That’s the length of time Philly author Sarah Rose Etter will have to wait before she receives official reviews of her latest novel, The Book of X. But considering from conception to execution, this is going on close to five years in the making, what’s another couple of months?
The novel, distributed by Columbus-based publishing house Two Dollar Radio, is the second long-form piece of published work from Etter since her college thesis paper became her first book entitled, Tongue Party. Etter, who in her free time before moving to the West Coast to focus all energies on The Book of X, was a former arts writer for Philadelphia Weekly. We turned the tables on her to chat the creation of this novel, the complexity of Cassie, the main character and when it does finally drop, what we all can expect.
How’d the story of Cassie come about? When did you know that this was the kind of story you wanted to tell and that this was going to be the way you’d convey it?
Probably four or five years ago [this book] started out as an Excel spreadsheet that was trying to connect two worlds together. So I really started to think of the book as having a front end and a back end goal which is really where the vision kind of came from. Honestly, I was really lucky with this book. I was on a writing residency in Iceland and I locked myself in a cabin while I was there for about 30 days. I didn't really see anyone, I wasn't even brushing my teeth. I lived in yoga pants writing this book and I wrote about 70,000 words in 30 days. I started to think about what a world would look like for a woman who had that kind of had that body and had that giant difference between herself and the rest of the world. There's sort of this magical edge to her thinking where she doesn't fully understand what she is and what's around her.
This book reads like it’s designed to harness some insight into the mind and the flow of a woman and a woman’s body. Can you talk about how much you wanted that to be present in this novel and the use of the character Cassie as sort of a means for that?
For female fiction writers it's very easy to for their fiction to take on an autobiographical or biographical element. So it's hard because I don't want to place too much on her shirt because Cassie is a character that I put through a lot. You know there's kind of dark humor in how she has to operate in the world. But I do think her experience is big too. Being a woman, identifying as a woman, the function of having a period, having a uterus, being able to get pregnant and also women [are] looked at by men, there are a few scenes that felt real to me.
We see a breakdown of Cassie’s life in three parts. Talk a bit about the structure, how you chose the flow and how it lends to the overall story.
I was really thinking about what happens to someone who has a child like this who then has to go into the world and get an office job and pay her bills. So I really wanted to get into the idea of what happens when you face trauma and then you have to just go and be a person. [In this story] there's this really nice disconnect and a clash between her childhood and then her going from that to going to an office and [typing] at a computer all day. That is something I hope will bring up some thoughts around how we encounter each other in the world and this idea that you're not just meeting a person who doesn’t matter, you’re meeting a being. Thinking about everything that happened to them before they got to you and then thinking about how do we carry trauma? How do we carry childhood? How do we carry disappointments or joys anywhere we go? That three-part structure really dives into the three parts of her life from childhood [until it ends].
When The Book of X drops in July, it’ll be your second piece of published work. How different or similar was the preparation and execution of this versus your first work, Tongue Party?
[The Book of X] is [actually] a natural extension of Tongue Party. I feel more self-aware and self-actualized. When I wrote Tongue Party I was young [and] I was kind of crazy. I still read that book and I'm like ‘whoa lady.’ But then I look at this book and I'm like, ‘yeah, this is still crazy.’ I don't know, maybe we don't ever grow out of our weirdness, our weirdness just matures.
The way this book is written with its short paragraphs and digestible bites into the overall story is a unique approach for a novel. How much of that was by design in the way that you wanted to tell this story?
Yeah, it's just a reflection of my skill set. I tend not to write really long [and instead] tend to write really short and really impactful. I'm not [John] Steinbeck nor do I want to be. I feel there needs to be a disruptor in literature right now, one that's reflective of how we digest content. Like a lot of tweets, right? I have to acknowledge that I only have the attention span of a person for as long as I can keep them on a page.
What do you hope readers who know your work and ones that will know after reading this book learn about you and your style?
So there was this moment [writing was] very interior world to me and now I have to allow other people to participate in it. That comes with a lot of risks. But at the same time, I took a risk on this book because I don't think it's normal fiction. I am really excited that it also might change the way we think about fiction and writing. [Honestly], I’m just really excited for people to know me. I’m just this little girl from Rosemont [College] without a fancy MFA. So I'm really excited. I'm also terrified.
Terrified of what?
You know I don't have any reviews just yet. I'm kind of in a holding pattern. It's at the printer but I don't know how it's going to be received just yet. But it's kind of exhilarating and terrifying literally at the same time.
The Book of X | 276 pages. Two Dollar Radio/Publishers Group West. Publishes July 16. $17.99. twodollarradio.com
SPRINGTIME PAGE TURNERS
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Ultimate Folly: The Rise and Falls of Whitaker Wright
When this book arrived from overnight from London directly from author Henry Macrory, we thought it was a tad bit overzealous. Like on the ‘chill bruh’ tip. But this story about Whitaker Wright, who predates Bernie Madoff as a master scumbag out there who swindled investors with the police in hot pursuit. Fleeing the U.K., Wright ended up in New York and Philly where his hijinx continues. If you pride yourself as being a history buff, read this one. | Out now. $26. Biteback Publishing.