Interview with Sarah Holtkamp

SH pictureSarah Holtkamp is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina – Asheville. She is one of the featured fiction writers for the inaugural issue of the Oakalnd Arts Review. You can read her short story, “Desert Stars,” in the OAR coming out soon.

– Bethany Olson


You start and end your story, “Desert Stars,” with references to Johnny Cash. How important is music in your writing? Why did you pick Johnny Cash in particular? 

Music is a resource of mine for drawing inspiration and mood. It makes finding the words easier sometimes. That said, I didn’t pick Johnny Cash for this story out of any preference for his music or in an effort to establish the tone. Johnny Cash just seemed like an artist old enough to have a best-of album on cassette that Fiddle would have lying around in his truck. I chose Johnny Cash because it fit Fiddle, not because of any sort of symbolism involved with the artist. Seriously, I know nothing about Johnny Cash.


You make multiple pop culture references throughout the story. Do you feel adding contemporary references change or influence a reader? 

I think pop culture references can extend a sense of familiarity to the reader. It grounds the characters to the story and setting rather than letting them float around in some timeless place. For contemporary audiences especially, pop culture references may invoke nostalgia or present a point of relatability between the reader and the characters.

I noticed you don’t use quotation marks throughout your story. What is the reason behind this stylistic choice? 

I like the way it gives the dialogue more of a rambling feel. Call it more natural or something, but I know when I’m listening to someone speak, I don’t mentally close quotation marks around their sentences. Everything is observation. I wanted to make that impression.


What draws you to fantasy? Have you read any fantasy stories that may have inspired or influenced “Desert Stars”?

Simply put, I grew up with fantasy and fiction. If it didn’t have magic or dragons or aliens in it, I probably didn’t want to read it. As so many others will agree, fantasy is an escape from tedious reality, but more than that, fantasy is an opportunity to invent literally anything, no matter how crazy. Discovering that I could take advantage of that opportunity through writing gave me the power to never be bored. As for influential stories, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust comes to mind, as does that horrible webcomic called Homestuck.

What do you like about fiction versus other genres? Would you consider branching out and trying nonfiction or poetry?

It’s funny you ask that, because most of my original work recently has been creative nonfiction. But fiction is great because you can just make shit up. When I was having friends read and critique “Desert Stars,” one girl asked me if it was a true story. And I just kind of… well… I didn’t tell her no.
I write some poetry, too, but I wouldn’t want to subject anyone to that.


What do you feel is the most challenging part of writing short stories?

The most challenging part for me is finding the time and concentration to write. I seem to have the most ideas when I’m too busy to write them down, and the least motivation when I have nothing else to do.

Who are you favorite contemporary writers?

Neil Gaiman, Andrew Hussie, Khaled Hosseini. All three make me cry.

What advice do you have for other undergraduates who are looking to publish their work?

Befriend your professors in your literature or English department. They would be the first to have connections to reputable publications and will be enthusiastic to answer any questions. Failing that, university websites usually have a page about their creative magazines, as well as information on who is eligible to submit.

What inspired you to pursue creative writing as an undergrad?

Oh, gosh, fanfiction probably.
There’s a story I’m not telling right now. Or ever.

What is your favorite book and why?

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll piss off your conservative relatives when they ask what you’re reading.

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