There is a noticeable change in Sarah Crossan when you ask her to talk about her latest novel One.
We have just met in the foyer of Brooks Hotel in Dublin and until now she’s quirky, friendly and full of chat.
She has lots of questions but the moment we switch from talking about me to talking about her novel, her face loses its colour and a noticeable lump forms in her throat.
“The reception has been pretty good for this and that has made me wobble a bit,” she says.
“It’s probably the book that has mattered to me the most so far. I get very passionate about it. I just think it’s the most authentic in terms of exploring what it means to love another person”
One tells the story of Grace and Tippi, conjoined twins whose lives are about to take a dramatic change. Funding for their homeschooling has been cut which means they must venture into the real world.
“So they now have to face the trials of any normal child — Bullying, friendship issues, smoking, drinking, rejection and even love,” says Sarah.
As well as facing the rigours of day-to day-life together, it becomes apparent that something is not quite right.
“One of them keeps collapsing and pulling the other one down and we learn that Tippi has a heart condition which means she’s putting a lot of pressure on Grace’s heart,” she says.
“If they don’t separate they’re going to die. Inevitably they have to make the decision to go on as long as they can or separate. The odds of them separating and living are very, very small,” she says.
The 37-year-old novelist has spent her life living between Ireland and the UK. She was born to Irish parents. Her mother hails from Meath and her father from Donegal.
Although she moved to Churchtown at the age of seven and spent her pre-teens in Dublin, her later life has been spent close to London and bar the occasional appearance of a tinny Irish ‘t’, her accent is most definitely English.
For someone who has just written a novel about conjoined sisters, Sarah has no sisters of her own.
“I have an older brother and two younger ones,” she says.
“I’d love a sister. I mean I’m very close to my mum and my best friend is like family to me.
"There are things you just can’t talk to your brothers about so I’d have loved a sister. Who knows though maybe we’d have hated each other.”
Any suggestion that this book is somehow compensating for not having a sister is quickly and very politely laid to rest.
“I think it was having a daughter more than anything,” says Crossan.
“I was watching a documentary called Joined for Life about Brittany and Abby Hensel who live in Minnesota and as you’re watching you’re thinking they seem very normal but it still strikes you as odd; that you couldn’t live without privacy.
“So at the same time that I had had my daughter and I was doing the breastfeeding, and carrying her around in a carrier and all the rest of it.
"So you’ve basically got this child attached to you and you think well this is totally normal. The idea of being so bonded to your child, people think that’s fantastic but they turn their noses up at this disability.
“I began to wonder what’s the difference. It’s like when you’re in love, you curl up with each other and you never want to let go and no one bats an eyelid but the idea that you might want to stay attached to a sibling, people can’t fathom that,” she says.
Crossan had posed herself an intriguing question. And it wouldn’t go away. What started out as curiosity soon became months of research and it revealed that in most cases conjoined twins are happy to stay together.
“More often than not they don’t want to be separated,” says Sarah.
“It’s only for medical reasons that they have to be. Now I should say that few make it to adulthood but those that do say they never want to be separated. It’s all about perception.
"The general perception of what it is to be an individual and our perception of what it is to be happy. They don’t have that because they’ve been born the way they are,” she says.
Having studied English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Warwick, Sarah spent 10 years teaching in secondary schools both in England and the US.
Throughout her teaching career, she wrote but never thought “a person like her” could ever become a writer.
“I was teaching a class on living your dreams one day and a student asked me if I had always wanted to be a teacher,” says Sarah.
“I told them about the writing and she basically told me I had some cheek to tell them to live their dreams and not pursue my own,” she says.
On the back of that somewhat jocular criticism, Sarah returned to university to pursue a Master’s in creative writing. Something she says that validated her writing and gave her the courage and encouragement to keep going.
For a number of years, Crossan struggled to make an impact. She returned to teaching to make ends meet and wrote in the evenings. Her big break came when an agent picked up The Weight of Water and it became a bestseller.
One is Sarah’s fifth book and her toughest challenge.
“It was really difficult to write,” she says.
“I had written about 30,000 words and then I didn’t know how to get any further. I went to my agent and told her it was dead and flat and she said start again. I binned the whole thing and started in verse,” she says.
While her agent’s initial advice might have been taken somewhat grudgingly at first, the result is a novel that is quite unique in its style of narration. Grace and Tippi’s story is told in short digestible snapshots.
“The format is very important to it. It makes the reader stop or focus on a particular image and it means each poem or part of the story has its own focus as well as being part of the overall,” she says.
“It allows the reader to breathe at the bits where you want them to breathe and if there are poems that are really sad and there are you can let them do that. You can let them take it in.”
For some the idea of reading in verse might be off-putting but the result in this case is beguiling.
The reader is somehow relieved of the burden of reading and allowed to concentrate on the inevitable emotional burden that comes with such a topic.
“For me it’s a book about disability and the way that we perceive people who have unusual anatomies,” says Sarah.
It was really difficult to write, I didn’t know how to get any further
There are things you just can’t talk to your brothers about
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