Sarah Gailey: An Honest Narrative

SARAH GAILEY was born February 2, 1990 and grew up in Fremont CA. They studied theater at the American Academy for the Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles and managed a theater company in the East Bay for a few years.

Gailey began publishing work of genre interest with ‘‘Stars’’ in 2015, and made a big splash with alternate-history novella River of Teeth (2017), a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist, and sequel Taste of Marrow (2017); those were later collected, along with two related stories, as American Hippo (2018). Other notable short works include Hugo Award nominees ‘‘STET’’ (2018), ‘‘Away with the Wolves’’ (2019), and Upright Women Wanted (2020).

Gailey’s debut novel, Magic for Liars (2019), is a magical school mystery. Other novels include YA fantasy When We Were Magic and adult SF novel The Echo Wife (2021). Their latest book is haunted house tale Just Like Home (2022). They write comics as well.

Gailey is also an accomplished critic, nominated in 2017 for a Hugo Award for a series of blog posts at They won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2018.

They live in Southern California.

Excerpt from the interview:

“My first three books for grown-ups, Magic for Liars, The Echo Wife, and Just Like Home, are all part of an unofficial triptych about unlik­able female protagonists, where the narratives ask questions about the origin of the self. Where The Echo Wife is about how marriage and adult relationships and careers form an identity from the outside, Just Like Home is about how formative relationships and upbringing create a person from the inside. Those two books, in particular, are deeply in conversation with each other.

“I should clarify that I did not make this a triptych on purpose – I only realized it in hindsight, as almost all patterns emerge. I was part way through writing Just Like Home, and I thought, ‘Oh, all these books are kind of about the same thing, aren’t they?’ The unlikable female protagonist is really delightful to me. I love a character who doesn’t ask to be friends with the reader. There is so much appeal in a character who wants to be friends with the reader, but there’s also a lot of opportunity for manipulation in that, and a lot of opportunity to do the kind of classic American cinema thing of steering the reader toward what they’re supposed to feel in response to input. When you take away the idea of the protagonist as guide and companion and ally in the story, you can allow the reader to form their own complex impression of what they’re reading, what they’re experiencing, and what’s hap­pening. You can invite them not to judge the characters, but instead to understand them. It’s just more interesting to me. There’s more to chew on in a story with that dynamic between the protagonist and the reader.

“My approach is to anchor the reader into the story, not through a sense of liking, but through a surprise sense of recognition. It requires so much narrative honesty to keep the reader on board with a protagonist they don’t like or agree with. That protagonist still has to say things or experience things that the narrative is discussing, things that will make the reader go, ‘Oh! I see myself in that, in some way.’ I find that the way to accomplish that is through often-uncomfortable honesty about the complexity of feelings and situations. ‘Some part of me hates this person, but more of me loves them, and I don’t know how to sepa­rate those two emotions’ is more invitational to the reader than, ‘I hate that guy,’ because the former allows the reader to realize they’ve also experienced complicated feelings like that, and haven’t had a chance to see them in a story before. That complexity can keep readers invested and hooked as the story illuminates things for them. The story says things out loud that the readers only ever thought were inside their own heads.

“I hope that readers who are familiar with my work will still be surprised by Just Like Home. It represents a big departure in voice for me. I challenged myself to be extremely descriptive and sensory. My tendency as a writer is not to describe anything. Historically I have been like, ‘Here is a mannequin with a wig on it, and it’s in an empty room, and it’s having emotions – let’s talk about the emotions.’ My poor beloved editors and my agent DongWon Song have to come back to me and say, ‘You have to tell us what anything looks like, please.’ In this book, I did that cranky-about-a-short-story thing where I went into it saying, ‘Fine, they want me to describe things – I’ll show them!’ I wrote one of the best first chapters of my entire career because I was just describing things, and I discovered that I love it. Now I love rolling around in descriptions: I find it really enjoyable and valuable. The prose in this will be a lot more human than my readers are prob­ably used to seeing from me, and hopefully a lot more grounded in the physical.

“Writing appeals to me as a career partly because I get bored when I’m not learning new stuff. I’ll often learn whatever things you can learn about something without really pushing yourself and getting heavily invested, and then I’ll go, ‘I don’t want to do all that work to go get a degree in this field,’ so I’m done with it. But with writing, I just keep learning – non-stop, constantly.

“The heart of The Echo Wife is a divorce. At the time, I was going through a divorce of my own – a very different divorce than The Echo Wife. My ex-husband is a lovely, sweet man – nothing like the ex-husband in The Echo Wife. That book is about someone having to take a real deep look at who they are. Evelyn is faced with someone who was created to be her, but better, and through the narratives she has to assess, ‘Is this person really me, but better? Do I like the things about this person that are meant to be an improvement on me?’ That’s the heart of the book – where do you come from, and do you like the person who has emerged from the life that you have lived so far? Are those quali­ties that you might not like mutable, and if they change, will you like that better?

“The thing that kicked off that book for me is that, in my own divorce, I was suddenly up­ rooted from a community and from family, and I was left with the question of, ‘Who am I when these external pressures aren’t shoving me into the shape of the person I’ve been? When those are taken away, who am I, just on my own?’ Martine, the clone in The Echo Wife, has to face that same question. The external pressures that have made her who she is are gone, and she has the freedom to decide who she wants to be, and has to ask herself questions like, ‘What ideas of myself were given to me by someone else, and do I actually want them?’

Interview art and design by Stephen H. Segal.

This report and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.

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One thought on “Sarah Gailey: An Honest Narrative

  • October 15, 2022 at 6:30 am

    Great interview! It’s always interesting to read how other writers approach their creative work.


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