SARI WILSON is the author of the acclaimed novel Girl Through Glass, which was long-listed for the Center for Fiction debut novel prize, an Amazon Book of the Month, a The Millions Best seller, and featured on NPR and in The New York Times. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Catapult, Slice, AGNI, and other publications. She is the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship, and residencies from The Corporation of Yaddo, Ragdale Foundation, and Byrdcliffe. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, the cartoonist Josh Neufeld, and their daughter. She and Josh co-edited Flashed, a linked collection of prose and comics, published by Butler University Press.
Sari grew up in a Victorian brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, has lived in San Francisco, Chicago, and Prague, and now lives back in Brooklyn a few miles from where she grew up. As a child, she studied ballet at Neubert Ballet Theater, Harkness Ballet, and was on scholarship at Eliot Feld’s New Ballet School.
I was born and raised in New York City, during the years when the city was in a financial nosedive. When I was a kid, my parents bought an old Victorian house in Brooklyn and started renovating it. When my brother and I came home from school, one of our chores was to scrape off layers of wallpaper. (We learned about the dangers of the lead in old paint when one of our dogs had to be hospitalized from eating paint chips off the floor.)
One of my clearest childhood memories was the infamous NYC blackout of 1977. I remember walking to the Brooklyn Promenade with my family and staring across the water at the lights of Manhattan, which had gone dark. It was a truly existential moment for me. Even after the lights came on, I wondered “what if?” All though my childhood, I was haunted by “what ifs” like this.
Today, as a writer sometimes I feel like I am answering those childhood questions.
At eight, I started ballet, at a studio in Carnegie Hall. I loved performing with the children’s dance company. When I was about 12, I moved to Harkness Ballet, and then on to the Feld ballet school. I was a child of the 1970s. Many of my friends’ parents were divorced, society seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Ballet—with its faded European ideals of grandeur—seemed a haven, safe in its fantasies of beauty and perfection. I fell deeply for it.
But after I hit puberty, my body changed rapidly. At the same time, there was increased pressure to commit to dance as a profession. The years of ballet are short and life decisions must be made early. I made a painful decision: I wouldn’t continue. (And here, maybe, was born another “what if”.)
By college, I was still struggling with a loss of an identity—and a physicality— that had defined me. My junior year of college, while studying in Italy, I began to write. I was discovering that words could give you a power over experience, even difficult experiences.
I became determined to become a writer—but I knew I needed more knowledge, more experience. So what did I do? It’s a long story, but I ended up cutting of most of my hair and going to live on an Israeli kibbutz, then working in Greece, and backpacking in Turkey and Egypt. After graduating from college, I left the country again, traveling in Southeast Asia, living and teaching in Prague. (Another story!) But after more than a year abroad, I ended up back in the States, where I began working as a journalist, an editor, in various publishing jobs. I moved from one coast to the other chasing writing fellowships and residencies.
More than a decade passed.
Just before September 11, 2001, I moved back to Brooklyn. As I walked around a rebooted version of my childhood city, I was haunted by childhood memories. I thought of T. S. Eliot’s oft-quoted lines:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I began to write a book about a girl, in Brooklyn, who falls in love with ballet—and with a certain time, a threshold time, in a city on a brink. It took me over ten years to finish writing that novel, which became Girl Through Glass.
Today, I live with my husband, the cartoonist Josh Neufeld, and my daughter, in a Brooklyn apartment a few miles from where I grew up. I’m working on a new novel, editing as a consultant, going to yoga class with my daughter, and watching all these new condo buildings rise around us. You can find me chasing down a new set of “what-ifs.” And still thinking about going back to ballet class.
If you want to go deeper:
My first ballet studio was mentioned in Josef Astor’s documentary about the “lost bohemia” of Carnegie Hall
I wrote about switching from dance to writing for Catapult ‘s “Turning Points”
I wrote a comic and Josh drew it—about returning to Brooklyn and starting a family