Sarah Willis, Novelist


Ishmael’s voice is Melville’s. Tamara Andersen’s voice is her own. This is Sarah Willis’s achievement, of course, not Tamara’s, for Tamara is the protagonist and narrator of Some Things That Stay, Willis’s delicious first novel.

Tamara talks to us for 273 pages about the details of her daily life and the ways they inform, and are informed by, leaving—places, houses, schools, friends.

“We move each year in the spring, like birds migrating, except we don’t go back to a familiar place. We pack up who we are and the few things that cling to us, and drive away.”

Tamara’s father is a landscape painter, and he uproots his family annually to find new subjects for his artist’s eye, new versions of the land coming to life in the spring. Willis is clever enough to hint at, instead of hitting us over the head with, the ironies of a situation where consciousness also emerges like the new grass. For Tamara the act of leaving is more than an inconvenience. It attacks her sense of self. Leaving becomes an emblem of losing, forgetting and, ultimately, of changing.

Reviews in the New York Times Book Review, the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, are full of praise for the book and the writing. “Her sentences,” says the Cleveland Free Times’s Amy Sparks, “are hard and clear and bright. They gather themselves into a wave.

Sarah Willis grew up in Cleveland Heights, where she still lives.She began writing poetry as a teenager as a way of dealing with the death of her father, Kirk Willis, an actor and director at the Cleveland Play House for 40 years. She dropped out of high school. At 17, she began to work at the Free Clinic of Greater Cleveland. She enrolled in the former Friends Free School, attended Cuyahoga Community College and Otterbein, finally graduated from Case Western Reserve with a degree in theater.

She began to write stories. She married, had children, divorced. She kept writing. (“No Iowa M.F.A. writing workshop for her,” says Sparks. “No schmoozing over Chardonnay at Breadloaf. Just dogged determination.”) She quit watching TV. She took non-degree graduate courses in creative writing at Cleveland State University. Her stories began to be published. She was invited to teach at CSU’s public writing workshop, and founded the East Side Writers’ Group. Now she works part-time at Roth’s Pharmacy at the top of Cedar Hill—“a simple job,” she says, that does not interfere with her writing. Her new novel will be published in the fall of 2001.

—Henry Shapiro


Cleveland Arts Prize
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