We’re so thrilled to have our VCFA classmate and dear friend Sarah Tomp with us today to talk about her just released (March 3rd!) debut YA novel, My Best Everything! We love this book—it’s a beautifully written love letter brimming with electric passion and the longing of characters who take great risks to get what they think they want. (I read it in two long breathless gulps, staying up half the night to find out what happens!)
Sharry: Welcome Sarah! I found the landscape in MY BEST EVERYTHING to be so richly provocative and specific to the story—could you describe it for our readers?
Sarah: MY BEST EVERYTHING takes place in the fictional town of Dale, located in the New River Valley, within Appalachia Virginia. It’s a small impoverished town tucked between two mountains with a river running through its center. There are wild and overgrown woods surrounding the area. And in those woods, not too far from a rushing stream, is the spot where my main character, Lulu Mendez, convinces her friends Roni and Bucky to set up a copper still “borrowed” from the junkyard where she and Roni work. That’s how they start making and selling moonshine.
Sharry: You seem to know the landscape intimately well—you must have spent a good amount of time there, gathering the details that bring it vividly to life?
Sarah: Although Dale is not a real place, it’s based on several of the towns surrounding Blacksburg, Virginia, where I lived as a teen. It’s the kind of place that feels both wild and safe. It’s where I learned to drive—and I spent a ridiculous amount of time driving and/or riding around on little back roads exploring the area. The river was a favorite place to end up. I loved riding inner tubes down The New River as soon as the days turned warm.
Sharry: Wild and safe—I love that! And such evocative memories of your own teenage years. Can you talk a little about how the landscape of and around Dale plays a part in your story?
Sarah: The setting—the landscape—is integral to the story in just about every way. My main character, Lulu is desperate to leave town. She is eager to head off to college life in sunny California. Although there are things she grudgingly likes about her town, she has never felt like she fits in there. She sees it as a slow and sleepy place, covered with shadows and grit. It’s beautiful, but it’s a rough place too.
This is the way she describes Dale, and the junkyard where she works:
“…that spot coming out of the last long curve, where the silvery beech trees grow all lithe and graceful with the somber, steady hills behind them. That’s a view that feels like hope and goodness, as if the whole world is right and strong. But then, all of a sudden, there it is: Sal’s Salvage. Heaps of rusty cars. Noisy machinery. All of it ugly and old and worn out, and all wrapped up with harsh chain-link fences and barbed wire.”
Over the course of the story, Lulu gets to know her community better. Mason teaches her to drive and they spend hours exploring all the many back roads. She starts to find beauty in unexpected places, and to truly appreciate what it means to be a “Dale girl.”
And then there’s the moonshine. Moonshine is a cultural tradition for this part of the world. It’s something that has always flourished when times get tough. People work hard and do whatever it takes to feed their families. The thick woods and running water make it easier to hide a working still.
I just don’t think this story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.
Sharry: I couldn’t agree more—the story and place are so interwoven. And it feels like you have both affection and such a deeply personal connection to this landscape—would you say that’s true?
Sarah: I loved living in that part of the country! It was an amazing place to spend my teen years. We hiked in the woods, went camping out under the stars, and swam in the lakes and rivers, and the amazing Cascade waterfalls.
So many of my own firsts happened in that place. Memories are tucked into that landscape. There’s a spot on the highway a little north of here (San Diego) that when I’m driving past, it always looks like the hills of Virginia to me. Paired with the colloquial exit named Gopher Canyon, it always makes me feel a little homesick and wistful. But happy, too.
And yet, I never really thought I’d stay there. A lot of my high school friends had lived there all their lives. I was very aware of being an outsider when we moved the summer I turned twelve. So, even though I loved parts of it, maybe that’s why I knew I wouldn’t be staying there forever. I wasn’t as ambitious or determined as Lulu—I never would have had the tenacity to follow through on creating and sustaining a successful moonshine business—but I always assumed I’d end up somewhere else. Just like Lulu.
Sharry: Exactly! Just like Lulu. Thank you so much Sarah for sharing these insights with us today!
Sarah Tomp's Bio
Sarah is the author of My Best Everything, a novel for young adults and a picture book, Red, White and Blue Good-bye. She earned a MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches creative writing for UCSD Extension and lives in San Diego with her family. Visit her at her website: www.sarahtomp.com