You’ve heard of her creepy thriller about a town cursed with violence every autumn, now let’s get to know this thoughtful author better.
Welcome to Date with a Debut Author where we meet new authors to learn more about them, their writing, and their passions. This week, we met Sara Walters, author of The Violent Season!
Date with a Debut Author gets you up close and personal with new authors you should be looking out for each week. So, are you ready to get to know Sara? Follow me!
Conversation Over Coffee
Since we’re just getting to know Sara.
Serena Knudson (SK): Which came first for The Violent Season, the plot or the characters?
Sara Walters (SW): I wrote the opening scene of The Violent Season way back in early 2016. It started as just that scene—Wyatt and Cash standing on the bluff, sharing a cigarette. It contained the basic idea of what would end up being the crux of the story: a town and a girl, both with secrets. It wasn’t until December of 2016 while I was at a residency at Vermont Studio Center that the world was built, based directly off of the town I was staying in during those early winter weeks. For me, it usually starts with a character and a singular moment, and that moment is usually a tipping point of some kind. It helps me hit the ground running.
SK: Would you and your main character get along well?
SW: I think Wyatt and I share a lot of similar traits, and I see a lot of myself in her. I have a feeling we would end up bonding solely based on commiseration, that shared melancholy that I know I personally have a bad habit of indulging in far too often.
SK: Do you enjoy listening to music while you write? If so, what is your music of choice?
SW: Music is absolutely crucial in my writing process. I build huge working playlists while I craft a story—multiple threads of songs for each one. Sometimes, I’ll fixate on a particular song while working on a scene and just play that song on a loop while I write that part, just to stay there in that feeling. My readers will probably also notice that music is referenced a lot in my work; Wyatt is often pointing out what she is listening to. While writing The Violent Season, my music map was all over the place, but I’d say the three songs I might identify as “theme songs” of sorts for the book would be “I Found” by Amber Run, “My Tears Ricochet” by Taylor Swift, and “Hold On For Your Life (Acoustic)” by Sam Tinnesz.
SK: Who inspires you and your writing?
SW: This will probably sound weird, but vibes and atmosphere inspire me. I’ll hear a song, see a TV show or movie, or visit a city that is steeped in some kind of feeling, some kind of vibe, some kind of atmosphere that I am immediately drawn to, and that will spawn some kind of idea. With The Violent Season, much of my inspiration came from a physical place, a tiny town in northern Vermont where I wrote the majority of the book over two artist residencies. The fictional town of Wolf Ridge was born from the actual town of Johnson, Vermont, and the feelings I had there, particularly when I spent two snowy, icy weeks there in December of 2016.
SKL Why did you decide to get your MFA and Ph.D.?
SW: I like to say I was a professional student for the majority of my young adult and adult life. Once I started undergraduate studies in 2008, I already knew I was going to want to stay in college until I absolutely had to leave. I have always been a lover of learning, and school has always been a safe and comforting space for me. I decided to pursue my MFA in creative writing in order to hone and explore my own craft and learn from others; I decided to earn my Ph.D. in education after spending my master’s years teaching undergraduate writing courses and finding a passion in teaching. But while in my doctorate program, I also found my love for advocacy and human services, so my path ultimately diverged.
SK: What is your favorite under-appreciated novel?
SW: Even though she won the Printz for it and one might argue it isn’t under-appreciated, I think We Are Okay by Nina LaCour deserves infinite praise. That novel is one of the most beautifully written and paced YA novels I have ever read. I always recommend it to anyone who asks, because I find her writing to be super accessible but also so incredibly layered that readers of all kinds can take something away from her work. That story, in particular, though, really stole my heart. Wrecked me in the best way.
SK: What is something you wish you could change in today’s world?
SW: There are a lot of things I have a bleeding heart for, but in relation to the writing and work I do, I would have to say the prevalence of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, particularly among young adults. I wish I could change the way young people are educated about consent and bodily autonomy so that we can work to prevent violence before it happens by empowering folks with personal agency.
SK: If you had the day off with no obligations, what would you be doing?
SW: Definitely sleeping in—probably way too late. I’d go across the river to downtown Harrisburg and grab an iced dirty chai from Denim Coffee and maybe hop the train to Philly and spend the day there in the city, riding a city bike around and checking out all my favorite indie bookstores there. One of my absolute faves is Giovanni’s Room, an LGBTQIA+ and feminist bookstore that’s been around since the 70s.
Let’s Get Intimate!
Don’t you want to know more about this thoughtful author?
SK: In an Instagram post, you mention how difficult the pandemic was for you as someone who struggles to write at home. How did you stay motivated to write during one of the most stressful times in our lives?
SW: Truthfully, it was one of the most challenging things I have ever done. When the pandemic first hit, I had just defended my dissertation prospectus for my doctorate, and I was suddenly having to write the rest of my dissertation in complete isolation. I signed my deal with Sourcebooks right around that time as well, so I was also having to figure out ways to carve out separate mental and physical spaces for creative and scholarly work. I stayed motivated by making sure that writing still always felt like a treat rather than a task, and this wasn’t always easy.
SK: You are a victim advocate, what does this title mean to you?
SW: I work for an organization that serves victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. My role is kind of a dual one; I do trainings and presentations for community organizations, schools, and medical professionals, discussing how to recognize and respond to signs of intimate partner violence, building and maintaining healthy relationships, and how to utilize community resources. The other part of my role is working directly with victims and survivors at our emergency shelter and in the hospital, where we will go and advocate for victims who come to the emergency room after experiencing sexual assault or domestic violence. To me, being an advocate means a lot of things, but most importantly it means working to empower survivors through non-judgmental support and guidance. I’m not there to make choices for them, or to judge the ones they have already made; I’m there to make sure they know their rights and options, and to ensure they feel supported and heard.
SK: How did you become a victim advocate?
SW: I worked as a reproductive rights advocate during my doctoral program. During that time, I met so many folks whose stories moved and touched me, and I knew I felt called to work in human services. As a survivor of sexual violence myself, I felt particularly drawn to work with this demographic of folks in some capacity, and I was fortunate enough to find this role.
SK: Has publishing The Violent Season changed your writing process?
SW: Yes! Now that I’ve gone through the revision and editing process with a publisher, I feel like what I learned from that has made an influence on the way I’m writing my second book. I can sometimes hear my editor or my agent in my brain when I’m working on a certain scene, and I think about what suggestions I can imagine they might have, and I might shift gears. I don’t see this as a hindrance by any means—my editor Annie and agent Sharon have always provided the most insightful and honest feedback, and they truly take my vision into account and help me get there in the best way possible.
SK: What was the hardest scene for you to write in The Violent Season?
SW: Emotionally, it was difficult for me to write a particular scene in the book where a character is sexually assaulted. The first draft of the book featured a much grimmer and darker version of this scene, pieces of which I felt like I pulled directly from the center of myself. In revisions, the scene changed in ways I’m glad it did. Hardest scene in terms of craft was the ending. I struggled so much with how I wanted this story to end, so writing that ending scene was one of the roughest processes for me.
SK: You, like many writers, were told that you would never get published. Maybe to lower your expectations or maybe for other reasons, but you came out on top and proved it could happen. What advice do you give other writers who may have heard similar comments?
SW: Don’t listen. It’s so easy to internalize that stuff, especially knowing that yes, statistically, the numbers are working against you. But instead of listening and writing it off as even being a possibility, I went for it. I would recommend that folks do their research; look into literary agents who represent writers whose work you like and emulate. Read what those agents are seeking and put your absolute best self into that query letter. Don’t get discouraged by a no—you’re probably going to hear that word a ton. Keep trying, and keep writing. Read a lot. Work on your craft. Keep going.
SK: You earned a two-book deal with Sourcebooks Fire, is there anything you can tell me about the next book you are currently working on?
SW: I’m super excited about my next book. I have always wanted to write a sapphic thriller, and that’s what it is. Recently my best friend asked about it and I told her, “It’s got murder, it’s got babes, and it’s got thinly-veiled Taylor Swift references.” I think that about sums it up.
Fun and Games
Now that we’re well-acquainted with Sara, here are some fun questions and what she had to say about them!
SK: If you could write a spin-off about a side character in The Violent Season, who would you pick?
SW: I asked a friend of mine who read the book this question, and I think I want to steal her answer: Kristen Daniels. Kristen is an interesting side character because even though she’s an integral part of the story, she’s never physically on the page because she died prior to the story beginning. I think it would be cool to see her story before her death and to know what really happened, according to her.
SK: If you met your characters, what would you say to them?
SW: Oh boy. I think I might want to just hold Wyatt and protect her. I’d want to tell her that she didn’t deserve the violence she endured and that she is more than her trauma. To Cash, I’d say: go to therapy.
SK: If you could have any other profession in the world, what would it be?
SW: I have this daydream about owning a bookstore in some dreamy city like Amsterdam. It’s easily one of my favorite places on the planet. It would be so cool to just work with books and let my dogs (dachshunds, Lily and Weasley) wander freely around the store. To drink coffee and watch it rain over the canal outside. What a dream.
SK: What is the most meaningful thing someone has ever said to you?
SW: This is a bit of a cliché answer, partly because no one said it directly to me and partly because I am certain a lot of folks reference this exact line, but I have to go with Stephen Chbosky’s line in The Perks of Being a Wallflower when Charlie’s teacher tells him “We accept the love we think we deserve.” This applies so intensely to the writing I do as well as the work I do with victims and survivors. So often a survivor will ask me, their advocate, why they keep going back to bad situations or giving their hearts to people who hurt them. This line is a refrain in my mind.
SK: What is one thing you wish more people knew about you?
SW: I think the folks close to me know this pretty well, but I think I’d like more people to know that just because I work in a helping profession doesn’t mean I have all my shit together all the time. In fact, I rarely do. I’m a work in progress just like anyone else and I get compassion fatigue and I have to take a lot of time to recharge. And I would hope people know that’s okay! Take care of yourself. Caring for yourself isn’t selfish.
SK: What are your favorite book recommendations?
SW: This one is always such a tough question, so I’ll just go with the books I loved that I read most recently:
These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel
The Burning by Laura Bates
Sara Walter’s The Violent Season is set in Wolf Ridge where each November the people seem to be overwhelmed with the need for violence. Last November, Wyatt Green’s mother was brutally murdered. This year, she’s afraid the desire for violence has reached her best friend, Cash, who also happens to be the person she can’t stop wanting no matter how much he hurts her.
Although, when she is paired up with Cash’s nemesis, Porter, in lit class, she begins learning secrets about Cash and Porter she can’t forget. As the truth comes to light about her mother’s murder, Wyatt has to face the reality of who she can trust and why people hurt each other.
Don’t forget to check out past Dates with Debut Authors here.