Sarah Marshall lives in Portland, Oregon, and will be moving to Madison, Wisconsin later this year, to start a PhD in English.
Geosi Gyasi: You grew up in rural Oregon but moved to Portland. Do you mind telling us something about growing up in Oregon?
Sarah Marshall: I love Oregon because it is so full of uncontrollable nature; you cannot raze it away or keep plants from growing, the environment is so lush. I love Portland because it is a large city, but feels knit up in the world of nature, and not so spiritually distinct from the countryside. It would be much more difficult for me, I think, to move to a city where nature was not so present–especially because nature is so central to my writing.
Geosi Gyasi: What took you to Portland?
Sarah Marshall: I began my studies at Portland State University, and have been there since–first as an undergrad, then as a grad student, and now as a teacher.
Geosi Gyasi: You write both fiction and non-fiction. What of the two do you like writing most?
Sarah Marshall: I think I love them equally, and alternating between the two allows me to love them both more. Nonfiction is all about trying to reconstruct and comprehend reality; fiction is creating your own. But I think having a better comprehension of reality means creating stronger fictional worlds, and being better able to imagine fictional worlds allows you to ask more important questions about reality. I cannot imagine doing one without the other.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you think is the main difference between fiction and non-fiction?
Sarah Marshall: Fiction allows us far more freedom to speculate, and frees us from some of the ethical binds that (rightly) govern nonfiction. In fiction I can create a character who I am curious about, and the circumstances of their life can be based on reality–on my interest in, say, what it is like to be a soldier, or an abused partner, or an abusive partner–then I can draw from real circumstances but imagine a mental landscape to an astonishingly detailed degree. I might be completely wrong, but it is my right to be wrong in fiction. In nonfiction, you are always more of a translator or a curator than a creator.
Geosi Gyasi: Where do you get ideas to write?
Sarah Marshall: From the news–I’m particularly interested in crime–and during conversations with friends and colleagues. I bring many ideas to fruition on long walks; I think creating the space and quiet an idea needs to grow and mature is often much harder than the moment of initial inspiration.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a piece of writing you’re writing is not going well?
Sarah Marshall: If I cannot comprehend the person I am trying to explain, or inhabit. This is the same for fiction and nonfiction. If I cannot place myself in their mind, and if explaining or imagining their actions feels rigid and laborious, then I know something is wrong. Either the idea is not fully developed or I am not ready to write it. Sometimes I have an idea that I am not mature enough to tackle, as a writer or as a person. But I keep them in mind, and take them out every so often to see if I am ready yet. Sometimes I am.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you get rejections from editors?
Sarah Marshall: Oh yes, constantly. I probably get ten rejections for every acceptance. This is the way of things. Giving yourself the freedom to create ideas that work means entertaining the ideas that don’t.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you show your works to friends before you send them out to editors or publishers?
Sarah Marshall: Sometimes. If I’m working on something long and labor intensive, which I will take through many drafts–a novel, for example–then I will give it to a few writer friends, usually in a mutual work exchange, and we’ll discuss it. I try to finish short works more quickly, and to rely on my own instincts, at least in the early stages.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you regard yourself as a writer?
Sarah Marshall: When I began to invent and write down stories, in the second grade.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your story, “Cutcomb”?
Sarah Marshall: I had read about a couple of instances of fetal abduction, and wanted to understand what though process a person would have to go through to commit such a crime–it’s not just brutal but highly irrational. And, 90% of the time, when I write about crime, I write about the perpetrator and not the victim. I think the victim’s position is easy to sympathize with, and that’s why we dwell on it so much: it’s easy. It doesn’t challenge our norms or our sense of identity as humans. It’s much harder work, and more rewarding work, to cultivate empathy for the perpetrator of a cruelty or a crime.
Geosi Gyasi: Who is/are your favorite writers?
Sarah Marshall: The ones that come to mind at the moment, and whose work I have fallen in love with in the last few years–Charles D’Ambrosio, Joan Didion, Andrea Dworkin, Louise Erdrich, Mary Gaitskill, Barbara Gowdy, Julie Hayden, bell hooks, Leslie Jamison, Denis Johnson, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, Janet Malcolm, David McCullough, John McPhee, Lorrie Moore, Maggie Nelson, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Sylvia Plath, Leni Zumas
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel bored when writing?
Sarah Marshall: Oh yes, all the time! Writing is very boring, really; there are fleeting moments of inspiration and felicity, but much of it feels like a slog. I think you have to do a lot of slogging to earn the right to those moments. I waste a lot of time on YouTube and Facebook. If I’m being honest I think I always will.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your favorite books?
Sarah Marshall: Many by the authors above…I if I had to pick one book to read for the rest of my life, it would be Jane Eyre.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your future literary plans?
Sarah Marshall: Basically, to keep writing every day and see where that takes me. I’m at work on a novel and a nonfiction account of a Canadian trial. I have some book ideas and story ideas. But I have to look at it all in terms of: what do I have to do next? Today I’m going to finish these questions, answer some emails, and then write a scene in my novel where a character talks to a tree.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you define your voice as a writer?
Sarah Marshall: I aspire to be a voice of reason discussing topics that make many people think and behave unreasonably. I strive to be detail-oriented, rational, and empathic, and I don’t believe the last two are mutually exclusive (though I think too many people do).
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a special purpose for why you write?
Sarah Marshall: To understand the world more completely, and to share that understanding as well as I can. I write to understand and I publish to share.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?
Sarah Marshall: I do my best work in the morning. But I think any time you can effectively block out the rest of the world–mentally if not physically–is ripe for creation.
Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you write for?
Sarah Marshall: Myself. I write about things that baffle me because I want to understand the world more fully. I don’t imagine an audience; I think this would be distracting. But when I have a finished product in hand I hope it can help people to embrace complexity and empathy in daily life.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you enjoy reading your own works?
Sarah Marshall: Yes, if it’s a work I’m proud of and it’s been long enough since I wrote it that I can view it with fresh eyes. Even the work that makes me cringe gives me something to learn from.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you a great reader?
Sarah Marshall: I read as much as I can, and try to understand everything I read as deeply as possible. And I read an awful lot of true crime…but I think everyone reads true crime, and many people simply don’t admit to it.