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  • Amy Shannon

Blog Tour: Sarah Relyea: Playground Zero

Author Name: Sarah Relyea

Author Website:

Book Title: Playground Zero: A Novel

Release Date: June 9 2020

A twelve-year-old girl navigates her family’s move from D.C. to Berkeley in 1968.

Playground Zero:

Award-winning Author: Playground Zero was a semi-finalist for the Black Lawrence Press 2018 Big Moose Prize.

Author Interview

Q: In three words, describe yourself.

A: Resilient, imaginative, nonconformist.

Q: How many books have you written? How many of those are published?

A: I’ve written three books. Two of them have been published—Playground Zero, my forthcoming novel, and Outsider Citizens, a book of literary criticism. I also have an unpublished novel with the working title of Mendocino Days.

Q: Do you have an upcoming release? If yes, tell me the title and impending release date.

A: Yes. My novel Playground Zero is forthcoming on June 9.

Q: Tell me about how you come up with your titles for your stories. Do you create the title before or after you write the book, and does it ever change from the initial title?

A: For me, the final title comes late in the game. I had a working title for Playground Zero that I used throughout the original drafting process. That title was Escape from Berkeley, and I think it conveys something about the experience I was creating in the book. However, it was never meant to be the final title. I then considered using Beneath the Golden Gate, a phrase that appears in one of the book’s LSD scenes. The phrase works in the context of the scene but not as a title. Finally, knowing I needed something more striking and self-contained, I came up with Playground Zero during one of my trips to Mendocino, California. I was staying in a cabin three miles east of town, near the pygmy forest, and on my first night there I stayed awake half the night running phrases through my mind. Fortunately, I found a good one and was able to catch some sleep.

The title for Outsider Citizens also came to me late in the process. The book deals with Simone de Beauvoir, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin, all of whom wrote from an outsider perspective. It’s shocking to recall that Beauvoir grew up in a country in which women could not vote. In France, that came only after WWII. By then, Beauvoir was in her late thirties and writing The Second Sex. And of course Wright grew up in the Jim Crow South.

Q: Out of all your characters in all of your books, who/what (sometimes a setting can also be an important “character”) do you think is the most interesting and why?

A: I’m glad you mentioned settings. Playground Zero is set in Berkeley in the late 1960s. It’s a girl’s coming-of-age story, and I wanted to convey the heightened sensory feel of the place, in conjunction with the strange, open, and violent energy of those years of counterculture and social upheaval. Readers have told me that Berkeley is almost a character in the novel, and I agree.

Tom Rayson, the father in Playground Zero, is cold and strategic, yet he has the most romantic scene in the book. Some readers have told me they can’t stand him, but that’s a form of interest, isn’t it?

Personally, I find the wild freedom of some of the kids interesting. It’s scary and outrageous. For many people, things have moved so far the other way—into a world of online adventures. At least, they had until recently. With the pandemic lockdowns exploding into protests over police abuses, we’ve seen the limits of that for now, though of course most people are watching from their social media feeds.

Q: If you could “create” your own genre of what you write, what would you call your books?

A: Lived Historical Fiction. In Playground Zero, I was writing about a place and time that I knew intimately as a child and remember with uncomfortable clarity—not only in my mind but in my body, my nervous system. For me, those early life experiences were overwhelming. I never chose to remember or be influenced by those wild events—yet they’re an inescapable part of me. They’re part of my lived experience, which—as Simone de Beauvoir showed us—for me includes being in the world in a female body. And I would say that being a girl in Berkeley in 1970—walking on Telegraph Avenue, for example, or even through a school hallway in a girl’s body—shaped my reality in many ways.

When your story-telling focuses on lived experience, whether real or imagined, that changes the genre of historical fiction, because a significant part of the research becomes internal. Of course I read oral histories and other accounts of the place and time and made trips to Berkeley to refresh my recollections and learn new things. But I was also exploring my own memory. That’s what really drove the writing.

Q: Without quoting your back cover blurb, tell me about the last book you published.

A: I lived in Berkeley from 1967–1971. I was nine through thirteen years old. As a sixth grader, I hung out with some of the younger kids on Telegraph Avenue. I was middle-class (as were some of the others; two of the boys from that group were the sons of Berkeley professors), and I managed to evade some of the uglier dimensions of the Telegraph scene, while experiencing or witnessing others. I then moved to an L.A. suburb and eventually went to Harvard.

Playground Zero explores 1960s Berkeley from a multi-character perspective, but mostly from a child’s-eye-view: the schools (including the experimental schools of the day), Telegraph Avenue and the People’s Park riot, the psychedelic scene, the Fillmore West—all of which was available to an adventurous and unsupervised sixth grader, as I was.

Q: Quote your favorite line from one of your stories. Indicate the line, and then the book title.

A: “There was no way of leaving the room. Feeling cornered, Alice hoped there would be no more psychedelic songs. There was something compelling in the rhythms, and the singing had a vaguely menacing edge. The songs had alluring force and fury. They were new; they should be hers. So why was her mother playing them?” (from Playground Zero)

Q: Tell me something about yourself that is separate from writing.

A: I enjoy being outdoors and moving around. The only kind of desk job I can tolerate is writing (and reading, of course). My clerical IQ is far below my general intelligence. I think that explains a lot of things about me. I can be very attentive to detail when something engages my interest—in my writing, for example. But I’m not interested in detail for its own sake. When I was in college, my step-father attempted to interest me in law by telling me that women were good at “detail work.” Wow, was that the wrong thing to say.

Q: Who are your top THREE favorite authors?

A: Right now? Because that changes. I’ve always been fascinated by Faulkner. His descriptive powers are unparalleled, informed by his characters’ internal and external reality. There’s a moral valence to his language and worldview, an awareness of evil that comes out of a religious culture. Much contemporary writing has lost this worldview, but Faulkner had it. I don’t mean that he was personally religious. I mean that a highly developed language of myth and evil shaped his understanding of people and the natural world. For some of the same reasons, I think Elena Ferrante is one of the best writers around.

I’ve also had a long-standing interest in drama—Ibsen, for example. Among other things, he takes the whole idea of sympathetic (or likeable) characters and blows it to bits. That’s important. Unlikeable characters can be extremely interesting, and they’re usually necessary to a good plot. Hedda Gabler is many things, but she’s not boring.

Q: What is the last book that you read? (Not counting anything you wrote)

A: Great Expectations. Some of the scenes of madness—what else can you call it?—are frankly hallucinatory. Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Pip at Miss Havisham’s.

Q: When writing, do you have a system or something you plan, or do you just write?

A: Both. It’s a complete illusion that one can “plan” a process as long and circuitous as writing a novel. However, there are certainly phases in which planning—organizing at the macro level—comes to the fore. When I wrote Playground Zero, I was working from a few central scenes and questions that had been in my mind for a long time, and a lot of the planning and organizing came from the need to create context for those scenes, to make them work narratively.

Writing a novel can involve a lot of detective work. You have some idea of the problem you need to solve, and you set about trying to solve it. But you really have no idea where the process will lead you, and you have to be open to what you discover. It’s not planning—it’s researching. Or maybe just searching. You can be methodical in your investigation, but the final result is beyond your control. So many unexpected factors pop up along the way.

Q: Why do you write?

A: To organize inner and outer experience. To solve problems that I can’t solve in any other way.

Q: Do you read your own work a lot? If so, what does it do for you?

A: When I’m working on a book, I read for the purpose of accessing the necessary mental state for resuming work on a scene. When I’m revising (and most writing is actually revising), I tend to remember older versions of a scene, because they’ve been around longer and I’m more familiar with them. That can be dangerous, so I read to keep the latest changes in mind. Or I may read for a gut check of whether a scene feels plausible or real enough. Finally, novels are long, and keeping track of the feel and balance of the whole is an important part of the job. The only way to do that is to read the darn thing.

Q: I play music when I write, and depending on the setting or mood of the story depends on what I listen to. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what genre or artist/band do you listen to?

A: No, it’s too distracting. However, when I was writing Playground Zero, I sometimes jogged my memory with Jefferson Airplane or Janis Joplin. I listened to “Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Stills & Nash—as a ten-year-old, I played that song over and over without entirely understanding what it was about. I’m not sure I understand now, though with the pandemic, I’m getting a better idea.

I saw Joplin at the Fillmore in 1970. I was twelve years old, and we were three feet from the stage. She was electrifying. Her death a few months later was horrifying. I remember seeing the headline one morning while I was waiting for the bus to go to school.

Q: As an author, I find that the hardest thing to write (for me) is the blurb that will be on the back cover or book’s description. When you write, what is the hardest line to write, the first line, the last line or the synopsis for the book?

A: Synopses are very hard to write, especially for the author. If you’ve just spent three years saying something, the idea of boiling it down to a paragraph is just appalling. You have to approach it as a completely fresh task, because that’s what it is, and make it work on its own terms.

Q: If you could sit down and have a coffee (or your favorite beverage) with anyone, living or dead, from any era, any time, who would it be and why? (You can pick up to 3 persons).

A: Willa Cather comes to mind. I’m fascinated by her descriptions of place.

Dostoyevsky. After being sent before a firing squad and then to a prison camp in Siberia, he went on to create an astonishing body of work. Forget the coffee, I just want to see the man’s eyes.

Assia Djebar. I began reading her when I was a graduate student in New York. As an Algerian feminist who wrote in French, Djebar explored various forms of exile. In 2001, she moved to New York and to teach at NYU. I went to hear her speak whenever she made public appearances. She had a very intriguing presence—magnetic, keenly observant. I’m glad I had the chance to see her in person.

Q: What does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

A: Success for a writer means reaching an audience.

Q: Any final thoughts that you want to give to your fans or even future authors?

A: Never give up.






Publicist: Stephanie Barko, Literary Publicist

Publisher: She Writes Press


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