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July 18, 2017

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Sarah Nicole Lemon

Kate Hart
headshot of Sarah Nicole Lemon
One of my most frequent statements of 2017 has been "I love Lemon," and only rarely do I mean the citrus fruit. I met Sarah Lemon in our author debut group, and her social media feeds immediately convinced me we should be friends (you'll be shocked to hear I was right). Her debut novel, Done Dirt Cheap, was released in March to rave reviews, but Lemon is also an outspoken advocate for social justice, a rock climber, a mom of three, and a biker babe. Read on to learn more about her publishing journey -- and scroll down to win a signed copy of her book!

cover of DONE DIRT CHEAP by Sarah Nicole Lemon
Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Lemon: I am an author, with one book freshly into the world (DONE DIRT CHEAP) and another set to come out in 2018 (VALLEY GIRLS). I never intended to become a writer, because that felt like a magical thing girls like me did not get to be. I grew up poor and anything with art didn’t make money, so it simply wasn’t a possibility. But I was always a voracious reader—reading gave me access to the world I couldn’t have. When my life gathered some stability, I began looking more towards to writing as something I could actually do, even if it made me no money. I am aware how privileged I am to be doing something I love so much.

Lemon in the wild
Kate: Do you have any (other) creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)? 

Lemon: Not unless you count things in the outdoors? With writing being so cerebral, I appreciate the chance to do something with my hands and feet, and seeing more than just the computer screen. I rock climb, hike, and ride my motorcycle when I can. Honestly though, as a mom to three small children (one special needs), a police wife, and trying to start a writing career, time for anything extra is not readily available. When I was younger, I enjoyed photography, watercolor, and music. I know I’ll find those things again when I have more space. For now, I just enjoy Instagram and getting lost in YouTube wormholes.

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Lemon: I’m going to be real here, and say by far the greatest challenge I’ve encountered has been trying to jump social class. Whenever I open up about it, people are quick to compliment me that they can’t even tell—and it’s hard not to cry “but you can’t see how hard I’m working to have you say that.” It’s sucked up the most amount of thought, time and effort in my publishing path. I’ll be honest, I’ve shed tears over it. When I first began in publishing, the nicest restaurant I’d ever been in was basically an Olive Garden. I had never needed to tip service, because I was never in that space. I had only been on a plane once, for my honeymoon when I was 19. Now, I’m a lot more comfortable in those spaces, and every time I get on a plane, or hand over my bags, or go to a nice restaurant, I marvel at where my life has taken me. Even though it means I no longer fully belong anywhere, I’ve made my peace with it and feel lucky to have had such a broad range of experiences.

Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Lemon: I’m convinced failure is the most important part of success. I’m a climber, and a terrible one, but I always hear in my head “if you aren’t failing [falling], you aren’t trying [climbing] hard enough.” DONE DIRT CHEAP is my first published book, but it’s the third book I wrote with my agent. The first was universally loved and rejected (too quiet). The second, my agent lovingly put in the trash (bless her). Those two failures made DDC possible. It made me raw and desperate, and also willing to put all my vulnerabilities on the line and really go for it. I tried to write a book only I could write. The other thing about failure is that its most terrifying before it happens. When it happens, I’ve found it’s much easier to deal with than I expected.

Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten?

Lemon: A friend just told me I’m the walking subversion of a trope, and it’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said. I understand that my background, my stories, and the way I look creates an immediate distrust (deserved) to people in publishing, but especially PoC. It can be really awkward, in that space to, say, know how to skin a deer. But, I try to take ownership of my history, my people’s history, to show you can change, you can learn, you can have different experiences and still have empathy and understanding. I do appreciate my learning experiences about race and class were all done in the real world (as opposed to online). I lived in West Baltimore at the same time as I worked at Georgetown Law, and God bless the black women who guided redneck, floundering me through those spaces.

afternoon in Baltimore
Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work? 

Lemon: I was raised to believe the worst thing I could become was a feminist. If you wanted to completely take away a woman’s credibility in my community, you called her a feminist. For me, the point in my life where I really came into my own as a feminist was during my first pregnancy. I was 22, and despite being married, college educated, and in a steady white collar job, being pregnant made me lose the “exceptional woman” status I’d enjoyed. It also forced me to confront how I relied on white supremacy to reaffirm that belief.

I was living in West Baltimore at the time, and everywhere I went in the medical community in Baltimore, people treated me based on my face, my youth, and my address (the presumption was I was white trash, uneducated, and pregnant with a black, drug dealer’s baby). I was told to abort my child. I was told I shouldn’t be bringing kids into the world. Even after his birth, I was continually talked down to, given misinformation and treated as if I wasn’t capable of taking care of my child. It’s hard to spend all your energy trying to prove to people you deserve to exist, that you deserve to be treated with respect, that you deserve to bring a family into the world.

I understood immediately that the treatment I was receiving, however shitty, was still better than the treatment my (black) neighbors received. I understood that if I went missing in West Baltimore, people were going to care a little more than they cared about a missing, pregnant, black woman from West Baltimore. That directly affected my feminism, because suddenly feminism became something incredibly important—it became something I understood from a systematic perspective. The system does not find much value in the existence of women, but specifically poor or black, and especially poor, black women (and good lord, let’s not forget poor, black trans women!). We, as white women, or “exceptional women,” or black women with privilege, are complicit in that violence unless we actively dismantle that in our lives. Even now, I approach feminism from the systematic perspective. I focus on dismantling the systems that support and reaffirm our prejudices and beliefs. I strive to do that in my writing, in my lane. I also force everyone back home to deal with me as a feminist. I don’t shy away from the label.

Lemon and Kate signing together at YALLWEST 2017
Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Lemon: I think the best way to support other women is by looking at the women in your community and finding your role in supporting, elevating and caring for women the most at risk. For me, as an author, it means promoting women of color online, reading their books and talking about their books. It means listening to them when they talk about harm perpetuated in literature. It means I do not tell stories that aren’t mine to tell. For my best friend, who was a student midwife and is now in school to be a nurse midwife, it means something totally different (namely, helping at risk women get access to positive maternal care). I think we all have opportunities in our lives to change the system if we are looking with intentionality.

Lightning round: Tell us what you’re…   

reading: nothing…whomp whomp…I’m on a deadline. But I’m super excited about Roshani Chokshi’s new book A CROWN OF WISHES, and that will be the first book I read post deadline.
watching: Dave Chappelle’s comedy special on Netflix.
listening to: Tool, it’s my editing music. There’s something in the rhythm that just fits my writing brain.
eating: salad, fried chicken, and Halo Top ice cream.
doing: finishing my 2018 book, VALLEY GIRLS
wearing: Adidas pants and a Metallica t-shirt.
wishing for: everything Gucci right now, which is not at all in my price realm, but a girl can dream.
wanting: to show up at all author events looking like 70’s Jerry Hall (this is an unattainable dream, but I persist in it).
loving: THUG on the NYT list for the third week in a row! [author's note: this answer shows how unacceptably long its taken me to share this interview -- apologies, Lemon!]

the view from Lemon's motorcycle seat
Kate: Who are some other badass ladies we need to know & why?

Lemon: Right now, I’m learning a lot about black women of rock and roll and also Asian women climbers. Those are two widely disparate things, I know, but women like Big Mama Thornton (an out and proud black woman in the 50’s who wrote "Ball ‘n Chain" and recorded "Hound Dog" before Elvis), and also girls like Malavath Poorna (who climbed Everest at 13yo) are incredible and interesting, and I want to read these books! (I am not writing them).

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Lemon: Have a spirit of teachability. (Is that a word?) I’m a Slytherin, so obviously, I think being teachable is important because it allows you to learn how to be successful, even if nature or nurture hasn’t naturally inclined that way.

Win a signed copy of Done Dirt Cheap! Open to US and Canada.


Badass Ladies You Should Know logo
Sarah Nicole Lemon spent the first fifteen years of her life doing nothing but reading and playing outside, and has yet to outgrow either. When not writing, you can find her drinking iced coffee in a half-submerged beach chair near her home in southern Maryland.

Find Lemon:
website // twitter  // instagram

get Done Dirt Cheap  // add Valley Girls to your TBR

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