When it came time to decide on a setting for her first young adult novel, Sarah Tomp says the story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else but Virginia. My Best Everything follows Lulu as she works to leave her small hometown while falling in love in the course of one short summer. Tomp, who attended high school in Blacksburg and graduated from James Madison University, explains what it took to finish her first novel and how her years in southwest Virginia inspired her story and characters.
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My Best Everything
SH: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
ST: I did not. I have always been a reader. That was really what I did all the time. I didn’t think about writing. Although looking back, given the options in school, writing always came easily to me. I graduated from James Madison with a teaching degree. It wasn’t until I was teaching students and learning about authors that I realized, “Oh, people do this.” I came at it from when I started teaching and rediscovering children’s literature.
SH: How did writing the novel, My Best Everything, differ from writing your first book, Red, White, and Blue Good-bye?
ST: I fell in love with picture books, and that’s what I wanted to write. I love the language; it’s like poetry. My kids were younger, and a picture book was what I could hold in my head. I could keep a small idea in my head. Writing a picture book, you’re always trying to go smaller and smaller, more concise. With a novel, you’re trying to go longer and longer, although you go in and make cuts too. Both stories started as something completely different. But I realized just this week that they both have the theme of saying goodbye.
SH: You attended high school in Blacksburg and college in Harrisonburg. How did your time in Virginia inspire Lulu’s story?
ST: I don’t think it could have taken place anywhere else. It’s so rich for things to happen. My memory of growing up there was going exploring. We never thought about inherent dangers. Living in a small town, you feel safe even it maybe you’re not. It’s wild with just a little bit of danger. It’s a beautiful place, and it was very vivid in my mind.
SH: The story features the illegal moonshine business. How did you prepare to write about this particular detail?
ST: My kids were watching Moonshiners on TV, and they turned to me and asked, “Is that really what it’s like in Virginia?” I just laughed. I was writing a love story in Virginia, and it just fit. There is so much online, it’s kind of bizarre. Recipes, directions. The ingredients [to make moonshine] are ordinary, simple things. Beer brewing is big in Southern California [where Sarah currently lives], so I visited a brewery that has a distillery and makes spirits. The description of the warehouse [in the book] came straight from the distillery’s workroom. When I went to visit my mother in Maryland, we toured the distillery in Culpepper, Belmont Farms. Moonshiner Tim [from the TV show] was there the same day we were. I have a picture of us together. After I sold the novel, I went back to the distillery in San Diego for a private tour and private lessons. Then I went to a yeast lab in San Diego that provides yeast to breweries and colleges for research.
SH: What is the greatest challenge when it comes to writing a novel?
ST: Sitting down and note being distracted by all the other possibilities. Once I’m really invested in a character, I can be more focused. I want to hang out with them and figure out what they’re going to do in different situations. Another challenge is holding the whole thing in your head. I have notebooks and notebooks of ideas and sketches. You have to write it down so you don’t forget. But I am very sociable; I like having friends encourage me. I have a strong community of writers and friends from graduate school. We keep in touch, bouncing ideas off of each other.
SH: Are you working on anything new?
ST: I’m actually working on two novels right now. I thought it was one, but it was too complicated and unfocused. So I split it into two stories. When I was writing My Best Everything, I kept thinking about my brother exploring caves growing up. I thought about incorporating this into Lulu’s story—hiding the moonshine in the caves—but there was so much more there, so much going on. So this new one is about a girl who was a competitive diver but quits and starts caving.