I recently had the privilege of reading Sarah Dunster’s newest novel, Mile 21. It’s a novel about a young woman trying to pick up the pieces of her life after the death of her spouse. The main character, Abish Miller has to figure out if there is life after death. And if there is, is there any happiness after death? In this rich and beautifully written story, life deals the 21 year old BYU-I nursing student a lot of tough cards. When things get just too much to handle, she takes to the road, running. But there are some things you just can’t outrun. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It made me want to keep reading when I should have been working.
Sarah’s first book, Lightning Tree, was released in April 2012. It’s the story of a young girl struggling to find her place among her foster family in a Mormon pioneer town on the edge of religious and civil conflict. At the tender age of 15 she has left behind her country, her parents, and her brother with only her young sister and herself to care for. What Maggie comes to realize is that “family” exists all around her in the form of caring people who are all willing to help her grow into the person God would have her be, if only she will let them.
With two successful novels under her belt–and a recent Whitney Finalist for 2013–I thought it would be interesting to find out more about this author. I asked Sarah a few questions. Here’s what she had to say.
1. First tell us about yourself. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? What did you study? What spurned your interest in writing?
I am from a small town in Northern California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I’m an eight-generation resident to the area. My ancestors settled there in the mid 1800’s. Some of them were gold miners.
I went to school at Nevada Union High school! My favorite subject was choir. I had the opportunity to tour Italy with the choir my Junior year–one of the most memorable experiences of my life so far. I always wanted to go to BYU for college, from the time I knew what it was. I did not get very good grades in high school and so it took a year of community college and a year at Ricks (back when it was RIcks) to get me there. I started out as a music major–I wanted to be a choir teacher, but when I discovered I did not have the classical training I needed to keep up with the program, I switched to Psychology and made music my minor. And now I”m a writer! I think my education has really helped me with writing, however. And my last year of college, I took several classes just for fun–two of them were writing classes. I have always been a writer, however.
2. Your first novel, The Lightning Tree, is historical in nature, about some of the early pioneers in the church. Was this story inspired by your own family history?
The event in the story, that sort of promulgates the whole mystery that leads my main character to search and worry about her past, was directly lifted from my own family history.
3. Your newest novel, Mile 21, is a contemporary drama. Why the change? With two very different novels, which do you prefer, the history or something more modern?
I have always been an eclectic reader. I love everything from classics to silly, 60’s era (clean) harlequin romances. I just love stories and characters and the art of storytelling in every form. My favorite genres are Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Contemporary Womens’ Fiction, and serial mysteries. I plan on writing in each of these fields at some point. And I don’t know if you know that I also write poetry. I love reading creative nonfiction and nature writing (but haven’t really tried my hand at that too much… I find that a bit more intimidating, for some reason.)
4. In Mile 21, Abish Miller must learn to cope with grief. You do a very good job of describing what it is like. Have you had to deal with grief in your own life? How much of Abish is autobiographical?
The character herself is mildly autobiographical. She’s autobiographical in the sense of, “if I ever did go completely off the deep end in a spiral of self-destruction, what might it look like?” I think most main characters have a bit of autobiography to them. The part that is most “real” about Abish is feelings. I have experienced difficulty and tragedy in my own life, so I was able to write what it feels like to have that sort of upset and coping and grieving in the wake of a life-changing, difficult series of events.
5. I really enjoyed the first person present that is the writing style for Mile 21. You don’t find this in very many novels. Would you say it was easier or more difficult than writing in the traditional third person? What made you decide to use it?
It is very difficult! First person present is, I think, the most limited viewpoint as far as what a reader can see–because you can only think or see what your main character would think or see. But I also feel it is the most intimate viewpoint; you get fully immersed in the character; their psyche, their story. You get very close to them.
6. Mile 21 was recently nominated and selected as a finalist for a Whitney Award. With this kind of success, can you share what we may expect next from you?
I’m not sure about “success,” but I am very grateful people have liked the book. That is the reason why I write. I like to give people a story that moves them, and that helps them escape or develop a viewpoint or a new perspective. I just submitted another historical manuscript to my publisher, and I am currently working on two–another contemporary LDS story, and a fantasy novel.