After working for a nonprofit organization in London for nine years, Sarah Alderson decided to pack her bags and leave the city in search for her dream life. Together with her husband and daughter, Alderson, now 35, landed on the shores of Bali. That was four years ago, and the family has been in Ubud since.
Alderson, the author of several young adult books, spoke to Jakarta Globe about life on the island and her work as a writer.
Why did you make this bold decision to leave England behind?
I love London. It’s my home town, but after we had our daughter I felt like I was juggling too much — working full time, commuting, parenting, housework. We had this idea that the grass might be greener somewhere else and I wanted to live somewhere hot!
We wrote down what our dream life would look like — it included a great school, sunshine, somewhere filled with creative people and an inspiring community and then, having written our list, we decided we’d go looking for it. So many people believe that life has to be an endless 9-to-5 slog until retirement but we didn’t want to wait 35 years before we could pursue our dreams.
We bought round-the-world tickets — using a loan from the bank for a ‘new bathroom’ and the money we’d saved for a second child — and headed off on a mission to find a new place to call home. Quitting our jobs was the scariest thing we’ve ever done but it was easily the best thing too.
We have no regrets. It has changed our lives beyond recognition. It’s been nearly four years since we left but not a day goes by where we don’t catch each other’s eye and grin and say, ‘This is our life! Wow!’
Where has your journey taken you, and why did you choose Bali as your new home in the end?
We started in India, then went to Singapore, Malaysia and Bali. Within days of arriving in Ubud we knew we had found somewhere very special. I had been here when I was 18, and it had changed so much, but it ticked so many boxes when it came to the life we were looking for. We went on to Australia and California after staying here for three months, but we’d already booked our return flight to Bali and rented a house here.
What do you like most about the Balinese people?
We have learned so much from the Balinese. Their way of life and their commitment to community, family and religion has really opened our eyes to a better and more sustainable way of living.
I like the calmness, the lack of aggression. Coming from a city where you feel anger bubbling quite frequently beneath the surface it’s a relief to live somewhere so peaceful. In London, strangers rarely smile at one another, but here everyone smiles.
You published your first novel ‘Hunting Lila’ in 2011. Was writing always something you did, or was it more like a spur-of-the-moment thing?
Once we quit our jobs in London I knew that I needed to find some way of earning money while we were traveling as I couldn’t imagine living off my husband — I’m a total feminist on that score. I had never written anything before, other than funding reports and had never even considered becoming a writer.
About four months before we left London, I was swimming and mulling over what I could do to earn money, having no discernible skills whatsoever. I was running through ideas in my head and started thinking about Stephenie Meyer who wrote ‘Twilight,’ and how much money she’d made from writing about sparkly vampires. It was a very naive Eureka! moment — if I had bothered to research the average income a writer makes I might have kept on swimming and dreaming up other ideas.
Two lengths later though I’d decided to write a young adult book, and about six lengths later I had the kernel of an idea for the book that became ‘Hunting Lila.’ I started writing when I got home and kept at it after work when my daughter was asleep. It took me about four months to finish.
I had no idea if it was any good but I knew that I had found something I absolutely loved! It was such an epiphany and today I honestly think that I was always meant to write, it just took me 30 years to figure that out, but now I’m making up for lost time.
The day before we left on our round-the-world trip I posted off my manuscript to agents and within weeks I was signed to one of the top agents in the UK. I sold ‘Hunting Lila’ and the sequel to Simon & Schuster. Now I’m on my fifth book with them and have just signed another two.
‘Hunting Lila’ is now in the early stages of film production and I’m also dipping my toe into new adult fiction and screenwriting. More than anything, living in Bali has given me the space and time to write and for that I’m so grateful.
What are the biggest challenges in writing novels for young adults, and what are the biggest rewards?
Staying on top of language and pop culture is a challenge, but I’m obsessed with pop culture so now I call my daily celeb blog trawl ‘research.’
Sometimes my copy editor writes notes in the margin of my books that remind me that I’m in my 30s. In my head I still think I’m 17 which can be a problem as sometimes I’ll have made a reference to a movie that was made before most teenagers were born. Or to a film star old enough to be their dad.
Still, is it time to hang up my Y.A. [young adult] hat? No way. It’s all about tapping into those emotions we all experienced as teenagers and I find I can do it very easily. A lot of the things I got up to as a teenager wind up in my books. ‘The Sound’ — my new book — is about an English girl who nannies for a summer in the US, something that I did when I was 17.
I threw in a serial killer though — that part was fiction.
The rewards of writing young adult are the e-mails and tweets that I get all the time from fans. They’re so positive and so full of energy and joy and bursting at the seams with excitement. I love that. I wish adults could be injected with some of that enthusiasm.
Who were your favorite authors when you grew up?
I read lots of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. I also loved ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am so sad that young adult wasn’t a genre back when I was a teenager. It was really just Judy Blume. Today there’s so much choice. I am blown away by some young adult authors writing today and think more adults should read them; John Green, Melina Marchetta, Rick Yancey, Suzanne Collins are just some I’d recommend.
On your website, you encourage readers to send messages to the fictional characters in your books. What are the e-mails you usually receive?
I love writing young adult fiction because I think the readers are so brilliant. They engage so fully with the books and the characters, and the e-mails I receive in response are just wonderful. I’ve had e-mails from people saying that they had never read a whole book before picking up ‘Hunting Lila’ and now they are hooked on reading. That is probably the thing that makes me happiest of all — to know that I’ve opened the door for someone to the incredible, magical world of books.
Readers tend to send very funny e-mails to my characters. I have had people e-mail asking if they are real people. Most people e-mail Alex, the male lead in ‘Hunting Lila,’ asking about his perfect date, how he feels about Lila, what they’re up to now, if they’re making babies … that kind of thing.
Do you see yourself staying in Bali, returning to London, or maybe even moving on to a new place? Are you ever homesick?
This is a question that my husband and I ask regularly. He has a business here in Bali — Hubud — a co-work space in Ubud — and our daughter is at the fabulous Green School and is thriving there. We have so many great friends here and I love the community we live in but I am a wanderer at heart, a little bit of a vagabond. I love to travel.
The one thing we are sure of is that we won’t ever move back to London. I’m freezing in Bali in August so I don’t think I could ever manage a UK winter again. I’m rarely homesick but when I am it’s for fields and woods, the smell of leaves and autumn and a pint of beer down the pub with the Sunday papers. I also crave British humor. You cannot beat it. And Marks & Spencer underwear of course.
You will be joining the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in October. What can we expect from you there?
I am running a free workshop for young adults aged 15 to 21 on ‘How to Turn Your Idea Into a Book,’ and I’ll also be taking part in a couple of panel discussions.