Ask Sarah Gailey how they became a Hugo and Nebula–nominated novelist of more than seven books within five years of publishing their first short story and they shrug.
“I’m so surprised,” says Gailey. Their eyebrows shoot up into short, spiky dark brown hair. “Every single day I wake up and I’m like, ‘How did this happen?’ It’s so bonkers.”
But a quick chat reveals a clear path: Gailey’s supercharged success is driven by single-minded spite. Tell them there’s something they can’t do and they’ll aim to prove you wrong—and fast.
This year saw Gailey publishing their first YA, When We Were Magic, while completing their most ambitious novel yet, The Echo Wife, a clone story with a domestic drama bent (out from Tor in February), as well as a first-time foray into comics. All this, and five years ago, they had no plans for a writer’s life at all.
Settling in at their desk at home in sunny Southern California, a Pride flag pinned on the bulletin board behind them, they bashfully explain how it all happened. Growing up in Fremont, “I had really bad asthma, so I spent a lot of time on a nebulizer, reading,” they recall. “I tried to find all the stuff that was way too old for me, the things my two older sisters were reading, teen stuff, stuff about serial killers.”
Formative works included the Goosebumps and Fear Street series, along with the works of Clive Barker, Garth Nix, Jonathan Stroud, and other sci-fi, fantasy, and horror authors. But they were also hoping for self-discovery in books. “I was starting to form my own identity, especially as a queer person, without really letting anyone know I was doing it,” they say. “I remember reading Annie on My Mind, a very classic queer tragedy, like 20 times. I was trying to map out my future, because then, as now, I overthought every single aspect of my life.”
At 25, after a year studying theater at the American Academy for the Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles and a few years spent managing a theater company in the East Bay run by an abusive ex-boyfriend, Gailey was floundering. They were working as a temp at a tech policy research firm in San Francisco. Bored, they often critiqued short stories for a friend, offering extensive editorial feedback. Eventually, they thought they’d try writing, too. When they asked for feedback, the friend “came back with ‘Some people should stick to what they’re good at,’ ” Gailey says. “I didn’t write anything again for six months.” But then they had another idea. And another. “I wrote 27 short stories in my first year of writing, and started getting them published.”
Gailey’s first published short story, “Look,” about a baby born with its eyes fused shut, appeared in the online literary magazine Cease Cows in 2017. Soon they had racked up fiction credits in publications including Vice and the Atlantic. Gailey’s approach, they explain, was similar to their approach to most things. “I’m going to do this over and over again until I hate it. But the thing is, writing hasn’t stopped being interesting,” they explain. “I really tripped and fell into a passion.”
A 2017 short story, “Haunted,” published in Fireside Fiction, earned the attention of agent DongWon Song at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. He took a look at Gailey’s then-simmering novella “River of Teeth,” a historical western about cowboys and hippos in the American Southeast. “He said, ‘I like your work, but I can’t represent you based on a novella. Do you have a novel?’ ” Gailey recalls with a smirk. “And I said: ‘Absolutely not, I’m never going to write a novel. They’re too long. They sound really scary. Everyone I know who writes novels seems miserable all the time. I will never do it.’ ”
Two weeks later, when he called with feedback on the novella, Gailey sold him on the concept for Magic for Liars, a novel they pitched as what might happen “if Veronica Mars went to Hogwarts.” He signed them. The novella “River of Teeth” was published by Tor in 2018, earning Gailey Nebula and Hugo nods, and its companion, “A Taste of Marrow,” hit shelves the following year. And their debut novel, Magic for Liars, was published by Tor in 2019, followed by a third novella, “Upright Women Wanted.”
Most of Gailey’s work lies in sci-fi and fantasy, but tropes like the magic school in Magic for Liars and the clones in Echo Wife are grounded in the reality of domestic drama and relationships, very much informed by their own life experiences.
“I have been through a lot of emotionally difficult things and a lot of how I process that is in my writing, which is super healthy and emotionally sustainable,” says Gailey, who was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder after an abusive relationship. They see that reaction to trauma echoed in their novella “A Taste for Marrow.” “I’m very interested in identity and duality, in paths not taken, in who I could’ve been if I made different choices,” they say. “I’ve had a very traumatic life and spent a lot of time trying to make sure I’m the best person I can be, despite the various mental illness things that could shape me.”
Their YA debut, When We Were Magic, released by Simon Pulse in March, features an ensemble of six best friends coping with the fallout of a magical disaster—and its impact on their friendship. And yes, they wrote it despite themself.
Gailey was initially reluctant to write YA. When their agent suggested it, Gailey responded, “No way, no how. I’m never writing YA. It’s too hard. It’s too scary. Too much pressure,” they recall with a laugh. “And DongWon was like, ‘Okay, well, if you feel like you don’t feel like you have anything important to say to queer teens, if you think you can’t do it, then don’t do it.’ And that’s how he got me to do it. He made me come at it from the perspective of ‘What did I need someone to tell me when I was a teenager?’ And that’s the book I wrote. It’s all about the fact that it’s okay to screw up in ways that have consequences, in ways that you can’t fix. And your friends can still love you in that time.”
Gailey also explored nonbinary characters extensively on the page before coming out as nonbinary themself. “When I was writing Magic for Liars, I was still in that place of being not in the closet but not out of the closet either,” Gailey says. “I was married to a lovely man and part of a church community that was neutral. At the time I was letting it just push me back into the closet. And the discomfort of passing as something you’re not—by virtue of letting people assume—that was very much part of Magic for Liars.”
If Magic for Liars was about trying on new personae, Echo Wife is about shedding ill-fitting identities altogether—and is rooted in another dark moment in Gailey’s own life. It deals with the aftermath of their divorce. In the book, scientist Evelyn decides to divorce her husband when she learns he’s created a more docile, agreeable clone of her. “It’s very much the next Pokémon evolution of that idea of dual identities,” Gailey explains. “Evelyn knows who she is, always has power and agency. The clone Martine is so much what a heteropatriarchal society decides is the ideal: the version of me that would have been Sarah Gailey, lady author, all cardigans and knee-length skirts and long hair. I could go to my day job and go to church and look like a heterosexual, respectable, married woman who thinks that your jokes about golf are funny.”
Gailey offers the caveat that their own ex-husband is a lovely man. But the catharsis of the split was a period of self-discovery for them as a person and a writer. “I was trying figure out who I was when I wasn’t trying to meet everyone else’s expectations,” Gailey says. “It was terrifying. So scary. I wanted to write about clones, and the whole idea fell out of my brain in a big chunk. I kept asking myself: ‘What needed to be different about me to make that marriage work out in the ways it didn’t?’ I’m so interested in finding out what everyone thinks is good and bad in each of these two characters—because there’s a lot of me in both of them.”
A recent dive into the world of comics with the Steven Universe series did offer Gailey some respite from all the emotional upheaval their work brings. “I was writing them at the same time as I was writing The Echo Wife,” they say, “so in the morning it would be, ‘Here’s all my deepest, darkest trauma and fears.’ Then I would take a break and write a dance party at the beach.
“It was so much fun,” Gailey continues. “I asked myself: ‘What do I wish someone had told me in fourth or fifth grade?’ And I came up with things like: ‘It’s okay to take a break, even if there’s lots to do,’ or, ‘It’s okay if your friend is sad, sometimes it helps to just sit and listen.’ I also did a really fun ‘Here’s how to make chicken soup’ comic. You know, the important things in life.”