Thursday 23 November 2017

Meet Sarah Carroll, author of The Girl In Between

Sarah Carroll writes for the sheer love of it, although she swapped the garret for a houseboat, says Sophie White

Sarah Carroll on the houseboat she shares with her family near Boland’s Mill, Dublin. Picture: David Conachy
Sarah Carroll on the houseboat she shares with her family near Boland’s Mill, Dublin. Picture: David Conachy

Ten-year-old Sam is the titular Girl In Between of Sarah Carroll's debut novel. Resourceful and clever, she is far from average but then so is her creator, Sarah. In fact Sam and Sarah have a lot in common. Tenacious, fearless and funny, both also possess the ability to create rich worlds full of beauty and intrigue.

Sam creates her vivid world to escape the bleak reality of her life as the daughter of a homeless addict. Sarah, on the other hand, creates these worlds as a result of a completely inescapable impetus.

"You just write because you can't not write, because you love it," she says. Shoes kicked off, she is curled up on a chair in The Marker hotel, a stone's throw from Boland's Flour Mill, the setting for her YA novel that inspired a bidding war between some of the giants in publishing.

Sarah is describing most aspiring author's dream scenario: taking meetings with HarperCollins, discussing further book ideas and the mad expectation put on young writers to produce a book a year. "'Oh you're more literary,' they told me, 'you could probably take a year and a half for each book!'" Indeed Sarah's novel is that rare and wonderful thing: writing that combines lyrical prose with a plot that keeps you hungry for that final, harrowing page.

Success has been hard-won. The Girl In Between is Carroll's second completed work, her first unpublished book was a five year toil that she describes as "terrible" though this seems highly unlikely. "I had six years of writing before I got paid for it. I just really enjoyed it and now I'm just so grateful that it's worked out and I can actually do it full-time."

Carroll is not a person who sees the slog of writing as a hardship, though the uncertainty of the life is difficult.

"You have to 100pc live with the idea that you're good enough to get published and on the other side, you have to 100pc believe that you will never get published because the chances are so small. The reward is in the graft. You finish a day with a little high because you did an amazing little paragraph."

And the book is full of amazing little paragraphs. absolute gems to savour. A girl's laugh is like "rain hitting a tin roof" while Sam's anxiety is like "a bag of spiders" released inside her body.

Arresting imagery, pitch perfect dialogue and engrossing characters make for a contemporary ghost story that monopolises the reader's thoughts and crucially makes us think.

Homelessness is at the core of the novel and for Carroll social issues have always been an interest.

In 2006 she set up a hostel in Tanzania which then inspired her to start the Ethical Volunteer, a website informing would-be volunteers how best to ditch the 'I'm saving the world mentality' and make a positive impact in developing communities. It also led her to now-husband, broadcaster, film-maker and kindred spirit, Bob.

"We were at a dinner party on Achill Island and he was doing a show on the Travel Channel called The Ethical Hedonist and I was running The Ethical Volunteer at the time. We went our separate ways. Two months later, I thought 'I must get in touch with that guy, I'd love to get out and film these small projects with him.' When I got home, I'd gotten an email from him! So we went filming together for a few months. We started dating about three weeks into it. I think I knew I was going to marry him before I even kissed him."

Carroll has always done her own thing. She recalls in college queuing up with friends to get the J1 visa. "My friend turned to me and said, 'This is so cool everyone we know is going to Canada!' And I thought 'God she's right. Everyone we know is going to Canada.' I stepped out of the queue and went to get a visa for Australia." The couple now live in an urban idyll in a houseboat with their nine-month-old daughter, May.

Spending winters abroad meant that Carroll completed the novel in Mexico where she and Bob wed, and May got her first taste of beach life.

"Having Bob with me full time was brilliant. May couldn't latch so I pumped for six months. In the beginning it was really hard. 45 minutes to feed, 45 minutes to settle her, 45 minutes to pump. I'd be up from 2am to 5am. Then sleep from 5am to 8am and then get up and go back to work. I went back to work 17 days after having her because the book had to be edited."

The thoughts of taking a brand new baby travelling would fill most first-time, or even second or third-time parents with terror but Carroll has just one main fear in this world: "I fear security. I always have. Security breeds habit and habit breeds fear of change. But if you're always changing you don't get scared of what will happen. If I run out of money I'll work, I'll find something, I'll be fine."

Right now, Carroll is something of a 'girl in between' herself. She is in her routine of exercising each morning, plotting the day's writing and enjoying a slightly off-grid existence in Dublin's docklands. This anonymity is unlikely to last as Carroll is on the verge of big things. She won't be fine, she'll be fantastic.

The Girl In Between by Sarah Carroll (Simon & Schuster) is available now

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