Sarah Enni

First Draft Episode #170: Sarah Enni - Transcript

Date: February 28, 2019

Sarah Enni, debut author of Tell Me Everything and usually the host of the First Draft podcast, answers questions from fellow YA writer Maurene Goo! Sarah shares her lengthy path to publishing, the role of humor and tone in contemporary fiction, her outlining process, and the one cross-country flight that changed everything.

The original post for this episode can be found here.

[Theme music plays]

Maurene Goo Welcome to First Draft with me Maurene Goo. Today I’m talking to Sarah Enni, debut author of Tell Me Everything and, well, the host of this podcast FIRST DRAFT. I loved what she had to say about what it means to debut as a seasoned pro, finding home in books no matter where you are, and how one life-changing, cross-country flight turned her into a YA author. So please, sit back, relax, and enjoy the conversation.

Maurene Goo This is a momentous day. Hi Sarah!

Sarah Enni Hi Maurene.

Maurene Goo How are you?

Sarah Enni I’m doing great. How are you doing?

Maurene Goo Good. Well, this is very awkward. I’m [pauses] nervous about asking you questions [giggling]. So, let’s start where you always start.

Sarah Enni Okay.

Maurene Goo Where were you born and raised?

Sarah Enni So, this question for me is a little complicated. I’m not going to repeatedly say “People who listen to this podcast know…”

Maurene Goo Honestly, I feel like this episode is gonna be a good test. Like, “How loyal of a First Draft listener are you? Can you cobble together Sarah’s history from the billions of episodes in the past?”

Sarah Enni I know. I think people could know a lot about me if they culled the episodes, but…

Maurene Goo They could, but you know what? I was thinking about this as I was preparing your questions, even though I’ve known you for a long time, and we’ve talked about everything, and I think I know a lot about your life, I’ve never heard you sit here and answer these questions as directly as all of our friends have.

Sarah Enni I know. And every time I do an episode with one of our friends I feel like I learn something new.

Maurene Goo Yeah. I feel like I’m gonna learn a lot of new stuff today.

Sarah Enni Oh, alright, well, let’s see! So, where was I born and raised is kind of a complicated question because I lived all over the place. I was born in Tacoma, Washington. When I was five I moved to Arizona for a year or so… my brother was born there. And then we moved to Texas, in Arlington, between Dallas and Fort Worth. I lived there all through elementary school. When I was twelve I moved to California and went all through school in San Jose. And then I went back to Seattle for college.

Right after college I moved to D.C. and then from D.C. I lived at home with my mom for about six months to save up money and move to Los Angeles in 2015.

Maurene Goo Ooh, which is when we met.

Sarah Enni Yes.

Maurene Goo So, you moved around a lot. And I feel like when I met you I’m always like, “Oh Sarah’s…” for some reason I’m like, “You’re so Seattle!”  Because you like football and you care about your Seattle teams, so I’m always like, “Sarah’s from Seattle.” And then I was like, “No, she’s actually [from] Northern California.” That’s why I bond with you. You grew up with a lot of Asian girlfriends.

Sarah Enni It’s true, it’s true.

Maurene Goo [Laughing] I can tell, I can tell. But in actuality, you’ve hopped around a lot. And I kind of feel like there’s no way that doesn’t inform you as a writer.

Sarah Enni Yeah.

Maurene Goo I was wondering, we usually ask, “How was reading and writing a part of all of that?” I’d be interested to see how that fit into your nomadic childhood?

Sarah Enni For sure. It was definitely a big… my mom talks about… you know when you look back, there’s only some things you remember, but recently my mom was like, “Oh no, when we moved to a new house, the first thing we did was find the library.” We’d go to the library and check out dozens and dozens of books and go back every week. So, I know I was definitely using books to feel comfortable while we were doing all of this moving around and adjusting.

I was the oldest kid too, so when you move and you’re the oldest kid – at least for me in my experience – it was like I felt the need to put on this brave face and prove to my parents over and over that, “I was doing fine!” And like, “I was gonna be okay!” Cause we were moving for my dad’s job and it was important for the family and all this stuff.

So, I think that books [were] a place where I could go to escape, and have feelings expressed that I wasn’t able to, or didn’t feel comfortable doing. And just get lost in these stories of other worlds. Moving around a whole bunch also made me less scared about new things, which I think made me a pretty adventurous reader, also.

But yeah, you are really a lot better at remembering all the stuff you read when you were younger. I definitely also read Babysitter’s Club and all those books – devoured them. But I got into, like The Giver was a big turning point for me and opened my world up. And then, on my own, I was reading Hamlet… for some reason [chuckles]. And the Lord of the Flies I read on my own first, which was so interesting. And then my mom was a sci-fi fantasy reader, so I got really into Lord of the Rings and all kinds of epic fantasy too.

Maurene Goo How old were you when you were reading those? Lord of the Flies, Lord of the Rings – all the lords.

Sarah Enni All the lords!

Maurene Goo All of the lords were written by men.

[both laughing]

Sarah Enni I know, right?

Maurene Goo They love lords.

Sarah Enni They do love their lords.  I was definitely in California when those were coming around, so probably middle grade and early high school. I don’t know if you feel this way, but I still read a whole lot after I got my driver’s license, but I think sixteen and getting your driver’s license is a big shift. I became more social and was doing more out-of-the-house stuff. But when I was at home, lonely, bored, I was definitely reading a lot of books and listening to a lot of music, and kind of staring into space.

Maurene Goo Same. I mean that’s how I escaped what I thought was a hellish childhood. Which, obviously, I did not have a hellish childhood. But, you know?

So, you said your driver’s license and you got to do things… I did not get my license till college.

Sarah Enni Really?

Maurene Goo I was just a late bloomer. I tried in high school and I failed the driver’s test twice. I’m going to defend myself and say that the California driving test is notoriously hard. A lot of people failed it. Maybe people are gonna make fun of me after this, but it’s true.

Sarah Enni I just love that you’re an LA baby and you’re like, “No, I was not in a hurry to get a driver’s license.”

Maurene Goo My friend Chris, always drove me around in his Honda Civic. So, you always had a friend that drove.

Sarah Enni Yes.

Maurene Goo Maybe you could talk about that. What happened to… cause this, I think, all is important to you being a YA author. This shift in your adolescence.

Sarah Enni Yeah, you know, I can remember a conversation that changed me a lot in high school with a teacher. This is a long story for off-mic, but this teacher ended up not being a good person, but he had a great impact on my life. After freshman year of high school, I was really hiding my feelings. I was ironic and sarcastic, super-scared to be earnest about stuff, and scared to succeed in a lot of ways. Though I was getting good grades, I was into my shell, I think.

And this teacher at some point, I was working with him on yearbook actually, this was my yearbook advisor, and he was like, “You know, you’re capable of so much more, if you just let yourself care about it.” And whatever he said, and whatever the timing was, it just hit me in the right way. And that was a really big shift for me mentally.

I consciously decided to change my attitude. I opened up to a lot more people. I joined things. I was part of this – we didn’t have Spirit Week – the football team wasn’t important in my high school. My high school was the number one Speech and Debate school in the country. And people were just too cool for sports and it was a really weird  - like the ASB kids were the cool kids. And I was on ASB to be clear.

Maurene Goo That was like my high school, I think.

Sarah Enni Yeah, yeah. I think there’s a lot more schools like that than we think. But, I was part of this crew of kids who were like, “No, let’s have spirit and be proud of where we are.” Like, “If we’re here, why not be proud of it.” So, I had this revival of earnestness in that stage of life. And I really flourished, actually, in high school. So, I have good memories of that time. Which actually, is different I think, than a lot of YA writers.

Maurene Goo Actually, you sound like you’d be a character in one of my books.

Sarah Enni [Chuckles loudly] I relate!

Maurene Goo Except your teacher solved all of your problems, your character arc, in one conversation.

Sarah Enni In one, I know. It’s not even worth a book. But when I read in I Believe in a Thing Called Love, I was like, “Yeah, Desi, I get you!” A grade A person, or a type A person who sees what she wants and goes after it. That’s kind of what I became by the end of school.

Maurene Goo Yeah, you’re pretty driven. So, we’re gonna get to that. I actually want to know then how writing, talk about reading and how it fit into all of this. When did you start writing? And when did it actually become something that you were aware of as a skill that you had?

Sarah Enni That’s a really good question, and it’s evolved for me over the course of doing this podcast. Cause I always look back and was like, “No, I was never really writing.” I don’t know. I would discount my past experience, for some reason. And then over the course of doing this podcast, my mom started sending me stuff that she got out of her attic. I was actually writing a family newsletter when I was a kid. They got me a typewriter, and I wrote this like “Page Six” family newsletter. It was like, “Dad’s been gone on a quote “business trip”.”  I was like, “What?!”

Maurene Goo Remember Little Women? That’s what they did. That’s what Jo did. She made a little newspaper. I don’t know if it was just their family, or they made it up.

Sarah Enni Maybe that’s where I got it. I don’t know, but that was so funny. And I also wrote for school. I wrote a bunch of poems and illustrated them. And actually, I remember in third grade I won… the whole third grade had a competition for a short story, and they read mine out loud. I don’t know if I won anything, but they chose to read one of mine out loud. But they did make a note before they read it like, “Not every story needs conflict.” Cause it was a story about three bears that just had a picnic, and it was just a nice day.

[Both laugh]

Sarah Enni But I remember being super, super proud. And then when I moved to California, I got really into [pauses]. I was writing, me and my group of – and when I say “misfits”- I mean for real. They were so kind and sweet, but we were all just clinging to each other because we felt like we were so out of place. And I would write all of us being in high school on a ship like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. And then I would share it with them. It was a way to connect with them and to put ourselves out of the real world that we were in.

Then as I got more comfortable in California, and got a group of friends, I was still writing poetry because I had “deep feelings”, especially about boys. So, I was writing poetry that were kind of based on song lyrics. And then what I realized recently when I went back to do Juvinalia for YallWest, I looked back at my old poetry journals - and I don’t remember this-  but I was going back and editing them, actually. So, I was not only writing poetry, but I was editing the poems and making them better. Which is something I totally forgot that I’d done.

So, it was in the back of my mind. I remember always thinking I’d be disappointed if I didn’t write a book one day. I had a dream in college, that I still think is a good idea for a book, or maybe a movie. But, that was the first time when I was like, “Maybe I’ll start writing this down.” When I went to college, I knew that writing was a skill I had. I actually got a five on the AP Writing test.

Maurene Goo Oh my god! So did I!

Sarah Enni I was super proud of that.

Maurene Goo So nerdy! Can I get a fist bump right now?

[Fist bumping ensues]

Sarah Enni And I truly went into college being like, “Here’s what I’m good at – writing. What can I do with it?” I did not at all think about writing books or non-fiction. I went to journalism. Then I had that dream and was like, “Maybe I can write something.” But it died off and it didn’t come back again until my dad passed away.  And that was when I was twenty-three.

Maurene Goo So, after you graduated college.

Sarah Enni After I graduated, it was 2008. I moved to D.C. with my then boyfriend, for him to go to medical school. Super lonely. Didn’t have any friends out there. My dad died within months of us moving there. And I found Twilight.

I was taking an overnight, red-eye plane, home from his memorial service. From San Francisco to D.C. and I read Twilight.

Maurene Goo The whole flight?

Sarah Enni The whole flight. So, I finished it by the time we landed and I got off the plane and was like, “I need to buy the rest of these three books.” And also, “I think I can do this.” And I immediately started writing it.

Maurene Goo Then in between that, when you wanted to do journalism, but then you decided you didn’t want to. So, when you graduated, what were your plans?

Sarah Enni I stuck with journalism.

Maurene Goo Oh, you did? Okay.

Sarah Enni Yeah, yeah. So, I got a Journalism and English degree and I really still love journalism a lot. I still want to write non-fiction in a journalistic way at some point. Our friend Zan Romanoff [listen to her First Draft podcast here] is also a freelance writer.

Maurene Goo She’s excellent.

Sarah Enni She’s so, so good. She’s such a talented writer. And some of the featured type of stuff she writes I would love to do stuff like that at some point. So, my first job out of college was an internship at Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, I worked at Washington Business Journal for a while. Then I had a couple of journalism jobs writing about nuclear waste and the legal industry. So, that paid the bills for a long time until I could focus on writing full-time.

Maurene Goo I really want to get to the Twilight part of your life, but you just flew over this journalism stuff. But you have this podcast, and this is a journalism outlet for you. I want to hear more about the stuff that you have covered as a journalist. Because you’ve told me that you would go see Supreme Court cases, right?

Sarah Enni Yes. I went to one Supreme Court case.

Maurene Goo That’s amazing!

Sarah Enni Life highlight! Okay, I’ll tell one story from college that actually didn’t, at the time, feel important. But looking back I’m like, “Oh!” We had this cool class in journalism that was about interviewing. And they set up this big room in the communications department, they had actors come in groups. They were like, “Okay. Here’s the scene. You are the first to arrive at an apartment fire. These are all actors playing different people who are affected by that.” The manager, the super, people who live in the building, neighbors. Your job is to deal with people who are at the height of emotion, and try to get the story.

And we would go around the room, and these actors were really great. It’s also the first time that someone’s crying in my face while I’m still trying to ask them questions. It was super intense. But they had planted that there was a story to get to, right? By the end of it… and I was intimidated at that journalism program. I had friends that were in that program, and they were really talented. But by the end of the session, the woman running it turned to me and was like, “You got the closest.”

She was like, “The way you structured your questions, and the way that you built on the story you heard from every other person, you were the one that got the closest.” And basically, that I have interview skills. And then moving forward into my professional life, I did get to cover congress. I got to cover Supreme Court cases. I got to travel for my job, and go to conferences, and talk to lawyers, and scientists. Nuclear waste is completely fascinating, actually.

Maurene Goo Yeah, I’m sure it is.

Sarah Enni It is.

Maurene Goo Nobody knows anything about it.

Sarah Enni No. And I know a lot about it still, which is wild. TLDR – I am in support of nuclear power. But it was all a challenge of not only asking good questions, but making connections. Because you have sources. People… you need to treat them well, and quote them respectfully. And conduct your interviews respectfully in order for them to want to talk to you again. And I got pretty good at that.

Maurene Goo It’s essentially story telling.

Sarah Enni Yes.

Maurene Goo I think about that a lot too because I too, like you, knew I was a writer when I graduated high school. And I didn’t know what to do, so I wanted to pursue journalism. I was editor-in chief of my high school newspaper, blah blah.

Sarah Enni You should read Maurene’s book Since You Asked which is about a high school newspaper.

Maurene Goo Yes, it is.

Sarah Enni My mom’s favorite book [laughing].

Maurene Goo [Laughing] It is your mom’s favorite book! Ah, I love Julz. But I feel like at the time, and it’s only now as a writer of fiction, and someone who listens to a lot of podcasts, and a lot of non-fiction - I read non-fiction. I’ve had a subscription to the New Yorker for however long - that I’m like, “Oh. That was all storytelling.” It just wasn’t the format that I wanted. I thought like, “Oh, news is boring. I’m not interested in current events.” But that’s not what it is. If you’re good at it you’re telling a story.

Sarah Enni Yes. I couldn’t agree more. And every once-in-a-while you’ll read a story that, all of a sudden by the end of that article, you’re like, “I get this. I get this issue now.” And that’s because reporters have so much information. They have so much knowledge. They’re so smart about these issues. And when you get someone who’s a skilled reporter, and also a skilled storyteller, then you get – in my opinion – the best writing that’s possible to do as a human on this earth right now is narrative non-fiction.

I just think that that’s the most impressive thing. So, I love reading narrative non-fiction books, and long feature articles. And when people do that skillfully, to me it’s the most effective type of writing.

Maurene Goo I have an appreciation for it now and I still love the non-fiction form and essay form. I love reading Zan’s stuff. So, I want to put a pin on that because that goes into other things you might be interested in.

Sarah Enni The last thing I do want to say about that, just for people who are listening who are newer writers, is that journalism is such a good thing too. When you find an article that reads like fiction, but it’s non-fiction, notice how they set the scene. You and I have been talking lately about contemporary writers, and setting, and an immersive feeling while you are reading books. I think that’s what I learned from journalism. Is context is everything. And your characters being two talking heads in a scene with no context, or smells, or feelings or textures… is boring. Really good non-fiction writers completely put you in the room.

Maurene Goo Right, because they’re observing. And we as fiction writers, some people – obviously a lot of people do this well, but I include myself - you forget to fill in those details. Four books in [and] that is what I’m learning like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got to describe stuff a little bit more.”

Sarah Enni I think some people write contemporary thinking it’s gonna be easier because you can make assumptions. Everyone lives in this world so we can skip over some of those descriptions. And I would argue, everyone sees our world in different ways. The things you notice aren’t what other people notice. And the details that you would bring to a scene. Or, when you imagine someone’s beach house, what does that mean. It’s different for everyone in their own mind. So, guiding the reader a little bit goes a long way.

Maurene Goo Yeah, totally agree. I’m glad you mention that. But I want to backtrack to when you realized you wanted to write YA when you read Twilight. And it’s very interesting you brought that up, cause Twilight was not the book for me, but it was one of the books when I read [it] I was like, “This is achievable.” Which is not an insult to Twilight.

Sarah Enni Uh-uh. No.

Maurene Goo I think you realize like, “Oh, the simple story of a girl who feels like an outsider, and then finds a way to find her own family or group of people.”

That’s essentially what that [is]. It’s about love, and vampires, whatever.  But that’s what it is, and you’re like, “Oh yeah.” And you can do it in so many different ways… like a vampire story.

So, let’s hear about your journey to YA. People… you may think that Sarah is new to YA, but she is not. Like a lot of YA authors out there who are technically debuts, they have been in this game for a long time. We have seen all the drama. And all of this new drama that people are bringing, it’s like old news. Sarah’s seen a lot of drama through her YA journey. So, let’s talk about your YA journey.

Sarah Enni Well that’s an awesome way to start. Twilight was… I think it was just before the movie came out and it was blowing up. It had been out for a while, but it was really blowing up. So, I was in this situation of having this red-eye flight and literally in my bag I had the biography of Andrew Jackson by what’s-his-name? [Pauses] American Lion.  And I don’t want to be maudlin on this, but it was also the book that I had gotten my dad for Christmas, and then he died.

It was the only book in my bag and I was like, “I’m not gonna sleep on this flight. What, am I gonna read this book?” Like, “No!” So, I was in the Hudson News and I saw Twilight and I was like, “Why don’t I just do myself a kindness and buy this mass-market… let’s see what this is about.” By the end of the flight I was at baggage claim waiting for my bag, and this woman came over and was like, “It was good, wasn’t it?”

Maurene Goo Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.

Sarah Enni And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, Twilight? Yeah!” She was like, “I watched you reading and I was so happy.” She was like, “I was so envious that you were reading it for the first time.” And she had just been watching me read it non-stop for six hours.

Maurene Goo Oh my gosh. That’s so cute and like creepy! [Laughs]

Sarah Enni I know! I know. But that’s a hundred percent something that I would do.

Maurene Goo It’s true. It’s true.

Sarah Enni So, that was this big moment and it totally electrified me. I bought the rest of the books, and go to my job, and I would take my lunch break later than everyone so I could sit there and read them without being interrupted.

Maurene Goo I did that too! Oh, my god.

Sarah Enni Yes! It was such a necessary escape for me at that time in my life. And the writing - we can argue about the quality of the writing – but the storytelling was amazing. I was completely absorbed. And I cared. And that’s all that you can really ask of a reader. I then went on and was like, “What’s going on in this sphere? What’s happening with this?” Cause I was sort of ready to rediscover books after having an English degree sort of beat some love out of me a little bit.

And then I read the The Hunger Games. I read Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere which was and remains one of my favorite books ever. It just tore me apart. And a bunch of other incredible… Sara Zarr [listen to her First Draft interview here]. I read so many books that just completely opened me up to this new world. And I couldn’t read enough. I was back to those middle school, early high school days, of just devouring books. And it felt so good. And it felt like, “Okay, this is a place where I can find people of like mind.”

Maurene Goo That’s so interesting. Was that around 2007, 2008?

Sarah Enni 2008 and 2009.

Maurene Goo Yeah. Same exact time period for me when I discovered “YA” YA.  I feel like what you say is so right. That it tapped into that love of reading that you had as a kid. And honestly, like a lot of us, went into writing YA because that is what we want to give to readers. I love reading literary fiction. You love reading non [fiction]. We like reading all sorts of books, but it is that specific spot - that feeling - that when you grew up loving books. And you can reignite that feeling? It’s really special. I feel like that is what a lot of kid lit people… we feel it.  And so that’s what we’re projecting out there.

Sarah Enni Yeah, for sure.

Maurene Goo I feel like in all of the interviews I’ve heard, nobody’s actually expressed that.

Sarah Enni Oooh! Well, you heard it here first! I think that’s a hundred percent true. And it’s also… I felt so [pauses] you know, I think about this a lot. Why do I write YA? Because there’s other options. And now that we’re growing as writers we could tackle other stories. But I also think that my goal, especially when I’m writing for contemporary YA, my goal is always to get to these moments of transcendent feeling.

I want nothing more than to make a reader laugh, or cry. And those moments are so like moments of personal epiphany. And moments of feeling a part of the universe, or above the universe even. They happen often when you are a teenager. And when you get older, sort of that magical liminal state is harder to achieve.

Maurene Goo Let’s talk about that because you just said writing contemporary. And your debut novel, TELL ME EVERYTHING, is contemporary. And we’re gonna talk about TELL ME EVERYTHING. But, your mini-debut was a short story and it was fantastical, I would say. Or had fantasy elements.

Sarah Enni It had magic.

Maurene Goo It was in a short story collection, Because You Love to Hate Me, which is edited by Ameriie. And your story, The Blessing of Little Wands… which I freaking loved! Everyone should read it! Actually, the whole collection is so good.

Sarah Enni It was a really strong collection.

Maurene Goo I don’t often read YA anthologies. And that one was really excellent. But your story has a bit of, I feel like it’s grown up Harry Potter, in a way.

Sarah Enni Thanks.

Maurene Goo I wasn’t expecting a fantasy from you. I think about you, just knowing you as a person, you’re a very versatile person. And you have a lot of interests. A lot of writers, and this is so not a criticism, are very single minded about their one passion. And you can see it in their work and they’re like masters. But I feel like you and I are kind of different. We have a lot of things that we like to do and we think we’re pretty good at.

Sarah Enni We do a lot of things we think we’re good at. [Laughing]

Maurene Goo Yeah. We’re like, “We’re good at this!” Honestly, I think writing is my number one skill.

Sarah Enni Agreed.

Maurene Goo That’s why I do it with such confidence. So I think for you, the versatility is there in your ability to jump between genres. You’re working on another contemporary right now, but you’re also working on other stuff.

Sarah Enni I am.

Maurene Goo Which you can’t talk about.

Sarah Enni I can’t.

Maurene Goo But you are. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? About genre hopping?

Sarah Enni Thank you so much for the compliment. The reason the short story is in the shape that it got to be in is cause you were so helpful as a beta reader for it. So, I appreciate that.

Maurene Goo Barely, it was really good.

Sarah Enni But it was funny to have that opportunity to write in that series cause Ameriie sent our little prompts… the way the anthology worked was every writer got three prompts to choose between, and it was supposed to be a villain. So, automatically, there’s some genre element to, “Okay. You’re writing about a villain.”

She sent me this one prompt that was sort of about Voldemort, I think, in a vague way. This world totally leaped into my head. I was writing it while I was listening to the Interstellar soundtrack. Which is so good!

Maurene Goo Mm, I can see that.

Sarah Enni So good, and dark, and weird. Tahereh Mafi [listen to her First Draft interview here] talks about how much she loves reading contemporary, and that she felt she had to write fantasy until she got good enough to write contemporary. And I love that. I think that’s so interesting. I kind of think I’m doing it the other way. I love fantasy!

Maurene Goo You love reading it.

Sarah Enni Grew up with it. That’s definitely my comfort literature. I would say… my first book out of the gate that I wrote in 2009, that is horrible and will never see the light of day, was a time-travel, weird fantasy, genre hopping thing. And then I went to contemporary all the way through till now, with the exception of this short story, because I think I was just getting more skilled. I’m really looking forward to… I have a couple of ideas for things that are not straight contemp. And I’m really excited to hopefully get to them.

Maurene Goo Right, but also maybe contemporary is a natural fit for you. I don’t think it means that you have less respect for it, or love for it. We all naturally have a voice that is easiest for us. I don’t know many authors who don’t start off in that space. Right?

Sarah Enni Yeah.

Maurene Goo I think about my first book, Since You Asked, had [chuckles] had no plot. It was episodic and it was very voice-y and almost like personal essays. Because that was my comfort zone. Let’s talk about how you got into from loving YA and reading it, to becoming a published author.

Sarah Enni The long and storied tale! So, the first book I wrote started in 2009 and around that time I got on Twitter. For me, I hate when people disparage Twitter. Not now. Because we can all agree it’s kind of a cesspool now. But as a thing in existence… it changed my life.

I went on there and met Kate Hart [listen to her First Draft interview here], Kaitlin Ward [listen to her First Draft interview here], Stephanie Kuehn [listen to her First Draft interview here]. At the risk of not naming so many people.

Maurene Goo The YA Highway crew.

Sarah Enni The YA Highway crew. And Kirsten Hubbard [listen to her First Draft interview here] who co-founded YA Highway. I met all of them and became really good friends with people. I started a blog about writing. I was writing constantly. And the YA Highway girls invited me to join that site. That was a really huge deal for me.

Running my blog and being a part of YA Highway was a really huge deal. They were beta readers. They were so supportive. Between 2009 and now, I’ve written seven books.

Maurene Goo Wow.

Sarah Enni Yeah. So, as you mentioned earlier, it’s funny to say my “debut” because I don’t really feel like one. Whether that’s fair or not… I don’t know. It’s been this long, long, arduous process of writing and rewriting, and drafting. The book I just finished drafting was something I started in 2012.

In getting ready for this book to come out, I’ve been going back and looking at a lot of stuff. I made my own publishing timeline in a document. It was a really emotional process because I was looking at all of these old emails from looking for agents, to then having one who was so supportive of a book that ended up not selling. All of these highs and lows. My divorce. All of this stuff. Definitely gone through a lot in the ten years that I’ve been writing.

Maurene Goo I do feel like your publishing journey was parallel to all the crazy things that happened to your life in a certain amount of time. Between getting your agent though, and selling TELL ME EVERYTHING, it wasn’t a straight path, right?

Sarah Enni Not at all. I got my agent in 2013, Sarah Burnes [listen to her First Draft interview here]… she’s awesome! She agreed to represent me based on this other contemporary book. A version of which I just finished rewriting and hopefully…

Maurene Goo Whoohoo!

Sarah Enni Hopefully there will be news about that soon. But she represented me for that book and loved that book. Really nurtured it, and me. It got super, super, super close to selling in 2014. But went to acquisitions and didn’t sell. Even though the people supporting it were super confident. It then ended up getting shot down. Which was really sad.

That happened in March 2014 and I split up with my husband in May 2014. So it was pretty quick. And May 2014 was also when I got the idea for First Draft. I spent June planning it. And then I started First Draft in July while I was on a road trip leaving D.C.; leaving my marriage. And driving across the country down the southern way and then back up to Seattle.

So, I did a bunch of the first interviews were on that road trip. Ended in Seattle. In Seattle I wrote a whole other book, saved up money, and moved to LA six months later.

Maurene Goo How long was your road trip? And how many people did you interview?

Sarah Enni  Two months long.

Maurene Goo My gosh!

Sarah Enni Six thousand six hundred something miles. And I think forty-five or so interviews.

Maurene Goo Holy crap! You kind of did something similar though recently?

Sarah Enni I did. In June I did an East Coast trip where I interviewed twenty-eight authors in one month.

Maurene Goo Right, oh my gosh.

Sarah Enni Pretty wild.

Maurene Goo Yeah. You’re nuts.

Sarah Enni [Laughs] I am.

Maurene Goo Good nuts! I want to talk about the podcast too. The podcast is part of the reason why I don’t consider you a debut author either. At this point, you know how the sausage is made. You are not a starry-eyed debut. You are very pragmatic, I think, going into this. Obviously, you have hopes and dreams like everybody else. But I think you have a very unique position as someone who’s interviewed… you’ve had how many interviews now?

Sarah Enni When this comes out there will be around one-hundred-and-seventy-five or one-hundred-and-eighty interviews out.

Maurene Goo  Essentially a hundred-and-eighty authors, right? You’ve heard about every iteration of this journey and all of our failures and disappointments. And all of the good things that have happened. And everybody’s creative process is so… How do you feel about your debut?

Sarah Enni Here’s the thing that I will say about myself. I think I’m lucky in that I don’t have to learn the hard way by doing things on my own. I’m actually pretty good at learning from other people’s stories. And that’s something that’s served me really well. In going into this book… which, by the way, I didn’t finish answering your last question. But after starting the podcast and moving to LA, I signed the contract to write TELL ME EVERYTHING in May 2016 and it was based on a kernel of an idea that my editor had that I flushed out and wrote.

So, it’s an IP project but it definitely is mine. I signed the contract for that in May 2016 and its out now in February of 2019.

Maurene Goo It felt like a long journey just witnessing it. And by-the-way, it’s being published by Scholastic.

Sarah Enni It is. And my editor, Amanda Maciel [listen to her First Draft interview here], is so wonderful. I’ve had a great experience with them. But it also isn’t perfect, right? No debut experience is perfect. It is not like this big, splashy, six figure, fantasy series type of debut. But ultimately, from knowing so many authors, and from hearing their experiences, and from really listening to them… I had my panic attacks over the summer. So, I got that out of the way. I’ve been seeing a therapist. So, I got that out of the way. And I wrote another book. And finished it before my book came out.

And have a couple of other projects that are in the works. And, over the last year, I started doing improv. Which has been a total brain saver because it’s just not even related to our industry at all.

Maurene Goo Yet, I think it nourishes and works that muscle too and makes you a better storyteller.

Sarah Enni It does.

Maurene Goo Do you want to talk about improv now?

Sarah Enni Let’s finish this question and then yes.

Maurene Goo Yeah, yeah. I like how I’m still deferring to Sarah like, “You’re in charge of this interview. I don’t know.”

[Both laughing]

Sarah Enni Oh, that’s so funny. So I would say that the debut experience has been made better, and I’ve been able to set realistic expectations, not be as flustered by unexpected things coming up. And I think, yeah, I was better able to contextualize and set correct expectations for myself over this experience.

So, I do not expect for it to come out and everything on the planet to stop, and everyone to throw confetti.

Maurene Goo But they better!

Sarah Enni [Laughs]

Maurene Goo Just saying, everybody who listens to this podcast better buy the book.

Sarah Enni I love you for saying that. But honestly, I’m so grateful to my friends for talking me through it, for being really rational, reasonable, supportive people. And helping me have a really just completely satisfying debut experience. You know what I mean?

Maurene Goo Yeah. I think you are probably the most functional debut to have entered YA.

Sarah Enni I feel incredibly lucky that I got to… honestly, now looking back, yeah ten years is a long time. And it was full of a lot of disappointments and I talked about this with Nina LaCour [listen to her First Draft interview here]. If I could go back and tell 2009 Sarah that it was gonna take ten years, she’d be like, “F that!” You know what I mean? No one wants to hear that. But, I’m super happy that I’m starting this publishing journey when I have a handle on who I am, and I’m not super young anymore. I’m old enough to know what I’m about and I think that helps a lot.

Maurene Goo We’re talking about your experiences making you different from other debuts, but what are you still excited about?

Sarah Enni And also, I think it’s important to note, every debut is different, and everyone has different expectations. So, we’re not saying that anyone is doing it right or wrong. But I do feel a little bit like a seasoned old hag coming into this, but in a way that makes me kind of gratified. So, there’s that.

But you’re right. I am still super excited. I have been lucky enough through First Draft to be invited to go to a lot of events and to moderate a lot of panels and to be in this community. And it’s pretty exciting to think about actually having a book and being on panels instead of just moderating them.

Maurene Goo Yes, being the author. Part of me is very defensive for you sometimes where I’m like, “She’s an author too!” I think it will be awesome that you finally get your moment to talk about your book, and your craft.

Actually, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk a little bit about your creative practice, which you always want to with other authors. Let’s talk about your writing routine.

Sarah Enni Yeah, okay, and actually you’ve seen this over the last year.

Maurene Goo I already know this answer.

Sarah Enni I am not someone who necessarily writes every day. It changes all the time, truly. But I’ve been rewriting this book for a year. But it just didn’t settle in, it didn’t finalize until about a month ago, or a month-and-a-half ago, maybe. I needed to rewrite this book. I’ll just use this as an example. I needed to rewrite this book. So I reread it and I took a bunch of notes. Then I made a new synopsis. And then I sat on it cause I was busy for a few months. And kind of poked at it a little bit, but this and that and the other.

I don’t know, then just inspiration struck. And when I get into drafting mode, then I sort of become the most boring person… ever. I just need to eliminate choice from my life in order to really focus on writing. So, I’ll get up at the same time. I’ll do the same things. I’ll go to the same coffee shop. I’ll see my same friends. And I’ll write two thousand words a day… until it’s done. And that’s what I did this last time.

Maurene Goo You need a routine.

Sarah Enni I need a routine. I need ritual. I listen to the same song when I write, whatever the song is for that project.

Maurene Goo One song?

Sarah Enni One. On repeat.

Maurene Goo Oh my god. Are you kidding me?

Sarah Enni No. So, my Spotify stats are ridiculous.

[Both laughing]

Sarah Enni At the end of the year they’re like, “You listen to one artist and one song.” Yeah, one.

Maurene Goo I mean, I listen to a playlist a lot, but one song?

Sarah Enni Yeah.

Maurene Goo Interesting.

Sarah Enni And it changes. Sometimes I’ll be like, “This isn’t working.” And I have to go into my catalog and find a new song.

Maurene Goo Wait, is it a song with lyrics?

Sarah Enni Yeah, usually it is. But it is always the right vibe. One book that I wrote, that hopefully will get rewritten and published, was all Lorde, right? I mean, she has such a vibe. This last time it was this Local Natives song. And they’re usually songs that are a little bit like they have a rhythm. They’re kind of like workout songs. It’s like when you’re running and you just need something with a tempo to keep you going.

Maurene Goo What was your song for TELL ME EVERYTHING?

Sarah Enni Tell Me Everything? Um, it switched up a little bit. I’m looking for my copy, which I didn’t bring. There was a song, I’ll link to it in the show notes cause I’m not able to think about the correct name for the song right now, but it was called “Trees On Fire” [DJDS]. I can’t think of the name of the band right now, but if you listen to it you’d be like, “What?” It doesn’t relate to the book at all, but for whatever reason, this song was the right mood and I listened to it constantly while I went to the same coffee shop. And, TELL ME EVERYTHING by-the-way, I had to write, burn down. Rewrite, burn down. Rewrite.

Maurene Goo I mean, that was part of the reason why it was a longer process for you. You totally rewrote that a couple times.

Sarah Enni It took me a long time to get into it. My editor, Amanda, was so great. And I got the chance to actually send her a copy, and then go to New York and talk to her about it. It timed out that way. And she was so great in person about sharing personal stories from her own life that she thought might be useful to frame Ivy’s story.

She really put her own heart and soul into it. Which is super helpful to me. But then part of what – this is so goofy – but part of what unlocked Ivy in TELL ME EVERYTHING was I ended up making her obsessed with Jeff Goldblum. I gave her my nighttime skin routine. I ended up throwing so much of my personal self into the book, that that’s what it took to really lock into the draft that stuck.

Maurene Goo I think that when you connect to your characters in some way, even if it’s just her habits or interest, it really brings the character to life. That’s always been my… that’s the moment where things really happen for me.

I feel like… okay, should we do a little summary of TELL ME EVERYTHING?

Sarah Enni Oh yeah, yes, let’s do that. So, TELL ME EVERYTHING is a story of Ivy who is a fifteen-year-old girl who is a really shy artist. She’s so shy that she doesn’t show anybody, really, her art. And she gets obsessed with this social media, this new app, that kind of takes over her school. It’s called Veil, and it allows you to post things anonymously.

People are posting a lot of really beautiful art, and interesting poems, and stuff that she really connects to. And she really wants to reach out to these people that are posting stuff that she feels so drawn to. She wants to do nice things for them. But she sort of discovers, over time, that her assumptions and… people post things anonymously for a reason. And her trying to seek them out… she’s gets tangled up in a bunch of boundaries. And she crosses a few of them. Hijinks ensue. She learns a lot about what it means for her to step forward out of the light, and take ownership of her own art and herself as an artist.

And then there’s a lot of not so subtle digs at Silicon Valley as well.

Maurene Goo You have to share the name of the app creator, which is just literally… when I read that name, I laughed so hard I couldn’t keep reading the book.

Sarah Enni [Laughing] That makes me really happy. The guy who created Veil in my book, his name is Rake Burmkezerg.

[Both laughing]

Sarah Enni It is an anagram of Mark Zukerberg, which is so thinly veiled.

Maurene Goo Yes! And even reading Burmkezerg… I was like, “I don’t even know how to pronounce this!” It was just like a jumble of Mark Zukerberg’s name.

Sarah Enni I was at a writing retreat with Veronica Roth [listen to her First Draft podcasts here and here], and we just went to town on anagrams of his name. We came up with so many, but Rake Burmkezerg really took the cake [laughing].

Maurene Goo [Laughing] Oh my gosh, I love it. And actually, there’s a lot of humor in your book. And you and I love to talk about humor. Let’s take a moment to talk about humor.

Sarah Enni Yeah! We can also talk about improv while we’re doing it.

Maurene Goo Yeah, cause I wanted to weave in your improv.

Sarah Enni Totally.

Maurene Goo That’s my plan Sarah.

Sarah Enni You’re on it!

Maurene Goo That was like my improvisational plan.

Sarah Enni [Laughing] You’re ahead of it.

Maurene Goo So, you started improv.

Sarah Enni Mm-hm.

Maurene Goo We live in LA, so improv… it’s a thing.

Sarah Enni Mm-hm.

Maurene Goo But you’ve always liked comedy, even before moving here.

Sarah Enni Yeah. And you know what doing improv has done for me? Kind of a similar thing that writing books has done for me, which it made me go think about me as a kid. And realize that I’ve always been more into comedy than maybe necessarily the average casual comedy fan. I would seek out Monty Python, and old sketches, and SCTV stuff. Listen to so many stand-up specials walking around campus in college, that I have Eddie Izard’s entire catalog memorized. He’s so funny.

Maurene Goo Like on your iPod?

Sarah Enni Yes.

Maurene Goo Was it iPod?

Sarah Enni Oh, it was iPod for sure.

Maurene Goo I was gonna say, mine was probably a Discman.

Sarah Enni [Laughing] Back in the day. So, I’ve always loved comedy. I got really into podcasts primarily through comedy podcasts and podcasts that interviewed comedians. So, I always looked up to these people as storytellers. I always thought… and when I was a kid I always used to say, “I’m gonna marry the guy that makes me laugh the hardest.”

So, I’ve always prioritized humor as… it’s important to me, to be honest. So, yeah, you and I talk about humor a lot in books because…

Maurene Goo It’s hard to do in fiction without it being satire or… what’s the word? Slap stick.

Sarah Enni Yeah.

Maurene Goo Cause when you go that way, it can feel like middle grade.

Sarah Enni Mm-hm. Tone, right? Comedy is all about tone. And to be honest, the kind of contemporary we right is all about tone. You can write contemporary a bunch of different ways, but I think you and I are really voice-y, and we are really going for a rhythm. And that’s what comedy is too. And it’s about then disrupting the rhythm, and surprising the reader.

Maurene Goo Right.

Sarah Enni So, I started improv a year-and-a-half ago, or so, and I just got really into it.  And I will say doing improve and building scenes like that, has been hugely helpful in writing books and in sort of freeing up my mind from, “You have to do this. Three act structure. This, and this, and this.” It’s like, “Just get into a scene and feel it out and have fun with it and be spontaneous. And see where that takes you.”

A lot of structure stuff and character stuff and detail. In comedy, the specific is universal. And that goes back to what we were saying about when you’re writing contemporary, just throw in as many details. That makes the reader really feel like they’re there and they’ll relate to it more. Even if it feels to you like it’s so specific that no one else could get it… it’ll make your reader connect.

Maurene Goo I think that’s our equivalent of world building.

Sarah Enni Totally.

Maurene Goo Making it feel real. Do you think that improv has changed you as a writer, when you compare your writing process for TELL ME EVERYTHING to this new project that is not yet named?

Sarah Enni Not yet named? Yeah, that’s such a good question. I honestly think – yeah - I think it has made it easier for me. And I think it made me less hard on myself when I slipped up. Or when things weren’t going the way… and I’ll tell you what, something I did for this project that I just rewrote that I’ve never done before was, I did a scene-by-scene [written] synopsis. And then I wrote a scene-by-scene breakdown. And then I did a scene-by-scene breakdown and I mapped the relationships. There [were] five main relationships in my book.

So, the main character to her mom, the main character to her best friend, to her other best friend, to her love interest. And every scene I went and tracked like, “What’s happening in all of these relationships in this one scene?” And I think improv has made me realize it’s all about the connections. It’s about the two people in that scene. Never have it be about someone off-screen. Whoever is involved in that conversation, or that issue, put them in a scene together. Find a way to do that. And then have it be in someplace unexpected, or have them having to do something together that is at odds with what they’re talking about.

If they’re talking about a fight that they’re having, but they are clowns having to perform at a kid’s birthday show at the same time, that’s what comedy is. And that’s so much more fun to read, and so interesting, and it has so much inherent conflict. So, tracking the emotional journeys through every single chapter – this for people who are “pantsers” sounds like hell, I know – but it helped me. I’m sure it saved me two drafts.

Maurene Goo Even if you’re a “pantser” you can review what you wrote and when you’re trying to figure out what wasn’t working, you can do that little exercise. It’s so interesting, I used to be so resistant to writing advice cause I’m like [in kind of a snotty tone], “Everybody’s different. We’re all special.” But I’m like, “You know what?” When you can define what makes something interesting, then it’s like a very difficult task. It is something that most of us who write for a living, we have instincts for that. But when you can actually break it down and define it, it’s really valuable. It’s fucking valuable.

Sarah Enni Yeah, it is. And I agree. After writing about writing for so long with YA Highway and on my blog, I too was like, “I don’t want to hear about it anymore.” I think that’s part of what improv did for me was, it let me talk about writing and storytelling – indirectly. And it has brought me back around to being like, “Oh, you know? It is important to be thoughtful about this stuff.” And to be able to identify what we’re talking about when we are talking about really good stories, and absorbing stories.

I think you and I care a lot about having people not be able to put our books down.

Maurene Goo Yeah [sighs]. I’m like, “I’m not gonna win the Nobel Prize here, so I might as well make a fun book.” [Laughs].

Sarah Enni Exactly!

Maurene Goo Well… you never know!

Sarah Enni [Laughs]

Maurene Goo Okay. This is a question inspired by the fine film Never Been Kissed.

Sarah Enni [Gasps] Amazing!

Maurene Goo Do you remember when she’s undercover and she goes to the table of popular girls and she asks, “What are your hopes and dreams?” But I honestly… that is a good question. We never get asked that question as adults.

Sarah Enni That is true!

Maurene Goo So, what are your hopes and dreams for your writing career?

Sarah Enni Maurene! This is such a good question! I’m gonna steal this a hundred percent.

Maurene Goo [Laughing] Okay!

Sarah Enni Wow. You know? Okay, so this relates to the debut experience and my gratitude towards the very specific debut experience that I’m having, is that it feeds into my actual goal, which is to have a career. I want to build a career. It doesn’t need to be splashy. I just want it to continue and you don’t have to be a mega, New York Times Bestseller in order to build a strong, lengthy career in publishing. And that is what I want. I want to be able to continue telling stories.

I’m the kind of person that has too many ideas. I want the opportunity to try all of them out and hopefully get them on shelves. I have gotten sick of writing advice in the past. But I don’t get sick of talking to people about what themes they think are important, and what ideas they want to share through their writing. And I have a lot of themes and ideas that I think are important that I want to share.

I want my books to start conversations and make people laugh. So, is that a hope or a dream? I don’t know.

Maurene Goo That’s both I think. In a way it wraps up your writing advice too, right? Cause that’s what you aim to do.

Sarah Enni Yeah, I think if you’re stuck in a book… I would look at the emotions, the emotional arc of your character, and whether you’ve really pinned that down. And I would also look at… what are you trying to say? Think about what, ultimately, your character learns and whether you have anything more to say about that. And that can help guide you, I think.

I personally connect more to books where, at the end, you get a sense of how the author feels about something.

Maurene Goo Right. And sometimes, I think this is the case, you think you have a theme and then you finish writing the book you’re like, “Oh. That’s not the theme.”

Sarah Enni Right!

Maurene Goo “That’s actually this.”

Sarah Enni Right, and you need to be able to have the flexibility to go with that. Cause honestly, that’s so, so true. And at the end of a draft you’ll be like, “Oh crap! This is what I actually needed to tell myself.” And that makes it like the organic theme that comes up through your writing… that’s what you have to pay attention to. That’s what your brain is mulching over, right?

Maurene Goo Right. Well Sarah… I’m very excited for your many books ahead.

Sarah Enni Yeah, thanks!

Maurene Goo And especially TELL ME EVERYTHING cause it’s such a great book. I loved it, I blurbed it. I loved it so much. But it’s so funny. It’s got such a great voice. It’s really inventive and clever with the use of Veil and social media. I love the themes that you tackle about like goodness and what it means to be a friend, and intentions versus… you know, actually helping people. So, I think you should read it. It’s so, so good. If you like contemporary, if you like to read, if you are a person… you should read it.

Sarah Enni [Laughing] That… I’m gonna take that and put that on the cover! “If you are a person, you should read this book!”

Maurene Goo Yes, you should. A person who can read though, right?

Sarah Enni That’s true.

Maurene Goo Okay Sarah!

Sarah Enni Thank you so much Maurene, this is so fun.

Maurene Goo Yeah! Talk to you later.

Both Bye!

[theme music plays]


Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, or John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.

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