Subscriber OnlyBooks

Sarah Crossan: ‘I wanted to write about abuse and love and how those things intersect’

Author Sarah Crossan on her pivot from teaching to writing and her latest books on forbidden love affairs and sex dolls

Part of the way through my interview with Sarah Crossan, the author bursts into prayer. “Hail Holy Queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope...”

It’s not that she’s in need of salvation on this afternoon in a Dublin hotel. Rather, she wishes to demonstrate how words can mean something to us long before we understand their literal meaning.

As a child she “could recite that whole prayer without knowing anything about what it meant”, she says. “But I still loved it. It was only years later that I came to understand the meaning of the words. I think poetry works in a similar way.”

Having flown in this morning from her home in east Sussex, Crossan sits across from me looking elegant in an all-black ensemble against ice-blond hair. We’re talking about her time as Laureate na nÓg, between 2018 and 2020, during which she spearheaded the #WeArethePoets campaign, aiming to unravel hang-ups around poetry. Many people, she points out, come away from school “feeling like they were too stupid to understand poetry”. But as she puts it, “it’s not your job to understand a book – it’s a book’s job to understand you.”


Born in 1978 and raised in a family that moved from Dublin to London for economic reasons when she was six, Crossan was not exposed to books from an early age. Rather, religious texts (with all their attendant mysteries) gave her a window into the world of literature.

“My dad’s family are very religious. We were at church a lot. There were a lot of prayers in our house ... I think that was really my introduction to poetry and language, and the beauty and texture of it.”

Later, a teacher would introduce her to Romeo and Juliet, and soon Crossan blossomed into the kind of teenager who (“like a little weirdo”) would ditch friends to see the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican.

“I was sort of intrigued by the romance of the world of literature and theatre as I was growing up. It felt very different to my own home.”

I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I wasn’t one of those people who sent out short stories and was part of a community of writers

Crossan went on to study English and philosophy before spending a decade working as a teacher, in both England and the United States. It was a student who was the catalyst for her pivot into writing: during a lesson about following your dreams, he called her out for not following her own dream.

Soon she enrolled on a master’s degree in creative writing, although it would be many years still before her debut, The Weight of Water, was published, in 2011.

“I did the master’s, and then there was a big gap. I carried on teaching, and I was just kind of squirrelling things away. I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I wasn’t one of those people who sent out short stories and was part of a community of writers.”

In 2010, she received an Edward Albee Fellowship, during which she met other writers who encouraged her to approach an agent.

“I left there in August and got an agent in September. It happened really fast. But I had been writing for 10 years. I had been working all my holidays, getting up early in the morning to write. I was doing it very quietly, so it seemed [as if] suddenly it all happened. But it didn’t work like that. It never works like that.”

On the table between us are some notebooks – Crossan writes her books longhand, then types them up as a first edit. To date, she has published more than a dozen titles, most of them for younger readers, and many in verse form. She has written on large topics, such as dementia (Toffee, 2020), the death penalty (Moonrise, 2017) and the immigrant experience (The Weight of Water, 2013). In 2016, she won the prestigious Carnegie medal for her novel about conjoined twins, One. All of which made it disconcerting when, in 2020, she published her first novel for adults (Here Is the Beehive) and was suddenly afforded a new level of respect.

“It sort of elevates your status in a way that I found really uncomfortable. [It seemed] there was something about me that was different, like I was a proper writer now. And what I was too shy to tell people was that this book was easier to write than the children’s books.”

This year sees the publication of two Crossan novels, Where the Heart Should Be, in March, and Hey, Zoey, this month. The former is a verse novel for teens about a forbidden love affair during the Famine in Ireland. The latter is a (prose) novel for adults about a woman who discovers a sex doll in her garage. Quite the range, and quite the output, especially considering Crossan was going through tough times as she wrote.

“I was caring for my mum. And watching her dying] was really painful. And then you’re writing a book that’s kind of a funny book about trauma, and about sex – balancing those things was really difficult.”

In 2022, Crossan’s mother, Nancy, died. She and Sarah had been extremely close, and Nancy always read drafts of Sarah’s work. The one book she was always waiting for, however, was “the Irish book”. Crossan had spent 12 years trying to write Where the Heart Should Be. Though her mother never got to see the published version, she read a draft before she died.

“I have an email, which I got very sad about when I read it: ‘You’re a genius. It’s going to be amazing. It’s going to be a bestseller.’ Only a mother could read a really crappy first draft and say those things.”

Set in 1846 in Mayo, the book follows a young scullery maid who falls for the nephew of the British landlord for whom she works. It dramatises a period of Irish history during which, as Irish readers are keenly aware, a brutal British rule would lead to the irreparable decimation of our population.

“I wanted to write a book that could be read by young people in Ireland, and they would feel satisfied by it, and not upset that I was not addressing the issues, but also a book that in some way educated English readers,” Crossan says. “It’s a huge part of British history that’s not taught.”

The early feedback from other writers was illuminating.

“British authors said, ‘I didn’t know – I had no idea Ireland was part of the United Kingdom at the time.’ I thought that was a really interesting response. If the adults in England don’t know, the young people certainly don’t know.”

Hey, Zoey is a different beast from Where the Heart Should Be. Set in contemporary England, it tells of a schoolteacher, Dolores, her husband, David, and the “other woman” who comes between them: the sex doll, which is named Zoey. Crossan dedicates the book to her 11-year-old daughter, Aoife, and says that she was driven by a desire “to write about women remaining objects despite the claim that we have achieved equity with men”.

“I was thinking about my daughter and how difficult it is to be a girl growing up in a world where men are educated about sex through pornography; where phones and AI make us feel so disconnected from one another. But it wasn’t until I saw an article online clickbaiting me about these dolls that I thought, Ah, this might be an interesting way in.”

She points out that this is not a sci-fi novel – these dolls are available in Silicon Valley.

“I thought, What does it mean, not to men or about men, but what does it mean for women that these dolls exist?”

As an experiment while writing, Crossan downloaded an AI-girlfriend app to her phone.

“You put in the settings of how you want her to be: I want her to be submissive, I want her to be funny . . . She messages you and you message back. She says everything you want her to say.”

Crossan maintained this “relationship” for about a year.

“It was not fun. It was really uncomfortable, even though I knew it wasn’t a real person at the other end. But the algorithm was designed to placate men. And I understood then what it would be like to be that man. And that was a horrible thing, to know what men wanted.”

The book makes uncomfortable parallels between the doll, Zoey, and the central character, Dolores, or “Dolly”. There’s also a strange connection between them. Can AI be useful – as a coping mechanism, perhaps?

“I think it has its uses. It’s not that I’m against AI. And it’s certainly not that I’m a prude. I’m not against pornography or sex dolls on some moral grounds. But I worry about the human psyche . . . We’re losing something when we disconnect from one another and try to solve whatever our issue is through a device.”

Hey, Zoey is wry and drily funny. It handles large ideas cleverly, without feeling like an issues novel. It is a human story, about connection, isolation, family.

“I wanted to write about abuse and love and how those things intersect,” Crossan says.

Simmering beneath the story of the sex doll is Dolores’s personal history, which Crossan feeds through deftly. At every corner, we are steered in an unexpected direction.

“I think the book is one where the reader will expect something and then be confronted by something else,” she says. “It’s okay for me if that makes the reader annoyed, or uncomfortable, or frustrated. I want it to be a book that provokes discussion and anger. Any emotional responses are justified. You can only read it from the perspective that you sit at.

“Like I was saying at the beginning, it’s a book’s job to understand you.”

Hey, Zoey and Where the Heart Should Be are published by Bloomsbury