The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #45: Chloe Caldwell in Conversation with Sarah Kilborne

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I interviewed author, Sarah Kilborne, who lives in the same town as I do, Hudson, New York, and takes banjo lessons downstairs in my father’s music store that I live above.

We had dinner a few months ago, where I picked her brain about the writing life, and we both overate pasta. It struck me that she is a wonderful and interesting person, so I asked her a few more questions.

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Chloe: You have a really interesting book coming out next summer with free press/Simon and Schuster. Can you give a synopsis of what the book is about?

Sarah: The Unexpected Hour is about disaster and survival. It’s a true story that took place in 1874, against the backdrop of what was then the worst industrial disaster in American history—the Mill River Disaster of 1874—and explores the extreme challenge of having to rebuild one’s life after losing everything.

Unfortunately, given the amount of disasters that keep plaguing our world, this is not an uncommon occurrence these days, and my story, I hope, will offer the hindsight that history affords to see how one man not only survived disaster but also achieved his greatest success because of it.

Chloe: While writing it, what was your diet like? I know I am addicted to coffee with cinnamon and hot water with lemon and honey and peanut butter in oatmeal when I write. Are there any foods that did or didn’t get you through the writing binges?

Sarah: I LOVE this question. Just the other night I was having dinner with a bunch of artist friends and we spent at least the first hour talking about our daily morning routines. We all have them! As for food, it’s a distraction while working. So I eat, basically, the same thing every day for morning and lunch so that I don’t have to waste energy thinking, “What am I going to have for lunch today?” For breakfast: millet with mulberries and butter. For lunch: leftovers from dinner the night before. There is, however, one constant at my desk: a hot beverage. I can’t sit down to write without a hot beverage. Morning, we’re talking PG Tips with milk. Afternoon, a black loose-leaf tea, straight up (i.e. no milk). Funny, our little idiosyncrasies.

Chloe: You lived in New York City for eighteen years. How many times would you say you fell in love in New York?

Sarah: I fell in love with New York every time I came back from the airport and drove into the city, passing all those brownstones, all those neighborhoods, all that history.

Chloe: If you could live on any street in New York City rent-free, which would you choose and why?

Sarah: I would live on either West 11th or 12th, between 5th and 6th. I used to live in the Village and would walk down these blocks all the time with my dog. They are lovely. Smack in the middle of the New School campus, but filled with life and community and history. (Can you tell I like history?)

Chloe: As a twenty-five-year old nonfiction writer, what three books would you recommend to me?

Sarah: My genre is narrative nonfiction, so along those lines—and I’m giving you five!

1. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

3. Endurance by Alfred Lansing

4.  Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

5. A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

Each of these books will take you places, and any good book does just that.

Chloe: What was the last self-help book you read?

Sarah: I can’t remember—but just this weekend I had houseguests who attended a workshop with Pema Chodron at the Omega Institute. Then another friend, randomly, told me that she had been reading a book by Chodron. I think I’d like to read one of Chodron’s books after hearing so much about her. She seems to be both extraordinary and accessible—a rare combo.

Chloe: You take banjo lessons at my dad’s music store. What provoked you to take up the banjo? What’s your favorite song to play?

Sarah: I must have been sprinkled with banjo dust during my sleep last fall because one day, out of the blue, it came to me: “I want to learn to play the banjo.” My dad had played the banjo—and I had inherited his banjo—but it had sat in storage for years. Then, one early December day last year, I made a special trip to my storage facility in New Jersey just for that banjo. I’ve been in love ever since.

Chloe: Fill in the blank: “I am getting _______ and _________ all the time.”

Sarah: I am getting braver and bolder all the time.

For example, when I left New York, I moved to a farmhouse 2.5 hours north of the city. I didn’t know a soul in the area. I didn’t even know where to buy milk. And I had never lived in the country before. But moving up here seemed like the right thing to do, and so I did it. To my surprise, I feel more at home than ever.

Chloe: If you had the option to sit next to either Woody Allen or Barack Obama on a twelve-hour flight, whom would you choose?

Sarah: Barack Obama. We’d be in Air Force One, so the accommodations would be rather comfortable, and I could talk to him for twelve hours about the world.

Chloe: If you were alone in an elevator with Barack Obama, what would you ask him?

Sarah: Honestly, I’d just like to stare at his face and read there what he wasn’t telling me. But if I could ask him anything—and if he could be sincere with me—I’d like to ask him, really, “How are you?” I’d like to know how he was feeling in that moment on the elevator—not as president, but as himself. I’m intensely interested in the human experience.

Chloe: What is one thing you did this week that you are proud of?

Sarah: I played the banjo with another musician who wasn’t my teacher. A new friend brought her guitar over to my house, and we jammed for at least an hour and a half. It was an amazing experience. A year ago I had no idea how to play the banjo. Music wasn’t even a part of my life—but I wanted it to be. And I’ve made it a part of my life. I picked up this crazy old instrument, found a teacher (your amazing dad), taught my brain to think in a new way, and I can now play music with other people. It blows my mind. I want to tell stories with this banjo.


Chloe Caldwell is the author of the essay collection I’ll Tell You in Person (Coffee House/Emily Books, 2016), and the novella, WOMEN (Short Flight/Long Drive, 2014 and Harper Collins UK, 2017). Chloe’s work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Lenny Letter, New York Magazine, Longreads, Vice, Salon.com, The Rumpus, Hobart, Nylon, The Sun, Men’s Health, The Nervous Breakdown, and half a dozen anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in New York City and online, and lives in Hudson. More from this author →