This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Sarah Rose Etter, whose new novel, Ripe, is out today from Scribner. In this surreal tale, Cassie, a depressed marketing writer at a Silicon Valley tech company, struggles to make it through days of cold hyperproductivity surrounded by coworkers she calls “Believers,” who are too obsessed with ascending the corporate ladder to notice the homeless population and pollution of San Francisco that preoccupy Cassie. Literally trailed by a black hole from her early childhood, in which she absorbed the capitalist logic of her father and abusive mother, Cassie is entrenched in a battle between her “true self” and “false self” when she suspects she is pregnant. With her boss bearing down on her and the air newly dangerous with wildfire smoke and a contagious virus, she must decide what she really wants from life and how to come to terms with the black hole that has remained her constant companion. Publishers Weekly praises Ripe: “A scathing look at corporate greed and its many dire consequences, this is deeply felt and cathartic.” Sarah Rose Etter is the author of The Book of X (Two Dollar Radio, 2019), winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, and the story collection Tongue Party (Caketrain, 2011). She lives in Los Angeles.
1. How long did it take you to write Ripe?
Ripe took about five years to write. I started the book in 2018, just the first twenty-five pages or so. Then I set it aside while I was touring for my first novel, The Book of X. I returned to the project shortly after my father died suddenly of a heart attack. We went into lockdown a few months after he died, and I just found myself in isolation with this grief. My father had always joked about me writing this book, and I didn’t know what else to do with what I was feeling other than write the book he wanted. The first draft took about six months. The next three and a half or four years were really spent in edits, going back and forth with my agent and then my editor at Scribner. That really helped get the book solid on the plot level and on the line level. Editing is always the longest part of the process for me.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
There were really two challenges—one emotional, one technical. Emotionally, I had to crack open my heart and allow myself to really examine my relationship to capitalism, my father, my other relationships, and love. I had to let the ugliness happen on the page. It’s really important for writers to be able to look at the weak, vulnerable, ugly, messy parts of a character. That also requires the author to examine some of their own weak, vulnerable, ugly, messy parts. That part of writing is always very intimate for me.
On a technical level, the black hole [in the book] was a huge challenge because it’s this phenomenon that we barely understand at all in the real world. So making that translate into a presence in a novel took tons of research and many, many edits. The black hole behaved differently throughout several drafts, and it took a long time to land on it being this ominous presence. Then it was a lot of work to simplify all of the research about black holes so the reader could understand the magnitude of it, both in reality and in Cassie’s life.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
When I’m working on a first draft, I’m usually writing pretty manically. Typically, I’ll write for one hour a night after work during the week, then 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays. That’s my schedule for five or six months until I get the first draft out. I need to spend as much time as possible in that section of my brain before it moves on to something else.
I have a desk in the corner of my apartment that I use for my full-time job and my drafting of books. One thing that helps me separate the full-time job from novel writing is music. I have a playlist for each novel, so I’ll listen to the same songs on repeat as I’m writing. I’m sure it would drive some people insane, but it really helps me tunnel back into the world of the book very quickly.
But, you know, how often I write depends on where I am in the process. Right now, since I’m in the promotion cycle, it’s less about writing and more about talking about writing. After this is over, I’ll go back into my little hole and hopefully write another draft.
4. What are you reading right now?
Well, there is the sophisticated answer that will impress everyone and then there’s the actual truth. I read a lot, so I don’t mind sharing both. Sophisticated Answer: I’m reading a few books that I’m blurbing, one of which is The Cleaner by Brandi Wells, which I really, really loved. It reminds me of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh in a great way. I also just finished Death Valley by Melissa Broder, and I always love being in her head. I also got completely obsessed with Poor Things by Alasdair Gray, the novel the new Yorgos Lanthimos movie is based on. I believe that’s being released in the U.S. soon, and it’s so weird and innovative and great.
Actual Truth: I’ve just recently gotten into horror and mystery books, which is funny because I think most people who’ve ever read my work would think I was already interested in those. I just finished reading Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and it’s fantastic—so well done. It also feels a bit ahead of its time. About a third of the way through the book, the vampire changes gender, and the pronouns change. I’ve also been reading a lot of the books that are adapted into TV shows and movies, so The Shining Girls, The Exorcist, the Tana French books. I’ve just been examining how these books come alive on the screen because I’m a nerd.
5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Sylvia Plath is obviously right up at the top. I remember in eighth grade, the teacher put “metaphors” up on the projector and asked the class, “What do you think this poem is about?” and I knew immediately that Plath was pregnant, intuitively. And I was hooked on her after that.
Before I write every book, I pull together a stack of five or six books that I want to be in conversation with. For Ripe, it was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath; Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion; Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated by Vincent Kling; The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen, and Problems by Jade Sharma. I also read Hot Milk by Deborah Levy while I was writing this, and that helped me a lot on the sentence level. During editing, I tend to read a lot of poetry, so Morgan Parker, Elisa Gabbert, Tommy Pico.
6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Ripe?
The most surprising thing was that I ended up trying to preserve the memories I had of my father while I was writing Ripe. Suddenly the father in the book really morphed into a way to immortalize my father. His advice, his way of thinking about business and work, his love of museums—these were all things that I was really afraid I was going to forget about him. At some point, this novel became a way to make sure I didn’t forget anything about him. I was so deep in my grief when I wrote this book, I remember worrying that I would forget how my father’s voice sounded. So the book is deeply personal; it’s very complicated and very close to my heart.
7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Much like Cassie, I worked in Silicon Valley for a year. It made my parents very proud, and it felt like a big deal. But then I got there, and I realized it wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. During my first week in San Francisco, I stopped in a coffee shop. The owner was working the counter and made me a coffee. We started chatting about where we were from, that kind of thing. And she mentioned that the night before, a man had set himself on fire outside of her store. She’d tried to put out the flames and was really shaken up over it, of course. Hearing that just knocked the wind out of me. I think that was the exact moment I got the sense that maybe I was living in a bad place. It was the moment the illusion of San Francisco shattered for me.
8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ripe, what would you say?
This is a hard question. My only goal is to write the best book that I can at the time. I do think I did that with Ripe. I worked insanely hard on this novel. At many points, I did have this deep fear, which I think happens for all writers, that I’d written a terrible book and nobody would publish it. So I think maybe I would go back and tell her that all the work wouldn’t be for nothing.
9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a lot of research for this book on pomegranates and black holes. I was researching both of them extensively—learning about their histories, their role in art, all of it. I was eating pomegranates constantly. I was watching documentaries, reading papers by astrophysicists. I really was just consumed by both of these things for the entire time I wrote the book.
I also spent a lot of time with visual art. That’s huge for me. We were in lockdown for much of the drafting, so I was making sculptures and painting a bit. I did want the novel to be sculptural, and that’s a lot of the reason it took on the shape of a pomegranate.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Finish the first draft. That’s it. It’s so simple, but we make it so complicated. Even if it’s messy and ugly and wrong, just finish it. Without the first draft you have nothing; you just have an idea for a book. And everyone—I mean EVERYONE—has an idea for a book. It’s just vaporware if you don’t finish the first draft. It’s so easy to get caught up in thinking: Who’s going to publish it? What’s the cover going to look like? I want a review in the New York Times! But all of that is fantasy without a first draft. Obviously editing is important, but you have nothing to edit without a first draft. Finish the draft. Nothing else matters.