Sarah Rose Etter’s buzz-worthy novel, The Book of X, was just released yesterday. Unlike any novel I had read to date, I found myself continuously reentering Etter’s world in my mind days after — a haunting world of harvesting meat from the earth, where a certain family of women have knots for stomachs.
This unforgettable novel explores the female experience, what it means to carry a burdensome body. Through surrealism and eccentric prose, Etter delivers a fearless portrayal of the human condition —our loneliness, pain, our longing for love and acceptance. (Check out our full book review here!)
It’s so exciting to see a female author take on the weird, who isn’t afraid to create something completely out there. I’m so happy I got the chance to speak with Sarah over the phone, where we talking about the creation of The Book of X, writing surrealism, the badass wild women of fiction right now and forming new writing advice that caters to our generation.
Kailey Brennan: I would love to ask about your publishing experience with Two Dollar Radio. I first got acquainted with them when I had interviewed Katya Apekina who wrote The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish and they seem like such a great organization.
Sarah Rose Etter: First of all, that book is incredible. I read that shortly after they accepted The Book of X and I ended up editing even more than I had planned to because I thought her book was so beautiful and I got really intimidated to be on the same press as her. (Laughs) In terms of what it's like to work with them, they have been so awesome, from the coverage to the design to just completely championing this book.
I can't believe how much they've put behind it. I feel so lucky every day that someone would pick a project that is so weird and not like anything else and make sure that it landed in the world. I don't think that a lot of times the reader can see this, but the amount of work a publisher has to do to make sure a book like this gets attention and that it's landing in the right hands, the right reviewers or the right people, is really a month's long process. They have just really floored me. And my publicist Molly at Two Dollar Radio has just been a workhorse so I could not have asked for a better team.
KB: Did the process take a long time from finishing your draft to publication?
SRE: They had accepted the book in September and initially they wanted to publish it in March and I think it became really clear that that was a super fast deadline. Just as soon as they accepted it, I went into editing mode. I think I probably revised the book around three times in two months and it got to a point where they were like, stop editing, you've done enough. (Laughs) So, it’s been a really fast turnaround and they've been awesome in terms of giving me deadlines, keeping me on point, and synchronizing the whole team.
And I think the urgency with which Two Dollar Radio has been dedicated to this book has been really formative and has pushed me to work fast and hard to get it done and get it out into the world. I think these topics matter right now and I think that need is necessary because it does feel like an urgent book to me.
KB: So I don’t want to give too much of the premise away, but The Book of X is a novel about a girl, her mother, and grandmother who are born with a knot as a stomach. I’m so curious in what your thought process looked like going into this story and these characters.
SRE: I was thinking a lot about what women carry and what pieces of lineage they end up having to hold. And to me, that seems quite different from what a man has to carry. I was really trying to capture what it's like to be born with something like body dysmorphia, depression, pregnancy, miscarriage, or anxiety and being left to grapple with those issues.
KB: What interests you about the body and the female body the most?
SRE: I think it's the fact that we don't really spend enough time learning about it. You get a couple of classes in school and your mom might tell you a couple of things and you're just kind of sent off into the world. I was also thinking about how different my experience is from my brother's experience. I've maybe had to work harder to prove myself in different ways. I don't know that I intended for all of those things to come through in the book, but I do think after revising it, they’re definitely there. You have a very capable woman who has this physical burden and she still can work just as hard as her brother.
She's never given the same opportunity as him to do what she loves and she ends up in this menial office job. Which really if you think about it, especially in the 80s, was really the story of the woman, right? Like the idea of we worked really hard for equality and now we're taking the lower end jobs of the office.
KB: I was really interested in Cassie's relationship with her mother and especially in the younger years. Her mother is so interested in magazines and society's standard of beauty and she wants her daughter to conform to it as well. Do you think that the standard of beauty that we see in magazines has been kind of phased out with the new generation or do you think that it's still very prevalent with social media?
SRE: Yeah, that's a really great question. I think you're right that it made sense for the mother to be obsessed with magazines because to me that represented her having these lofty goals for herself and for her daughter that they were never going to reach. They're in a pretty remote area, they don't have access to this type of fashion or to these things unless they really go out and hunt for it.
I think some of that moves over to social media. I can guess it's hard to escape it. I do think that what we’ve seen in the last couple of years —this movement to really embracing people who don't look the same –makes me super happy and hopeful for the next generation of women to do whatever they want and look however they want and feel beautiful, no matter how they look.
But I do think we still do have a lot of ways social media complicates it because now we have to kind of manufacture ourselves in such a way that we look cool. There is a style imposed. I think that introduces its own problems in a different way that we'll probably see later on.
But overall I'm hopeful that there is a move, especially when you see advertisers and big clothing brands moving away from that traditional model. That gives me a lot of hope. I mean, they might not be doing it for all the right reasons, but I'm glad that they are feeling the pressure.
KB: Definitely. Social media is so tough for me. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's so great and you can connect with all these like-minded people. But on the other hand, it's just these constant advertisements really.
SRE: Yeah. It’s a barrage of lives you're not living. The more I do research into the Internet and the way it's been built to take advantage of these addictive mindsets in our brain — some of this stuff we can't help because our brains are wired this way — but hat's kind of being used to keep us in this loop. How many hours a day am I spending looking at somebody else's life instead of living mine? And that's a big question. Right? And I don't think I'm alone in not being proud about how much time I spend on social media. I think that is probably the norm.
KB: Cassie experiences a lot of loneliness. I feel like she's always grappling with that. Is that something that you have experienced in your own life and you wanted to explore? Or is it just something that you've felt that this character was experiencing?
SRE: Honestly, I think I would be lying if I said that I don't experience loneliness. I think everyone does, whether you have a full family living in the same house as you or you're single and living in an apartment somewhere. I can’t believe I'm going to say this, but one of my favorite movies is Edward Scissorhands (Laughs). You have to look at this trope of someone different being in a community of people who are all the same; the level of burden that comes with and the level of loneliness and then the ultimate rejection of that different person. In almost any movie or book, I mean think about Frankenstein , anything where someone different from everyone else arrives, the community cannot accept them fully. There might be moments of softness toward them or brief moments of acceptance. But they never last.
And so I think for Cassie, it was very clear to me the minute that I started writing her life that it wasn't going to be rainbows and sunshine and things were going to get better for her. I think by the time she has the knot removed, mentally she's gone too far down the path to really change how she's used to the world or how she interacts with it. For her, she made the ultimate attempt to fit in but it didn't stop her from still feeling pain and loneliness.
I think that there's truth in that, too. I didn't base any of this off those kinds of movies, but they've always resonated with me because I think it's a trope worth investigating.
KB: Definitely. I wanted to ask you about the use of meat in the novel. I found that so interesting. The father and the brother literally harvesting it. Then Cassie has these experiences, where she is treated like a piece of meat by some of the men in her life. I just was wondering if you could talk about where the idea came from or what interested you about that.
SRE: It really just came to me while I was working on the book. I think it was just a mechanism through which to make sure the world she was in did not look too similar to ours. Her just having a knot and then living in the regular America I didn't think was going to really do it.
So I wanted her brother and her father to have a kind of work that couldn’t be placed in a specific time. If you look at the book, I try really hard to remove markers that would give you a sense of what year it was taking place in, just so that it can live in this kind of timeless place. That’s the hope.
I think meat represents a lot. Visually, I was tied to the idea of these scenes happening in this big kind of meated cabin. Then, I was also thinking a lot about how to make capitalism have a place in the book without talking about bitcoin or whatever. I wanted it to feel like something where they were working the earth.
It’s so funny because people ask this question and I don't know where it came from. I just started writing the book and that's what I did. (Laughs) There wasn’t any big, conscious decision making on my part. I just started writing it and that's what happened. I love Donald Barthelme —he's a surrealist writer from the 60s— and he has a great book called Not Knowing where he talks a lot about how when you start to write a book you shouldn't have any idea where it's going to go. And so I think the meat really is a product of just going with it.
KB: Well I loved it. I thought that it was so weird in the best way. (Laughs) When did you first become interested in surrealism? Who has inspired you the most?
SRE: I was always a writer even when I was little. My dad still has these little stapled together pieces of paper that I used to make when I was a kid. Those stories are actually really weird too but they're just done in crayon. So I guess you don't really change that much.
I started publishing poetry when I was probably in eighth grade. It wasn't very good, obviously but when I started applying for grad schools, it had become really clear to me that I was very interested in the weird and that sitting down to write traditional stories really did not interest me. It felt very boring.
Even now when I try to sit down and write something that I think would be traditional, I kind of glaze over and I just don't care. So a lot of the surrealism I think comes from trying to place objects together that don't really belong together. I mean, the first short story collection that I did, that was my thesis in grad school, was really an exercise in putting two words together that really didn't belong together. Like thigh river. And then thinking what world would a thigh river exist in. What would that look like and why would it exist? So I think it's just about playing with language and visuals.
When I got to grad school, it was really hard because everyone was writing traditional fiction. I was lucky to have a professor who recognized what I was trying to do and started to give me really weird books. Like, Robert Owen Butler, Donald Barthelme. He started to give me strange things and it taught me that I was not alone in wanting to create these kinds of new worlds.
Workshopping is really hard when you're not doing traditional fiction. People don't know what to do with you. And so I was getting beat up pretty hard. Like people were like, what is this? Are you on LSD? What's going on here? It was really helpful to have a professor recognize what I was after and him just feeding me work to keep going.
Even now, I think the formulas for a great short story are pretty widely known and the same is true for a novel. What I did — this is such an ambitious and almost arrogant thing to say — but I really wanted to write a book that no one else could have written. That was honestly what I wanted to do because I wanted to kind of shake it up.
KB: I hadn't read anything like your book before and it did shake me up as a reader, as a thinker, and as a writer. After I read it, I was thinking about how I've never written anything in this kind of genre before. I don't even know if I can do it but it inspired me to think of things differently and maybe try to write that way.
SRE: That’s so exciting. Oh, I hope so. I'm lucky too because when I look at the women who've come before me — like Amelia Gray, Carmen Maria Machado, Lindsay Hunter, Samanta Schweblin—all of these women are trying to create short stories and books that are not the same as anything else.
I really end up looking a lot to Europe to look for women who are doing the strange, super, super well. I think it's exciting that there are people who come before us who paved the way to say, you know what, you can actually do whatever you want to do. Go nuts. Why not? So I'm lucky that I had a few really baller writers come before me and make a market open up to this. Because I think without that it would've been a lot harder to place this book.
KB: Definitely. Do you call this surrealism? Do you have a label for yourself?
SRE: For sure. This is something that you find out after you publish a book. The world needs labels with which to define the work, right? For me, it is certainly surrealism. Sometimes I get playful and call it feminist surrealism. But I don't know what else I could call it. I don't know if there's a word for it. (Laughs) When I look at Juliet Escoria and Miriam Toews, even Eileen Myles to some extent, the fact that there are so many women out there, just pushing boundaries in different directions, it makes me really excited for what's to come in fiction. I think there's going to be a whole other generation out there that's ready to get wild.
KB: I’m curious about your writing process. How long did it take you and how did this process differ from the short stories you have published?
SRE: So for this book, I got a writing residency in Iceland. I had applied for probably five residencies. I work full time so finding time to actually write this was really important to me. People talk about nights and weekends a lot, but I knew that I probably needed to dedicate a substantial amount of time if I wanted to write a novel.
I heard a lot of push back. My parents thought I was completely insane. I had friends telling me, you don't need to go to Iceland to write a book. You can write it right here. And all of that is totally 100% true. You can write a book anywhere. You do not need to go to Iceland. You don’t need to get a writing residency. This is just how it worked for me.
So I went there for 30 days by myself and I wrote it. And then I came home and I edited for probably about a year and a half. I submitted it to a few agents who said really nice things about it, but they said that it was kind of too weird to be sold. And I really gave up on it. (By the way, know, the number of agents that rejected it was small in retrospect. I don't think I knew how many you typically get rejected by.)
So I took a job in Silicon Valley and I moved to San Francisco and by the time I got here, I really stopped thinking about it and then Two Dollar Radio accepted it and I dove back in.
But I would say that the amount of editing that I did on it, was probably almost about two years. Once you get that first draft, your work only really just begins because it takes so many revisions. I don't even know how many times I printed this book out and revised it. And part of that is the structure is very weird and making sure that everything lined up was really hard. Another part of that is I think sometimes we don't know what we mean to say in our first draft. I think I was finding that I left myself a really good structure, but I had to cut through a lot of words. I think the first draft was about 70,000 words and what's actually getting published is closer to 45,000. That's all through revision, cutting down, taking away what wasn't necessary.
I had 70,000 words in my head because I think that’s what’s traditionally considered a novel. I felt like it needed to be that long, but I prefer it the way that it is now. By far. I think it's a much better book without all that extra fluff.
KB: You said you worked full time. What were you doing in between writing this book?
SRE: Oh God. I tend to take very high-stress jobs. I don't know why I do it. I was working at one of the largest software engineering companies in the world and I was traveling a lot. I knew I was going to switch jobs so I ended up really taking the time in Iceland between jobs. But yeah, I was working, and continue to work, between 40 and 60 hours a week.
I think that one thing that we lose is really frank discussion about what free time looks like as the demands of our jobs exceed 40 hours. I would argue most people in America are working more than 40 hours a week. So this idea of just do it on the side is hard. I'm not saying that as a way for people to excuse not doing their work. I definitely still come home and edit it and write, even though I have a full-time job now. But my output is definitely lower when I'm working, for sure.
It was completely different to wake up every single morning and go directly to a desk and just write for hours. That's a completely different head space than going to work all day. Commute. Find time to eat. Try to work out. Try to see your family and then try to write. It’s just not the same. Especially as capitalism gets crazier and crazier.
It is different for everyone. But I would also say I want to challenge some of the writing advice that's gotten handed down because I think a lot of times it's really coming from old dudes. I think sometimes it's coming from times when people worked fewer hours and things were not as expensive. It’s hard for me to apply writing advice from the 1940s to right now when people are working full-time jobs and driving Lyft on the weekends to pay rent.
The whole put your ass in the chair thing —it hard when you’re not guaranteed a paycheck from this. It's a different type of thing to say now. Don't get me wrong, you have to be disciplined and how you find your time is going to look different than how I do. I have friends who are writers who rent AIRBNB's on the cheap for a weekend and go write for two days. There are ways in which you can create time. What I would say is I'm not gonna ever be in a position to tell someone how and when they should write because I don't think there's a hard and fast rule for any single way of life.
KB: I do agree with what you're saying about the advice that we hear a lot for writers. They don't always apply to our time anymore.
SRE: Whenever I give writing advice, I try to be sensitive to that because I think it’s an issue that's very real. Especially if you're a woman, especially if you're a woman with kids. Or if you're not born with a lot of money, the world looks a little bit different when it comes to that.
Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cut, Electric Literature, Guernica, VICE, New York Tyrant, Juked, Night Block, The Black Warrior Review, Salt Hill Journal, The Collagist, and more.
She earned her B.A. in English from Pennsylvania State University and her M.F.A. in Fiction from Rosemont College.