Sarah Broderick grew up in the Ohio River Valley of Northern Appalachia and now resides in Northern California. Winner of the Wilner Award for Short Fiction, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate fellowship, and a short-term artist residency at SAFTA, she holds an MA in humanities and social thought from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Sarah is currently completing her first novel and a work of oral history while working as a rotating editor at The Forge Literary Magazine and an adjunct instructor. Her most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Moon City Review, Blue Lyra Review, Atticus Review, Red Light Lit, and Quaint Magazine. She can be found on Twitter @sebroderick and at perfectsentences.org.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I tell them that I write and edit and read (do the work of a writer). I like to write in the early morning. Also, I teach sporadically, and until recently, I told them that I worked at a library on the reference desk. I feel lucky to have found a way to do work that I love and to have arrived at a time and place where I believe in myself. Depending on the day and who is doing the asking, I might also add that I try to be a good person amid this work.
I guess trying is what I do more than anything. I try to be the best writer I can be. I try to be the best person that I am able to be. I often fall short of the expectations I set for myself, but I keep trying.
Being kind, pausing to not only question but also try to understand, and working to find magic and beauty in the everyday or in places one might not expect is very important to me. I try to practice this approach to life every day.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
My biggest struggle used to be with myself, and it still is on occasion. I love watching people and the world, the little things. I stare out windows a lot. However, I have realized that I need to balance this desire to observe and simply exist with the need to add my voice to the greater dialogue. Also, I am a fragmented person. My writing is coming from a place that exists deep within. The me who writes is different from the me who operates in the world at large. Perhaps I have developed personas for myself in order to live and function.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
First, I would say, “I’m so glad. Do it. Absolutely!” Then, I would ramble out a few things about dedication, loneliness, and joy. I might say that it takes roughly ten years of dedication to a craft before a person adds anything substantial to that art form, and that failing, stumbling, and feeling lost are part of the deal. Also, I would say that writing is lonely work, and there are two types of writers: egomaniacs who are narcissists and egomaniacs who are givers, and I hope that they see themselves as the latter kind. We need more of those. I might also talk about the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his ideas about ‘flow’ and how artists never work alone, not really, how it depends greatly on a particular field of experts letting you into a particular domain of knowledge. You have to play by the rules or at least be familiar with them in order to be heard.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I’d say that I consider myself in a good place and time, maybe the best place I have ever been. I have tried to make the most with what I’ve been dealt. I try to make the most of what I am dealt every morning and every day. Most days I am battling a fatalism that stems from where and how I grew up with an almost painful level of optimism, this intense and aching belief that it is possible to make a difference and that people are inherently good, which I’ve been carrying around inside me my whole life. Essentially, I want each day to count. Death is always impending. I could die after I send this interview. I could die while typing it. A pack of dogs might attack a child in the street, and I might run out and rescue the child but get mauled to death. Or my atoms may go crazy, and I’ll spontaneously combust leaving nothing behind but a pile of grey ashes atop my desk chair. Oh well. I’m going to keep on typing because this work matters. See?
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I would say two categories make me feel better: animals being animals and badass women musicians or performance artists. I’ll provide two examples.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I have several. My grandfather was an amazing storyteller. My father, his son, is as well. I would sit for hours and listen to them tell stories about our family, people they knew, and me. When people you love tell stories about you, you become a fable or myth to yourself. Maybe that’s where my optimism comes from? The fact that they thought I was special enough to remember. At an early age I learned that my life had value no matter what. I was worth something. I was worth enough to be remembered.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I admired my parents. After my father was laid off from his job at a titanium mill, my mother worked hard to get them both enrolled in college programs. I grew up watching them study and try to better themselves. My mother pushed my father to believe in himself. We struggled financially and had to get help from the state. Even though everything fell apart and their very big dreams for us, as a family, never became a reality, I learned so much about life and living from them.
What’s wrong with society today?
Too many people have the time to worry about things that do not matter while so many others worry about where they will sleep, when they will eat next, if a single person in this world loves them. It’s the same old story. A story that we should always be working to change.
What is your fondest memory?
I have many fond memories. I think I remember as much as I live.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I love many things, and I feel love for human beings, creatures, and the world at large each day—I am an emotional person—but I do not fall in love easily. I’m a guarded person, and a secretive one as well.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is necessary because it captures possibility, those feelings beyond concrete expression, all the things that make us human. Art is the product of a culture and contains the thought and feeling of a particular time. Without art, we would just be. The best works of art are gifts (thinking Lewis Hyde here). They are not produced solely for money. They are created because they had to be.
What are you working on right now?
I am at work on a novel that takes place over six days in 1981. This novel began as my attempt at a ‘perfect’ sentence in fiction based on Donald Barthelme’s assignment (you can check it out at perfectsentences.org, a side project of mine). Over the course of those six days, a child named Hannah Jean, her family, and their town (a made up town that resembles many Rust Belt river towns) confronts the past as well as the opinions, prejudices, and injustices that have made them who they are at that moment. We meet them at a time where there is no turning back, only a churning over and again.
I am also at work on a nonfiction book that has taken me back to the small town where I am from. I’m reconnecting with people, and the particular situation there. It’s a work of oral history… sort of. You might call it a biography of a place.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I most admire writing that takes risks while remaining accessible to a variety of readers. I want to write in a way that communicates feelings, moments, and what it is to live that could not be communicated any other way… that feels somehow urgent yet controlled.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Marin County would be part of the BART system or would have some other train traveling to and from it. Marin County should be ashamed of the fact that so many of the people traveling into their county to cut their homeowners’ hair, maintain their lawns, drive around their children have to drive an hour+ or ride a bus for 2+ hours that drops them off nowhere near where they need to be. I know this because my husband and I rented in Tam Valley (a small cottage with a wood burning stove; a special time) when we first moved here from Brooklyn. We often gave people rides to the bus or elsewhere. And then folks get on Nextdoor and complain about 1) traffic, or 2) ‘suspicious characters’ walking outside the very high fences beyond their homes. Shame on them.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
With 50 words, you can maybe not change the world forever, but you might change one person’s world. Words are powerful. They hold a power beyond currency.
With 50 dollars, you can have a pretty good party.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Lilac, apple orchard fruit stands (that swept floor, Fall, sweet and sour air), a horse’s neck (the spot between their jaw and mane), and Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I would buy that famous Victorian house in Eureka, CA (the Carson Mansion, owned by a private club that won’t give tours to the public), and I’d turn it into a home for children. I’d keep books in every room (except for the bathroom where books do not belong). Some of the books would be secret or hidden. Part of the fun would be finding them. I imagine that I would bake a lot of peach cobbler, banana bread, and apple walnut cake depending on the season. We would have picnics on the lawn, parties in the ballroom, and educational excursions in the redwoods and on the ocean. There would be dessert every night. Wouldn’t that be a worthwhile life?