An interview with Sarah Stark, author of Out There: a novel

Sarah-Stark-Author-PhotoWhat is the story behind your new novel, Out There?

I witnessed the first several years of the Iraq War via radio from within my minivan as I drove my young daughters to and from elementary school and dance classes and soccer. I was aware of being very disconnected, and it bothered me. I thought about soldiers fighting one another. I thought about loss. But I did not know a single soldier during those early years.

The first veteran of Iraq who I met was named Reuben Santos. He was part-Native, a poet, and 24-years old.

I was teaching literature at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, NM in the spring of 2007 and we were two weeks into our study of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And that’s when Reuben spoke up, sharing with the class the fact that he was recently returned from two tours of duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He had connected to some part of Garcia Marquez’s work, most likely the character Colonel Aureliano Buendia who returns home after twenty years of war, but I don’t remember the specifics. What I do remember–and what fueled me to write this novel at the very start–was my shock. That sitting here before me was a soft-spoken creative writing student who had recently been at war. Reuben shattered any previous notions I had about what a war veteran might look and act like. And it was in that moment, in my mind, that I began writing this novel.

It began as a novel about all kinds of unlikely soldiers. Poets and musicians and painters. What would it be like for these artists to experience loss on a daily basis? How might they find beauty within all that loss?

After two years of writing, I decided to try to reconnect with Reuben, to let him know about the project, and to see if he might be willing to answer a few questions that had come up for me in the writing. But instead of finding him, I discovered his obituary online, and the fact that he had taken his own life not long after I had known him in class. There was little doubt that his suicide was the result of having lost the battle with his war memories.

The news was devastating. I sat in bed and cried. How had this happened? Why?
Eventually I wrote to his parents, explaining my connection to their son and the fact that I was working on a novel largely inspired by him. I felt I somehow needed their blessing to go on. At the very least, I wanted them to know that I was working, writing, my response to the sadness I felt.

Eventually my commitment to writing the story overcame the darkness. I knew that it was important to finish the novel–to write a story that was grounded in truth and somehow also managed to find some redemption. It seemed necessary in my mind to create a new ending to Reuben’s life. A re-imagined ending in which a young veteran begins to heal. A story in which a young veteran begins to see light within his darkness. This became my mission and Out There is the result.

How long have you been writing? Is this your first novel?

I’ve been writing fiction, working on my craft, for almost twenty years. But way before that, I studied political science and international relations in college and graduate school, and my first professional writing assignments were in that field. I wrote policy papers as a defense analyst with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) for the Department of Energy and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency for a number of years before deciding to try what I’d always wanted to try: fiction. That early training provided me with great solidity as a writer. I’m forever grateful to my mentors, Lewis A. Dunn, Burrus Carnahan and Joseph Yager. They were merciless editors.

As for fiction, I am largely self-taught. I read. I study favorite stories and novels. I write daily.

Prior to Out There were two other novels, neither published. Both good efforts.

What are some of your favorite novels and why?

Out There has been described as a largely interior work, and I think I agree with that assessment. As it turns out, I tend to enjoy stories that allow me to empathize very personally with the protagonist. Most often, these are stories that take me on an interior journey alongside the character’s hopes, fears and dreams.

Some of my favorites include:

Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
The Hours, Michael Cunningham
No Great Mischief, Alistair MacLeod
The Pickup and July’s People, Nadine Gordimer
Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
The White Castle, Orhan Pamuk

What are you reading now?

Scotland: The Story of a Nation, Magnus Magnusson.

As I’ve hit middle age, I’ve become very interested in kinship. I am part Scottish, have always associated with that in terms of heritage, without really knowing what it means beyond bagpipes and kilts and a certain thrifty tendency. It has become a source of irritation to me, this lack of knowledge. I want to know more about who I am, who my people are. Our stories. Our songs.

What early experiences do you think shaped you as a writer?

I was born in Austin, Texas in 1966. When I was ten, we moved 30 miles west to the hill country, a little place called Dripping Springs, where my parents had started a summer sports camp. I was the oldest of three children, a pleaser, and so I don’t think I complained at all about the move, but the fact was, I really missed my childhood friends and our house with its green lawn and huge cottonwood trees sitting across the street from a park; I took a very long time to set roots in the new house which was unfinished and rough, with no yard yet and no friends within walking distance and certainly no park nearby. I became very solitary. My interior life took on new importance. I think largely as a coping mechanism, I began to consult my inner guide much more than I did any critic in the outside world. As a writer, I feel this must have been a critical turning point in my development. This tendency took a long time–almost twenty years–to show itself on my exterior, but eventually it did, and I began to write. I think the stories I am writing today have their roots in that lonely nostalgic time as a ten-year-old child. A child delving into books to escape, writing a bit in my mind to make sense of things.

Throughout this time, we were living in a beautifully rough and unfettered landscape. Cedars and limestone outcroppings and caliche. It was the 1970s west of Austin and my parents, though not hippies, were fairly unconventional. My dad built our house over the course of five years with very little outside help as we lived in it. My mom baked bread and sprinkled wheat germ on her cereal each morning. We were composting (plastic bags of banana peels and eggshells in the freezer) when most people had not heard the term. They were both teachers, so they talked a lot about books (in my mom’s case) and number sense (in my dad’s). There were lots and lots of teaching moments. Wide-open spaces and unscheduled time existed in abundance. We had an old paddleboat on our creek and a concrete tennis court with a solid plywood backboard upon which I pounded forehands and backhands. All this combined into a very real sort of freedom that, I believe, allowed my mind to expand as a child, to imagine fictional ends to all sorts of realities, and eventually, to have the courage the write.

Describe your desk.

When at home I write at a black kitchen table in the studio next to our house. Out the window I can see my garden, a tangle of power lines, a sturdy telephone pole, the rooftops of all the neighboring houses and, far in the distance, the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Piled around me are usually a few articles I’ve torn from magazines, a stack of notebooks (for journaling and first drafts) and also two or three books I’m currently reading or referencing. There’s a framed photograph of me and my sister and brother taken by my mom as we descend the hill from our house to catch the school bus early on the morning of October 4, 1976: my tenth birthday. I remember that day. The frame is propped against a pot of succulents I’ve been nurturing for the last four years. It’s a lovely spot.

When I’m not at home, I most often write at one of a few favorite coffee shops in Santa Fe. There’s no laundry or frisky kitty-cats there to distract me. No unpaid bills within view. I do very well with chatty conversations all around me. I go to a quiet place within and I write.