Our Books, Our Shelves: Sarah Gailey on Putting Yourself Into Your Characters
“Is this book about you?”
So many of the questions people ask me about my work boil down to that one. People tend to ask questions like do you have any personal connection to this issue and have you ever experienced anything similar to this plot point a lot more often when they’re asking about those themes than when they’re asking about, say, cowboys who ride hippos. It’s a fair question to bring to any narrative—how much of the author’s life is in it? How personal is the story that’s being told? It’s a completely understandable curiosity, especially when one is writing about human, relational themes like queerness, community, divorce, identity, and family.
Even though I can understand where that line of query comes from, I often find myself wishing that readers would ask a slightly different question. So often, I write books with a focus not on the person I am, and not on the person I’ve been—but instead, on the person I could have been, if my life had been different in some deeply fundamental ways. I don’t write to put myself into stories, but I often write about stories that could never have been mine. That’s the best way I have to peer into alternative realities, worlds in which the self is mutable and changeable in ways it isn’t to me.
Rather than “is this book about you,” I wish readers knew to ask “which version of you is this book about?”
Here’s what I would tell them:
When We Were Magic, my Young Adult debut, is written about a version of me who was never afraid to be themself. It’s about a version of me that came to understand and accept, as a teenager, that mistakes are okay, and that their friends wanted to support them, even through hard times. It’s about a version of me who learned to hang on to the connections that matter, even when it’s scary.
Magic For Liars, my first adult novel, is written about a version of me who never got the chance to build an identity of their own, who gave into competitive insecurities and feelings of loneliness. It’s about the version of me who never learned to embrace tenderness and vulnerability, who instead chose to keep building as thick and strong a shell as possible to keep hurt at arms’ length. It’s about the version of me that dove into sadness because there’s nothing safer than isolation.
The Echo Wife, my second adult novel from Tor Books, is written about two versions of me that could have been. There’s Martine, the docile, pliant wife, who only considers the needs of others, who builds an identity around service and patience. And then there’s Evelyn, the ruthlessly ambitious scientist who pursues greatness and innovation at any and all costs—no relationship is too important to sacrifice, and no sacrifice is too brutal to be worth the loss.
Martine and Evelyn don’t represent me, but they both represent people I could have become. I know I’m not alone in sharing that there have been many, many people in my life who wanted me to be a wholly selfless Martine, willing to be digested by the great unyielding stomach of other’s needs. On the other side of that same coin, I know I’m also not alone in recognizing the piece of me that has always yearned to become an Evelyn. The stubborn, reactive answer to a demand for submission is often a swerve toward the cold and cutthroat—the pull of Evelyn, of ruthlessness and efficiency, is a powerful one. The call of both those identities has been powerful to me at many points in my life.
But ultimately, I’m none of these characters. I’m not an Alexis, or an Ivy, or a Martine, or an Evelyn. I just get the opportunity to know them, and to tell their stories, even when those stories are hard to tell. I get the honor of introducing them to the world and letting them thrive in it.
For that, I’ll always be thankful to them.
About The Echo Wife
Orphan Black meets Killing Eve, in The Echo Wife, one of 2021’s most anticipated books from the Hugo Award–winning author of Magic for Liars.
Martine is a genetically cloned replica made from Evelyn Caldwell’s prestigious research. She’s patient and gentle and obedient. She’s everything Evelyn swore she’d never be. And she’s having an affair with Evelyn’s husband. Now, the cheating bastard is dead, and both Caldwell wives have a mess to clean up.
Good thing Evelyn Caldwell is used to getting her hands dirty.
Entertainment Weekly calls The Echo Wife “a trippy domestic thriller.”
SARAH GAILEY (they/them) came onto the speculative scene in 2015 and has since become one of the sharpest, funniest voices in pop culture online, going viral frequently for their stories and joie de vivre. They are a regular contributor to multiple websites, including Tor.com, where their Women of Harry Potter series won a Hugo Award for Best Related Work. Gailey’s nonfiction has appeared in Mashable and The Boston Globe, and their short fiction in various popular outlets. Their highly anticipated 2019 debut novel, Magic for Liars, garnered cross-genre acclaim.
Don’t forget to check out the other excellent additions in our exclusive Our Books, Our Shelves column with Tor Books!
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(via, Tor Books)
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