Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright recently sat down with a super literary pair of sisters: Sarah Healy is the author of the recently released novel The Sisters Chase and her older sister Jennifer Enderlin is the EVP and Publisher of St. Martin’s Press, in charge of editing and acquiring great fiction. The meeting was especially apropos because Healy’s novel centers on—what else?—two sisters who are left homeless after their mother’s death and must survive, relying only on one another. As we talked, the two sisters told RIF all about their upbringing, the books they plan to devour this summer and why reading about sisterly relationships is so appealing for readers.
Read It Forward: Thanks so much for sitting down with me! Tell me a little bit about you guys. Who is older?
Sarah Healy: Jen’s older. Can you tell?
Jennifer Enderlin: I’m way older. I’m ten years older.
RIF: Where did you guys grow up?
JE: Warren, New Jersey.
RIF: Was reading always a major part of your life?
JE: It was for me. It wasn’t for you.
SH: It wasn’t for me.
JE: We didn’t have a TV growing up. There are five kids in our family, and they’re really spread out. There’s the first group, then there’s a 10-year gap, and then there’s Sarah and my brother Matt. So, we had the strict parents with no TV. By the time the younger kids came around, they had TV. I think that’s the difference. I had to read, because we had no other form of entertainment.
RIF: Right. Then, Sarah, were you always creative? Did you know you were a writer?
SH: No. I really didn’t know. I actually didn’t start writing until I was pregnant with my oldest son. Something about that transition made me want to start getting things down on paper, and I started writing really personal essays about our family. I’d always loved writers like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, and their takes on their family in their personal essays. So, that’s where I started, and I think that that was a great entry point for me, because it really taught me how to tell the truth in writing. That applied even when I started writing fiction, just that notion of really making sure I was always telling the truth in every kind of writing I was doing.
But, it was actually Jen. She was reading my personal essays, and she said, you know, you could write a novel. I was like, no, I couldn’t write a novel. Then I started writing a novel. I didn’t tell her, but I started writing a novel, and the first one was not good. It was terrible, and it was put in a drawer and it was never—
JE: She gave it to me, and I think I read 50 pages, and I’m like, Sarah, you’re not going to get this published. She’s like, keep reading. I’m like no. I’m not going to read anymore. I’m telling you. This will not be published.
SH: But, you did keep reading.
JE: No. I don’t think I did.
SH: Well, then you lied to me.
JE: Oh, I might have.
SH: Jen was always really brutally honest. She wasn’t a false cheerleader. And because she was always honest, and she’d read so much, I knew that I had to keep her attention. After that, I never took my reader’s attention for granted. Whenever I’m writing, I’m always making sure, in whatever phase of the story I’m in, that I know why the reader is in the story at that particular moment. I’m always really, really conscious of the reader’s attention and making sure that they’re continually engaged, and making sure that they’re not bored.
JE: I never wanted to be a writer, but as an editor, that’s what I do. I edit as a hyper-reader, making sure that attention is never wavering. It’s very different from being a regular reader.
RIF: Right. Because you’re thinking, what am I missing? What do I want there to be in this writing?
JE: Yes. When you edit, you assume a hatred of the book. You’re like, okay, you’ve got to prove it to me. I never, ever wanted to be a fiction writer, ever. No desire.
RIF: But, you edit fiction.
JE: Yes. I learned a lot from fiction writers.
RIF: Like what?
JE: Things that make you root for characters. Things that escalate the stakes of a plot. So many things I’ve learned from very smart fiction writers.
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RIF: Sarah, when you were sort of given permission to start writing fiction by Jen, and you’d previously been writing this truthful, family introspection, was it freeing to suddenly be able to make things up as you went along?
SH: Yes. It was. I think that part of the fun for me with fiction is that I don’t really heavily plot things prior to sitting down and writing. Part of the fun of writing fiction for me is finding out where things are going to go. It is freeing.
I don’t know how this happened, but even from personal essays to fiction, I’ve never really been concerned about what people think. People always ask me, what does your family think about this? Is your family concerned? Does your family hate this? Do they know? Were they mad that you said this? I don’t know why, but I’ve never really—
SH: No. I’ve never really cared. I think you and Anna were like, Oh my God, I can’t believe Dad is going to read that.
JE: But, he is.
SH: That’s all right.
JE: He’ll get over it.
RIF: The sisters in The Sisters Chase are very connected to one another, we’ll say. No spoilers. Have you two, even with your age difference, ever felt like that? What is the sisterly bond, and what makes it so compelling to write about, and was that influenced by your family?
JE: My mother, who is not a reader, but who reads everything Sarah writes, was like, oh my God, I think this book is really more about Sarah and Erin’s relationship, my older sister. I don’t think it’s me so much as I think Sarah was maybe subconsciously exploring some sister relationships. But more of my older sister than me.
SH: Erin and Jen are 10 and 13 years older than I am, so growing up, I definitely understood that kind of maternal sister relationship. They really helped raise me.
JE: Erin more so than me.
SH: You really raised Matty. Erin raised me.
JE: We did. My mother was one of those 70’s/80’s moms who was like, okay, I’ve got built-in babysitters.
RIF: Yes. Exactly.
JE: I remember having to watch Sarah at the pool all day on Saturday. I was 15, and she was 5, and I’m like, what a drag. You know what I mean?
SH: Totally. Jen tortured me when we were little.
JE: I did. I’m like, oh, I’ve got this little thing I can play with, and I’m sort of angry that I have to watch it anyway. Erin was much more maternal. I was much more like, she’s my little plaything in my control.
SH: She’s like, what is she going to do if I do this to her?
JE: I did. One time I wanted to see what Sarah would do if I put her on the top of the basement steps and shut the door.
SH: We grew up in a creepy old farmhouse with a dirt floor.
JE: Sarah thinks I locked her in the basement. I did not lock her in the basement. I put her down there. I remember. It might have been longer. I can picture it. I put her down there on the top step. I shut the door. I counted to three, and then I opened the door.
SH: I scare easily.
JE: I was a bit of a bully to Sarah. I remember, I think I was about 16, and Sarah was about six, she totally stood up to me. I’m like, hmm, I can’t mess with her anymore.
SH: I don’t remember that at all.
JE: I remember thinking, she’s got a backbone now.
SH: When we both had kids, that’s when we became closer. We had a different kind of closeness.
JE: Sarah had her kids early, and my sister Erin and I had our kids late, so we ended up having kids that are around the same age.
RIF: That’s so cool. So, while you guys had very different experiences growing up, your kids are at the same place in life.
SH: Jen’s youngest and my oldest are almost the exact same age, and they love each other. They really love each other.
RIF: That’s awesome. What is it about sisterly relationships that we love to read in fiction? There are so many fabulous books about sisters, there’s almost a compulsion to read about them.
JE: I think it’s because it’s different from other relationships. You can ditch a friend or leave a relationship if you don’t like it, but you can’t do that with a sister. It’s almost like a marriage that you can’t get out of. You always have your sister. It’s even stronger than a marriage. You can’t divorce.
SH: Yes. And, there is something about the shared experience growing up. It’s the same for siblings in general, that shared experience. There are certain things that can go unsaid, and there’s so much that you just intrinsically understand about your siblings. What motivates them? Why are they doing the things? There’s something really powerful there.
JE: Your parents are like gods, and you grow and are shaped by them. The kids are like acolytes to the gods.
SH: That influence is one of the things I think about being a mother. Sometimes you have to check yourself and really take a step back and remember how outsized your influence is over your kids.
RIF: Right. That’s fascinating. So, where did the idea for this novel come from?
SH: I knew I wanted to write about sisters, and I knew I wanted to write about sisters who had kind of a mother-daughter relationship.
RIF: Because of having four sisters.
SH: Yes. Totally. It just evolved from there.
RIF: I was so sad when the mom dies so early. Oh wait, no spoilers—
SH: That’s not really a spoiler.
JE: It’s on the third page. I think Sarah also got tired of hearing that you have to be likeable in fiction. She wanted to write a character that did not make traditionally good, wise decisions. I think that was interesting, because often when people are first being published they are hammered over the head about likeability.
SH: Yes. That’s totally true. I didn’t want Mary to be unlikeable. I wasn’t interested in writing someone who was totally unlikeable. I just wanted to write someone who was real in a refreshing and different way. To me, Mary does a lot of really terrible things, but I personally love her. When I encounter a character who’s too likeable, it just doesn’t feel real to me.
RIF: No. She’s not Polly Perfect, which is refreshing, and it’s what makes you keep turning the page. If you think you know she’s going to follow the rules, it’s like snooze. So, Jennifer, when did you first read The Sisters Chase?
JE: I think I read it in manuscript form.
SH: You did. Jen, and my other sister, Erin, are always my first readers.
RIF: That’s awesome.
JE: I don’t know if it was the first draft. It was probably one of the first final drafts, a full manuscript.
SH: Jen and Erin read first, then after I process their feedback and incorporate it in to the manuscript, I send it to my agent, Stephanie. I’m really lucky.
RIF: Did Jen help you navigate the business side? Like, okay, how do I get a novel published? How do I get an agent?
SH: She did help me. Yes.
RIF: As readers, do you both have any books you’re looking forward to reading this summer?
JE: Oh, let me think. I just read a memoir, and I thought, oh, I’m going to hate this, so I’m just going to pick it up to see how much I hate it and put it down after five pages. I read the whole thing. It was How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell? I thought this is going to be some stupid, vapid addict memoir, but it was so good.
SH: I want to read Edgar and Lucy by Victor Lodato.
JE: We published that.
SH: I know. I’m pitching a St. Martin’s book!
JE: People love that book.
SH: I love that book.
JE: I want to read A Gentleman in Moscow because when you see a book that has stuck on the bestseller list for so long, it makes you think there must be something about it.
SH: I read that.
RIF: I did too. It’s so good.
SH: I enjoyed it. What else do I want to read? I want to read Exit West.
RIF: By Mohsin Hamid. It’s sort of like sci-fi fantasy, but it’s also an immigration tale about a couple who go through a magic portal.
SH: I went to high school with Elif Batuman, and I want to read her book, The Idiot.
JE: People like that book a lot.
SH: Oh, one other book. I heard a review of it on NPR just the other day. The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis. I can’t wait to read it. It sounded fantastic.
JE: Another one that’s really good this summer is this thriller called The Marsh King’s Daughter. Have you heard of that one? It’s amazing. It’s about a girl who was raised completely off the grid. Her father is a hunter and an outdoorsman, and they have no electricity, no plumbing, etc. The mother is there, but the daughter thinks her mom’s so useless. Dad is the one that can really hunt and everything. She doesn’t realize that she and her mom are prisoners. Her mother was abducted all these years ago, but she loves her father. The story opens years later, so you know that she escaped. She’s an adult now, and her father, while being transferred from one prison to another, kills the guards and escapes and is on the run. Because of the tracking skills that he taught her, she is the only one that can catch him. She’s got to go catch her father.
SH: See? Jen can sell a book. Like, truly, she can pitch a book like nobody’s business.
Author Photo: Dennis Healy