A recent read from the Teen Book Club I convene for the Centre for Stories was Sarah Epstein’s debut book, Small Spaces. A psychological thriller, Small Spaces has been literally taking the world by storm. Sarah was kind enough to answer some burning questions from the book club…

NLK: What was the inspiration for writing Small Spaces? 

SE: The seed of the story was my fascination with children’s imaginary friends and why they have them. When my kids were little and attending playgroup and kindergarten, I’d hear stories from mothers about how they’d overheard their child’s one-sided conversations in the bath, or how their child’s invisible friend had to have a place set at the dinner table. I’d always think, where do these imaginary friends come from? Are they tied to emotional issues, loneliness or just boredom? Are they coping mechanisms, a cry for attention, or even, as some suggest, a spiritual presence that a child’s mind is open enough to see? This helped me craft the hook I hoped would intrigue readers: What happens if a creepy imaginary friend from childhood comes back?

NLK: We were particularly taken with Tash’s little brother, Tim and want to know if you will write anything about his character?

SE: Wow, that’s very interesting. A few people have told me they would like to read more about Mallory, but so far no one has mentioned that about Tim. I have no immediate plans to write more about the characters from Small Spaces, but never say never! The door is always open to writing about these characters again if I come up with an idea for a short story or novella that I think readers might enjoy. But right now I’m concentrating on new stories with new characters.

NLK: Is the creepy carnival based on a real setting? Can you tell us more about the setting?

SE: The story is set in two fictional locations – the small coastal town of Port Bellamy, and the rural area of Greenwillow and Willow Creek – which are about an hour’s drive apart on the NSW mid-north coast. When I’m brainstorming a novel, I picture scenes very cinematically and start writing before I know exactly where the story is going to be set. Then I have to stop and start researching areas that tick all the boxes of my fictional setting, places that can feasibly accommodate all the major plot points and any secondary locations that are referenced in the story. 

As for the carnival, I knew I wanted to include one in my fictional setting because they always have the potential to be creepy and disturbing. Carnivals are a bit too much of everything all at once, which makes us feel queasy and disorientated. Busy places and crowds always pose the threat of a lost child or for someone to be swallowed up before their companions even notice they’re missing. And people squealing on noisy rides is so distracting and jarring. All of these things combined can make us feel uncomfortable and on edge, which is perfect for a thriller.

NLK: Will you continue to write psychological thrillers?

SE: Definitely. I enjoyed writing Small Spaces so much and hope to continue writing in this genre. In fact, I am working on another stand-alone YA psychological thriller right now. But I also have some other contemporary YA novels at various stages of development, so hopefully one day I’ll be able to share those with readers too.

NLK: What’s your favourite book?

SE: I don’t have a favourite – there are far too many to choose from. But I can say that my favourite types of books to read are psychological thrillers and creepy mysteries. I love books that are so hard to put down that I’m still up reading them at 2am.

NLK: How do you beat procrastination?

SE: This is a tricky question to answer because I can be a world-class procrastinator! But often if I’m feeling stuck and find myself zoning out on social media instead of doing any actual work, I’ll make myself do a 30-minute writing sprint where I try to write 500 words in 30 minutes. I pick a scene from anywhere in my story and just start writing, not letting myself edit as I go. It might not be the greatest writing I’ve ever done, but it gives me 500 new words to revise and polish later.

Also, if I have a list of tasks to do that I’ve been avoiding, I try to do the hardest task first. Once I get that out of the way, everything else on the list seems easy.

NLK: What has been the biggest thrill of being published?

SE: At first, it was seeing my book on shelves in bookshops, airports and libraries – this was a dream of mine since childhood and it was pretty surreal to see something I’d written alongside other authors I’d admired for years. But since then, I think meeting and talking to teen readers has been the biggest thrill, especially those who love the story and the characters. These readers are exactly who I wrote the story for, so being able to meet them in person and hear what they thought is hugely rewarding and makes me grin like crazy.

NLK: What advice would you give to emerging authors?

SE: The first piece of advice is to listen to your gut – no one knows what you are trying to achieve better than you do. So if something doesn’t sit right, sound right or feel right, it probably isn’t. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to speak up or make changes to drive your own career.

My second piece of advice is to persevere…but also take breaks. The publishing industry is a long game and nothing happens quickly so you may need to keep pushing for a number of years before you get anywhere. But it’s also important to take a breather every now and then to remind yourself you do have a life outside of writing. Having a break can make it easier to shake off rejections and bad reviews as well as give you some perspective about what you’re trying to achieve. And hopefully, it will also fill the creative well so you come back to your writing feeling refreshed and inspired.

Sarah Epstein 3 sq profile LR
Image courtesy of Sarah Epstein

About Sarah Epstein

Sarah Epstein spent her childhood drawing, daydreaming and cobbling together picture books at the kitchen table. A writer, illustrator and designer, she grew up in suburban Sydney and now lives in Melbourne with her husband and two sons. She is passionate about YA, especially the thriller genre, which is her favourite to read. Her first novel Small Spaces was shortlisted for The Readings Young Adult Book Prize.

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Interested in finding out more about Sarah’s book, Small Spaces? Check out my review here.