Sarah Nicole Lemon On Empowering Female Characters

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest is Sarah Nicole Lemon, author of DONE DIRT CHEAP. Born and raised in the Appalachians, she spent the first fifteen years of her life doing nothing but reading and playing outside, and has yet to outgrow either. When not writing, you can find her drinking iced coffee in a half-submerged beach chair near her home in southern Maryland.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I joke that DONE DIRT CHEAP is a book made entirely out of the pond scum of my life—all the slick, weird stuff that coagulated at the top. Sounds incredibly sexy, I know, but let’s just pretend the pond of my life is a magical one in the forest between worlds (The Magicians Nephew/ C. S. Lewis) and if you skim the weird off the top, it smells like a chip-on-your shoulder and honeysuckles. 

Joking aside, it all began with jealousy and failure and writer angst. 

I kept trying and failing to sell a novel. Everyone loved my writing, no one wanted to spend money on my books. They were not commercial. There was great gnashing of teeth and shaking of fists on my part, but when it was all said and done, I packed up my kids and went to lick my wounds at my parents’ house in southwest Pennsylvania. One late summer afternoon, sitting on the front porch swing, I mulled over what I was going to write next. Because, of course I was going to write something next. A crit-partner had recently told me “Lemon, you need to write the book of your heart.” Okay, it was Renee Ahdieh, she deserves the credit for both the gross sentimentality and absolute truth of that advice. Despite the guidance, the only part of my heart I could find was “it must involve a motorcycle” –and I was trying to think of something more, when my dad roared over the crest of the hill on his bike, coming to pick my mom up for a ride. 

There were two things that struck me in that moment. The first was my mom’s response, because it’s been the same response for thirty years. She practically wagged her tail and ran off to get boots on. It reminded me of being a teenager and listening to all her stories about their romance. Like “he had this blue Chevy Nova and my dad hated it.” And “my boss knew him from the bar” which would be followed by a giggle. My mom considers herself a good Baptist church girl, and this was her epic romance with a partially reformed bad boy. It always ended with a groan-worthy “isn’t your father so cute?” (Seriously Mom, WHY do you ask me that question?). 

None of this was new that afternoon. It was pleasant backstory. Adorable and embarrassing. But when I turned from my mom, I was just in time to see my dad barreling away. He’s not patient enough to wait for her to put on shoes, so he circles the block before coming back. The sun was setting right at the end of the road and for a moment he looked like every idyllic image of a man (because it’s always a man) riding into the literal sunset. His hair ruffled in the breeze, and the brap of the engine echoed back down the hill. Because yes, he was riding a street-to-trail dirt-bike on the road and not wearing a helmet. 

Children, don’t try this at home. 

He always says something about wanting to die, not live and suffer, if he wrecks—which please don’t tweet me about how stupid this is, he knows. That’s just what he says when someone asks. I don’t think he believes he’ll wreck. I think he believes if he wrecks and dies, it was his time to go anyway. That he’d be dead no matter what he was doing. 

That afternoon on the swing, while I watched him disappear into the sun with that trust in his own fate and the power to disregard for anyone who might disagree—it made me insanely jealous. It was more than just the bike—it was everything. He might have passed on his personality and intensity to me, but they were changed under the mantle of womanhood and motherhood. His power was a kind I’d never had, always wanted, and couldn’t find. As a girl, I’d thought I’d grow into it. But as a full grown woman, with three small children, I realized that power had never been intended for me. And right then I knew what the book of my heart was. It was a book about motorcycles. But also about girls determining their own stories, their own fate, and their own power. 

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

My struggle with writing is always the plot. I had this idea—this ephemeral grain of sand in my soul--and no idea how to give it shape. I was literally staring at the wall, thinking about it, while my husband was in the next room yelling at me about why all the bikes on Sons of Anarchy were the same? I quit watching Sons after the baby was stolen to Ireland. (You do not fuck with kids for real is a TV rule, I thought!), but had enjoyed Charlie Hunnam and the fast plotting. I had motorcycles, I had girls, and listening to Sons in the next room, I had….

The Wardens. Or something that I hoped might end up being a plot. 

My books are like a witch’s brew, I throw a bunch of shit in and stir until I get an explosion. 

This time it worked. 

The caveat is, this was a world I was semi-familiar with. I grew up riding dirt-bikes, there were always clubs around somewhere. Even in church! I know exactly what those men, in real life, were like. I understood the world. I knew the people. The rest was just details. 

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Only always! 

My first draft of this book was nothing of the book I have now. Though I’m very pleased with where I ended up, I’m not even sure how I got here. Probably a lot of lying on the floor with a bag of chips, staring at the ceiling and thinking “what the fuck is the story of my heart?”

That explains why I’m violating the terms of my own blackmail agreement to write it. (re: pond scum, except this bit is churned up from the bottom and smells like Black’s law books and terror)

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I have a hard time coming up with ideas. I always have one ready when I need it, but never a backlog competing for attention. Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll run out of ideas, and will just be left with useless words. But then I always hear Amy March (movie version) in that scene where she tells Meg “you don’t need scores of suitors, you only need one, if he’s the right one.” And I feel like that applies to stories. 

I usually have a cat or two with me while I write. They’re good for a pet if I need a moment away from the screen, and don’t seem to mind if I ignore them completely as long as I’m sharing body heat. Do you have a writing companion? 

Three children, who are very much like cats in that it’s impossible to herd them anywhere. And a pit-bull named Maggie who hogs my heater in the winter. Sarah Nicole Lemon On Empowering Female Characters