The Rumpus Interview with Sarah Tomlinson


Sarah Tomlinson is one of the most prolific writers I’ve met. With nine ghostwritten books, of which two became New York Times bestsellers, the author is now publishing her own memoir, Good Girl.

Told with immense courage and disarming honesty, Good Girl is a story in which Tomlinson traces the arc of her life to date, including her career as a music journalist, the devastating Wayne Lo shooting during her time at Simon’s Rock, a series of romances, and most importantly, the relationship with her mercurial father. A compulsive gambler with a penchant for EST, he left the family when Tomlinson was a young girl. His weaving in and out of his daughter’s life is couched in the memoir as an early and formative trauma, psychic reverberations whispering through her adult relationships. Yet Good Girl is not simply a story of the consequences of failed childrearing; it’s also a story that suggests the power of children to surpass the limitations of their parents. Throughout the book, Tomlinson’s emotional exposition suggests a mind always searching for new conduits to a better version of the self and a better way to love. This pursuit presses upon the family narrative to plot a more complex vision of the ways that families falter and recalibrate, loosen and heave together.

After a mutual friend introduced us, Tomlinson and I spoke online over the course of two days. I was most interested to hear about her approach to personal narrative, her thoughts on being a female artist, and what one does upon completion of a tenth manuscript. Like any good rock critic, she had a soundtrack in mind, which she was kind enough to share.


The Rumpus: Good Girl is deeply rooted in a tradition of confessional writing. Who were your influences?

Sarah Tomlinson: I’ve always been hungry for meaningful connection with artists and writers—well, all people, really—and so I’m drawn to personal stories that seem to reveal something about the teller. Probably the first one I loved was Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I also really enjoy books that give me a view of a certain world I’ve been intrigued by—like Pamela Des Barres’s I’m With the Band. When I sold my memoir, my agent put me on a diet of really good first-person writing to get me in condition, if you will. I revisited Joan Didion, read a bunch of Mary Karr, as well as Dani Shapiro—oh so many, really. Some great dad-daughter books also came out when I was writing—Alysia Abbott‘s Fairyland and Leigh Newman‘s Still Points North—which gave me courage to be honest on the page about my own relationship with my dad. Oh, and I do read books by men, too! Darin Strauss wrote a really incredible memoir, Half a Life, which was incredibly brave.

Rumpus: Still Points North is one of my favorite father-daughter memoirs too.

Tomlinson: Oh, yay, isn’t that a great book? One thing I really admire about Leigh is that she’s funny too. I wish I could have been a bit funnier in my book at moments. I tried, but it’s a really hard thing to do successfully.

Rumpus: I’m interested in this idea of meaningful connection with artists. At one point in Good Girl, you write, “I wanted to distinguish myself, to create a novel that spoke to all of the musicians and writers and artistic-minded friends I felt had literally kept me alive.” Could you elaborate on the role of creative people in your life?

Tomlinson: Well, I grew up in rural Maine, eight miles from the nearest town, and I was an only child until I was ten. So I think I was honestly kind of lonely, and books and music were my connection to the bigger world. Plus, I really longed for the city—for what I saw as this incredible, sparkly life that my dad was having in Boston when he wasn’t with me, which was most of the time, and so I was eager to get myself to the city as soon as possible. Seriously, when I was eleven, I wanted to get my own apartment in Boston. So, again, writers and musicians felt like my bridge to a life I wanted but wasn’t able to access for myself as a child. On a deeper level, I think if you’re abandoned by a parent, you always feel, secretly, like there’s something wrong with you, and so I was drawn to artists who dared to express their own vulnerability, isolation, and ugliness because I really related. I was one of those teenagers who was literally kept alive at moments by the art I loved because it made me feel less lonely. And so, when I wrote my own book, I tried not to avoid anything—even if it was unlikeable or embarrassing—out of respect for the teenagers and young people out there who might find it and really need me to be honest.

Rumpus: Was connecting with teenagers your primary impetus for writing this book?

Tomlinson: Definitely connecting with people was my primary goal—and especially teenagers. As I wrote, I really wished I had been able to forgive my dad—and myself—much earlier in my life—you know, found a way to be at peace with what had happened in my childhood and be happier earlier. And so I’d love it if someone read my book and got that message at age thirteen or eighteen. But I’d also really love to connect with any women who had difficult relationships with their dads or who struggled to come of age. And I’ve already had a few dads with daughters be moved by my story. That’s just incredible to me, the idea that I could possibly help a man to be a better dad to his daughter. Plus, I’m hoping it will be an interesting exploration for readers of some of the unique experiences I’ve had in my life—growing up in an intentional community, going to early college at age fifteen, experiencing a school shooting in which I lost a friend, hanging out in the Pacific Northwest’s music scene in the mid-’90s, and then being a female music writer in Boston and LA. I’m still really passionate about music, and so I hope other music lovers will find my book and relate to that side of it.

Rumpus: In some ways, this memoir is as much about your father as it is about yourself. Did you discuss the book with him as you wrote? What was your approach to researching your own life and the lives of your loved ones?

Tomlinson: Yes, it’s definitely my dad’s book too. When I told my dad I’d sold a book about our relationship, he said, “I always knew we’d write a book together someday.” And while I’d definitely say that’s a major overstatement of how involved he was with the writing of the book, he was a big part of my process. At the same time, I really wanted it to be told in my voice. So I wrote a first draft of every scene just from my memory first. And then, I interviewed my dad for many hours about his memories. This was a pretty incredible process because I learned a lot about what had been going on with him at different points, which I had never known. My mom and stepdad were also great about helping me to fact-check, as were several of my old friends.

One of the benefits of having an absent father—from a research standpoint—is that we exchanged many letters over the years. I still had all of his, so I read through them and also included lots of excerpts, in order to capture his uniquely wonderful voice. He had some of my letters, which I read too. I’ve always kept fairly extensive journals, so I checked them for the accuracy of my memories too. I also used music as a way to unleash memories. I listened to the music of each stage of my life as I was writing that chapter. It’s amazing how much sensory detail that brought up for me. My final stage, which I learned how to do as a journalist and ghostwriter, was to fact-check my own life using the Internet—just to remember exactly when a certain concert happened or exactly how a certain place looked. One possibly interesting note, my first editor really set me free by stressing that a memoir is the writer’s memory. When I told her I had all of these journals, she encouraged me not to rely on them too heavily, but to go with my own recall first. Of course, after years as a journalist, it was impossible for me not to fact-check.

Rumpus: I’m glad that you bring up your experience as a ghostwriter. Could you talk a little about the differences in your approach to the two types of writing? For example, how does crafting the voice differ?

Tomlinson: Ghostwriting has taught me so much about storytelling. Most of my clients have truly dramatic life stories with lots of strands that need to be pulled through the arc of their life. So when I sat down to write my own memoir, I had a pretty good handle on how to structure it, and how individual scenes should function as part of the larger whole. Even if I’d never been busted by the police or had my darkest moments exposed in the tabloids or whatever else my clients had gone through, I knew how my own dramatic moments should function to, hopefully, draw the reader in and pull the reader along. As for crafting the voice, though, the process was completely different.

With my clients, I begin by sitting down with them for hours—usually over many days—with my recorder and getting them to tell me their stories. As I listen, I’m on the watch for any tics they may have, phrases they use often, life philosophies that come up repeatedly, as well as themes that can be pulled through. When it comes to the thematic stuff, I always check with them before I plant anything in the book because I really want to make sure whatever’s in the book is authentic to them. If they don’t agree with something I think might be true of them or their life story, it goes. When it came to finding my own voice, I really did so on the page, through the process of writing a really big first draft—1056 pages—and then pairing it back—the draft I handed in was 400 pages. One of the only things I knew going in was that I didn’t want my voice to sound angry or bitter. When I first started writing about my dad, maybe eight years ago, I thought I was being funny. But I was actually still really hurt by some of the things he’d done, and failed to do, and that resentment came through, even though I wasn’t aware of if in my writing. It made those early pieces really hard to read. I knew I wanted this book to be lighter and to express the genuine forgiveness and love I have for everyone in my life, especially my dad. I hope it does.

Rumpus: In high school, one of your crushes, Nok, told you, “Your depression is a badge you wear.” I think one of the hardest parts about writing personal narratives can be knowing when you’re “wearing” your depression and being emotionally honest in your writing. Were there people who helped you evaluate and negotiate this difficult-to-draw line?

Tomlinson: That actually happened when I was in college at Simon’s Rock. But yes, it was a huge moment for me because it made me realize that what I’d always thought of as my authentic self—which I needed to show to people in order to be who I really was—might actually have a bit of drama or contrivance in it. Not that I was acting at all. Just that if I always led with my pain—maybe I was actually holding onto it in a way—and that was uncomfortable for me to admit at that age. When I wrote this book, even though I was two decades older, I still had to be careful of those tendencies.

Luckily, I had many very smart people looking out for me. When my publisher acquired my book, she looked me in the eyes and said, “I promise we’re not going to let you look like an asshole.” Which is the absolute best thing anyone could tell a memoirist. I knew I could trust her to help me see things I couldn’t necessarily see myself. And she did. She gave me some great notes. As did my first editor who flagged anything she saw as navel-gaze-y from the beginning. I also had a friend who particularly helped me with the sections in my 20s when I was engaging in some self-destructive behavior that wasn’t exactly likable on the page. It’s not that they had me edit myself so much as they helped me to see the places where I needed to explain myself more and also comment on that self a bit, to show that I’ve outgrown those dark ways of thinking and being.

Rumpus: Some of the most emotionally bare sections of narrative, which were also often some of the most difficult for me to read, were those in which you reveal a need for male approval that has often resulted in humiliation or disappointment. It occurred to me that my difficulty reading these parts might reflect an unfair wariness of women specifically admitting this kind of vulnerability because of a political desire to see portrayals of a particular of feminist paradigm. How, if at all, did you think about the relationship between feminism and romantic relationships as you wrote?

Tomlinson: I was raised by a feminist mom who always encouraged me to be myself and pursue whatever goals I had. And I’ve always admired strong, independent women, like Patti Smith and Marguerite Duras and Courtney Love and Joni Mitchell. Joni was a particular idol for me because she specifically put her music ahead of her romantic relationships with men. But I also think it’s important to acknowledge that many of these women paid a price for their independence at different moments. Some struggled with substance abuse issues. Some were isolated and deeply lonely. Some were so independent artistically, in part, out of a desire to impress [or] make connections with the men in their lives.

There were many times in my own life when I made hard choices because I thought they would help me to be a better writer. And I was always struggling to be a better person, even when I was in my self-destructive phase. But a hard truth that I had to face in the writing of this book is that the trauma I experienced because of my dad’s behavior when I was little really impacted who I was as a person. And yes, I did crave his approval and the approval of other men throughout my life in a way that I had trouble admitting. But it’s the truth. And that’s part of why I think this book can be so important. My agent originally envisioned it as a book about why daughters need dads and what happens when they don’t have them. And while I’m certainly not blaming my dad—he absolutely did the best he could with the tools he had at the time—I was shaped by his absence.

Rumpus: I was ashamed of that inclination toward policing. I feel that it’s somehow connected with what seems to me too often true, that the emotional lives of women, particularly as they relate to romantic relationships, are maligned as too slight and silly to be the stuff of literary work. Was this idea something you encountered? And how did you overcome this misconception?

Tomlinson: It’s definitely an issue I’m aware of in my own writing and in our culture at large. I think I felt a little more leeway to write about my romantic relationships here because the book was a father-daughter memoir from the beginning, and I don’t think it’s just a pop psychology cliché that women who have no [or] bad relationships with their fathers have difficulties when they start dating and falling in love. I know lots of people have difficulties with dating and love, but I do think there’s a particular lack of self-esteem and boundaries in women who have complicated relationships with their fathers. And I felt like I basically just had to go for it and be as honest as I needed to be about my own struggles in order to tell my story. I also feel very strongly that women should be free to write about their sexual experiences as candidly as men without any backlash, and so I made a point to include some material of that nature. I hope that if more women start to take this right for themselves, it will just become the norm.

I do also have to say that, the romantic relationships mentioned in the book were all hugely important for my development as an artist. And while I definitely had female artist friends who gave me more consistent and positive support around my writing, it was more often the men in my life who were getting stuff done. They felt an entitlement and had a level of success—even just on a punk/indie level—where they were finding audiences for their work, and they were dealing with what it means to create something and put it out into the world. At that time in my life, I was obsessed with figuring out how to “be” a writer, how to create something of meaning and find an audience for it, and the conversations I had with my lovers who were actually doing that helped me in a specific way. I hate to think that admitting this might in any way denigrate my female artist friends—it really shouldn’t—because they inspire me daily. But there’s a point in the book where I developed this motto from watching one of my lovers: Be like a boy. I wanted his sense of entitlement, and I fought to get it. And I think that struggle was important to document honestly whether it seems unfeminist or not—maybe, especially if it seems un-feminist—and that’s making other female artists feel guilty if it’s part of their process too.

Rumpus: One of your other mottos is “I don’t have a baby clock; I have a book clock.” Could you talk a little about what it means to you to be a female artist?

Tomlinson: Spoken like the twenty-something that I was! Now that I’m almost forty, I definitely have several clocks in addition to my book clock. But I find it interesting because I’m having a hard time with this question. I think it would be an overstatement to say that I don’t consider myself a female artist, especially after my previous answer about seeing a distinction between the entitlement of the male artists I’ve known versus the women. I guess what I’m moved to say on this subject is that when I was young, I was very competitive and, in a way, very masculine, in part because it was my nature, and in part because I graduated from college at nineteen already knowing I was a writer and expecting to publish in the next few years, which majorly did not happen. I drove myself really hard for many years. I have three unpublished novels, two unproduced screenplays, plus one I wrote with my writing partner—the lovely and brilliant Amelia Gray—dozens of unpublished short stories and essays, plus all of the hundreds of articles I wrote, and a dozen ghostwritten books, plus all the ideas that never materialized. And it’s only recently that I realized I was writing faster than I was having time to grow as a person [and] figure out how I felt and what I thought about my life and that it would actually benefit me personally and artistically to live more and write less in order to have more to draw on in my writing. And I’m finding that much of what is really nurturing my writing these days is what would traditionally be considered the woman’s world or the domestic sphere. I have an absolutely lovely boyfriend, who happens to be a visual artist, and we spend lots of time cooking and reading and talking about the world, not necessarily for any specific art project, but for the project of life, which I know is enriching the essays I’m writing right now and will impact the novel and TV script I’m about to write. So I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying I was always really scared of missing any opportunities if I was too feminine, too much of a female artist, but now I’m finding that being a little more well-rounded might actually be the better path, both for my writing and for me personally. I also have an incredible publisher who’s a dear friend, and she pointed some of this out to me when I was working on my memoir: She said she had seen me grow a great deal as a person in the last few years, and she thought I needed to slow down a little in my writing, so I could reflect this on the page. It’s not an easy thing for me to do, but I’m really making an effort.

Rumpus: That’s really interesting. So what direction do you see your writing taking with this new growth? What’s your next project?

Tomlinson: Good question! I’m in the very preliminary stages of a TV script that’s too early in the process to discuss. And I definitely want to write a novel next, as a shift in perspective from all of this nonfiction. I had started writing a modern version of Great Expectations with a female Pip, and the convict re-envisioned as a down-on-his luck gay brit pop singer—imagine Morrissey having a brush with the law while doing the casino circuit. But I need to sit down with it where I’m at now and see if it still has a heartbeat for me. If it doesn’t, I’m going to allow myself the terrifying-but-exciting experience of starting from scratch. I know it maybe sounds hyperbolic, but writing this memoir about my dad really did change my life. It changed how I interact with the world in major ways. So I’m really intrigued to see where this new sensibility will bring me creatively. I definitely think my writing will be happier than it’s been in the past. I hope that’s a good thing.

Rumpus: One of the things that’s remarkable about your career is that you’ve written in so many different modes. You have this memoir, all the celebrity ghostwriting, the scripts, the fiction, personal essays, and of course, your music criticism. It seems that in the past few years, perhaps in correlation with the rise of social media, we’ve seen a lot of think pieces about the changing role of the critic. Could you speak to that?

Tomlinson: I definitely came out of the old school of criticism, which is amazing to consider, given that I only graduated from journalism school fourteen years ago. But a ton has changed in that time. I also had the privilege of an incredible and kind of old fashioned education. Simon’s Rock and Bard are based on the great books curriculum, so we read all of the classics from Plato to Freud, and we were taught to think, as best as they could with us being the self-centered teenagers we were. As a music critic, I was aware of all of the truly great art and thinking that came before my generation. And as a critic working primarily for a daily newspaper, the Boston Globe, I knew my job was to put the bands I was writing about in some larger context for the reader, help them understand where the bands came from, what they sounded like, and whether or not the reader would enjoy listening to them.

That sounds impossibly square compared to the newer styles of criticism that are so much about attitude and having as much personality in a review as the artist does in the piece itself. I can see a place for both styles of writing. There are some hilarious, enfant terrible critics out there these days who I read sometimes because it can be fun to see them take the piss out of things. But I try to filter most of that out, even if it is the norm now. It feels really lazy to me. As a critic, I always thought about how much longer it took the artist to make the record I was reviewing than it took me to write the review. How much more was at stake for them. And so I tried to be respectful, even if their album didn’t really work or their live concert was lacking. And I feel like that kind of criticism isn’t in vogue anymore, except for in old school publications like the New York Times and the New Yorker, which is where I consume most of my criticism these days anyhow. At the same time, I don’t think it’s the end of civilization that more people have a platform to be critical from. I rely on Yelp to decide where to get a fish taco just like everyone else, and it’s a valuable tool, which I’m glad to have.

Rumpus: Your friends’ nickname for you is the Duchess of Rock. If you could create a soundtrack to accompany Good Girl, what songs would it include?

Tomlinson: I actually asked my publisher if they would let me create a Spotify playlist to accompany my book, which they did. I had so much fun putting it together. It ranges from Bob Dylan’s “Sara,” which is where my mom got the inspiration for my name, through Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting,” which is about Wilhelm Reich’s home, Orgonon—where my dad took me to on one of our rare visits during my childhood—includes some punk and goth from my teen years—The Cure and The Misfits—and then covers the three cities where I was involved in the music scene: Heatmiser and the Murder City Devils from my days in the Pacific Northwest, the Lot Six and the Strokes from my days writing about music in Boston, and the Silversun Pickups and Lavender Diamond to represent my life in LA. I really hope people will listen to it while they’re reading my book!


Author photo © Piper Ferguson.

Tracy O'Neill is the author of The Hopeful (June 2015.) In 2012, she was awarded the Emerging Writers Fellowship by the Center for Fiction. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Guernica, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and The Literarian. You can read her nonfiction online at Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Bookforum, Grantland, The Millions, and Tweed's. More from this author →