Sarah Chorn is probably someone many of you know. She was a judge for SPFBO for a number of years and then entered her own book, Seraphina’s Lament into the competition last year and was a strong semifinalist earning a 9/10 from Kitty G
Let’s get to it!
What do you find more challenging, writing, or editing?
It really depends on which stage of which project I’m at. I absolutely hate editing my own work, though. I think it’s probably because my full-time job is editing for other people, so by the time I get to the point where I need to edit my own book, I’m sick of it.
You live in Utah – would you recommend people visit? How long have you lived there, how ya like it?
Utah is… a weird place. It’s absolutely beautiful, with a whole lot to see, but I think the society out here is a bit divided and there are some weird cultural things that I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to. That being said, we have amazing doctors out here, and I’ve got chronic illness and I’m in remission from cancer, so I’ll likely be here for a while due to that alone.
But it’s a great place to visit. We’ve got amazing national parks. My absolute favorite is to go to Zion National Park in the autumn, around October, or in spring, late March or early April, when there are a ton of waterfalls from melting snow. There’s also a place down there that might be my favorite spot on earth, and it’s Cedar Breaks National Monument. That place is GORGEOUS. I’ve taken some of my favorite photos there, and very few people know about it.
About Own Voices, you’ve been a vocal supporter and champion for those with disabilities. It’s not uncommon to run into someone who doesn’t know what the Own Voices tag means. How do you define it, personally, and what does it mean to you?
Own Voices is a movement wherein marginalized authors are recognized for writing books with characters that share their experiences. For example, my bit of Own Voices is Seraphina, in Seraphina’s Lament, who I imbued with my chronic pain, spine, and leg disabilities. She has to walk with a cane. She has to push through pain. Life is hard for her. To a certain extent, I resonate with Ianthe in Of Honey and Wildfires, too. She’s got consumption, and I had cancer, but the truth of facing your own mortality through illness is something I have lived and understand on a very, very deep level and I really wanted to bring that experience to life in Ianthe.
Own Voices is great, though. It’s one thing to write diverse characters, but when someone is writing from their own personal experience, it’s a whole other level. Own Voices is also incredibly empowering. I often feel like disabilities, and my experience as a disabled author, gets swept under the rug. There are so many diversity panels at conventions that don’t have anyone disabled on them, for example, and it’s absolutely frustrating. Own Voices gives a platform to me, and people like me. Marginalized authors who write from their own experience.
Do you have a favorite fantasy book that touches on a disability Own Voice?
Borderline by Mishell Baker is absolutely fantastic. I loved the portrayal of mental illness and disability in a main character. It was real and vivid. I remember when I read it thinking, “this is such an important book.” It really made me realize how important it is to see ourselves in the stories we read and write. It was very powerful for me, and in a lot of ways, that book gave me the courage to write characters like Seraphina and Ianthe.
You have quite the collection of photos, would you like to share a couple of your favorites and go into how you got into photography?
I got into photography, really, because of cancer. I was stuck at home, sicker than a dog, and I needed an outlet. I remember one day I just felt like absolute shit. I wanted to throw up, but I couldn’t. I felt like I was dying, but I wasn’t. My hair was falling out. It was horrible. Anyway, so I felt like crap and I noticed we had an onion that sprouted and I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures of it. I called the series “Meditations on and Onion” and it was really my first time taking pictures that were an attempt to be artistic. I felt like that onion, and so, I guess in a way it was a self-portrait collection of me going through cancer treatment. After that, I upgraded my kit, and now it goes where I go. Photography has always been a way for me to get outside of myself. A way to remember that no matter how hard it seems, the world is still full of beautiful things, and that’s worth focusing on.
Instead of slapping down some photography here, I’ll just send you over to my photography portfolio, where you can take a look through all my favorite photos.
You read a lot of history. If you were going to suggest three accessible books for people who have not had a lot of experience with history/biographies, what would you recommend?
Ha. Okay, this is going to be fun. Now, last year I read a biography of Van Gogh. It was one of the best books I think I’ve ever read. This book is HUGE, though, but so worth your time. It’s about his art, which you may love or hate. Even more than that, it’s about mental illness, and how Van Gogh and his family dealt with it, back when there was very little understanding about these things. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, and illuminative. Stunningly well written. I read it months ago and I can’t stop thinking about it.
A few years ago, I read a book called Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. This was really the book that got me into Russian history. He takes the entire Romanov dynasty and takes readers through it. Russian history is just surreal, but this book was a fantastic introduction into what turned into a few years of detailed research for me. Very entertaining and well written.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book I read years ago, and I don’t think it’s ever let me go. At least once a year I go through and re-read it. Katherine Boo has a way with bringing hard topics to life. It’s not an easy read, but I think it’s necessary. It’s important to understand how others live, I think. Important to get a bigger picture of the world around us, even if that picture is a very hard one to examine. Boo tells the story of a few select people in an undercity in Mumbai, and shows their lives, both triumphs and (a whole lot of) pain. It’s really uncomfortable, but it really, really made me think about humanity in general a bit differently.
So you’ve been on both sides of the SPFBO table. Did you find your experience as a judge helped with the nerves most authors get or make it worse? Or, are you one of those authors who throws their book in the contest all willy nilly without a care in the world?
Okay, well here’s a thing. I’ve learned that I can’t pay attention to my books. At all. I just can’t. I focus on it too much, and then I get obsessed, and then I get depressed, so for my own sanity, I don’t check reviews. I don’t look at ratings. I don’t look at my sales. For the SPFBO, I actually left the Facebook group because it was starting to turn my mental crank a bit too much. I just have to completely emotionally pull out. Book? What book?
Thankfully, I have some friends who have google alerts set up for my names and etc. and they alert me whenever something (good) shows up that I should be aware of. Otherwise, my policy with all things I write is to throw them into the world and then stick my fingers in my ears, close my eyes, and go “LA LA LA LA” until someone pokes me.
You’ve been a gardener for a while now, what got that started? As someone who’s always wanted to start but didn’t know how, would you recommend certain heartier plants? For advanced gardeners, what would you recommend as a challenge to their skills?
When I grew up, we had this absolutely huge yard. We grew a ton of fruit trees, and berries, grapes, vegetables, herbs, the whole thing. I loved it. There’s nothing as delightful as stuffing your face full of grapes you pick off the vine yourself.
When we got our own house, I knew I wanted a garden. You see, a lot of what I do with photography and gardening, specifically, I do because it centers me. I have chronic illness. Twice a year, I have to get scans for cancer, in case it comes back. I typically have between 2-4 surgeries a year due to joint damage that comes with EDS. My spine is a mess. I profoundly hurt all the time. It’s really, really easy to get lost in all that. REALLY easy. Photography and gardening are what I do to remind myself that there’s a world outside of my pain. Out there, there is dirt and flowers and growing things. It doesn’t help my pain, but it does help my sanity. It helps me remember that there’s an entire world outside of my skinbag.
So I garden. I grow things. Twice a day I go out and water and pull weed, pick veggies and fruit, and teach my kids how to garden alongside me. It is, in every possible respect, what keeps me sane in my own body when I feel like it’s crumbling around me.
For beginning plant recommendations, I’d start with herbs, but for the love of god please, PLEASE keep them in contained pots. Herbs grow like weeds and if you, for example, put lemon balm or any kind of mint in your garden bed, you will never, ever, ever be able to get rid of it. Also, peas and beans are super hearty and easy to grow and there are a ton of varieties of them to choose from.
For advanced gardeners, I suggest you go on Etsy and buy some baobab tree seeds. Those are a serious project. I bought five this winter, managed to get one to germinate, and just getting that one seed to do anything was quite a project. There are Youtube videos showing how to do it. It requires sanding it down and stuff. It was surreal but really fun… and then you get to keep it alive. It’s got some particular moisture and soil requirements.
What’s your favorite word?
I think it might have to be “inevitably” because whenever I edit my books I take about 600 uses of that word out.
What is your least favorite word?
“Little.” I have no idea why I hate this word, but I do.
If you could describe your life in 7 words, what would they be?
“Oh my god, what now?” – okay that’s not seven words, but I’m counting it.
If you could live in any fantasy world, which one would you choose?
Osten Ard, from Tad Williams. I know it’s not the best place. It’s got negatives and positives, but I’ve always really loved the magic of it, and it’s always been so real and vivid in my mind.
If you had to be quarantined with any figure from history, who would it be?
This is probably going to get a whole bunch of people to throw things at me, but I’ve got this really weird fascination with Stalin, because he’s such a repugnant human being. I’d just absolutely love to sit this guy down and ask him what the hell is going through his mind most of the time. He’s dead, right? So he couldn’t do anything harmful… But yeah, I’d really be interested in just sitting him down and digging through his mind. I’d love to know if he believed even half the stuff he said or did.