Fellow 2021 Debuts author Sarah Zachrich Jeng is flying high. Her debut novel, The Other Me, launched yesterday, and it’s quickly gaining praise. Samantha Downing wrote of the book, “The definition of unputdownable . . . A fresh story, quick pacing, intriguing characters,” while PopSugar called it a “Black Mirror-esque rabbit hole.” Having read the book myself, I’d just call it a great read that will make you look at birthdays differently (I’d tell you more, but as one Goodreads reader said, “This is a good one to go into blind”). Like many of the other authors I have interviewed, Sarah has a day job and very full life (which includes “two extremely hyper rescue dogs,” so I’m grateful for the time she spent thoughtfully answering my questions.
Christina: The tagline for The Other Me is “Two lives. The one you wanted. The one that wanted you,” and you’ve stated that you “wanted to explore a familiar wish fulfillment narrative from a different perspective.” What drew you to wish fulfillment in particular? Did anything surprise you as you went about writing the book?
Sarah: I spent my childhood reading books about kids who could talk to ghosts and make things move with their minds, and I daydreamed constantly about being able to fulfill my wishes (and crush my enemies) through supernatural means. I love stories where fantastical elements coexist with everyday life, so when I set out to write a novel, it was natural for that to be the direction I’d go.
No spoilers, but with The Other Me, I was interested in exploring the ways that wanting something intensely can cause someone to discount and dehumanize others, and how an action taken without ill intent can be unintentionally devastating to someone.
I think that for me, writing a book is always going to be surprising. I outline, but I frequently deviate from the plan when something isn’t working or a new idea occurs to me. So much of writing is trusting Future You to work out the problems that Present You creates.
Christina: Several readers have mentioned that you blend sci-fi, mystery, and women’s fiction in this suspenseful book. Did you aim to write a cross-genre story, or did it arise organically?
Sarah: I knew when I started writing that the book was going to blend genres, simply because it was set in a contemporary world but had fantasy/sci fi elements (I hadn’t decided yet whether those would be magical or technological). I’d begun with upmarket/literary ideas about it, but as I wrote different endings and started to think about getting it published, the pace picked up and it morphed into more of a thriller.
Christina: Julie Clark wrote of The Other Me, “Mind bending and emotional . . . a taut psychological thriller with a twisted question at its core: Would you be willing to lose a life you love in order to gain something you thought was lost forever?” How would you answer that question?
Sarah: Personally and specifically, I’d say “Hell, no!” But generally speaking, it depends on the relative value you put on what was lost vs. what you have now, keeping in mind that we often don’t fully value what we have until it’s gone. We go through seasons in life, and what was good for us at 25 will probably not be what we need at 40.
Christina: Your bio states that you “had a brief career as an aspiring rock star before [you] came to your senses and went back to school” for web development. Does music play a role in your writing? Does it play a role in your writing process? Have you ever thought that maybe the rock-star life is “the one that wanted you”? (Or maybe the web-developer life?)
Sarah: Being a professional musician was never going to happen for me (and not just because of Napster and Spotify)! Looking back, I absolutely did not have the drive. But it was a fun time in my life and I’m so grateful to have had the experiences I did. I still work in web development in higher education as my day job, and I’m glad to have that as a connection to the world at large and a source of steady income (and health insurance. We can never forget about health insurance).
I actually can’t listen to music when I write—it’s too distracting—but I feel like my experience as a musician bleeds over into the rhythm of my writing. I also make no-plot-just-vibes playlists for each WIP. I have a few book ideas that feature bands or musicians, but those haven’t been written yet.
Christina: Piggybacking on the previous question, do your experiences in web development inform your writing or your writing practice at all? What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from your day job?
Sarah: I think my day job has helped with my writing both directly and indirectly. Working in an office with people of various skill sets and personality types (from rah-rah fundraisers to jargon-loving IT folks) gives me some good insights into character. Web dev and writing both involve a lot of detail work, iteration, and troubleshooting. And my experience working in a startup definitely helped when I was trying to get into the mindset of the people who work for gnii, the tech company featured in The Other Me.
Christina: While I live in Ohio, I also grew up in Michigan, and I’ll always consider myself a Michigan girl. What about Michigan makes you want to use it as a setting? Is it simply a case of “write what you know” or something deeper?
Sarah: I spent the first 20 years of my life in Michigan, so the details are pretty ingrained! And I wanted the setting for The Other Me to be somewhat pedestrian but still a little off. The original time period of the book was right after the Great Recession (I later moved it “five minutes into the future” to make the tech more believable) and the economic struggles that Michigan went through during that time played a greater part in the plot.
On a deeper level, setting the book somewhere that could have been my hometown probably helped me get into the mindset of the main character being back in her hometown, with the attendant sense of claustrophobia and the sharp eye for things that have changed since you last visited.
Christina: What does literary success look like to you?
Sarah: Somewhere between a solid place in the midlist and being picked for Reese’s Book Club! I would be super happy to be able to keep writing books I’d want to read and getting them traditionally published (the marketing for self-pub seems daunting to me). But honestly, I’ve been fortunate to get further than a lot of authors ever do, and even if I never published another book, I’d still be writing.
Thanks to Sarah for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.