In the lead up to the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival, a group of brilliant, curious and well-read teenagers joined Amelia Lush, Head of Children’s and YA Programs, for a series of workshops. It was in these workshops that the All-Day YA program for 2020 was developed. For all these young people, this was their first introduction to the complex and fun world of festival programming and they truly excelled.
Over the coming weeks, the Sydney Writers’ Festival Youth Curators will be shining a spotlight on the young adult authors they had programmed for the 2020 Festival. This week, Youth Curator Munira Tabassum Ahmed reviews Sarah Epstein's novel Deep Water – a gripping mystery released only last week – and puts her burning questions to the author.
Review of Deep Water
Sarah Epstein’s newest novel, Deep Water, is a remarkable piece of young adult fiction – reframing classic whodunnit tropes with a refreshing, coming-of-age perspective and an incredibly crafted twist ending. The novel begins in a place of dwindling hope; Henry Weaver has been missing for two months and thirty days – only one day away from becoming a long-term missing person. Epstein reveals the truth chronologically, intricately weaving together multiple character perspectives as they untangle the mystery of Henry’s disappearance. Deep Water’s suffocating combination of a small town with dark secrets and adolescent turmoil makes for an intoxicating and compelling read.
– Munira Tabassum Ahmed, Sydney Writers’ Festival 2020 Youth Curator
Interview with Sarah Epstein
What inspired you to write a novel about missing children and the impact of this on the people who knew them?
I started the story so many years ago that I can’t recall if there was a specific catalyst for why I wanted to write about a missing boy; it was probably because those were the types of stories that interested me at the time. Over the years, the story expanded and grew as I populated it with a cast of interconnected characters, and through many drafts and revisions their motivations and relationships were fleshed out. Months, and sometimes years, of thinking go into my story ideas, so the inspiration part is a very long process rather than a single lightbulb moment.
What about small towns led you to setting Deep Water in one?
I love small-town mysteries in books, TV shows and movies, and I particularly enjoy Australian small-town stories with secrets and complicated family dynamics at the core. Most Australians have been on some kind of a road trip at some point, and country towns with their close-knit communities are places we recognise. As a writer, my imagination plays with the unsettling undercurrents in small towns, the way their inhabitants all know each other, or at least think they do.
The plot of your novel is very layered and intricate, with many twists and turns. How do you approach crafting a plot like this – is it carefully planned?
Yes, I am definitely a planner rather than a discovery writer (someone who makes up the plot as they are writing), and I always have to figure out what the ending is going to be before I start or else I stall very early on in the drafting process. I work really hard in the planning stages with pacing and structure, and the revealing of clues and twists. Once I know what my key scenes are going to be and where I need my reveals to happen, it gives me the space to concentrate on getting the characters, descriptions and setting right. I have a background in visual arts, so I find it helpful to use charts and colour coding for scenes and characters so I can have a visual snapshot of what my chapters look like and where my characters appear.
Technology, catfishing and predatory misuse of social networking apps is a focus in your book. What made you decide to tackle these issues?
I don’t write stories with an intention to throw focus on social issues, and instead these sorts of issues find their way into the plot organically because of how I develop my characters’ motivations. For things like technology and bad behaviour on social networking apps, this naturally found its way into the story when I thought about how and why each character would be using technology in this way. They each needed to have an authentic and believable reason, even if it was a negative one.
One of your characters lives in a home that is violent and unsafe. How did you approach researching and writing about this topic in a sensitive way?
I wanted readers to understand who the mother is in this situation and some of her history, and how her frustration about where her life has ended up fluctuates between hopelessness and highly destructive behaviour. As a victim of domestic violence herself, I was interested in exploring how this affects the relationship Ivy Weaver has with her sons and how her resentment at her situation translates into her treatment of them. Writing some chapters from Mason’s perspective really helped me round out the Weaver family dynamic and give insights into how they ended up at breaking point.
What drew you to telling this story through multiple first-person perspectives? Is this your preferred way to write?
In my early drafts of Deep Water, I had it all set in the present from Chloe’s perspective, but as the story and characters grew in my head, I realised I needed readers to understand the circumstances of the Weaver family and where they fit into the town, otherwise it felt like only half a story. Showing Mason’s perspective leading up to the night Henry disappeared alongside Chloe’s perspective three months after the fact meant I could explore the Weaver family’s dynamics beforehand alongside the fallout for everyone afterwards. It also meant I could create a ticking clock device to increase the tension up to the night Henry disappeared and reveal the circumstances of that night in a more creative way without just being a big info dump. Dual point of view worked well for this story, but I’d only write from multiple perspectives again if the story required it.
At the heart of Deep Water is a close friendship group. What were the challenges you faced in both developing these characters and writing their changing relationships as the tragic story unfolds?
While there is a large cast of characters in the story, they each have important roles in the mystery, and my challenge as an author is to make sure they are so cohesively involved with one another that if you removed a character and what they contribute, the plot would no longer function properly. Every single character needs authentic emotions and motivations or else their actions come across as nonsensical or empty, and if their relationships with other characters shift and change throughout the story, it needs to be logical or else it just seems forced. It took me a lot of drafts over many years to get this all working the way I needed it to. It’s not the kind of story I could have written quickly.
Did you read thrillers and mystery novels when you were young? If yes, what were your favourites?
I was a teenager in the 80s, so YA wasn’t a huge category in books like it is now. I read a lot of my mum’s horror and thriller novels like Stephen King because that’s what I had access to at home, but the content was too old for me and I preferred reading about people my own age. I discovered Christopher Pike’s novels, which were horror and thrillers for teens, and enjoyed them so much. They were creepy and scary mysteries without going into adult themes that I wasn’t fully comfortable with. I haven’t read one since I was a teen so I’m not sure how they’d hold up today.
Can you suggest a 2020 #LoveOzYA release that you would recommend to your readers?
I’m really enjoying Australian YA contemporary at the moment after recently reading What I Like About Me by Jenna Guillaume (released in 2019), so I’ve just ordered some fellow #LoveOzYA April releases, which I can’t wait to read because I already know they’re going to be fantastic – Taking Down Evelyn Tait by Poppy Nwosu, Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley and Please Don’t Hug Me by Kay Kerr. Aussies do YA contemporary so well!
Deep Water is available from Gleebooks. Gleebooks is currently offering free delivery to all addresses within the Inner West Council and City of Sydney Council boundary areas, and free delivery for orders totalling $50 or more to other locations across Australia.
Munira Tabassum Ahmed is a fourteen-year-old student and poet. She was the NSW runner-up in the Australian Poetry Slam 2019, and her work can be found in Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow, Interior, Australia ReMade and elsewhere.