Straight From The Author 23: The Other Me with Author Sarah Zachrich Jeng

Listen as Michigan Notable Book award recipient Sarah Zachrich Jeng discusses her award-winning novel The Other Me

Recorded live for The Civic Center Branch Library on April 30, 2022

Edited for time and clarity 

Read the full transcript of this episode below


Welcome to Straight from the Author, a podcast that gives you a front row seat as leading authors discuss their books at a Warren Public Library.


I’m Sarah Zachrich Jeng and I’m the author of The Other Me. It’s a speculative thriller about an artist named Kelly who’s from Michigan but she lives in Chicago, and on her 29th birthday she’s at an opening for her best friend, who’s also an artist. When she walks through a door and suddenly finds herself back in her hometown at her own surprise birthday party. She’s stumbled into an alternate life where instead of leaving Michigan and going to art school she married a guy from her high school and settled down with him nearby. She has memories from both her life as an artist in Chicago and her more domestic life in Michigan. So she needs to investigate how this happened, why this happened, and whether it can be reversed. The book has elements of both speculative fiction and domestic suspense.

I was super proud and happy to have The Other Me selected as a Michigan notable book this year.

I haven’t lived in Michigan for many years but I’ll always consider it my home state.

So when I was starting to write my first novel it was apparent to me right away that I would create a setting and characters that reminded me of where I came from and the people who lived there. Not really just the surface cultural references though I did name check Meijer’s which I was kind of happy to get that in there. But something less tangible that’s kind of embedded in the descriptions and the characters, the mindsets. I’m not sure I could even articulate it completely but I think Kelly’s struggle to think of herself as an artist is kind of quintessentially midwestern as well as Eric’s personality. He’s pretty unassuming and then those are things that would hit a little bit different in a book that was set somewhere else I think like in New York for example. The settings themselves were mostly places that I could envision based on locations that I’ve lived in or visited even if they aren’t real actual places. I just have to give a shout out to my mom here who was one of my earliest readers and unprompted told me that the restaurant in chapter three reminded her of this Italian place she used to go to all the time in Flint. I think that was the thing that actually most impressed her about the book. So that was interesting to me to see whether authors choose to create fictional cities in their books or depict real places and a lot of the locations that I write about are essentially composites of my own memories and research and a little bit of creativity of course. I took some photos when I was up here and I did a lot of online research to fill in the gaps of my memories and I have this whole folder of inspiration images for places like Eric and Kelly’s house. It was just kind of this little starter, try-level starter-home looking place. So that kind of helped me get into the mindset of writing for this too. I did take a certain amount of license when I was — one example is the startup that Kelly discovers has something to do with what this weird thing that’s happening to her. The company is called GNII [pronounced like genie], spelled G-N-I-I, it’s kind of a play on you know Silicon Valley startup culture where — and that’s kind of propagated across the country a little bit but it has this sort of move fast, break stuff, ethos, grow at all costs. And GNII in the book is working on this futuristic, secretive project, which Kelly thinks might have something to do with her situation. So I put them— I made up this innovation district that had popped up in Kelly and Eric’s hometown. It’s kind of an engine of job creation and progress and you know it doesn’t even really matter what they make right because they’re bringing jobs and nobody cares what they’re doing and what else they’re doing. So for the headquarters, I wanted to have this kind of trendy traditional folksy but creepy vibe and I came up with like, I was doing research and I saw this, like, glass farmhouse that’s in the Netherlands. It’s like a shopping center, civic center but it’s made out of glass and that’s printed to look like a traditional Dutch farmhouse so I made that up for GNII to be this, like, modern glass building that’s printed to look like an American farmhouse because I wrote about it and I thought it was like kind of cool and a little dystopian so I put it in my book. So that’s one example of just the flexibility that just making up places allows you in speculative fiction. I felt like I had a little more creative license and that’s one reason I love writing these kinds of stories because we can look at human problems through plot twists that aren’t feasible in our world. The Other Me is not really a sci-fi novel, it’s influenced by science fiction. Basically, it’s in a world that’s like five minutes into the future. Resembles our world very much but with a few very important exceptions as you’ll find if you read the book.

When I was writing I didn’t really want to focus on the mechanics of the science or the technology. So much as I wanted to examine the story of what happens when someone has their choices taken away. You’ve built a whole life for yourself and you have expectations for how that life’s going to go and all of a sudden everything changes and you have to adapt to a whole new reality. And this happens all the time in real life, not in exactly the same way as it does for Kelly but it’s relatable, similar to just you know, how you will sit and think back over your own life choices and how they led you to where you are now. I do that all the time, probably too much which is probably one of the main reasons I wrote this book about memories and our personal histories.

So I started writing the other me in 2015 and it took me five years from the spark of the idea to the manuscript that ended up being published. And the actual inspiration was a Talking Heads song, an 80s new wave band, but it’s that song ‘Once in a Lifetime’ that goes like, “Oh this is not my beautiful wife, this is not my beautiful house.” So yeah, it’s basically about a person who doesn’t quite know how they ended up in the life where they are. So that was like the spark and I was thinking about that along with the idea of wish fulfillment and this classic narrative of guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy moves mountains to get girl and these kinds of stories are very often told from the male point of view.  And they’re romances in that the guy and the girl will end up together and it’s framed as positive and the object of the man’s desire obviously often doesn’t even know that her life has been upended in this way. So I wanted to look at that story through a darker lens slightly and shift the perspective to the woman’s point of view and look at it to see what would happen if she perceived the shift. Like if she knew what was sort of what was happening to her, not what had caused it but she remembered both of her lives and was kind of like WTF, this isn’t the life I chose. [Laughs] And I also wanted to make sure there would be attention and a conflict between her earlier life, the one she chose, it’s not perfect but she’s striving for creative fulfillment and this other life where she kind of feels a pull toward it, there are compensations. She has a closer relationship with her family and of course, she has this, you know, hot husband who dotes on her. Yeah, I didn’t want it to be a choice of, you know, she’s just trying to get back to her old life and there’s nothing about this new one that she likes.

It’s always fun for me to think about what has changed since I started writing the book. It went through like round after round after round of revisions and I’d really like to think that I know more about writing a novel now than I did when I started. It took five years, a big portion of that was me figuring out what I was doing. I’ve always been pretty good at writing but before I started trying to write seriously — um I’d always been pretty good at writing on a sentence level but before I tried to write seriously as an adult I’ve never thought deeply about how a story is constructed. I’d always read and read and read and I’ve absorbed some of that and I think that definitely helped me, but I hadn’t thought very consciously about it. So writing the book was kind of my figuring that out and that’s why — that’s one reason it took so long. It started with a different title. I had a different — a second point of view that I ended up getting rid of. So many scenes got scrapped because they weren’t what I wanted to say, they didn’t work plot-wise, they didn’t work theme-wise. I had to try out three or four different endings before I found one that worked and it’s really hard when you’re writing your first novel not to try to squeeze in just everything you ever wanted to say [laughs] because I had stuff I wanted to say about identity and how women are supposed to prioritize romance over ambition and marriage and female friendships and professional jealousy and trying to be creative and make a living at the same time. The book does end up touching on a lot of those things because you want your book to say something even aside from having a propulsive plot and characters that people want to spend time with. There’s just so many moving parts but you also want to have this message behind it.

One of the few things in the book that stays the same somewhat throughout the writing process is the passage that I’m going to read. It’s a section right when Kelly, our main character, gets kind of whisked out of her old life into her new one.

All right, so to set the scene, she’s at her best friend’s opening. She’s feeling a little — Kelly is at her best friend’s opening who’s a more successful artist than she is. She’s feeling a little some kind of way about that but trying not to resent it but she also wishes she were successful and she’s wondering what would happen if she just kind of quit trying to strive for success.

Author reading book excerpt:

I finish my plastic cup of chardonnay and make my way to the bar for another. I’m usually more of a microbrews and craft cocktails kind of girl but I take what I can get for free. “Kelly,” I hear as I’m turning back toward the room, wine in hand. And here’s Linnea, tall and goddess-like the crowd parting for her the way it never does for me. She gives me a hug then tugs me by the wrist to talk to a woman with the sleek pinched look of an aging trophy wife. A collector. 

“This is the artist I was telling you about,” Linnea says to her, and the woman smiles and extends a bejeweled hand. 

Linnea comes from a wealthy family, part of Chicago’s black elite, which affords her connections as well as the time and space to make work full-time. I try as hard as I can not to resent this. The collector asks a few polite questions about my work and excuses herself, depositing my card in a snakeskin clutch that probably costs more than a month’s rent on my apartment. Linnea stands off to the side in consultation with a slender man wearing a mustard yellow waistcoat and a well-tended mustache, someone who works for the gallery.

I scan the crowd for people I haven’t talked to yet, wondering idly what my life would look like if I quit. Stop making the scene, stop schmoozing people who might buy my work or put it in the gallery. Moved out to the country and rented a romantic tumbledown cabin where I could pile up unsold paintings undisturbed. It’s the kind of dream only someone with money could realize, the same as the urban artist’s life I’m striving for now. After I came to Chicago, it didn’t take me long to learn. Contrary to any ideas I might have developed growing up in small-town Michigan, that there was nothing special about me. Nobody would catch sight of me lying on the sidewalk and see my sparkle and pick me up. I had to hustle like everyone else. 

If I let go of expectations, my own, and the ones I imagine others have for me, would I still paint? Maybe my fear of being seen as a failure, of being ordinary, is the only thing that keeps me going. But I’ve chosen this path and I need to see it through until I can’t anymore. And all things considered, I like my life. It’s not perfect, but it’s mine. I can look back and see the result of every choice I’ve made, not all of them good, leading me to this point. Someone calls my name very distinctly, first and last, Kelly Holter. I look around, but no one seems to be searching for me. I see Bobby, Lenea’s boyfriend, towering above the crowd, and I start to make my way toward him. All of a sudden, I’m not feeling well. If this were anyone else’s opening, but Lenea’s, I would leave. The warmth of the packed gallery, pleasant at first, after the nip of the April evening, is stifling. The hard surfaces break the voices and music into a vicious babble. Dizziness washes over me. I feel a heave of nausea and change course for the bathroom, jettisoning my wine on one of the linen-wrapped cocktail tables. Outside the bathroom door, I run into a trio of art school classmates. 

“Kelly, happy Saturn return,” one of them cries. 

I flap a hand in greeting but don’t break stride. I need the church-like echoes of white tile. I need to pat cool water onto my temples. Blood pounds in my head, shadows encroaching on the edges of my vision, like mold growth in a timelapse video, covering my eyes as I run the last few steps to the door. I open it into another life. 

Everything is black and throbbing, a rising oscillation fills my head. Like the time I inhaled the gas from a whipped cream canister at a particularly dismal after-party. Chartreuse flairs popped before my eyes. I lurch forward trying to keep my feet under me. The waa, waa, waa, in my ears resolves into voices. Not the decorous dull roar of a gallery on opening night. Shout. “Surprise!” For a baffled couple of seconds, I think Lenae must have engineered this somehow. Gotten, everyone ready to surprise me when I came out of the bathroom, it’s the kind of thing she would do. Except I was heading into the bathroom, not out of it, and where I am feels bigger than even the most spacious lady’s room. I pull in a breath instead of perfume and air freshener, the air smells like garlic. I read somewhere that a strong out-of-context odor can herald a seizure. Is that what’s happening, am I having a f**king  stroke? My hand flails out and finds the back of a chair. I close my eyes until the dizziness passes. When I open them, I see my hand gripping the chair, one of those upholstered metal-framed ones, you see in unfashionable restaurants. I lift my head to take in a dim room with a drop ceiling, long white-covered tables with candles, and red glass jars, a blur of faces. Can’t focus on any of it beyond the flash and impossible realization. I’m not in the gallery anymore…

Thank you all. All of you for being here. Yeah, this is great to be in a room with people and see people in person. Thank you to the Warren Public Library for having me and doing this as well as the Michigan Library, the Library of Michigan.

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