Sarah Ciston writes books and runs Bootleg Books, an editing and design studio that helps independent authors and publishers go rogue. Her literary pursuits also include the small-batch lit mag We Still Like and her print shop on Etsy.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them … ?
I tell them that I make artisanal literature. Actually, I wish I could say that without balking, even though in my heart and in practice I suppose it’s true. I write books, and I help other authors edit, design and publish theirs. I make fine art prints inspired by found language. I am still practicing claiming the mantle of writer and figuring out how all the parts compliment each other.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Choosing and focusing. I have this skill/problem of always seeing all permutations of a situation, following each possibility into its infinitely bifurcating futures. I want to do everything and be everywhere and so I end up nowhere doing nothing.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I’m generally a very cautious person (and maybe that’s how I get away with this), but the best things I’ve done to “advance” my “career” were always the ones that on paper seemed the most idiotic. But I knew they were the right moves because I was still considering them in spite of how scary and stupid they looked: moving across the country to start college early, quitting a job to finish writing a book, becoming self-employed.
There is power in a leap of faith. My advice would be not to hedge when making those leaps. I spent a lot of time wanting be a writer but searching for a more practical stand-in. I could have spent that time going for it, instead of making backup plans in advance. Still, every day I have to fight not to put a long to-do list between me and my writing.
Buying yourself time to write — in my case, that meant quitting my newspaper job and living on a paltry savings for several months — is something I highly recommend to anyone who can swing it. I used my job as an excuse not to write for so long, so I created an environment where I had no excuse not to finish the book. I put my money where my mouth was, basically. It sounds corny, but really: Invest in yourself. Plus, nothing motivates like the fear of a financial deadline and the need to prove this was actually not an insane idea.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I think the trap is defining success exclusively as having achieved your idealized version of your life — even and especially if you don’t know what that is. I am definitely guilty of this. But when I step outside myself a little bit and see what I have to show for myself, instead of focusing on how far I feel I have to go, that makes it easier to spot. That feeling of “Hey, I’m doing OK” lasts for about 30 seconds, usually when I’m sitting in my back yard writing or reading in the sun and I think about how great it is that I live in an inspiring city and do what I love, how that was basically my dream as a kid — but then it’s back to work. I’m trying to pay more attention to those moments, trying to see if I can get them to last longer.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder for a large portion of my childhood, then Anne of Greene Gables, ever since I got the box sets of their books as gifts. (Let’s just say I spent a lot of time dressed up in a bonnet.) I related to how stubborn and curious they were, and I admired that they wrote. But I still didn’t know I could be a writer. It was not until my sophomore year of college I even knew there was such a thing as a creative writing major. It all seemed completely inaccessible and unrelated to the things real people did to survive.
I spent the rest of my teenage years imagining myself as Daria, and then much of my 20s trying to undo all that knee-jerk cynicism and low self-esteem. Now I want to be Sheila Heti. And Joan Didion.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
In all likelihood my moves would involve reading lines from a David Foster Wallace story (actually that whole scenario almost sounds like a David Foster Wallace story). I sometimes think about starting a reading series that combines literature and burlesque. Reading on stage is already so revealing, why not?
What’s wrong with society today?
We have forgotten empathy. Obviously there are many problems, but my sense is that they all come down to empathy — everything from equal rights and class issues to bad driving and rude Internet comments.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
At least once, but usually it’s with a turn of phrase, someone else’s or my own. Of course, when you wake up next to them the next morning they almost never look as good as the night before.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
I’d like to see all of us be able to marry whomever we love. I’d like to see a woman president, and I’d really like to see those VIDA count numbers move the right direction. The issue is not only in publishing, but the imbalance of women published is an indicator of cultural attitudes as a whole. It seems ridiculous that in this century we still have to talk about women (or anyone else) being treated as less than worthy. We’re still not talking about it enough. Our biases are so ingrained and systemic we’ve stopped even recognizing them; the argument becomes about whether such problems exist instead of what we can do about them. It’s gaslighting.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is our means of expressing how weird and awe-inspiring it is to be a human creature on this planet. It is what lets us connect over how impossible it is to truly connect with each other. It is necessary to my life, at least, and intricately knotted to life’s other necessities, like survival and love and joy.
What are you working on right now?
I’m preparing to send out my book Song of Ourselves, a lyric novel that begins every page with the word “we.” It’s about us — our generation lost between irony and sincerity, but also about you and me and how we form relationships, about the search for meaning and community. I imagine people reading it on their phones.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I seek out writing that is unabashed about its grand intent, that does not fear the uncomfortable or intimate as a conduit to the universal, that takes a crack at our (in)ability to connect with each other.
If there was one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
BART would run all night. There’s probably a more grand and important answer, but that’s the one I most often mutter under my breath.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Those are sometimes shorter than I like (see above), but usually involve going to a literary reading and having a drink afterward with friends, ideally with an impromptu dance party.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
My family swimming in our front yard during a flood. Our house was surrounded by water and we had to canoe to safety.
What are some of your favorite smells?
California — the forests, the ocean, Los Angeles at 4 a.m., all of it.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
A trip to Tierra del Fuego, but I’d want to take a year or two to drive there from here and see everything in between.