Interview with Sarah Allen re: Breathing Underwater

Kathie: Hi Sarah, and thank you so much for joining me today. I absolutely fell in love with your upcoming novel, BREATHING UNDERWATER, which comes out on March 31st with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to talk to you about it a bit today. Can we start with a brief synopsis of what it’s about?

Sarah: Yay! I’m so thrilled to join in today! Here’s a bit about BREATHING UNDERWATER:

Olivia is on the road trip of her dreams, with her trusty camera and her big sister Ruth by her side. But Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia has created a plan to help her remember how life used to be: a makeshift scavenger hunt across the country, like pirates hunting for treasure, taking pictures and making memories along the way. All she wants is to take the picture that makes her sister smile. But what if things can never go back to how they used to be? What if they never find the treasure they’re seeking? Through all the questions, loving her sister, not changing her, is all Olivia can do—and maybe it’s enough.

Kathie: My favorite part of this story is the relationship between Olivia and Ruth, and witnessing the impact that depression can have on close siblings. Did you have to do a lot of research, or how did you manage to get the dynamic to ring so true?

Sarah: Oh yay, that means so much! I wanted so badly to get that right, and make sure it worked. I started writing this story at a time when all my closest friends were experiencing really difficult mental health challenges, and I felt worse than helpless and desperate to know how to help. While my own brain does worry and anxiety pretty darn well, I really struggled understanding how to help someone dealing with depression. All that wrapped together is where this story came from. Along the way, especially in revisions (so many revisions!) I did research on depression, and had multiple sensitivity readers, because I knew how absolutely critical it was to represent that in a truthful, non-harmful way.

Kathie: Your first novel, WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF, also had a sibling relationship integral to it’s storyline. I know you come from a large family, but you really have a knack for writing books with two sisters in the family. Why do you think that is?

Sarah: Haha, oh wow, thank you! You’re right about the big family–I am the oldest of eight kids, so I find myself telling sibling stories even when I don’t intend to! That dynamic is such rich territory to explore, with such depth and movement in it. I think in a sister relationship there are so, so many levels to draw on. There is confusion next to fierce loyalty, hurt next to protectiveness. I don’t know many other kinds of relationships that lend themselves to that type of mix like a sister relationship. And while the sister relationships in my books aren’t based on any of mine in particular, I find it fascinating to draw on all that complexity in creating the relationships in my writing. 

Kathie: I love a story that takes me on a road trip, and I especially liked all the unique photos that Olivia took to document it. Do you enjoy photography, and would you ever want to try a photo challenge like this one?

Sarah: Ooh, yes, I absolutely love photography! I play around with black and white photography on my Instagram, and had many years as a kid where my ultimate dream was to take pictures for National Geographic, so that particular part of Olivia is definitely drawn from my own experience!

Kathie: I know this story took you many rewrites. Is that usual for you, or was there a certain aspect of this story that you had to work through?

Sarah: I’ve never rewritten something as much as I rewrote this book. The whole treasure-hunt element wasn’t even in the story until something like rewrite thirteen. I think part of the reason it took me so much revision is that in my initial drafts, the plot devices I was using to pull the story forward were not the right devices for this story. Plot is frequently my nemesis, and in this case I had to experiment with replacing plot and structural elements while keeping the frame and character arcs of the story. Sort of like doing surgery to replace someone’s skeleton while trying to keep the skin and muscles intact. Then in the later revisions, that was about focusing in on the elements of the story that really mattered, and making sure we represented the mental health elements in a truthful way.

Kathie: What advice would you give to young readers who can relate to this story?

Sarah: What a good question, and honestly, this is something I’m still trying to figure out myself. I think I’d say that one of the best things you can do for the people you love is to see them complexly. To see them as a changing, nuanced whole, as complicated and human as you are in your own mind. It’s a challenge to hold that in your mind as you try and love the people around you, especially ones that are hurting, but it’s so important to remember that doing that for them, loving them complexly, really is the best and most helpful thing you can do for them. 

Kathie: Where can our readers go to find out more about your writing?

Sarah: I am pretty active on Instagram and my website has more information as well!

Kathie: Thank you so much for joining me today, Sarah, and I can’t wait to start recommending this book to young readers.

Sarah: I’m so grateful to have the chance to talk about this book with you. These questions are so insightful, and the book community is lucky to have you!

Sarah Allen is a poet and author of books for young readers. Her first book, WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF, was an ALA Notable Book of 2020 and her second, BREATHING UNDERWATER, is a Jr. Library Guild Selection for 2021. Kirkus Reviews called it “a heartfelt, multifaceted treasure hunt.” Born and raised in Utah, she’s currently a poetry MFA candidate and graduate instructor at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and spends her non-writing time watching David Attenborough documentaries and singing show-tunes too loudly. Like Libby, she was born with Turner syndrome, and like Ruth and Olivia, she’s always looking for treasure. Find her online @sarahallenbooks. 

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