a huge number of women that I spoke to were in secret relationships. Then also just other types of secret grief, so speaking to a woman who had a child who was not neurotypical and how that felt for her on a day-to-day basis. She didn’t really want to talk about it because she felt so bad about that. She felt so bad that she was even upset in the first place that she had a child who was a challenge to her. That’s what I meant at the beginning, is legitimacy of grief. Who is entitled to grieve? For what are we entitled to grieve?

I was listening to Brené Brown speak on her podcast recently about COVID and how we say to ourselves on a daily basis, well, I shouldn’t get too upset because I have a house. I have food on the table. My home is warm. She said there’s no hierarchy here. We’re all allowed to have our feelings. Just because a person might be going — externally, it appears to be something that’s much more difficult. Doesn’t mean you don’t have your cross. We’re all bearing something. When we have empathy for ourselves, we’re much better at having empathy with other people. When people do say they don’t like the character of Ana, I think, I wonder how hard you are on yourself, the fact that you can’t empathize with this character who is grieving in this book. Are you particularly hard on yourself? From the friends that I know who read the book, it does seem that those who dislike the characters have things about themselves as well that they’re not coping with too well. That was a challenge for me to like this character. As a writer, it was a real stretch. Can I give her nothing that makes her sympathetic and yet can I as a writer, by the end, be devastated for her and feel for her and cry for her and want her to be okay? That was work. That was me having to do a lot of emotional work myself to get there, to feel for this person who if you told me her story, I wouldn’t like her either.

Zibby: Wow. There is that universal human compassion. Whenever anybody has someone ripped away from them, you also immediately kind of put yourself in their shoes and think about the things that have been ripped from you and then have that compassion. I think it’s hard to limit it based on circumstance.

Sarah: I think that says a lot about you, actually. I don’t think that’s a general feeling. That hasn’t been the general reaction. I think that says a lot about the person who is listening, not necessarily about the story that’s being told or a general compassion that we have. I think it says something quite nice about you.

Zibby: Thank you. It’s just in the same way that no matter how terrible a person is, I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. There’s all this stuff in the news now. Everybody’s hoping for terrible things to happen to people who can be terrible. I don’t think anything justifies — I don’t know.

Sarah: I know. I think it’s Scott Turow, the writer, who said you judge a society not on the way that we treat people who are loved, but on the way we treat people who are hated. How do we treat the people who are most hated? That shows a lot about who we are. I think you’re right. There’s a lot of sending ill wishes towards particular people at the moment hoping for their downfall.

Zibby: I think you also, in your book, captured some of the immediate aftermath, that shock value of grief and how Ana stops eating and lets her hair go. Everybody notices, but no one can pinpoint it. The fact that she can’t reveal it, it just makes it all the worse. Those first days or weeks when you’re integrated that information with everyday life are so challenging. I feel like you got to the heart of that particular time.

Sarah: Thank you. It was watching, observing, having gone through things myself, but also — spoiler. It’s a spoiler. I don’t know what page it comes out on, but she’s a mother as well. She finds that difficult. That’s something that readers have judged her for as well. She’s just this terrible mother. Have we all not had moments where we have not been our best selves? I can think of many. I’ll write you a list. It will be pages and pages where I know I could’ve done better. That’s the one thing that’s leveled at Ana which bothers me. I think if the protagonist had been a male, that wouldn’t be leveled at him, that he’s a terrible father, he’s disconnected from his children. Of course she’s disconnected from her children. She’s disconnected from herself. She’s disconnected from her whole life.

Zibby: Having kids makes everything more complicated. I was on Instagram debating if I should admit how not proud of my mom behavior I was the other day. I was like, nope, I think I’m going to delete this. Nobody needs to know. They can imagine. Everyone’s been there. Still, I don’t necessarily need to put it on display. Everybody slips, not in a lifelong-damage way, but it’s a lot having kids. When you throw on extra emotion over it, it’s a lot. Then they take on your emotion too. Kids are like sponges. You can’t hide it, necessarily.

Sarah: They’re a reflection, aren’t they?

Zibby: How old is your daughter? Do you have other kids? It’s just your daughter?

Sarah: I just have one, yeah. She’s eight. She’s back at school now after six months. She’s not happy. I thought she would be delighted to go back, but she’s not enjoying it massively. I think she feeds off my anxiety. I feed off hers. I need to be better at hiding my feelings. I don’t know that a psychologist would say that was a good thing. I suppose because she’s been at home so much, I end up revealing things to her or she ends up overhearing conversations that I’m having. There was an illness in my family. I was trying to deal with that. There was nowhere for me to go. I’m on the phone. I have to take the phone call. I keep talking about the pandemic. During the pandemic, I think parenting has been particularly difficult. We spend so much time protecting our children from things, and then they’re face to face with it. There’s nowhere to hide.

Zibby: It’s true. My mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law both had COVID and both passed away during this summer within six weeks. My husband, Kyle, and I, were in charge of her care. It has to be remote. She was in Charlotte, North Carolina. Anyway, I have four kids myself. As all the calls were coming in, and the nurses, I tried to be like, everything’s good, let’s go on the trampoline. It seeps in. Then it comes out of them in other places too. Then all of a sudden, they’re having separation anxiety, which they haven’t had in years. Even if you put on a happy face and don’t talk about it, they feel it. It’s one of these things that nobody really warns you about. You can’t actually hide your feelings. You have to change your feelings if you don’t want your kids to feel them.

Sarah: I completely agree. I was speaking to a psychiatrist not that long ago who was saying one of the worst things for children is a house where there’s silence because they know there’s some kind of danger, silence in terms of tension, silence in terms of a house where people are not getting on very well, but they’re not shouting at each other. A child senses it. They know. They feel that energy. They attach that danger elsewhere. I notice something’s not quite right, but everything looks right, so you know what? I’m going to suddenly be scared of buttons. I’m going to suddenly be scared of ice cream or whatever, not likely.

Zibby: It’s just like a dog approaches a situation. You don’t hear anything, necessarily. They pick up everything. They just freeze, and they’re looking around.

Sarah: With my dog, it’s howling in the middle of the night. Be quiet, Hilda. Be quiet.

Zibby: So tell me more about the process of writing. What’s your writing process? Do you work there at a shared space? How long does each of your books take? What made you switch to adult fiction versus younger children’s fiction?

Sarah: I used to work in a cowriting space in the Writers Room in New York City, actually, when I lived in Jersey City. I used to go in every day. Then my daughter was born, and I stopped doing that and then eventually relocated to the UK. Then I had a writing space built at the end of my garden. Actually, that stopped working. That kind of isolation in my own studio didn’t really benefit me creatively, I don’t think. I was a schoolteacher for ten years. I need people. I need relationships. I need noise. I, half the time, ended up going out to a library or to a coffee shop anyway. I’m now relocated again. I’m still in the UK, but I’ve moved two hours away from where I previously lived. I found this amazing coworking space where I’m allowed to bring my dog. They have little rooms for Zooms. They have desks that you can book out and tea and coffee. It’s lovely. I’m trying to not come as much because I’m trying to stay as distant from people as possible, but it’s great. There’s hand sanitizer everywhere. You have to spray all your desk down. People stay away from one another.

Just the noise, it’s quite nice to have this noise in the background of other people living and working. There’s all different types of people working here, which is quite nice as well. You might chat to an architect one day and a web designer another day. That’s quite interesting because writers tend to talk to writers, and that it. We forget all these other amazing jobs that exist. That’s how I’m working at the moment. In terms of writing for adults, it was not a conscious decision at all. It was just that I had this idea, this hook that I imagined. What would it be like if a woman was to lose somebody and she couldn’t tell the world about it? Then I had a conversation with some friends when we were out in the pub one night and asked, “Have you ever been in a relationship with a secret?” Slowly but surely, every single person around the table revealed a secret. I thought, gosh, this is a really universal experience. I wanted to write about it. I couldn’t write about it within children’s fiction. I couldn’t find a way into that story.

Zibby: Oh, yeah, that’s probably better.

Sarah: I gave it a go.

Zibby: Did you?

Sarah: I thought, could I write about a parent having a relationship and it being secret and what that does to the family? I decided to write an adult novel instead. I was interviewed by someone who said, “your apprenticeship in children’s fiction.” I was horrified because I absolutely don’t see writing for adults as a step up in any way. In fact, to some extent, writing for adults has been a little easier because I don’t have to watch every single word. I do in terms of making the language as good as it can be, but the swearing and being careful not to say something that may be interpreted by a child in a particularly way that is damaging or just not of my politics. With an adult reader, you can say what you want and let them do the hard work of dismantling it. I need to make my children’s books palatable to teenagers. I don’t have to do that for adults. I don’t care about it being palatable. I just want it to be as real as possible. In a way, it was kind of freeing. Easier is not the right word, but definitely freeing and less painstaking in some ways, especially when it came to the edit. The edit was so joyous compared to editing a children’s book.

Zibby: How long did the book take to write, the first draft?

Sarah: About three years. Probably, three years in total. I think it was kind of clean when it got to the publisher, which is always quite nice to not have a huge edit to do with your publisher. I will, probably, for the next book. For this one, it was kind of clean. That was nice.

Zibby: Tell me about your next book.

Sarah: I haven’t started writing it yet. I’m actually meeting my editor in a couple of weeks so we can talk through some ideas. I had written some stuff and sent it to her. She said, “Do you really want to write this? It just doesn’t seem to have the energy.” I was like, “No, not really, but I’m on deadlines. That’s what you’re getting.” She said, “Hey, why don’t we just wait and see what comes to you rather than forcing you to write something that you don’t want to write?” In the meantime, I’ve written a YA, a young adult novel in verse again. That’s going to come out in August, but I haven’t edited that yet. I’m doing that at the moment.

Zibby: Excellent. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Sarah: Yeah, I guess. If you wanted to be a connoisseur of wine, you drink loads of wine. That’s what I would do. If you wanted to play tennis, you’d just pick up a tennis racket and you’d start banging a ball about. I think a lot of people have an idea of what it is to be a writer which is a fantasy and a romantic idea. Being a writer, there’s a lot of drudgery involved in it. To write, you just got to sit down and get writing rather than have a fantasy about it. Also, it’s so easy to think of publication as the holy grail. With publication, come other problems. Where I am on the best-seller lists? Have I won a prize? What are my reviews like? That idea that you will suddenly feel like a real writer once you get published, that’s not true because there are always new mountains to climb and hurdles every day. I’m giving a lot of advice now, but another thing I tell people is it’s not going to make you happy. I think a lot of people think that once they get an agent or once they get a publisher, it’s going to make them happy, but your other life goes on. All the other stuff continues.

I won a big prize in the UK, a children’s prize called the Carnegie Medal. I got a call from my publicist to say, “Are you sitting down?” I thought someone had died. I was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “You’ve won the Carnegie Medal.” I said, “Oh, my goodness.” I’m screaming. I was like, “I’m so happy.” Then I put the phone down. My daughter was basically saying I needed to wipe her bottom. She was like, “I need you wipe my –” I was like, okay, there we go, back into reality, back into life. I was given four seconds to enjoy this moment. Then, right, you’re a mom. Back to your real life. So it’s not going to make you happy. It might add to it. It might take away from it. It’s certainly not going to give you everything that you think you want in life. For me, it took winning the Carnegie to realize that my relationships had to be the thing that fed me and nourished me, which they do now.

Zibby: Although, I would say that phase of parenting is not always the most nourishing when you’re in it. I wouldn’t beat yourself up about that too much. Sometimes you just have to get through certain things. That’s great perspective to have. Thank you. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I have a virtual book club called Zibby’s Virtual Book Club. We have authors come on. We all read the book. Then there’s Q&A with the author. If you have any interest, I think this would be a great book for my club. If you want to do it, I could work with your publicist and try to find a time.

Sarah: Yeah, I would love to. One thing, if the readers were reading it, my mom suggested that readers were one of three people. She suggested that the reader was either a person who had had an affair; a person who had had an affair done to them, they were the victim of it; or they were a person who was terrified it was going to happen to them. When I’ve spoken to book groups before, it’s like, which of those people are you before you go into it? Know who you are when you’re going in. It will tell you a lot about why you feel what you feel when you come out of it. I would love to. I would really love to.

Zibby: Your book is like a Rorschach test. I am divorced and remarried. This is years ago. When I would tell friends and sit down with them, I’m getting a divorce or whatever, their reaction had nothing to do with me. It just said everything about their own marriage. It was basically like, if you want to find about your friends’ marriages, tell them you’re getting a divorce. See how they react. Then be like, I’m kidding. That’s the way to get at the heart of — I don’t actually recommend that. I’m just joking. Sometimes when you put up a sort of mirror is when everything else comes pouring out in the same way as your book does.

Sarah: I had a friend who, when she told another friend that she was getting divorced, her friend said, “Who’s going to do things like change the lightbulbs in your house?” She thought, that is literally the only use you can see for your husband. He changes lightbulbs. That is it. That’s the extent of what he adds to the marriage.

Zibby: Husband handyman.

Sarah: It was so nice to speak to you. It’s been really, really nice.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day. Thanks so much.

Sarah: You too, Zibby. Bye.