Sarah M. Chen juggles several jobs including indie bookseller, transcriber, and insurance adjuster. Her crime fiction short stories have been accepted for publication online and in various anthologies, including All Due Respect, Plan B, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, Betty Fedora, and, Dead Guns Press. Cleaning Up Finn is her first book and available now with All Due Respect Books.
Time to chat with Sarah!
I hear you have some very exciting news! Can you share it with us?
Yes! My debut book is out with All Due Respect Books and it’s called Cleaning Up Finn. I’m a published short story writer so it’s a big thrill for me to have something out that’s longer than 6,000 words, although this isn’t quite a novel; it’s a novella.
It’s about a restaurant manager, Finn Roose, who loves the booze and the babes. He takes out a woman on one of his infamous booze cruises and loses her—literally. Then she ends up missing and things go very badly for him from there. It’s on the darker side of crime fiction and I describe it as “sunshine noir” or “surf noir.” It’s set in the South Bay (Hermosa Beach/Manhattan Beach/Redondo Beach) which is where I’ve lived for the past 20 years.
Can you tell us about your road to publication?
I always wanted to write but I didn’t take it seriously until 2006 which is when I went through a divorce. Apparently, I had a lot of anxiety and pent-up emotion so writing was a kind of therapy. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write but I always enjoyed reading crime fiction. So when I was at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books that year, I met author Darrell James at the Sisters in Crime booth. He encouraged me to go to a meeting so I did. It was the best decision I ever made.
I followed his publication path and figured if it worked for him, maybe it would work for me. He published numerous short stories which I thought was a great way to get your name out there. I wrote my first short story “Dough Boy” and after a few revisions, it was accepted for publication in 2007 by Shannon Road Press and was included in the anthology Little Sisters, Volume 1. After that, my short story “Bad Boy Burn” won 3rd place in the Deadly Ink Short Story Contest and was published in their anthology. I’ve had over 15 short stories and flash fiction published since then.
I’m currently at work on a full-length novel but I am a slow writer. Having a novella out though has been fantastic and it’s a different more amped-up experience than having a short story out. It makes me want to hurry up and finish my novel already.
What are the greatest challenges in writing short stories?
For me, short stories that have a knockout ending are the most memorable. I strive every time I write a flash fiction piece or a short story to end it with a punch or a twist. I can’t remember who said it but the saying, “An ending should be unexpected and inevitable” couldn’t be truer words. That’s why the ending is the most difficult for me to write. It can make or break your story. Unfortunately, I never know my ending before I write my story. I may think I do but it always ends up completely different. I guess it’s the curse of being a pantser.
Have you ever written characters that you truly despise?
I’d have to say no. Even though all of my stories feature lowlifes, crooks, drug dealers, or slackers of some form or another, to me, they’re just human. Sure they could be selfish or make horrible decisions, but I like to explore why. No one is a hundred percent this or a hundred percent that. There’s that wonderful gray world that I love to inhabit when I write. I write about characters that on the surface seem like horrible people but maybe it’s because you haven’t lived in their shoes.
For example, some people don’t like my protagonist Finn. He’s a womanizer, he’s selfish, and he manipulates people. However, he does have good intentions at times and there are reasons for why he’s the way he is. To me, that makes him interesting, complicated, and real.
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
I have a writer group that is crucial for me. We meet once a week and read our pages aloud to each other. It gives me a deadline which is what I need. If I didn’t have Travis Richardson and Stephen Buehler, I’d be lost. If we can’t meet once a week, then sometimes we’ll email each other but it’s not the same as meeting in person. I knew I needed a writer group to keep me motivated and to get away from that “writing in a vacuum” feeling. I feel so lucky to have found them. We fit so well together.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
As I said previously, I never know the ending which drives me nuts. I think I do but it ends up changing. Usually, I’ll have a couple scenes in my head and that’s it. I’ll not even know where exactly in the story these scenes go. I think that’s why I write so slowly. I just kind of flail around with a vague idea of what the story is and all I’ve got are a couple scenes that may or may not go where I think they go. It’s a very frustrating process but once I slog my way through a story and I see it coming together, it’s like “aaaaah!” with angels singing and everything.
As far as a title, I absolutely never know the title until the story is 100% finished. I can’t even fathom having a title before I’ve written the story. I guess because I don’t even know what the story is about until I’ve written it.
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?
I have to write in the morning. I don’t get up that early though so I hesitate to call myself an early bird writer. I work several part-time jobs so I juggle things around a lot but I try to reserve mornings, like before noon, as my writing time. As the day progresses, my brain becomes less and less useful. Don’t tell my boss that though because he schedules me afternoons!
As far as must-haves, I really don’t have anything. I don’t like dead silence. I prefer “white noise.” I love the white noise in coffee shops but I get too distracted people-watching to be productive. Listening to music while I write doesn’t work for me at all. It can inspire me before I write, but once I’m serious about writing, I have to turn it off.
I write at my computer in my room which is upstairs in the back of my house. I sit right by a sliding glass door that opens up to my deck. There’s always noise going on outside like endless construction, cars driving by, kids screaming, birds chirping, neighbors slamming their doors, dogs barking, etc. so for me that’s the “white noise” that I need.
What genre have you never written in that you’d like to try?
I’d love to write a memoir. Actually, I’d like to write my mom’s memoir so I guess that would be a biography. She has been wanting to write her story for many years and we keep talking about working together but have yet to do so. It’s something that’s in the back of my mind and hopefully one day very soon, I’ll get started on this with her. She’s an amazing strong-willed independent woman and I find her story fascinating.
She was raised by a single mother in Canada with her dad deserting them when she was very young. Apparently, he was a wanderer and even hung out with Hemingway in Cuba. Anyway, my mom left home at a fairly young age to live in the West Indies. When she returned to Canada, she met my dad, a Chinese man, eventually marrying him. Back then, it was very unusual for a white woman to marry a Chinese man. Both families didn’t take kindly to the marriage. It was a struggle to be a bi-racial couple in the 60s and 70s, especially once they moved to conservative Orange County in Southern California.
If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?
Photographic memory. As I get older, I find my memory is just getting worse and worse and it’s so depressing!
What was your favorite year of school? Why?
Senior year in high school. I knew I was going to UCLA so I could finally relax and not freak out about grades and pleasing my parents. It was the first time I felt like the world was wide open to me and I could do anything I wanted.
What music soothes your soul?
I don’t know if it soothes my soul so much as feeds it. I love hip hop, especially old school hip hop like A Tribe Called Quest, the Fugees, Beastie Boys, and Wu-Tang. I also love 80s music, the music I grew up with, like Thompson Twins, INXS, Erasure, Depeche Mode, and Prince (sniff sniff).
What was the most valuable class you ever took in school? Why?
Creative writing in grad school. I studied Communications – TV/Film all through college. Creative writing was an elective course and I absolutely loved it. That’s where I discovered I could write short stories pretty well. It also made me wish I’d been an English or Creative Writing major.
What simple pleasure makes you smile?
Hearing my dog, Hana, crunch on biscuits or treats. I’ll never get tired of that adorable crunching sound she makes. Unfortunately, that makes me feed her too many treats.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
I eloped in Las Vegas in 2001 at the Little White Wedding Chapel. When I got home, I called my mom to tell her I got married. She said, “I didn’t even know you had a boyfriend.”
CONNECT WITH SARAH
Nicely done, Sarah!
There was information in there that I didn’t know about you. Unlike you, I usually know the ending and title before I start writing a short story.
Thanks for sharing all your thoughts on writing and good luck with your career.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Stephen! And for introducing me to Lisette. 🙂 Yes, you’re lucky you know the ending before you start to write. I wish I could do that. It’s interesting how everyone’s writing process is so different.
I really enjoyed reading your interview, Sarah. I love fiction and haven’t the courage to try it. Non-fiction is my niche. But, oh, how I love to read fiction. I also enjoy reading about the process. There are similarities.
I’ve often wondered how I’d do in a writer’s group. I’m not much for group’s and in non-fiction some colleagues who claimed to be supportive were anything but so I learned some hard lessons that made me unable to expose my work that way.
I hope you’ll write your mother’s biography soon. I say that from the viewpoint of a woman whose mother wanted her to write her family’s story but didn’t feel equipped to do it. Now she’s gone and there is no one left to tell those stories. Time passes and the things we think we’ll never forget can be gone before you know it…..
I’m so glad you enjoyed my interview, Darlene. Yes, a writing group can be anything but rewarding if it’s not the right group. It took me a couple tries to find the right one (one even told me not to come back!) and once I did, it immediately clicked and I knew I was in for good. I think you’re so right about recording special moments and relaying the past before it’s forgotten. That’s my fear too with my mom. One of my jobs is a transcriber and I’ve had many clients who want to tell their story so later generations can read about it. Thank you for reading and sharing!