“Their Lives Go On beyond the Book”: A Conversation with Sarah Blakley-Cartwright

“It’s wonderful to be haunted by characters; because they aren’t ‘real,’ they can do or say anything.”

Sarah Blakley-Cartwright’s YA book Red Riding Hood was a New York Times #1 bestseller that was published worldwide in 38 editions and 15 languages, and her brand-spanking-new novel Alice Sadie Celine was published last November. The novel follows three women: Alice, an aspiring actress, begins a relationship with her best friend Sadie’s mother, Celine, a Berkeley professor of women’s and gender studies struggling in a post–second-wave feminist world. It’s fantastic—fresh, complicated, brisk, and sexy—and has already garnered big attention. For example, here are two blurbs: “Obsessed!” says Chloë Sevigny. “I am literally obsessed,” adds Busy Philipps. Do you sense a theme?

Sarah is also the editor of The Artist’s Library, featuring conversations with artists on their most beloved books, transcribed, and appearing monthly in Hauser & Wirth’s Ursula magazine. The series launched in March 2021 with Anj Smith on Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Blakley-Cartwright is publishing director of the Chicago Review of Books and associate editor of A Public Space. (That’s all lifted from her website.) Plus, she’s just the loveliest and most gracious person. (That’s just me saying that.)


Catherine Newman: I’m so curious about the germination of books in general and this one in particular. Where did Alice Sadie Celine come from? Was there a single seed? The idea of the triangle? One of the characters in particular? And (or) is there one scene or moment in the book that you pictured clearly before you even started writing? If you were going to point to a page or a sentence and say, “This is what I started with,” what would you point to?

 

Sarah Blakley-Cartwright: I started with the triangle: What if this happened? The three women came to me all at once and oddly enough they were always exactly who they are now, from minute one. I love that about the book and I think it’s why I selected their three names as the title. You often hear about writers initiating a novel based on a setting, or something overheard, or a single character. This was so distinctive, three characters at once. Occasionally, they would surprise me, as with Sadie’s reaction to the affair, but only because they deepened, not because they changed. They led me by the reins!

 

CN: Oh! I love that. Did you actually shop the book with that title? Were there any alternative titles proposed once you had a publisher?

 

SBC: None! That was the title of the working document from day one, a cursor blinking in the blank. I thought it was a placeholder but, in the end, it is the title of the book I held on pub day.

 

CN: How did you decide on the names themselves? Were you like, “I’m going to pick a trio of names with excellently recurring consonant sounds?” or was it something else? Were there working names that were different?

 

SBC: I love how the characters’ names play off of each other and may even disorient the reader on occasion. And you caught me. The working title was slightly different. Celine used to be Eileen. But then the writer Sally Rooney, whose work mine is often compared to, came out with Beautiful World, Where Are You?, and two of the characters are Alice and Eileen. So that had to change.

Even if another of the crop of brilliant young Irish novelists, Naoise Dolan, launched her own novel this year with a leading Celine. As my friend, the filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko, says, he having his own Celine in a current project, “We’ve all been Celine-pilled.”

 

CN: What a funny zeitgeisty thing!

 

SBC: There are always trends in fiction, which I get to see in my work as an editor. Sometimes, they’re random-seeming, like that one. Other times, they’re tied to a news story that transfixes people. For a while, after Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, we saw a lot of missing airplanes. Of course, the pandemic led to an increase in dystopian fiction.

 

CN: I remember being in Peterborough, New Hampshire—where MacDowell is—and we took the kids to see monks making a sand mandala, and all these people were there taking notes in their notebooks, and I thought: In three years, this scene is going to be in a dozen novels. But I wanted to ask this: When you were writing the book, what did you say to people when they asked what it was about? Did you have a different answer after it was done? Sometimes I’m not always sure what something is actually about until I finish it. Maybe that’s TMI.

 

SBC: When I’m drafting, it depends how much I determine that the inquiring person wants to know. Oftentimes, people will ask what a writer is working on out of politeness, expecting every writer to have their one-liner down, but not really care to know in the way that a writer in the throes of a project is able to talk about. Every writer knows how to scan someone to diagnose the degree of genuine interest. I think we all struggle, initially, to articulate what we’re working on. For me, the answer comes out garbled and convoluted, as I try to figure it out myself. Or I’ll start off fine and then take a sharp digression into whichever scene I’d been working on that day and go off on a long tangent about some minute detail in the scene, then look up and realize I’ve completely lost the poor person who asked, expecting a honed, one-line elevator pitch.

Now that the novel is done? It’s so clear what it’s about. It’s about the freedom we are unwilling to allow one another as women. It’s about how and to what degrees we are willing to allow women to live for themselves.

 

CN: Wow. I love the idea of diagnosing a degree of genuine interest. You should write a dating guide, ha! But tell me more about this—about “the freedom we are unwilling to allow one another as women.” Do you mean the freedom to put ourselves and our desires first rather than worrying only and always about other people? Something like that?

 

SBC: Male-perpetrated sexism is ever present and well established.

 

CN: Amen.

 

SBC: But there is this idea that women stick together and that all women live in likeminded harmony and accord. When in fact, and this has come up a lot in recent discussions of feminist intersectionality, often women participate in a patriarchal apparatus. People, especially of a certain generation, don’t like to believe that. It’s almost unmentionable. I grew up with an almost cultish belief in female solidarity above all else (I went to Barnard!), and the idea that women wouldn’t support each other is distasteful in progressive society. After all Celine has been through to get to this point, fighting her way to the utopia of Berkeley, and into broad-minded company, is her own daughter going to be their executioner?

CN: Oh, so you mean something more like the freedom to want different things from each other. Which these three characters definitely do. What was it like to inhabit the three different perspectives? Was one character harder or easier to write for you? (I’m trying to stop myself from asking what I imagine is the annoying “Which character are you?” question, but [cringe] I am kind of asking that.)

 

SBC: Celine and Sadie were easier to write in some ways because their inner convictions are very visible. Alice’s are less identifiable at first glance but they’re no less strong. Sadie is a crusader, but she has a lot of self-doubt. Alice expresses a lot of self-doubt but may be the most solid of them all.

I developed the three characters because they each share very perceptible, if sometimes dormant, facets of my character. Very often I’d like to have an itinerary for life, like Sadie. Then, perhaps just as often, I want to throw a bomb into any foregone plan, like Celine. The three women were a way to give voice to three parts of myself that battle it out—who is my true innermost self?—in any given day.

Vivian Gornick wrote that “it is the great illusion of our society that what we confess to is who we are.” Celine and Sadie both proclaim loudly who they are: “She’s free-thinking and I’m traditional.” I’m not sure that’s true about them. That’s just advertising, window dressing in a way. Me, too: I am both the person who acts instinctually and the person who overthinks. The person full of negative judgments and the person who rises above them. The person who feels very resolute and the person who feels at loose ends.

 

CN: I love that. I love the Gornick quote and I love the way you push it. I always think: I am the person who eats miso-braised kale and also the person who eats Cheez-Its. Maybe this is the freedom too—the freedom to refuse these constraining binaries. Okay, this is from the flap copy: “A hypnotic, sexy, and incisive novel following one woman’s affair with her daughter’s best friend that tests the limits of love, friendship, and ambition.” It makes me feel like it’s a different book depending on which character you most identify with. Like, I would have said: “A hypnotic, sexy, and incisive novel following a woman whose mom is having an affair with her best friend.” Thoughts?

 

SBC: I really struggled, when pitching the novel, with how to frame whose story it was. And as you say, readers will identify most closely with different characters. I tried to make each character’s motivations relatable. Alice is floaty. She’s curious, she likes to be caught up in things and carried. Sadie is very functional. She’s after a solid life, husband and kids, with a timeline for those goals. Celine is after freedom. She would like to cut away from everything and live for herself. She would’ve liked to live like an animal, answering to base needs, not thinking so much. I can certainly identify with each of these impulses. Marketing teams probably prefer when there’s a main character in a story. The Will Smith, Adam Driver films: Man Saves World. I hope this story ends up belonging to all of the women equally, even if initially one or the other seems like the leading actor.

 

CN: I love that answer—and the idea of each character representing a part of yourself. Okay, tell me a little bit about the literary influences in the book—or ones that you channel while you’re writing, even if they don’t show up in the prose.

 

SBC: The mothers of this novel include Carson McCullers, Maile Meloy, Julie Orringer, Louise Erdrich, Lucia Berlin, Mona Simpson, and Jenny Offill, as well as poets, including Ada Limón and Sharon Olds. These authors create psychological depth on the page. Even if it’s what I started with (what if this happened?) the book is ultimately character driven. Traditional plot I can take or leave. I often find it a distraction. I read for character. I want to finish a book, feeling I’ve gotten to know someone really well.

there’s something lovely about lightness, that I shouldn’t dismiss, especially when tempered with that countervailing melancholy.

CN: What does it mean to you to be compared to Joan Didion? What’s the resonance? I was thinking that you share a kind of detached, unsentimental curiosity about feelings—but what do you think when I say that?

 

SBC: So that’s it! It’s not the effortless personal polish and elegance?

 

CN: Ha! Yes. That too.

 

SBC: Her aura precedes her. I’m always reluctant to write about California: too sunny, too sprawling, too picturesque. In a way, Didion makes California serious. I love her, have read heaps of her work, and respect the work enormously. It is even handed and factual, and runs a little chilly. She writes about dread. I don’t: I write about characters cruising happily through life until they’re hit by a sledgehammer. But I think what you say may be right. We observe without judgment, slightly apart from the character.

 

CN: Oh, that’s so funny because I feel like dread is actually so deeply baked into the novel! I felt so much dread about the inevitable revelation of the affair.

 

SBC: You’re right. Scratch that. Writers are often our own worst readers. For instance, I didn’t know the book was funny. And then blurbs started coming in. My husband was astonished. He said, “It’s the best thing about the book!” I think when any narrative mood or attitude comes off successfully, it feels natural, because it’s endemic to the author’s worldview. So it’s less something the author overlays onto a scene for effect than something that infuses the book.

 

CN: Oh, I totally feel that too. That there’s not an overlay of personality or worldview but a writing deeply from it—the way people talk about singing from your diaphragm. What are the best and worst things someone could say about the book? I guess this is kind of a hopes and fears type of question, but sometimes people say things that can so specifically thrill or grate, and I’m wondering what those might be for you. I’m thinking of this, too, because of your work as a critic and I’m wondering how those two parts of your career shape each other.

 

SBC: The worst is that the reader was bored. That’s a mega-fear of mine: that I will bore people and they’ll wish I’d stop talking. I think that’s a fear often common to women. That we’re taking up too much space, being too loud. Something I’m trying to move past.

The best is that the characters became real in the reader’s mind and that they had conversations with them off the page. That happened to me while I was writing the novel, and happens to me with every novel I love—in fact, some of these characters are more real to me than the people I know. It’s wonderful to be haunted by characters; because they aren’t “real,” they can do or say anything. And no one can tell you they didn’t. The idea that their lives can go on beyond the book, without you steering: that’s the best thing a writer could imagine.

 

CN: That’s interesting, too, because of the ways that Celine herself doesn’t feel marginalized, even though marginalization is what she studies. Kirkus described the book as “a lighthearted romp, tinged with melancholy.” Is that how you would characterize the mood of the novel?

 

SBC: Lighthearted wouldn’t be my own first word, because we never like to think that the work we put our blood and guts into, and that can feel like such heavy lifting at times, is simply “light.” And yet, if I think about it again, there’s something lovely about lightness, that I shouldn’t dismiss, especially when tempered with that countervailing melancholy.

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Empathy beyond Therapy

By Christina Fogarasi

CN: Your debut adult fiction! Does it feel different from the lead-up to publishing Red Riding Hood?

 

SBC: Back then, in my swashbuckling youth, I believed I would have a lead-up to publication every two years.

 

CN: OMG. Same.

 

SBC: I thought I was going to be Joyce Carol Oates! It turns out I’m slower and more moderate. I have been very serious about my writing all these years and have kept up a very diligent practice, which I’m very proud of, looking back on, in its own right. The work is the work.

I wrote a few projects during this time that I shelved, three books’ worth. I took the lead-up for granted, to some degree, with Red Riding Hood. I certainly don’t this time around. I am so grateful to my publisher and to anyone interested enough to spend their precious hours reading this novel.

 

CN: Are any of those other projects going to be revived in any form? Are you open to saying what you’re working on now?

 

SBC: Pieces of those have made it into the project I’m currently at work on. I’d like to explore the first person, a very tight first person. One in which the narrator doesn’t know anything outside of what that character knows. And doesn’t have any shades of judgment on the character, all the ironies or gaps that I had fun writing in this novel—so that it’s just presented to the reader as is, and any gaps are what the reader might bring in themselves.

 

CN: I really missed men while I was reading. (Just kidding.) I love that there aren’t any of consequence. And I’m curious about what it feels like to make the feminist icon such a narcissist. Did that make you anxious at all? (I say this as a person who made the central character of my own novel kind of a feminist narcissist.) I love this line: “Celine’s titanic voice sounded depleted. ‘Is it called a selfie if there are two people in the picture?’” Also this: “Sadie recognized her mother’s brand of caretaking. Neglect, then attack, in a violent spasm of errant, conscience-stricken custodianship.” Tell us more about narcissism!

 

SBC: Where have all the cowboys gone? I love how you say that there are no men “of consequence.” I’m going to borrow that. I’ve thought a lot about why there are (next to) no men in the novel. I think instinctively I wanted to keep the male gaze out of it. Once there’s a man in the scene, you start to see the female characters with a different lens. You appraise them differently. Without them, it’s something like a nonbinary and single-gender spa. You can be naked in a different way.

As for Celine, she uses feminism to justify her narcissism. She is a female chauvinist, which we don’t see all that often in literature. She’s bold and daring. She’s a person of immoderate appetites. Women in their forties, fifties, can often feel unseen in society, invisible. She is so determined not to be dismissed that she thrusts herself into the center of everything. Her activism is partial. It’s mostly in service of herself. She waves the Celine flag. It can be very frustrating to be around someone like this, but it can also be inspiring. Think about a person who’s always reasonable and logical. That’s not very electrifying. Celine blows hot and cold.

 

CN: The novel opens with a community-theater production of The Winter’s Tale. Why did you choose that play in particular?

 

SBC: The play tells the story of a king, whose jealous delusions cost him everything. I felt that there was something about the king in Celine. She centers herself. Never more than in the novel’s opening scene. The lights dim and her daughter disappears.

 

CN: You have a one-year-old, right? If you were writing this book now, do you think there are things about motherhood that would make you write a different book?

 

SBC: I have a funny and wonderful baby girl, who is sixteen months. It’s interesting, actually. In an earlier draft—this is wild—Celine was pregnant at the close of the novel. It feels taboo to even say that, to put forth for any potential readers an alternate life for the character. That’s a great thing about writing fiction, you get to try different lives on characters for size.

For a time, Celine lived a life in which she bore another child. And when I wrote that, I’d never been pregnant. But when I was, I looked back at those old pages and was surprised and moved to see how accurate the descriptions and emotional intuitions had been. It seemed like a testament to writing about the other. I’d never been in the situation myself, but I could imagine it, and that’s the magic of fiction writing.

As a parent, making my daughter happy has become one of my main sources of fulfillment. If my husband and I bring her to a baby music class and she has a ball squawking at other babies and waving her hands in the air for an hour, we’ve had a ball, even if the two of us could have been doing any number of more personally entertaining or productive things with our time. But I am a different mother than Celine is, so I suspect that some of things I’ve noticed might not be equally true for her.

 

CN: The bulk of the novel is written in third person, with a change at the very end. Did you always know that you would write the last chapter in the first person?

 

SBC: No. That last chapter used to be about five chapters, very plodding, in which the characters return home from a trip and there’s no jump cut to the future, as there is now; instead the characters go from A to B to C to D very diligently. I felt that was my duty. Those closing chapters never worked and my editor, on our first call, said she’d take the book if I’d rework the ending. It was incredible to realize I didn’t have to show every step of the way. That readers will stick with you if you hurtle into the future and in fact may enjoy filling in those gaps themselves more than being led by the harness from checkpoint to checkpoint. It also felt more true to the novel, to these strong and daring characters, to let them live their lives off the page for a time and check back in on them. I like that I gave them some privacy and some autonomy, to live and breathe without me filling in every last word. icon

This interview was commissioned by Megan Cummins.

Featured image: Photograph of Sarah Blakley-Cartwright ©Beowulf Sheehan