Today we have another amazing author joining us. Sarah Tomp is the author of My Best Everything, a novel for young adults, and a picture book, Red, White and Blue Good-bye. In addition to writing, Sarah teaches at University of California San Diego, reviews books for Bookbrowse, and co-authors the Writing On The Sidewalks blog. My Best Everything is one of our favorite recs here at PickMyYA, and we are so excited Sarah took time away from her busy schedule to talk with us today!
James: Let's start with the obvious. How did you come up with the idea of writing a book about a teenager who sells moonshine?
Sarah: Writing a novel is a little bit like making moonshine. A bunch of ingredients are thrown into the pot and start fermenting. It gets messy for a while, and some parts are thrown out, but eventually it all works together.
I like to blame my mother for this story. At one point she said to me, “Why don’t you write about what you did in high school? I’d be interested in reading that.” I laughed, thinking it was a creative way to try and get me to admit my teenage transgressions. To be clear, I never made moonshine! But I did fully explore the area where I lived – hiking and camping in the woods, tubing down the New River, driving around on back roads, and even caving. I wanted to write a love story in that setting, except my main character, Lulu, didn’t believe in romantic love. She was all science and logic and desperate to get out of town. Every time I tried to write from her point of view, all this guilt kept bubbling up. She needed to confess.
Meanwhile, my youngest son was obsessed with cars and taking things apart, so we took him to visit some junkyards. That’s when I gave Lulu and Roni the job working at Sal’s Salvage. So, then when my kids were watching Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners,” and asked, “Is that what it’s really like in Virginia?” so many pieces and parts of the story fell together. Lulu and I suddenly had a solution as to how she was going to get out of town!
James: Which of the characters in My Best Everything is most similar to you?
Sarah: Ooo, this is a tricky question! I have something in common with each character. After all, my own thoughts and experiences are the starting place for anything I write. But the more time I spend with my characters, putting them into various situations, the more each one becomes his/her own person.
Lulu and I are deeply loyal to our loved ones, but we can be feisty and bossy; and we question our Catholic faith at times. Roni and I share a love of music and the magic of finding poetry in ordinary conversations. Bucky and I both work hard and hate change. Mason and I believe in fate and we’ve each made mistakes we regret.
Unfortunately, perhaps, but in the spirit of honesty, the character I was most like in high school is Buttercup, one of the peripheral minor characters. I was not nearly as ambitious or driven as my main characters!
James: What was your favorite scene to write?
Sarah: One of the best things about writing this story was the way it allowed me to mentally revisit the mountains of Virginia. But, for a specific scene, I loved putting Lulu and Mason in the room with a group of old men looking to buy moonshine – it was fun to imagine the scene from both perspectives: the idealistic and somewhat clueless teenagers with so much on the line, as well as the adults looking to make a deal while supporting these young entrepreneurs.
James: My Best Everything is filled with some absolutely stunning writing. Are there any particular lines that still give you the feels when you read them?
Sarah: What a nice thing to say!
For me, as a reader, language is an integral part of what creates a satisfying experience. Growing up, my family read to each other out loud, and as a teacher I love to share stories orally, so I guess it makes sense that, as a writer, reading my work out loud is a crucial part of the process, as I wrote about here.
I think my favorite lines fall in the first paragraph – mainly because that concept made the rest of the story possible in my own mind – and then the very last one, because of what it implies about the future.
James: In the blurb for your book, the reader is asked to determine if My Best Everything is an apology, a love letter, or a goodbye. How would you answer that question?
Sarah: I believe – I’m not sure who said it first – that a book is a kind of triangle. The first part is the writer who creates it in his/her mind, the second is the actual format and pages of the story where it is written down, and then the third part is the reader, who makes it a complete experience. So I think the reader needs to decide what the story means for him/her, personally.
But, for me, (and Lulu), it’s all three! It’s actually up to Mason to give the final verdict as to what it will mean for him.
James: You have a long history of working in schools. How has that impacted your writing?
Sarah: In a practical, nitty-gritty way, this means that most of my writing is done early in the still-dark morning hours before school and during summer breaks!
But it also means that I have access to a treasure chest of inspiration. I see current trends and obsessions in action, I hear first-hand accounts of joyful celebrations as well as frustrations and disappointments, and I even get to eavesdrop on conversations.
James: Are any of your characters based off of actual students?
Sarah: I don’t think so, in any particular and personal way. I’ve had the privilege of meeting thousands of students (and their family members) over the years. I think this has helped to me to understand personality types and the emotional truths of being human. I’ve seen all the many ways someone may react to a particular situation.
James: What's the most meaningful compliment you've ever received from a reader?
Sarah: Honestly, simply reading my book means the world to me. There are so many wonderful books out there to choose from, it’s an honor to have someone choose mine. And all the readers who love Mason make me feel like I did my job – that was Lulu’s main point.
More specifically, two readers come to mind. One was someone who came and talked to me at an event, but the interaction was too personal to share here… The other was a reader who posted a review online – he/she did not care for my book because it was “too relatable” and dug up some emotional issues for him/her. I am deeply sorry that my book served as a painful reminder and negative trigger, but as a writer striving for authenticity, I appreciate his/her honesty.
James: What books do you always find yourself recommending to other people?
Sarah: This changes constantly. Often times it’s whatever I am reading at the moment – I love to talk about books, so I am always trying to get other people to read the same ones! Recently I keep pushing WINK, POPPY, MIDNIGHT by April Genevieve Tucholke and ALL THE MISSING GIRLS by Megan Miranda. Both are surprising and twisty plot-wise, but are also filled with rich evocative language and messy, complicated characters.
If I am talking to a young reader, I try to find out what kind of books he/she already loves and then riff off those. Generally, for my own favorites, I gravitate toward realistic fiction, but I try to keep current in other genres as well so that I can make solid recommendations. By the way, I love the way Pick My YA makes this fun and interactive!
James: You have taught writing to students of all ages and are currently teaching Creative Writing at the University of California San Diego. What advice would you give to readers who hope to one day write a book of their own?
Sarah: Read, Write, Repeat!
I have to stress the importance of reading widely. It’s crucial to cultivate one’s taste. And it’s the best way to learn from the experts (who didn’t start out that way). Each story we read becomes part of our writerly DNA and informs our own work. Plus, it’s fun and entertaining!
That's it for today's interview with Sarah. But if you have any questions for Sarah or want to let her know how My Best Everything impacted you, be sure to check out her website and follow her on Twitter. And be sure to come back again next week, when we'll be talking to Becky Albertalli, the incredible author of Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda!