It is my great pleasure to host an interview on the blog today with author Sarah Whelan, with whom I had the privilege of working on her debut novel, The Struggle Within, an adult contemporary novel about a prison counselor who finds herself the unwitting instigator of a prison riot. Her book is currently available in paperback and ebook formats on Lulu and Amazon.
Thank you, Sione. I appreciate the opportunity to introduce your readers to my debut novel.
The concept for this book came from my love of stories with strong female characters and my lifelong ambition to understand and relate to people with diverse backgrounds. Since my work and interests revolve around the criminal justice system, the experiences of prisoners and the counselors who support them are particularly captivating.
I envisioned a situation where a well-meaning but idealistic advocate might inadvertently inspire a powerful, strong-minded prisoner to use violence to force the system change. This is exactly what happens to my protagonist Beth Sharpe and the formidable José Ayala.
As someone who's been immersed in the field of criminal justice for 20+ years, what do you see as the greatest challenge the U.S. justice system faces at this time?
The way I see it, inequality is the biggest problem in the criminal justice system, simply because it is so pervasive. In every facet of the system, treatment and outcomes vary depending on a person’s socioeconomic status, race, and gender. It starts with laws that punish certain crimes more severely than others and continues with police who have enormous discretion over who, when, why, and how they arrest people. Beyond that are issues with bail, prosecutor decisions, and plea bargaining that result in poor people going to prison when others with more resources do not. Finally, there are well-documented racial disparities in parole and in the services and opportunities available to prisoners. Whether or not the bias is intentional, the negative impacts on lower-income communities and people of color are devastating.
How does The Struggle Within engage with these issues? What do you hope readers will take away from it?
The Struggle Within touches on many of the inequalities in the criminal justice system. That said, I am not trying to teach my readers a lesson. Rather, my primary goal is to tell an interesting and entertaining story. I want readers of my book to feel emotionally invested and care what happens next. And if they gain a new perspective or pause to think about injustice, I will be beyond thrilled.
Let's talk for a minute about process. What did your process for writing and editing this book look like?
I work out of my home office in Ellington, Connecticut. I am type of person who needs absolute quiet when I write. I even wear earplugs when other people are around! I get in “the zone” when I’m writing, and to the relief of my two teenage kids, I’ve learned to set a timer to remind me when it’s time to pick them up.
The storyline for The Struggle Within has been developing in the back of my mind for many years. Four years ago, I finally decided to organize all of the notes I’d made, which resulted in a basic outline for the book.
I started writing the story of Beth and José, but what surprised me was how the subplots and the secondary characters revealed themselves. I experienced many “aha” moments, and I know the book would be incomplete without those motivating backstories and supporting characters.
What's one thing you learned from the experience of writing this book that you'll take with you into the next?
Do I have to pick just one? I made so many mistakes writing my first novel! The first thing I’ll do differently is hire a professional editor earlier in the process. I honed my manuscript and edited it over and over again until I thought it was perfect. Only then–after three years–did I engage a professional to do a substantive edit. That’s the point where we met, Sione, and I am truly grateful to you for pointing out the holes in my story that I couldn’t see and for strengthening my writing. I wasted many months editing a manuscript that still needed plot and character work, and I will not make the same mistake again. You also clarified point of view for me, and I must mention that as another important lesson. I had a lot of rewriting to do once I truly understood point of view, so I will pay close attention to this next time.
How about what you did right?
That’s an easy one. I went to writer’s conferences. Muse and the Marketplace in 2015, Write Angles in 2016, and Writer’s Digest in 2017. Before starting The Struggle Within, I had been writing professionally for over a decade, but the style was always formal. I needed to learn the craft of writing fiction, and the information I gathered at conferences helped me with that. They also allowed me to connect with other writers, and that was how I received a referral to you, Sione.
What advice would you give writers who are working on their debut novels?
I would remind them, as I do myself, that “Writers write.” It took a while for me to call myself a writer, even though I was writing for a living. When I had published a few articles in national magazines and started working on my novel, I finally started thinking of myself in this way. Writers have so many other things to do, like marketing and building their online platform. But we need to continually earn that title and remember to keep on writing.
Last but certainly not least, what can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I am always trying to challenge myself. Maybe it’s just that I get bored too easily. Either way, my next book will be totally different from The Struggle Within. It is a backstory of Ebenezer Scrooge. Though I’ve seen many versions of A Christmas Carol, I think there is still more – much more – to tell about this character. Juggling marketing for my first book while writing the second will be my next challenge. I’ll get started on that right now…
As a counselor at the maximum-security Arnone State Correctional Institution, Beth Sharpe sees potential in intelligent prisoners like José Ayala. She teaches them about historical figures who confronted their oppressors, and she encourages them to overcome obstacles––both those of their own making and those imposed on them by society.
When their only chance for redemption is taken away, José and other prisoners follow Beth’s advice and take a stand against the injustice.
But a deadly prison riot was not what she had in mind.
Indiscretions become public, and mistakes have dire consequences. Beth is determined to end the violence, and she is willing to risk her own life to save others. Can she stop the carnage and help the prisoners achieve justice another way? Can she balance her conflicting loyalties and find a peaceful resolution to the riot? Can she live with herself when she understands the true impact of her decisions?
The Struggle Within is a novel with diverse characters, page-turning action, and ethical ambiguities that will leave your book club talking for hours.
Buy on Lulu
Buy on Amazon
About the Author
Sarah Whelan has a master’s degree in criminal justice and twenty years of experience in the field. She has written hundreds of winning grant proposals and published more than a dozen articles. The Struggle Within is her debut novel. You’ll find Sarah either sitting (or standing) at her computer in her Ellington, Connecticut home; exercising at the YMCA; or doing her favorite thing in the world––spending time with her family. You can learn more about her work on her website and connect with her on Facebook.