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#125 Sarah St. Vincent

125 StVincent Headshot.jpg

By Day, Sarah St. Vincent is a researcher and advocate, but by night and early morning, she is a novelist.

Sarah St. Vincent studied law at the University of Michigan and now works for the US Program of Human Rights Watch, specializing in national security, surveillance and domestic law enforcement.

At the same time as working in this important area, Sarah has been working on the novel, Ways to Hide in Winter, out now from Melville House. In this episode, we talk about the importance of day job/writing life balance as well as the topics she felt were better covered in fiction than nonfiction articles. If you think your day job is a restriction on your writing life, think again, because this conversation reminded me of the many ways work out in the world can enrich what we explore as writers. I know you'll enjoy this conversation and this brilliant new book.

Discussed in Episode 125 with Sarah St. Vincent

  • Background is national security researcher.

  • Started writing the novel as a low student.

  • National security issues in the book are a product of her interest in them, but also because they‘re so much a part of everyone‘s lives in the US today.

  • National security concerns aren‘t solely the province of the Washington elite.

  • Book started after an ice skating accident.

  • “Why is she there? How did she get injured?”
    On figuring out her first character. 

  • “She is fictional. She‘s not me.”
    On writing characters similar to ourselves, who are still characters.

  • “It‘s maybe both a strength and a challenge.”
    On discovering the plot as you write it.

  • The characters came first. The setting came second. Setting is a real place from her youth.

  • Site had been a secret POW camp during WW2.

  • The book took six years, partially because she started without a clear plot.

  • “Plot is something I had to learn.”
    On believing every novel is a learning process.

  • “It is really a story about people.”

  • She is also a poet.

  • This is the first piece of fiction she‘d written since she was 18. Currently working on the second novel. 

  • “This book was kind of a DIY MFA for me.“

  • Book was a big learning experience in terms of learning plot, minor characters, how flowery to get with language.

  • “It was a gigantic learning experience.”

  • She started out with both a beginning and and end.

  • Once she set these, to her, real people in motion, the plot just sort of came together.

  • Most of the first readers of the novel were her fellow clerks at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

  • Lawyers & researchers tend to be very good, clear writers - making them very good first & second readers.

  • “I didn‘t always initially realize that they were right, but over time I almost always did.”
    On taking feedback from early readers.

  • “I am just very driven by a deep discomfort with unaccountable power.”
    On the overlaps between her day job and her novel.

  • It was psychologically challenging, at times, to work on serious issues at work - surveillance, trafficking - and return home to work on a book that can go into dark places - domestic abuse.

  • “She‘s not me, but we all write what we know.”

  • “I think the journey was worth it, but I certainly wouldn‘t say that it wasn‘t difficult.”

  • She pulled some of the darker scenes of domestic violence from the book.

  • Writing about domestic abuse in fiction allowed her to talk about it in ways that a more journalistic, clinical or non-fiction setting might not have - emotional, verbal, financial, sexual abuse, humiliation, etc.

  • “I‘m actually not sure I did a great job of taking care of myself during that time.”
    On writing the darker parts of the story.

  • “I did a lot of that really uncomfortable writing at home.”

  • “It‘s okay to do this in small bits.”
    On why it‘s best to go slow when the story is dark.

  • “It‘s both joyous & intimidating.”
    On having the book be out after 7.5 years.

  • She writes for an international audience professionally, but having such a personal work of art out in the world is a different kind of daunting.

  • “This is one of the hardest things I‘ve ever done.”

  • “There was something very liberating about walking into this with no expectations.”
    On writing, not as a day job, but for yourself.

  • The book has benefitted from being free of outside pressures. She‘s not relying on the book to put food on the table, or to be a best-seller. The benefit of a debut novel.

  • “I would go mad if this was all I did for 8 hours a day.”
    On why a day job can help your writing.

  • Next novel she started in 2014. Involves white supremacist groups, which were largely unnoticed by the media then. Now they‘re becoming more & more visible.

  • “Sometimes they‘re topical in ways that you don‘t expect.”

  • “My goal is always to capture something fundamentally human about us.“

This episode sponsored by listeners like you via the Secret Library Podcast Patreon