Thursday, March 14, 2024

Q&A with Sarah Beth Durst




Sarah Beth Durst is the author of the new novel The Lies Among Us. Her many other books include the young adult novel The Lake House. She lives in Stony Brook, New York.


Q: What inspired you to write The Lies Among Us, and how did you create your character Hannah?


A: Every time I have a stray idea, I jot it down. No matter how large or small, it goes into the file. I have learned that if I don't write ideas down, they melt away like stray flakes of snow on a not-cold-enough day, but if I write them down, they might instead become sparks that spread into a fire.


The idea that became The Lies Among Us was a simple three-word sentence: "She doesn't exist."


Hannah grew from there. I started asking myself: What would a life like that be like? No one can see her or hear her or feel her. She's never had a true conversation. She's never touched another person. And then I asked myself the most important question: Why?


Nonfiction approaches truth by exploring the question "What?" -- what happened, where, when, by who, to whom. But fiction aims to uncover truth by delving as deeply as possible into the question "Why?"


So that's how I created Hannah, by asking why and following the answers wherever they led.


Q: The writer Ruth Emmie Lang said of the book, “The Lies Among Us is an engrossing and wildly inventive story that takes a magic wand to the lies we tell ourselves and each other and imagines a world in which the line between truth and fiction is a curtain that could be pulled back at any moment.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love that description!  I did dance between reality and the surreal to tell this story -- I believe that's where all the best truths can be found, in the intersection between fact and imagination.

The theme at the heart of The Lies Among Us is the corrosive nature of lies -- what they do to a person, to a family, to a society. The novel was inspired by the lies that have invaded our lives, especially in politics and online.


I chose to tackle the topic through the lens of a single family, specifically through the eyes of Hannah (who doesn't exist) and her sister Leah (who does). In doing so, it ended up becoming a novel about mothers and daughters, just as much as it is a story about lies.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I knew loosely how I wanted it to end, especially the feel that I wanted it to have. But yes, so many changes along the way! In the beginning, it was only Hannah's story, but then I layered in more and more of Leah's point of view. Now, I can't imagine the book without both.


I think when you're writing a book, it's important to be open to allowing your story to evolve. You discover your story through the act of writing it, not by planning it all out in advance. What's that quote about no plan surviving the first battle? Very often, that's how it works.


Q: You've written for different age groups--do you have a preference?


A: I write for adults, teens, and kids, and I love them all! Each of them has their own joys and their own challenges.


With writing for kids, you're often writing about firsts -- first friendship, first adventure, first disappointment, first brush with wonder or danger or fear -- and there's a sense of responsibility that comes with that. You can't assume a child reader has experienced your kind of story before.


With writing for adults, the joy and challenge is, in a way, the opposite. Adult readers come with a full array of expectations for plot, character, theme, etc., and you have the choice to either fulfill or subvert them. You're able to explore a whole other world of stories because you can build on all that prior reader experience.


And with teens, there's the unique challenge of writing to an audience that is simultaneously jaded and inexperienced but ready to feel it all.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I am working on my next book-club-fiction novel, The Willow and the Warbler, coming from Lake Union in 2025. It's about a woman who cannot stay who comes to a town she cannot leave. I'm so excited about it!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Hmm... Well, I like chocolate, raspberries, and cheese. I don't like skunks or Frisbees. My cat Gwen is my writing partner. She sits on or near me while I write my books, and sometimes she naps on the caps lock key. And in my spare time, I like to play the piano, though I'm really not very good at it at all.


But if you want to know more about me and my books, there's a ton of info on my website: And if you'd like to follow me on social media, I'm @sarahbethdurst on pretty much everything. Hope to see you there!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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