An Interview with Sarah O’Brien

sarah in warm coat on her porch

TH: What’s a typical day like for you right now?

SO: Alarm, shower, tea.  A groggy choice of business casual attire (did I wear this yesterday?).  Breakfast.  Carpool.  Fluorescent lights and long hallways.  Computer screens, ergonomic chairs, lots of smiling (I’m not used to smiling so much!).  Follow-up emails, meetings.  Lots of stealthy daydreaming.  Carpool.  Baking, reading, saying hello to the baby chicks that now live in our office (and will start laying eggs in our backyard in 6 months).  I cook dinner, to a Motown soundtrack.  Then maybe a movie, sleep.  Repeat.  The weekends are a bit more exciting — highly atypical, or at least I try to keep them that way – gardening, loafing, baking, fixing up the house, the odd roller derby bout.

TH: What’s it like for you to be a writer and work a desk job?

SO: Well, you probably picked up from the tone of my earlier answer that I don’t like it very much. I am practicing being grateful — I have a steady job in a very bad economy.   That said, I work with some very smart scientists who can’t necessarily understand that someone who doesn’t speak science (moi) isn’t necessarily a dope. So there’s that.  I’m trying to look at it as a challenge — to attempt to resuscitate language whenever I can, because I work in the land of acronyms, where whole words are chopped into neat little packages with little semantic value.  So that’s where the snippets come from — the phone calls heard through the wall, the unintelligible sentences made from a string of acronyms and abbreviations, the sciencey words that are so beautiful there on their own.  There’s a laboratory test I read about called Immunofluorescence Assay.  I remember reading it and thinking — now I can do something with that.

TH: Has publishing a book changed the way you think about writing? Do you feel pressure? Do you feel you need to do anything differently? Is it glorious?

SO: Of course it’s glorious!  But I don’t think it’s changed the way I think about writing.  It’s just one of those things that occasionally makes me smile in earnest.  As for pressure, I think that might come later, if I actually get enough work together to think about trying for another little book. Maybe then I’ll worry about being a one-book wonder.  I’m not there yet.

TH: Have your poems changed from the ones we published and the ones in the book?

SO: They have, but I feel like I’m still in a transitional phase, and I’ll catch a little light creeping into what I’m writing and I have to stop myself right there.  Although I’m not sure how to keep light out of a poem.  Writing now is very much in response to my current environs — trying to make the office talk.  Before, I had all this time (grad school!), and I was working on a project that I made for myself — haunting the library, taking photographs, playing with optical toys.  Now the project is dealing with the space I inhabit, dealing with the small time I have to write.  I’m writing in snippets, just seeing where it goes.

TH: I know you’re an extensive traveler. Could you comment on how travel affects your writing, if at all? Your process?

SO: Travel keeps me aware and slightly out-of-sync, which has always been vital for my writing.  I’m forced to re-look, to think about the way I’m saying something, the way the person I’m talking to is dealing with the fact that we don’t speak the same language.  I travel a lot for this new job (the perk), and I try to break away from the work whenever I can and just wander off.  I’m interested in dislocation, in cartography, in borders, in the way an accent comes through like a memory.  Generally I spend most of my free time at home cooking, and travel forces me to spend that time doing something other than making a really good bechamel or shortbread.  Left to my own devices, I would just cook and bake.  Plus, I really like being lost (for a time).

TH:Any books we should all read?

SO: Former Thermos-interviewees and all-around lovely ladies Janine Oshiro and Caryl Pagel recommended Notes from No Man’s Land to me in the same week, in totally unrelated emails.  Best thing I’ve read in a long time.  Anything by Joan Didion.   Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Noon by Cole Swensen — perhaps my favorite book of poems.  Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker.  White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

TH:Thanks so much, Sarah!

Join Thermos and hear Sarah read from her book, Catch Light, on Friday, March 19, 5 p.m. at Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Sarah
    I am a visual artist / photographer. I found your book of poems “Catch Light” today while on a random inspirational browse. I am drawn to your format and reference to photography (and light) and would like to have a dialogue with you Do you have a blog?

    Kathleen Nathan


  2. Would love to connect with Sarah. We are both artists working on the same theme. Sarah works with words, I work with images (photographic).


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