Nonfiction writer Sarah Sweeney was new to me, but as soon as I read an essay’s opening line of “I never planned to throw my tampon on a stranger’s car,” I knew that her writing was something that I would enjoy immensely. Her most recent collection, Tell Me If You’re Lying, adds up to a modern-day coming-of-age story, and all that entails: music, actors, skipping class, and pulling pranks. Sweeney writes about such topics in a genuine way that isn’t afraid of getting too personal. Rather, her writing speaks for itself and invites the reader along for the ride.
Sarah Sweeney writes both nonfiction and fiction, and her work has also appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, Rattle, The Pinch, and others. We recently emailed about her new book, creating themes, and the dangers of dyeing your own hair.
Nearly all of the essays in this collection have a thread of pop culture through them, though the essays aren’t purely about pop culture. Instead, the essays straddle a thin line between discussing the lightness of pop culture figures—Madonna, Rod Stewart, Adrien Grenier—and deeply telling, personal narratives. What was the experience of writing in this way like? Do you think the pop culture is more characteristic of our time, or does it function as a vessel to tell other details?
I’m obsessed with pop culture, but more specifically, music. At nearly all points during my day—if I can—I’m listening to music. So I have very specific musical attachments and rituals, and I associate periods of my life, places, and people with songs or musicians or albums, especially the classic rock of my parents that more or less defined my childhood.
I’m also very particular about what I listen to while I’m writing because music is definitely a vessel for me, a means to channel a mood or an era and then infuse that into my work.
In writing this book, though, I never set out to write about pop culture, but because pop culture is very much essential to my personal history and identity. Those connections came naturally. I was so pleased to take stock of them all when I looked at the book as a whole. Funny how that happens.
Many of the essays tell one story while hinting at other personal details. For instance, the brief mention of the “troubled teens” workshop while discussing pulling pranks with Evie. Does the larger story take precedence, or do little moments like this reveal information without having to construct an entire narrative around certain life aspects?
I knew I was being a tease with that troubled teens line, and I’m glad it didn’t sail by unnoticed. Without delving into something that ultimately would detract from the larger story of Adrian Grenier and my friendship with Evie, I wanted to make clear that our pranks weren’t one-time occurrences, but rather one of many symptoms of a very particular kind of teenage psychosis stemming from ambition, boredom, parental neglect, and desperation. And showing that school officials had taken note of our behavior underscores that idea without tackling it explicitly.
Hair dyeing comes up in many essays, and I think that’s something we’ve all done in response to something at one point or another. I remember dyeing my hair a particularly unpleasant shade of blonde after a particularly bad breakup. Most of the hair dyeing in the collection, however, results in something unpleasant. Is this poor advertising on behalf of boxed dyes? Or does it capture the essence of a semi-rebellious teen figure?
Both. In college my hair stylist best friend got me a job as a receptionist at her salon where I learned so much about hair coloring. I could go on and on about it, but I’ll just say this: unless you’re going darker, it’s best to avoid those drugstore kits! For many people they’re economical, because salons are so expensive, but you’re playing with fire, in my experience.
But sometimes you’re just that desperate and I was. Hair dyeing became my way of asserting my identity as a young person, making a statement about nonconformity. Standard teen angst. Remember in that first episode of My So-Called Life, how Angela Chase (Claire Danes) dyes her hair red? I could write 10 more hair-dyeing essays, at least. I had white hair; pink hair; half-blue, half-red hair; lilac hair; green hair. When you’re young and essentially powerless, changing up your appearance can be a pretty satisfying way of claiming something for yourself.
All the essays have something to do with mythmaking, second-hand information, deception, deducing the truth for oneself, and outright lies. And because my father is an overwhelming presence in these stories, and someone who definitely understood the power of storytelling and self-mythologizing, the essay that most encapsulates him—and the theme—seemed like a no-brainer.
Music comes up again and again, as well as the inclusion of lyrics to several great songs. Were there any other musicians or songs that you wanted to write about that didn’t make it into this collection?
So many. Bands like Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney or The Clash all pretty much gave me life as a kid. One of my freelance jobs is researching and writing liner notes for Light In The Attic Records, and last year I was doing a big project for them and got to connect with an obscure musician named Robb Kunkel. In one afternoon phone call, he basically changed my life and encouraged me to take some big risks—and I was supposed to be interviewing him. A short while later, I learned he was in the hospital, and we had this amazing end-of-life conversation that was basically the conversation I never got to have with my dad before he passed. So I’m currently trying to write something about Robb, too.
Who are the writers or essayists that inspire you?
I seek out and read a lot of women writers: Roxane Gay, Wendy C. Ortiz, and Melissa Febos are a few of my current favorites. I love Emily Nussbaum’s and Jia Tolentino’s work in The New Yorker (and her prior stuff at Jezebel). I also loved Abigail Ulman’s short story debut Hot Little Hands—talk about troubled girls!—and I am currently trying to ride the Elena Ferrante wave.
In one word, what would you say is the central theme to these essays?
Do you have any words of wisdom for fellow nonfiction writers?
My advice for nonfiction writers is: Write fearlessly. Write truthfully. Roadblocks are inevitable. Fear is inevitable. Push through that. Maybe you’re worried about hurting someone; maybe you’re worried about exposing yourself. When I was getting my MFA, a lot of fellow students fretted over what their parents would think, what so-and-so’s brother would think. We don’t want to hurt anyone, but the bottom line is this: If you’re serious about your craft and your story is bursting to be told (and the best ones do burst), you owe it to yourself to pursue it. Everything else will fall into place, or it won’t. That’s something you have to reconcile with yourself. (Or a good therapist, which is a highly effective life hack.)
Alyssa Cohorn is the Managing Editor of Pine Hills Review and an MFA student at The College of Saint Rose. She writes nonfiction and poetry while avoiding the cold weather of Albany, NY.