Now Reading
On Working: A Conversation With Sarah Rose Etter About “Ripe”

On Working: A Conversation With Sarah Rose Etter About “Ripe”

  • An interview with Sarah Rose Etter on her new novel, "Ripe"

On the cover of Ripe, glistening red seeds cling to thin lines of white flesh—pomegranate innards. It is the perfect image for this book: close-up, torn open, almost bloody, almost biblical, impossible to ignore. Inside this cover, a deadly pandemic is creeping across the globe, rents are rising to untenable levels, and men are setting fire to themselves in the street. Inside twenty-something Cassie, any last flickers of hope are dying out under the pressure of her soul-crushing job, and a quickly multiplying cluster of cells is burrowing through the soft flesh of her uterus.

Author Sara Rose Etter tells this gothic tale of twenty-first-century anomie, isolation, and despair in potent, fast-paced passages that are rich with fairytale-esque drama and sharp with parable-esque restraint. Reading made me feel like a flagellant, each chapter like another stinging strand against my back. As with most flagellants (I imagine), I found the pain cathartic, addictive, delicious. Still sweating from the rush of reading, I talked with Etter over Zoom about economic pressure, abortion, the connection between Adderall and capitalism, and leaving space for our readers in our writing.

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

You got literary Twitter all aflutter with your tweet about how to write a novel while also working a traditional full-time job. You tweeted that you wrote for an hour every day after work, from nine to five on Saturday and Sunday, and on your vacation. You approach writing in the same way that I approach most jobs: a task to complete during a pre-specified time period. This is so refreshing when contrasted with our stereotype of the finicky, mercurial artist who can only create when the conditions are just right. How has your approach to writing influenced the novels you produce?

Sarah Rose Etter

I have to outline. When I sit down every day, I know exactly what scene I’m going to write. The end result is that the scene is very compressed, and it has to end with a punch in the gut, almost like flash fiction or poetry.  Even now I wonder why I’m doing both. But I also have bills to pay. I need healthcare. I have a pre-existing condition. I don’t want to one day wake up and need a surgery that costs $600,000 and will bankrupt me. I’d like to be able to go to the dentist. I was raised by people who were never financially secure. That’s what they wanted for me. I started working when I was fifteen as a fry girl, and I haven’t stopped since. It was always baked into my head that there was no one coming to bail me out. There was no inheritance. I do think that I’ve noticed a trend in writing where writers don’t feel very connected to the working class. If you aren’t going to work every day, if you aren’t seeing the conditions, if you aren’t hearing from people who are doing that, your stories feel separate from the economic pressure. [Writing by those writers] isn’t based in real life and the real pain of capitalism that’s happening right now. So there are of course days where I want to not work full-time anymore. But on the other side of it, there is something very important about not spending all day staring up my own asshole.

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

Are there other writers that strike you as people who are in touch with the gravity of the current economic situation?

Sarah Rose Etter

The New Me by Halle Butler is a pretty good example. Brandi Wells has a book coming out called Cleaner about a cleaning woman who becomes really invested in the lives of the office that she’s cleaning and kind of thinks she has a bigger role in it than she does.

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

When you read books like Cleaner, does it matter to you whether the author has done the specific job he or she is writing about? Do you need to be a cleaner to write well about a character who works as a cleaner?

Sarah Rose Etter

I don’t think the author needs to have had that job, but I think the author needs to have done a lot of legwork to figure out what that life looks like. You have to live and breathe it. I’m not a black hole researcher, but I spent years in the research for [Ripe]. If you put me at an astrophysicist conference, I would have some things to say. I could present. Maybe in the basement, not on the main stage, but in a breakout room. I could say some stuff.

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

Was it the black hole research that first inspired Ripe? What was the seed of the book?

Sarah Rose Etter

My father passed away before we went into lockdown [in response to the COVID pandemic]. When I was working in San Francisco, I would call [my father], and he would talk me down. A lot of the conversations in the book are trying to capture the conversations we had. Every time I would call him from San Francisco, he would say, “Write all this down. One day you’re going to write a novel and you’re going to make a million dollars about all this.” When he died and we went into lockdown, I was stuck with the grief. I didn’t have any distraction. Usually you’d go get drunk with your friends, but [in lockdown] there was no avoiding [the grief]. So I just wrote the book that he had asked me to write.  For me, the black hole was a symbol of my grief. You could [interpret it as] whatever thing follows you around your whole life. In some drafts, [the black hole] talked. In other drafts, it ate techies. There were a lot of permutations. But having it talk and suck up the techies felt twee. I was trying to represent something much bigger than that. The black hole gave me some perspective on life and death in the sense that my research made my pain feel smaller because it made the world feel so big. [It helped me come] to this idea that [my father is now] just in the next room over, and I have to go to that room eventually no matter what.  As I was drafting this, we kept making new discoveries. So the end of the book kept changing because we were having new discoveries [about black holes] every week, it felt like. If that wormhole hadn’t been discovered, it would have been very much a suicidal ideation book. So the discovery of the wormhole at least left some open-ended questions for the reader.

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

There was a lot of white space in the book. You included actual images of a white circle on a black background, but also the prose itself felt chiseled, as though chunks had been cut away.

Sarah Rose Etter

I want to leave space for a reader to show up. I mean, I could say the word “mother” to you, or I could say, “Diane, age fifty-two, three kids, silver minivan, turquoise shirt, khaki pants, white sneakers.” If I just say the word “mother,” you’re filling in that blank with your version of what a mother looks like, how they behave, what they do. I think there’s something really fascinating in leaving that room because then it’s not just a book about what I’m going through, it’s also a book about what you’re going through.

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

That quality of open space for the reader to import the specifics of her experience is something I associate with religious texts, and there was something about the book that felt biblical to me. Maybe it was that intentional space left for the reader to conjure her own life.

Sarah Rose Etter

I’ve never thought of that before, but that might be true. I do talk about the Bible in the sense of plot when I teach because I think a lot of writers don’t want to bother with plot. They want to just vibe a book out. But we love plot. Humans have loved plot since the beginning of time—cave drawings, Bible myths, all of that stuff. So I always wonder [when I read work without a strong plot], “Why do you think you’re above plot?”

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

“Why do you think you’re above plot?” I want a tee-shirt that says that! Ripe, obviously, has a strong plot. It is so gripping. But it is also an incredibly bleak story. Were there specific craft moves that you made to ensure that a narrative flooded with so much despair was still able to grab readers and hold on to them?

Sarah Rose Etter

I think a lot about the fact that my competition as a novelist is actually not other writers or other books. It’s the phone. It’s Netflix. It’s Twitter. I think our attention spans are really short. The new season of Love Is Blind just dropped. You don’t need to read my book. The fragments are there for that. Something has to be happening on every single page. You’re making a circus so that people can’t look away from it.

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

There’s a lot of drug use in the book—cocaine, Xanax, wine, etc.

Sarah Rose Etter

San Francisco was heavily saturated with uppers in my time there: cocaine, Adderall, sugar-free Red Bull, whatever you want. In a work environment where everyone’s moving at a hundred miles per hour, if you’re not taking a drug, you’re not staying very long because someone else is taking it, and they are going to run circles around you. The cocaine in the book really could have been swapped out for Adderall, but I don’t love to place my work in a very specific year or time. Bringing in Adderall would be very much putting a flag in a year.

See Also

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

In your opinion, if we had a more socialist society, or at least a stronger social safety net—more certainty about food and shelter—do you think that Adderall would have the same appeal? Do you think people would still want it?

Sarah Rose Etter

Hard to say. I do wonder how much is a direct response to the impact of technology on our brain. Our brains have changed really drastically. It’s hard for me to know if what’s happening is a result of the government or of technology. But I think in unregulated capitalism there’s really no reason not to [use Adderall]. [As children] we were told that if we did all the right things, we would get security and houses, and we might be stable. Everyone threw themselves in that direction, but none of that happened. I have a fantastic job that pays well, and I recognize that. But it is still not enough for true stability. Instead, there’s only been precarity. So people who are chasing that, yeah, they’re going to take drugs to be the best.

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

At what point in your writing process did Cassie’s pregnancy come into the story?

Sarah Rose Etter

I knew that [Ripe] was going to be six weeks of someone’s life. Cassie being pregnant was very important for the urgency and the time boxing, right? That’s that famous thing from the writing workshop. Why now? Well, I can tell you why now. Her [missing] period. On top of that, women’s rights are very important to me. But this was written and sold months before the decision about Roe was leaked. When we sold it, I didn’t think it was that revolutionary for her to have an abortion. And now it feels really fucking important that she has access to care.

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

I had an abortion several years ago, and you evoked the experience (and the looming dread of a possible unwanted pregnancy) so well. I felt very seen reading it. I really appreciated that.

Sarah Rose Etter

Oh, I’m glad to hear it. I had an abortion when I was twenty-five, and I know it was the right decision, but I also had all that [Catholic pro-life] programming in me. I had the pill abortion at six weeks, and while I was working on this book, I finally saw a picture of the cells at that time. I had felt a lot of shame that I had done something really terrible, but when I saw the cells, I realized I had spent years beating myself up, convincing myself that I had killed a child. I think I did believe, at the time, I was eliminating a being with a heartbeat. But it is a clump of cells—it does not have a heart. Understanding that allowed me to have sympathy for myself back then, to give myself a little bit more grace.

Brianna Avenia-Tapper

How did writing a second novel differ from writing your first one?

Sarah Rose Etter

I think [my first novel] The Book of X really taught me a lot about how to write a novel. But novels are really humbling. I don’t think I’m ever going to master it. That’s why I keep wanting to do it. One thing I hope I can always say is, I did the best at the time that I knew how to. When I think about the next thing, I get excited because maybe I could be better next time.

FICTION
Ripe
By Sarah Rose Etter
Scribner Book Company
Published July 11, 2023

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply


© 2021 All Rights Reserved.