Author Spotlight: Sarah J. Carlson

March 8, 2019

Today we are excited to feature YA author Sarah J. Carlson and her  debut YA novel, ALL THE WALL OF BELFAST (Turner Mar. 12, 2019). Be sure to enter to win a copy (US only)!

Cover design © Olga Grlic

Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for teens.

Hey, thanks for having me! I write contemporary YA that touches on issues that make you think. I’ve loved writing since 4th grade, when I got picked to represent my grade at a writing competition. In middle school, it was hundreds of pages of Stephen King fan fic scrawled on loose-leaf paper. Then high school saw me creating an epic universe for a sci-fi novel that grew to over 240,000 words and will never again see the light of day. 

Professionally, I am a school psychologist. I currently work at the elementary school level, but have also worked at the middle school level. Most people I meet don’t really know what a school psychologist is (we’re not guidance counselors 😉). I have many jobs, but the essence of my role is to support students who are struggling behaviorally, social-emotionally, academically, or a combination of the above by helping the students and adults around them identify, understand, and hopefully address their unmet needs. One place children and adolescents can find solace is in books that accurately capture the struggles they face and offer hope. One of my goals as a YA author is to write the books my students need.

Congrats on your debut, ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST. Tell us about it and what inspired you.

Here’s the official blurb: The Carnival at Bray meets West Side Story in Sarah Carlson’s powerful YA debut; set in post-conflict Belfast (Northern Ireland), alternating between two teenagers, both trying to understand their past and preserve their future. Seventeen-year-olds, Fiona and Danny must choose between their dreams and the people they aspire to be.

Fiona and Danny were born in the same hospital. Fiona’s mom fled with her to the United States when she was two, but, fourteen years after the Troubles ended, a forty-foot-tall peace wall still separates her dad’s Catholic neighborhood from Danny’s Protestant neighborhood.

After chance brings Fiona and Danny together, their love of the band Fading Stars, big dreams, and desire to run away from their families unites them. Danny and Fiona must help one another overcome the burden of their parents’ pasts. But one ugly truth might shatter what they have…

I first traveled to Belfast in July 2011 as a part of a group, with the purpose of understanding the Troubles and its impact. While there, I had the opportunity to go on political tours of the Shankill and the Falls lead by former Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) members, tour museums, and speak with individuals who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. I also was able to attend an Eleventh Night bonfire and the Twelfth of July parade, both Protestant Loyalist celebrations of the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II in 1690. One thing that stuck with me was the fact that, almost twenty years after the Troubles ended, there are still peace walls in Belfast separating working class Protestant Loyalist neighborhoods from Catholic Republican ones. And that the vast majority of kids in Northern Ireland still attend religiously segregated schools. These experiences left me wanting to understand both the history of the Troubles and how it shaped the current situation. I visited Belfast two more times to further research setting, dialect, culture, and perspectives (in addition to tons of research and hiring sensitivity readers).  

Through all that, I found a story to tell about a boy and a girl from very different worlds with one big thing in common: a desire to escape their families’ violent legacies as they’re grasping for their own futures. But, when they need one another the most, one ugly truth might shatter everything.

Was your road to publication long and windy, short and sweet, or something in between?

Very long and windy 😊 

I queried two manuscripts before ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST with absolutely no requests at all. To be fair, when I started querying nine years ago, I had NO IDEA what I was doing. At all. Like my YA sci-fi was 240,000 words. There were years where I just gave up querying altogether, but I didn’t give up writing because I can’t. I love creating stories and have since I started walking. I kept pushing myself to improve. I attended writing conferences, researched effective query letters, learned more about HOW to write a book, wrote new books. Worked with a few writing coaches. Found critique partners. Joined writing groups.
Kept pushing myself. Kept writing.

With ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST, I was very reluctant to even start querying, but I worked hard on compiling a list of agents (which included Claire). Then in 2014 I discovered the joy of the YA writing Twitter community. The first contest I participated in (with All the Walls of Belfast) was Pitch Wars. I was one of those hopeful mentees who read all the signs and was SURE I was going to be picked. I wasn’t. But my query materials were in much better shape and I’d amassed many new, skilled writing friends I still talk to. Then I participated in a few more Twitter-based writing contests and didn’t get picked. 

Just as I was preparing to (finally) traditionally query, one of my writer friends told me about a Twitter pitching contest called #Pitchmas, right before Christmas. I was almost like, what’s the point, but she helped me prepare a few 140 word tweets, so I went for it. And . . . Claire liked one of my tweets! I sent her my materials. Ironically, if I remember correctly, she didn’t even ask for my query after all that work. I made a point of telling her I’d planned on querying her. I sent the full, and I think THE CALL came in late January 2015. I reached out to other agents who had my query, got a few more full requests, then gave them a week to read them. In the end, I decided Claire’s vision for my novel, and her enthusiasm, was the perfect fit!

It took three years of writing (and re-writing basically the whole novel piece-by-piece) before my novel even went on submission. Though, to be fair, I do work full-time and had my daughter during those years, so time was a precious commodity. After we went on sub, ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST sold in I think six weeks to Turner Publishing Company. The good news though was, because of all that hard work, I didn’t need to do any developmental edits with my editor at Turner and we got to go straight to copy edits basically. Some of my other debut novel friends spend months and months on several rounds of developmental edits with their publisher. My timeline for publication is less than a year, but most of my other 2019 debut novel friends have longer timelines, some up to two years after signing their contracts.

Favorite classic YA novels?  Favorite recent reads?

My favorite YA novel of all time is THE GIVER. I also love CATCHER IN THE RYE. Some of my most favorite recent reads include THE SERPENT KING by Jeff Zentner, THE CARNIVAL AT BRAY by Jessie Ann Foley, and LOVE AND LUCK by Jenna Evans Welch. I love YA Contemporary novels that take me to new places or expose me to new cultures and tap into the human experiences that connect us all. 

Do your main characters have a playlist? Or did you while writing the novel?

I create playlists for every novel I write. And, in fact, Fiona and Danny come together over a shared favorite (fictional) band called Fading Stars. Here’s a Youtube playlist I put together

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Write what you love. Have fun with it. Pay attention to what you like in books, ranging from the way its plotted to the way the characters are developed to the dialogue to the ways things are described and learn from it. Find your writer groups, whether it’s face-to-face through Meet-Up, your local library, or professional writing organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America or conferences; or online through things like Twitter, WriteOnCon, or online contests like Pitchwars.

Never give up. Apart from very rare exceptions, it’s the writers who get rejected again and again, but remember it’s a business, then emerge stronger. Keep writing new projects. Keep developing their craft. Keep working collaboratively and critiquing (and being critiqued) by other writers. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Caffeine. Hard work on nights and weekends, squeezed in whenever possible. The ones who “make it” are the ones who persevered.

What is one thing most people don't know about you?

I lived in Singapore for a few years. While there, I had the chance to travel around Southeast Asia. While in Cambodia, I made the mistake of trying out a motor bike (which, for the majority of Americans out there is like something between a moped and a motorcycle). I kind of . . . crashed and broke my face. 

Ouch.Where can people find you online?

My website is and I'm on Twitter @sarahjoydrop. Other links: YouTubeFacebookInstagramGoodreadsYABC Profile Page.

Pre-order All the Walls of Belfast at AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBound. Also, I’m running a library request raffle right nowMy publisher is running a pre-order campaign

Sarah is a YA author focused on exploring contemporary issues facing youth today. She is a member of SCBWI. All the Walls of Belfast is her debut novel. Currently, She lives near Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and two small children. She has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, a Masters of Science in Education, and an Education Specialist degree in School Psychology.

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  1. Congratulations on your querying and pitching finally working out!

  2. Glad you stuck to revising, bit by bit, and that you reached out to crtique groups. It paid off!

  3. Thank you for the interview and encouraging words and advice for aspiring authors.

  4. Wow! I love how you did your research and let that drive your imagination. Thanks for sharing your journey. :)

  5. I think "issues" books like this are my favorite genre of YA. Thanks for the chance to win a copy!

  6. I can not wait for this book! I love books that explore contemporary history


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