While “A Dark and Starless Forest” was just introduced to the Young Adult book community, Sarah Hollowell, a 2015 Ball State alumna, has known about her debut book’s announcement for nearly four months, and it has been one of her hardest-kept secrets. 

“It feels a million times more real,” Hollowell said. “While it was just a secret that me and my three closest group chats knew [about], it still felt like a dream. Then, it all started to fall into reality — I got the contract, the announcement came out [and] my first advance check came in.”

Angela Jackson-Brown, assistant teaching professor of English at Ball State and one of Hollowell’s mentors, said she remembers “screaming at the top of her lungs for what felt like ages” in excitement when Hollowell called to tell her the news her debut novel would be published. 

“I’ve seen some of her journey and know firsthand how hard she works at her writing,” Jackson-Brown said. “If anyone deserved to get published, Sarah did. She did the work, but [it was] more than that. She was always everyone else’s cheerleader when good writing news happened to them. It was pretty amazing [for me] to be able to be her cheerleader.”

“A Dark and Starless Forest” tells the story of nine magical siblings and is set to release in fall 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books.

“I started drafting [‘A Dark and Starless Forest’] in early 2017 and finished the [first] draft toward the end of that year,” Hollowell said. “I revised for about another [year after that] before I had something that was polished enough to send to agents, a process I started in December 2018.”

Throughout her writing process, Hollowell said, she struggled with mental illness and financial insecurity. During the times where she wasn’t employed, Hollowell said, she cobbled together an income from commissions to make felt animals, the support of her friends, family and social media followers and her Patreon, a website for members to sell their creative content. 

“Some days, I just [couldn’t] write a single word,” Hollowell said. “I [was] too busy, depressed or hyperfocused on [everything] that [wasn’t] my draft. But, I also have OK days where I can write 100 words and good days where I can get 5,000 or more. If I can remember that those days will add up, [then] I can forgive the [bad] days.”

While Hollowell’s journey to publication has been a long one, her love of writing began with the love of reading she had when she was young. 

“I was raised around books,” Hollowell said. “At some point, I started writing my own. Two series that definitely influenced what I wrote as a child [were] ‘The Enchanted Forest Chronicles’ by Patricia C. Wrede and all of ‘Fear Street’ by R.L. Stine. I wrote a lot of fantasy and horror in elementary school, and I still do.”

Hollowell continued her passion for books and writing at Ball State, where she majored in creative writing. Jackson-Brown said one of her first memories of Hollowell as a student dates back to before Hollowell had even signed up for one of Jackson-Brown’s courses. 

“[She] had a reputation for being the kind of student you wanted in your class,” Jackson-Brown said. “The time she made it to my class, I was excited to have her as a student because so many of my colleagues and students had nothing but glowing things to say about her.”

Hollowell said she wrote “A Dark and Starless Forest” to be a book she wanted to read as a teenager where its heroine was unapologetically fat. 

“I have read so many books where it was that the heroine’s waist was so small [that] the hero’s hands could wrap around it,” Hollowell said. “Fat characters are sidekicks, villains and cautionary tales — assuming we exist at all. We are loving but pathetic best friends to the protagonist. We don’t get to be heroes. It’s usually [some] kind of a joke that someone would ever love us.”

Although Hollowell is now publishing a book she loves with an “honest, fat character,” not everyone has been so accepting of her, Hollowell said. After presenting a TEDx talk at Ball State about fat positivity and publishing an essay on fat sexuality, multiple threads popped up on Reddit dedicated to tearing her down.

“They [went] through my Instagram to find ‘proof’ that I was actually very sad and very lonely,” Hollowell said. “Videos [appeared] on YouTube [talking] about how I was going to die young. Last I know, those [have] all been removed.”

Things have been difficult for overweight characters in the past, Hollowell said, but she believes things will get better, and the future isn’t so bleak for writers like her. 

“Marginalized people will certainly keep writing our stories,” Hollowell said. “What we need now is for more marginalized people in the publishing and film industry — people who will recognize and understand [our] stories [that] also have the power to put them out into the world.”

As Jackson-Brown looks toward Hollowell’s book release, she said she counts it as an honor her path crossed Hollowell’s, and Hollowell did all the hard work to deserve her success. 

“If [Sarah] is gracious enough to credit any small part of her success to anything I said or did as a teacher, I humbly thank her for that honor,” Jackson-Brown said. “Sarah made my job extremely easy. She walked into my classroom brimming with talent and phenomenal stories to tell.” 

Contact Nik Stoll with comments at nsstoll@bsu.edu.