Sarina Dahlan Shares the Story Behind Her Powerful Debut Novel “Reset”
What if every four years you could wipe your memory clean and start over fresh, with an AI companion that tracks your preferences to keep you comfortable and happy? That’s the idea behind Reset, Sarina Dahlan’s intriguing new novel from Blackstone publishing. Sarina sat down with us (well, virtually) to talk about getting published, worldbuilding, and whether the world of Reset is a utopia or a dystopia.
Editor’s note: I received an advance copy of Reset to prepare for this interview. Any opinions expressed are my own.
The Geekiary: Reset is your first full novel. How has the traditional publishing process been for you?
Sarina Dahlan: It was my agent, Julie at The Seymour Agency, who found Blackstone Publishing for me. I found Julie via a Twitter pitch. She was one of the agents who “hearted” Reset. So I sent her the first three chapters she’d requested, and right away she sent me an email asking me for the full book. I was just starting in the process, so it was extremely validating to know that someone who’s a stranger to me – who doesn’t love me and have to like my book by default – actually found something to like about it.
I went through the pitching process with other agents, but I kept going back to Julie. We had a call and ended up talking for hours about philosophy and the idea behind Reset. We really hit it off. She gave me feedback on how to edit my book, then we went into submission. Blackstone was one of the publishers she submitted, and the rest is history.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known before starting the publishing process?
How long it actually would take! A lot of people go into it thinking one thing is going to happen right after another. For me I was lucky in that things did kind of happen one after the other, but there were still months. Within those months you agonize over whether people even like this book you just wasted a whole year over. Patience is what I wish I’d had.
I jumped right into writing other books, and that seems to be the advice I keep getting. While you’re waiting to hear back from people in the industry, write your second novel. Write your third novel. That’s going to keep you remind off of this noise in your head that’s questioning your ability.
It sounds like you’ve already written your next novel. Is it set in the same world as Reset?
I started writing Reset in 2017, finished in 2018, and got Julie at the end of 2018. Julie got Blackstone in 2019. So we didn’t start the publishing process until 2020, and it’s been 4 years since I started writing. [Since then] I’ve self-published one collection of short stories, and I’ve finished a fantasy book and one YA fantasy. I’m also in the middle of writing a prequel to Reset that’s meant to be read after it.
No spoilers for the uninitiated, but I can see why you’d need to read Reset before going into a prequel.
I never really thought of Reset as a series. I still don’t, but the world itself – the Four Cities – is such an interesting place that I wanted to explore the world through other characters and other stories. The prequel focuses on the characters who created the Four Cities. [Scroll over if you’ve read Reset and want a very small spoiler!] I myself am curious about how their relationship was affected by the last war and having the weight of the survival of humanity on them, and then what ensues. So I decided to focus on that little slice, and I hope it will quench my and my readers’ curiosity about this world.
Do you use any writing tools or do you “pants it”?
I use Word and Excel. I’m really old school. I know people have online tools, but I never got into it. I pants for about the first few chapters.
My writing is obsessed with an idea or a setting. Many people start with characters, but for me it’s a place. My short stories too always start with a place. I see it very clearly in my head. Then I start seeing people who are going to be in this place and why.
Is that how Reset started?
With Reset it started with a question. I was in the middle of writing a story, 70,000 words or something in, and I realized I hated it. I deleted the whole thing at 3 in the morning, I was so upset.
Then as I was staring at the blank screen the idea came to me: what if we could erase our lives the way we could erase a document? What kind of world would we have? Why would we need to do that? I wanted to write it as a utopia because there just aren’t many well written utopias.
It’s interesting that you intended Reset as a utopia, because it seems to hit readers strongly as either a utopia or a dystopia. It would be a different take on the dystopia trope in that the Planner who designed it had (and maintains) genuinely benign intentions. How do you think that affects the structure of your world?
When I first went into writing Reset, I absolutely did not want to do the traditional take on a dystopia. I actually didn’t think it was a dystopia [but] I love that type of conversation because it’s true – the problem is choice. The problem is always choice. But what does choice lead us to do?
In Reset I wanted to explore a world we could all somewhat root for. It’s how my brain works, because I’m a logical person. If the last war was the catalyst, wouldn’t they want a world where no war would ever happen? What kind of world would that be?
Look at all the conflicts we have around the world. There’s genocide, there’s wars, there’s issues around race and culture and religion. All of that leads us to want to be right in some ways, and I think that’s where our differences end up hurting us.
So I wanted a kind of world people can root for, where peace is the ultimate goal and they’re all raised to protect it. The same way we can individually think of the one thing we would lay our lives down for today, peace is to be protected in this world.
But… I don’t remember who said it, but everyone’s utopia is someone else’s dystopia, because you take away choice. When you put rules in place, there will be some people who feel as if something was taken away from them. In this case, it’s memories of people you love, which are very important to the people who remember those they love.
The characters discuss at one point whether it’s morally right to take down the society and force everyone out of the Rebirth cycle – whether they should just leave on their own or essentially burn the house down.
I wanted to leave it black and white, because I think the world is more interesting and beautiful when it’s full of color and grayness. It was part of a conversation I had with myself: “What is right? What is wrong?” Sometimes you find yourself standing at either end depending on where you are in your life.
I think the openness to ask ourselves those questions is what makes us more thoughtful when deciding what it is that we choose for ourselves. Sometimes we just adopt what we were taught, but I want the readers to think along- what is it that you would want?
I don’t think there is one right or wrong answer.
How far into writing did you realize readers would be divided about whether this is a utopia or a dystopia, and how does that make you feel as an author?
The song “Imagine” inspired me in creating this world. [Shares a bit of the lyrics to “Imagine” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono]:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
I wanted to see what that kind of world would look like.
Then I thought, well there are two sides to every story. Something always has to give, and while the Four Cities are an attempt to find balance I think it fails miserably. There is no balance.
[As to how it feels] it feels great! It makes me feel like I did something right, because the best kind of stories are the ones readers can further write for themselves. I love that you can look at it so many different ways.
Thanks to Sarina Dahlan for taking the time to speak with us! Don’t forget to follow her on Twitter and Instagram. You can find Reset on Amazon or at the Blackstone Publishing website.
Quick reminder – wherever you get the book, go leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s a significant boost for debut novels, and you’ll definitely want to read more from Sarina when you’re done with Reset.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity, though nothing of substance has changed or added.*
Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and games enthusiast. She is co-editor (alongside Alex DeCampi) of and contributor to “True War Stories”, a comic anthology published by Z2 Comics. When she’s not writing or creating games, Khai likes to run more tabletop RPGs than one person should reasonably juggle.
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