When Sarah Sweeney sat down to write her essay, “Tell Me If You’re Lying,” for her nonfiction writing class at Emerson University, she had no idea that some five years later it would go on to become the inspiration and title for her first published book.
“My professor called me the evening I turned it in,” Sweeney said, “and told me that he read it on the subway and cried.”
After her professor shared his reaction with her, she realized the ability she had for longform storytelling. Prior to attending the nonfiction writing class, she had spent a majority of her time writing poetry.
Tell Me if You’re Lying, published by Barrelhouse, contains 11 essays chronicling her sometimes heartbreaking and often hysterical adventures of growing up in Greensboro.
“[The essays] all contain a component of self-discovery, lies and untruths,” Sweeney said in a phone interview.
On Sunday, Sweeney returned to her hometown, the place that played a major influence in her collection of works, to launch the release of her first published book at Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro.
For the first seven years of her life, Sweeney told her mom she wanted to be an opera singer, but she knew that she also had a passion for writing. While this collection is her first book, Sweeney has written about food, travel and music for the Washington Post, Oxford American and the Boston Globe.
“I really like being a journalist and getting into other people’s minds,” Sweeney said. “I’m really good at getting people to tell me their secrets and making connections with people. I think it has to do with being Southern, warm, open and genuine. Being a journalist is one of the best thrills of my life, and I love it so much.”
Even though Sweeney had written the essays over a significant period of time, she did so without the intention of compiling them in a book until she realized that each piece of written work related in some way to the others.
“I gradually started writing essays about my life,” Sweeney said. “I realized that they all had a thread that went through them which was about self-mythologizing and the myths of our lives, the myths of our parents and the myths that are passed down as a part of oral storytelling tradition which helps to form our identity.”
Sweeney had no problem bluntly divulging the details of her love affairs, experimental drug use and early adventures. Yet she was nervous about how her family would react once she recounted the intimate details of her life and reflected upon her relationships with them.
“Because I knew my parents were a little wild, I was a troublemaker, and I knew my childhood was scary and weird, I knew I had stories to tell,” Sweeney said. “I did warn them, and they just mostly laughed.”
Sweeney recently completed another collection of essays that weave the tale of a love affair she had on a boat while in Cozumel, Mexico. Soon she embarks on a weeklong writing residency at Martha’s Vineyard followed by a three-month getaway to Mexico where she will spend time editing her memoir entitled Loose Gringa. While her current book reflects on her experiences while growing up, Sweeney’s new book will discuss the difficulties many women encounter and will take on a more feminist tone, she said.
Although Sweeney has moved on to work on a companion book to Tell Me if You’re Lying, her voice still bounces from the success of her recent book that she feels would have pleased her father.
“I found some healing in the stories and feel I compiled a portrait of my father that he can be proud,” Sweeney said. “I feel like he lives on in this body of work and it something he would have loved.”
Sweeney expects to have her next book published by 2018 and hopes to reach an even larger audience. But for now, readers can enjoy reading all about her adventures in the poignantly raw Tell Me if You’re Lying.