Sarah Elizabeth Schantz stands in the middle of Wok Eat, an Asian fast-food restaurant in Boulder. She’s remembering a time, years ago, when the tidy dining room was a retail store bustling with family and bursting with books. Not to mention a very different mixture of smells.
“There were these two potted plants near the front door, and people were always planting pot seeds in them,” she says, recalling the days when her parents, Tom and Enid Schantz, owned and operated the Rue Morgue — an iconic, nationally renowned mystery bookstore — in this space at 946 Pearl Street. “My parents just let the seeds grow for as long as they could. The new books were over here, and the used and rare books were over there. All the paperbacks that didn’t sell were back there in this weird little corner. I think my parents almost encouraged people to shoplift them, because they just had so many. Mostly it smelled like books in here, a little dusty.”
She points toward Wok Eat’s immaculate tables and gleaming metal chairs. “There were a couple of old armchairs over there where people could sit and read. When I was little I had a whoopee cushion, and I would put it on those armchairs. Then I’d wait for someone to sit on them. But my parents only allowed me to do that to our regular customers.”
Rue Morgue was launched in the basement of the family’s rental home in north Boulder in 1974, two years before Sarah was born. Initially called the Aspen Bookhouse, in 1978 the store was rechristened the Rue Morgue, after Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” generally considered to be the first modern detective story. And when the Rue Morgue moved into a proper storefront in 1980 on the downtown Boulder mall, years before it was renamed the Pearl Street Mall, the store’s distinctive sign even featured a small portrait of Poe. “My dad, when he was younger, looked like Poe,” Sarah remembers, “so people would come in and ask if the picture on the sign was him.” When the store landed at 946 Pearl in 1983, the sign moved with it.
The Rue Morgue hosted scores of famous mystery authors for readings and signings, attracting standing-room-only crowds. Tom and Enid Schantz also established Rue Morgue Press, which became one of the world’s most respected small presses for mystery fiction. For their contributions to the genre, the Schantzes won numerous awards — including, fittingly, an Edgar Allan Poe/Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
As a kid, Sarah never knew a world that wasn’t built around books. “When I was little and customers came over to shop in the basement of our house, I had to be quiet,” she says. “My parents told me it was library time.”
Little wonder that she grew up to be an author. Her debut novel, Fig, is being published this month by the Simon & Schuster imprint McElderry Books — and while it isn’t a mystery novel like the kind her folks championed, it has its own sort of mystique. Set in rural Kansas in the ’80s and ’90s, Fig is the lush, dreamlike story of Fiona “Fig” Johnson, a girl who suffers from OCD. Her illness manifests in horrific ways, most vividly as dermatillomania, or excoriation disorder, an obsessive picking at one’s own skin that sometimes crosses over into extreme self-mutilation. Fig is also given to magical thinking, the psychological term for a certain kind of imaginative disconnect with reality. But the book isn’t just about Fig’s struggles; it’s about how she copes with her beloved Mama, whose schizophrenia transforms her as the years go by.
Fig is a harrowing read. It’s also lyrical, poignant and relevant. Historical events, from the Challenger space-shuttle disaster to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are woven seamlessly into the story, providing rich context as well as a chance for Sarah to flex her symbolic brawn. Literary allusions to everyone from Virginia Woolf to Laura Ingalls Wilder to L. Frank Baum abound. And as the relationship between Fig and Mama grows more complicated, it deepens into an almost mystical bond.
In her author’s note at the end of Fig, Sarah writes, “I think both Fig and Mama are woven from numerous strands of my own DNA.” In fact, Schantz herself was diagnosed with OCD in her early twenties. And while the novel isn’t autobiographical — Fig and Mama “are one hundred percent who they are and who they were born to be when I first birthed them from my mind,” she notes — many details of the two characters are plucked from her own memories.
“When I was a kid, I picked my skin and my scabs all the time. One of my first memories of the Rue Morgue was when I picked a scab and filled Kleenex after Kleenex with blood, then I hung them in the window as a window display,” she says, laughing. “I mean, we sold books about murder, right?”
Murder isn’t a dramatic device that pops up in Fig, but tragedy haunts its pages. The book’s epigraph is a quote taken from a letter that Poe wrote to his mother in 1849 — an apt choice, considering the maternal theme that runs through Fig. “I was never really insane,” Poe wrote, “except on occasions when my heart was touched.”
References to Poe also run through Sarah’s personal story. “When I gave birth to my daughter, Story, in 2000, [future husband] Fish and I were working in the sugar-beet industry, piling sugar beets from August ’til November. We were living in a farmhouse in Tennessee, on eighty acres surrounded by national forest. I’d decided to have a natural childbirth. When I was going into labor, the midwives told me I needed to tilt back, and the solution they came up with was stacking some of our books to form these makeshift stirrups. One of the books in those stacks was an anthology of Poe. That was quickly reported back to my mom. It was the one important detail she needed to know: that Poe had helped me give birth.”
Sarah’s own life has been more compelling than most works of fiction. Born in 1976 at Boulder Community Hospital — “They handed out these really terrible polyester American-flag quilts for all us Bicentennial babies,” she says — she was raised in a household that was as short on resources as it was long on literature and wonder.
“Our first house was sparsely furnished because my parents were dirt-poor at the time,” she recalls. “They had wine crates for tables and whatnot. They grew vegetables and sold them to local restaurants.” Tom and Enid had met while attending the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the ’60s; later, they started selling books out of their basement and through the mail. They lived in various houses in Boulder while Sarah was young, and at one point the family was evicted. “Home has been an unstable thing for me ever since,” she acknowledges.
From an early age, Sarah was encouraged to imagine. “My parents weren’t religious. Literature is what seemed to replace faith in my household,” she says. “I was always told to play and daydream, and they read to me all the time. The first books I remember are Little House on the Prairie. My mom was really into those. She was also an artist, so for every book I read on my own, she would draw a fairy or a flower on this big poster board. After I read so many books, it became this huge scene of fairies in the forest. I also had an imaginary friend named Pursy Nips, which is really similar to the word ‘parsnips.’ I think that had to do with my parents gardening in the back yard all the time. Pursy Nips was really small, and she sort of looked like this female version of Peter Pan. My parents encouraged this, big time. My dad even told stories about her and added to the mythology. She was my only real friend.”
Sarah’s sense of isolation was aggravated by a speech impediment, one that actually helped push her toward writing. “I had some weird speech issues when I was a kid,” she remembers. “For example, I couldn’t say ‘Sarah.’ I was put in speech therapy. One day when I was maybe four, they’d been trying to get me to say my name, but instead I said ‘Taz.’ I think I might have been trying to say my last name, Schantz. So everyone just started calling me Taz.
“As part of my speech therapy, I was given a picture book with no words in it, and I was expected to describe what I saw. I started writing about the pictures instead,” she recalls. Her passion for writing grew from there. “My parents loved to bowl, and I would sit and write while we were bowling,” she adds. “The first thing I ever saved up to buy on my own was a typewriter.”
At seven, Sarah was transferred from a freedom-promoting, Waldorf-based private school, which her parents struggled to pay for, to Boulder’s Foothill Elementary. The move didn’t align well with either her introverted nature or her low-income background. “It was a pretty horrific transition,” she says. “Up to that point, I’d grown up with kids with kind of funky names, so ‘Taz’ didn’t faze them. They didn’t care that I’d go to school in my nightgown or wear the same sundress every day. At Foothill, it was pretty immediately clear that I came from a very different class than most of my peers. Eventually I stopped going by Taz and started going by Sarah. I just didn’t want to stand out any more than I already did.”
Fourth grade at Foothill was “the worst year of my life,” she recalls. “The other girls were just vicious to me. It was the ’80s, and materialism was in. I didn’t make things better for myself at school, by any means. Something just snapped in me, and I told myself, ‘If they’re going to make fun of me, I’ll give them a good reason.’ I was totally obsessed with the occult at the time, and I would do things like pretend to go into trances on the playground.
“It got worse and worse,” she continues. “I would cry at school a lot, even in class. Teachers didn’t report things the way they do now. I assumed that my parents knew what was happening to me and just weren’t doing anything about it, but they had no idea.” Her OCD, then undiagnosed, also began rearing its head: “That’s the year I started my Calendar of Ordeals, an idea I got from Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s book The Headless Cupid, which I loved. Basically I made up all these different ordeals that I had to go through, like not being able to touch metal. I was trying to have some control, but it just made things more difficult at school. I looked even weirder when I just stood there, not telling anyone why I couldn’t touch the metal doorknob to open a door.”
Things changed for her that summer. She turned ten, and she came to a realization: “I decided I couldn’t live like that anymore. I knew I would never be popular, but if I banded with the other geeks, I could make it.” At her father’s urging, she also began playing fast-pitch softball competitively, which came to consume her life for the next few years. At one point, there was even talk of the Olympics — not that she wasn’t something of a misfit in the softball world as well. “I scared a lot of the other girls,” she remembers. “I pitched very fast, and I also desperately needed glasses at the time. Not a good combination.”
Salvation from softball came in the form of adolescence. But unlike many kids who hit the age of twelve and start rebelling, Sarah didn’t become a troublemaker solely because of the onset of puberty. “In the sixth grade,” she says, “I wrote a story about my grandfather dying, and how he’d been buried with this handkerchief I’d given him. I read it aloud to the class. All the kids clapped. Then my teacher came up to the front of the classroom and said that there was no way I had written that story, and that I must have stolen it. I was sent to the principal’s office over it. My parents came in and defended me and talked about how they had seen me write it, but it was pretty devastating. I remember wanting to leave school forever. I think I was pretty ready to break the rules at that point.”
And break the rules she did. She began drinking, smoking, skipping school and dating a punk-rocker. But she also got involved in Boulder’s underground music and arts community. In her early teens, she started participating in the open-mike readings at Penny Lane, Boulder’s legendary, now-defunct coffeehouse. “It was what you might call prose poetry,” she says. “I’d try to write from a stripper’s point of view, just shock-value stuff. It was terrible.” But although she found a new sense of freedom and empowerment, she still didn’t feel at home. “I always kind of felt like the odd one out in the punk scene, to some extent,” she remembers. “I was always a bit of an outcast with any group that I was in or associated with. And that’s fine. It’s something I think I’m proud of a little bit.”
The Rue Morgue, which had been her playground, now became her workplace. She started helping her parents at the store, mostly in the mail-order department. Her relationship with them disintegrated, however. When she was thirteen, she ran away for the first time. It was only for a few days to a friend’s house, but her trips soon grew longer and more frequent. A violent incident when she was sixteen didn’t help matters. “I was jumped by three girls with fiberglass sticks because I had kissed my best friend in front of them,” she says. “Even though I do identify as bi, kissing her was more of a statement at the time. I got beat up on the east end of the Pearl Street Mall, right on the street. Pretty badly, too. I called the cops, and they said they’d just arrest me if I tried to press charges. They said that because I’d tried to fight back at one point during the attack, it would be considered brawling and not assault. I was just trying to defend myself.”
At seventeen, Sarah and her boyfriend dropped out of school. They began hitchhiking and hopping trains. The next few years of her life were a whirl. She crisscrossed the country numerous times, living on the street when she wasn’t staying in squats in cities such as Philadelphia and Minneapolis, taking over abandoned buildings with groups of fellow homeless kids.
“I was reading a lot of John Steinbeck at the time,” she says. “I wanted to live in a Steinbeck novel. There’s no better place to read than in a train yard, waiting for a train to come.” Living in squats was “exhilarating,” she recalls, regardless of the lawlessness and squalor. “Some of my fonder memories of that time are in the squat in Philly. It was like Wendy and the Lost Boys. The electricity was pirated. We got water from the fire hydrant. We lived by spare-changing and dumpster-diving. It was also the first time I’d ever lived anywhere where almost everyone was black. It was eye-opening. The old men would sit in the park and play speed chess. They were so nice. They called me Witch Girl.”
Her life of riding the rails wasn’t entirely idyllic, though. Her best friend lost a leg trying to jump a train while drunk. Another cut off his ear — “He said it got in the way of a tattoo on his head that he wanted to get,” she remembers — and later cut out his tongue before disappearing forever. She saw comrades die of hangings and heroin overdoses. “Years later, I got the Jack Kerouac Scholarship when I was in grad school at Naropa,” she says. “I never did get that much into Kerouac’s writing, though, just because of the way I’d been living when I was hopping trains. Kerouac actually had it pretty easy on the road.” She adds with a laugh, “In my application for the Kerouac scholarship, I basically said I was more badass than Kerouac.”
In 1998, when she was 22, Sarah found a semblance of a stable home for the first time in years. The house in Tennessee where she and Fish lived while working their seasonal sugar-beet job gave her something close to domestic bliss. “My grandfather worked in the sugar-beet industry in Fort Morgan,” she says, “and he vowed that no one in his family would ever do that kind of work again. I wound up doing it for six years. My parents would send care packages of books — one or two big boxes full at a time — that we would devour. We didn’t always have a TV, so there was a lot of reading.”
One of those books was the Poe anthology that wound up being the unwitting assistant to the birth of Sarah and Fish’s daughter, Story. Before Story turned three, though, restlessness hit Sarah again. This time, the road led back to Boulder — for good. “When we moved out of Tennessee in 2002, the plan wasn’t to stay in Colorado, just to pass through, save up and move to Ithaca,” she recalls. “But something kept us here in Boulder. It was nice to have grandparents for Story and to repair the relationship with my parents.” But one familiar presence wasn’t waiting for her in Boulder this time: the Rue Morgue, which her parents had sold two years earlier when it hit financial hard times, downsizing their book business to a mail-order operation they ran out of their home near Lyons.
The new owners renamed the store High Crimes Mystery Bookshop; it moved to Longmont in 2008. “I was sad not to be here to see it come to an end,” Sarah says. “It was just weird — one of the first signs that I was really an adult or something. I know a lot of my squatter traveler friends still showed up looking for me at the shop after it became High Crimes. But I was happy for my parents that they wouldn’t have to work so hard.
“I could also already tell that my mom’s health wasn’t good and that she wouldn’t be around forever,” Sarah adds. “When we got back to Boulder, we stayed with my parents for a few months, then we moved to a cabin in Ward, a terrible little one-room place with an outhouse. The bathtub was in the kitchen. And I found out that the bookshelves were made out of recycled wood from Penny Lane. I just couldn’t get away from Penny Lane.”
She also couldn’t get away from writing. Without a high-school diploma or GED, she started taking classes at Front Range Community College; after establishing a 4.0 GPA there, she enrolled at Naropa University. She also became involved in Vox Feminista, Boulder’s radical feminist theater and performance-art troupe, as a writer for the group’s shows. Offered a full-ride scholarship to the University of Colorado, she accepted and began making preparations to transfer. Her family — Fish, Story and Kaya (Sarah’s stepdaughter, or “bonus daughter,” as she proudly calls her) — moved into a large house in Lyons, near Tom and Enid. After years of chaos, hardship and wandering, her life was finally coming into focus.
Then everything came to a screeching halt.
Sarah sits in the living room of her current home, an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Boulder, not far from Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat. The room is elaborately decorated with Gothic collages, ceramic doll heads, lace tablecloths, embroidered pillows and antique knickknacks. There’s even a bent railroad tie displayed in a dish, a memento of Sarah’s youthful misadventures as a rider of the rails. It’s hard to picture a more fitting abode for someone who cut her teeth on both punk rock and Little House on the Prairie.
“It was starting to rain when I left the Noodles & Company in Longmont,” she says, leaning back on her couch and recalling the day in 2005 when a car accident upended her life. “I was driving my Subaru station wagon that day. I stopped at a stop sign, and I was rear-ended by an off-duty cop. I’d just gotten into CU on a scholarship, and I remember thinking earlier that day, ‘Everything is coming together.’ Then bam. That just changed everything.”
The police officer who collided with Sarah was driving an SUV, which was barely scratched. The Subaru was “accordioned,” Sarah remembers, and sent skidding out into the intersection; she barely avoided crashing into oncoming traffic. Sarah suffered extensive spinal damage and traumatic onset fibromyalgia. During the worst of her recovery over the next two years, she’d endure periods as long as two weeks during which she couldn’t walk. The pain wasn’t all physical: A protracted court battle ensued, and because of the disruption in her life, she had no choice but to give up her scholarship to CU.
“It was a three-year ordeal,” she says. “I was considered irresponsible for not having health insurance. It was speculated that my injuries were not from the accident but from domestic abuse. I was even told to share my therapy records so as to not appear to be hiding anything. No one cared that I couldn’t transfer into CU as planned. No one cared that my dreams got put on hiatus. And no one cared that the doctors predicted I would never recover from the injuries I’d sustained but [that] in fact they’d get worse with time. It was awful. But I don’t blame the guy who hit me or our lawyers. It’s the system and the insurance companies.”
Fighting through it, Sarah managed to return to her classes at Naropa six months after the accident. She also married Fish that year. Things weren’t what they’d been before, but they were getting better. Her drive to write intensified. “Everybody had been trying to get me to write about my train-hopping past,” she says. “They wanted to see that world. I kept trying, and I kept failing. I wrote one story about my friend losing her leg, and it just never worked.”
Instead she poured her experiences into fiction: “I was writing pretty heavily by then, submitting to literary journals and getting rejected again and again and again.” Toward the end of her undergrad studies at Naropa, she wrote a short story called “Cut-Out” that featured an unnamed girl who would evolve into the title character of Fig.
In the summer of 2010, between graduating from Naropa and beginning an MFA program there, Sarah started submitting “Cut-Out” to various publications around the country. It became a finalist for the New Letters competition, then won first place in a Third Coast contest. The editors at Third Coast suggested renaming the story, and “Cut-Out” became “The Sound of Crying Sheep,” which went on to be nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize and chosen for inclusion in the anthology series New Stories of the Midwest (it qualified due to its Kansas setting). The nominations, awards and accolades kept coming, and literary agents came knocking. The only problem was, they wanted a novel — and Sarah hadn’t written one.
“I was lucky enough to take the last class that Bobbie Louise Hawkins ever taught at Naropa,” Sarah says, referring to the famed writer, who went into semi-retirement in 2010. “The first time an agent told me she was interested in a novel, I did what Bobbie had always told me to do: Lie and say that you have the book finished, then write it as fast as you can. I told the agent I needed some time to pull everything together.”
Her good news was overshadowed by her mom’s deteriorating health. In February 2011, Enid Schantz was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live. Sarah found herself galvanized to finish Fig as soon as possible for two reasons: The interested agent was under the impression that the book was already done, and Sarah wanted her mother to be able to read at least a first draft of it before cancer took her.
“My mom had always been my first editor,” she says. “Seeing me write a book was incredibly important to her. It was one of her bucket-list wishes. At least she got to see that agents were interested in me. At one point I had this really rough draft that was maybe three-quarters of the way done. I guess pancreatic cancer commonly spreads to the brain, though we didn’t know that at the time. My mom was getting delusional, then she lost consciousness for a few days. It was right around my birthday, and we all thought she was going to die on my birthday. I stayed with her, and I read her that entire rough draft. I don’t know if she heard it.
“The fact that she never got to read the book is a huge regret,” Sarah adds. “Or maybe ‘regret’ isn’t the right word. That’s the hardest part about trying to feel excited now that the book is coming out. My mom had become my best friend in so many ways, and it’s weird to have this happen and not get to share it with her.”
Enid died on August 10, 2011. The family gave her a ceremonial home funeral — “She didn’t want some corporate funeral,” Sarah says — before having her cremated. For the 2012 Vox Feminista show Womyn Who Glow in the Dark, Sarah made a heartbreaking yet inspiring spoken-word video about the ceremony titled “Home Sweet Home Funeral.” But she wasn’t the only one who paid tribute to her mom. “My dad and I were flooded with sympathy letters,” Sarah remembers. “It was pretty profound, because my mom was an introvert. Aside from my dad, she didn’t hang out with people. But these letters kept coming. I think we have three baskets of them. Some people sent them directly to me, saying how my mom had changed their life. Either she had made their career happen, or she had picked out a book for them at the Rue Morgue that wound up being their all-time favorite. If anything, it showed me how literature touches more people than I realize.”
It also made her realize the role that the Rue Morgue had played in the literary community, and how independent, brick-and-mortar shops have been taken for granted in the age of Amazon and big-box stores. “I went to Barnes and Noble a few years ago. It was some fundraiser, or I would never have gone there, although maybe I should be careful of what I say now that I have a novel out,” she admits. “I decided I was going to buy a new copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is probably my favorite book ever. I asked the clerk, and he had to ask a co-worker if she’d ever heard of To Kill a Mockingbird. I left. I couldn’t do it. I can’t imagine what it’s like for new writers trying to break through when there isn’t that level of passion and expertise that my parents had as booksellers.”
Tom Schantz still ships books out of his home, but the business was dealt a huge blow by the floods of 2013, which backed up a mail-order operation that remains based on paper catalogues, the U.S. Postal Service and checks. As Sarah explains, “The Rue Morgue website is there, but it’s classic mail-order. His customers are still reading his catalogue and his reviews and what he has to say. It has that personal touch. And he tailors what he sells toward what he knows his customers want.”
Sarah, meanwhile, was learning how to tailor Fig to a different customer from the one she’d intended. The book was originally titled The Calendar of Ordeals, after the regimen of OCD-related commandments she’d inflicted on herself as a girl — a regimen that Fig also undergoes in the book. After the book was finished and sold to Simon & Schuster, it was renamed Fig. And it was, to Sarah’s surprise, being considered a young adult — or YA — novel.
“It was weird that I landed in the YA category,” she says. “I feel like I was thrust into this YA world I didn’t know anything about. I like the idea that the majority of editors in YA are women, and maybe that it’s some kind of feminist strategy. Basically, I was told that it would reach a wider audience if it was YA, which I have really mixed feelings about. Fig is pretty experimental, but I still think the book is for everyone. I have nothing against YA at all; there are a lot of YA books that I have a lot of respect for. But I do watch people roll their eyes when I say my book is YA, especially men. When I explained to one of my male writing teachers that my book was going to be labeled YA, it was like all of a sudden my book didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that it sold to a big publisher. To him, the book was irrelevant because it was YA. But that’s okay. The rebel in me wants to be that underdog.
“I’m concerned about what’s happening with the theme of coming-of-age in literature,” she adds. “It’s such an important story that we can all relate to, regardless of how old we are. That’s what I like to call Fig — not a YA book, but a coming-of-age book.”
Today Sarah, who now holds an MFA from Naropa, teaches writing classes at Front Range Community College, as well as hosting private writing workshops in her living room. And she’s already hard at work on her next book, Roadside Altars, a novel that revolves around a bipolar trailer-park kid who listens to heavy metal, with each chapter based on a tarot card. “It opens with Crystal, a thirteen-year-old girl, in an abortion clinic,” Sarah explains. “It’s also about all the myths about devil worship that were happening heavily in the ’80s,” a direct outgrowth of Sarah’s own obsession with the occult as a girl during that same time period.
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“To some extent, I feel like I’m coming full circle,” she says. “I remember when my initial goal was to have a book written by twenty, and that didn’t happen. Then the goal was thirty, and that didn’t happen, either. Now I’m realizing that’s okay. Some people are born storytellers, but I don’t think I’m one of them. I had to get lots of life experience and listen to a lot of stories before I could figure out how to tell them. One of the biggest things I run into as a teacher is that there are a lot of people who need to live a little before they write. They need something to actually write about and a better understanding of the world around them.”
Sarah has lived more than a little, but one memory in particular resonates more deeply now than it ever did before. “I was hopping trains on the Highline from Minnesota to Seattle when I was a teenager,” she recalls. “The train was going through the most gorgeous land. When you’re hopping trains, you’re supposed to hide when you pass through a town. But it was pretty early in the morning, and I was going through some small town somewhere in Idaho, and I couldn’t resist looking out of the grainer I was on. There was a road along the tracks, and I saw this girl in a car, probably being driven to school. I saw her and she saw me. She tried to get her mom’s attention. Not only did she see someone riding a train, she saw a teenage girl riding a train.
“Of course, a second later, the train was long gone,” she continues. “Who knows if her mom believed her or not? But I think about how I might have changed that girl’s life forever in that moment. I hope Fig is sort of like that.”