My guest for this bonus episode is New York Times bestselling author Sarah McCoy. Sarah started out as a journalist and PR professional who eventually cracked the code of writing as a profession.
In this episode, Sarah talks about her early career experiences, what it was like making the jump from corporate to creative, and her new book, “Mustique Island.” We also discuss such topics as creativity, culture, social class and faith.
Sarah writes historical fiction, giving readers the chance to escape into a different time period and connect with the characters of that world.
Sarah understands the importance of supporting local writers and local bookstores, including Bookmarks, a North Carolina-based nonprofit connecting the community through the power of books. Bookmarks is selling signed copies of Sarah’s latest book while supplies last.
Punk Rock HR is proudly underwritten by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is a B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head over to thestarrconspiracy.com.
Where the Story Began
English was a subject that came easy to Sarah, so she went for a double major in journalism and public relations at Virginia Tech. She was always fascinated with stories of people and experiences and thought she’d be like Oprah Winfrey when she graduated.
“That’s what everyone thinks when they go into sort of journalism,” Sarah says. “‘I’m going to be Oprah. I’m going to sit, and I’m going to ask people to tell me their stories, and we’re going to be these besties by the end. And I’ll have people crying, and I’ll uncover the next big thing.’ So I went into it thinking I do that.”
Sarah quickly learned how harsh TV broadcasting could be. During a summer internship, an on-air camera producer told Sarah she was cute but not beautiful. This changed Sarah’s perspective, as she wanted to be seen for her work, not her looks.
She looked next at newspapers, which seemed like a natural transition. This, too, came with challenges. “I think my junior year in college, I was told again by brilliant other business people — and I love business people — ‘If you just get a degree in journalism, you will not make a dime when you get out.’ I was on college loans entirely. I was a student in debt,” she says.
Not making money right after college wasn’t an option. Instead, Sarah took on extra classes to obtain her double major in journalism and business public relations.
“Then right after college, I got a job that just paid. I just wanted money, to be honest,” she explains.
Taking the Leap to What She Truly Wanted
After entering the workforce, Sarah quickly encountered the tension between being creative and holding a corporate job that she describes as “soul-sucking.”
“I got a job at a chemical company in Richmond, Virginia, and working there doing technical copy … middleman, communication stuff, writing speeches and PR releases,” she says.
The job paid the bills, but the corporate rules and technical style didn’t allow her creativity to shine.
“At night, I would go home, I would read novels, and I started writing my first novel, which never saw the light of day. I trashed it, but it got me into MFA school,” Sarah says. “So then I applied to MFA school, and I went back and got my master’s of fine arts in English creative writing. And that’s where I wrote my first book. That was my thesis.”
When you are mismatched in your career and passion, a gap forms between your passion and skills. The problem isn’t really your job description but your description. Many people don’t follow their passions, and for many understandable reasons. Workplace leaders can help.
“I think for business leaders out there listening to this, if you see a gift in one of your employees that you think they would be better suited in a more creative outlet, encourage them. I think that’s a beautiful thing,” Sarah says.
Welcome to Mustique Island
The setting of “Mustique Island” is the real-life island of Mustique, located in the Grenadines in the Caribbean. The book is set at a time when the private island was owned by British aristocrat Colin Tennant.
To pay for the island’s development, Tennant began selling parcels on the island, targeting wealthy, beautiful and scandalous people, as Sarah describes it. One of these buyers was a Texas woman named Billy Ray, the ex-wife of a British baron. Billy Ray became the inspiration for the main character in Sarah’s book, Willy May.
The island’s history provided Sarah with the foundation for her story, which follows Willy May and the unseen side of what happens in the world of the rich and powerful. What fascinated me about this book is the distinction between the wealthy and working classes — and the parallels to today.
“If you are a minority — and I’m Puerto Rican, so my mom is Puerto Rican — if you’re a minority and you don’t have a lot of money and not a lot of power, sometimes you are kept in that place,” Sarah says. “And it’s hard to rise up, even though we tout this American dream. But that American dream is very selective, actually, and there’s a lot of qualifiers and definitions. And then you have to stop and think, who made up that American dream?”'I think for business leaders out there listening to this, if you see a gift in one of your employees that you think they would be better suited in a more creative outlet, encourage them.' ~ @SarahMMcCoy, NYT bestselling author. Tune in to #PunkRockHR! Click To Tweet
People in This Episode
This episode of Punk Rock HR is sponsored by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is the B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head on over to thestarrconspiracy.com.
Hey, everybody. I’m Laurie Ruettimann. Welcome back to Punk Rock HR. My guest today is Sarah McCoy. She’s a New York Times bestselling author who started out as a journalist and PR professional and made her way into the world of writing.
And on today’s show, she talks about what it’s like to make that jump from corporate to creative, as well as telling us about her new book, “Mustique Island,” which is based in the Caribbean, and really home to Sarah as a woman of Puerto Rican descent. I really love this conversation because we talk about creativity and culture and social class and faith and all the good stuff. So if you’re looking for a wonderful summer read, sit back and enjoy this conversation about “Mustique Island” with Sarah McCoy on this week’s Punk Rock HR.
Hey Sarah, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me. I’m so happy to be here.
Yeah, of course. My goodness, before we get started talking about your career, your books, all the good stuff, why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are?
Who are you? That’s a big question. I am Sarah McCoy, an author of historical fiction and just a writer. I’m a big history nerd. I sit in a room all by myself all day, and I think of stories. And I write them down and, hopefully, they touch people. I’m a big nerd. That’s what I am, yes.
Well, I know that you’re not a big nerd. You’re a New York Times bestselling author and a lot of people love your work. And you’ve got a new book out called Mustique Island. And before we talk about that, I’m really interested in your career.
This is a podcast for people who are professional workers — business professionals, if you will. And many of them dream about having your job. And it’s funny because you started out your career going to Virginia Tech, thinking you were going to be a journalist. So can you talk a little bit about that?
Going back a little further, English always came easy to me, and that’s why I went into it. That is such a terrible thing to admit, but it’s true. I AP’d out of my freshman year in college. And so I just was like, “Yes! No, I don’t have to do all that.” I just went for the easy route actually.
And then I graduated with a double major in journalism and public relations. And the only reason I did double is because I was always fascinated with stories. And so I thought I would be an on-air, sort of like, Oprah. That’s what everyone thinks when they go into sort of journalism, “I’m going to be Oprah. I’m going to sit and I’m going to ask people to tell me their stories and we’re going to be these besties by the end. And I’ll have people crying, and I’ll uncover the next big thing.” So I went into it thinking I do that.
And then at an internship one summer, I had my on-air camera producer guy said to me, “Yeah,” as an intern, “you’re just cute enough, but you’re not beautiful, which makes you appealing to people who are watching. Because you’re not beautiful where they envy you, you’re just kind of cute enough.” And I remember thinking, I wasn’t even offended that he said that, I was offended by that he was judging me, my work, my career, my everything, on “You’re cute.” That’s what I came down to him, was “You’re cute.” I was rocked to my core by that one statement. And everyone around me, my mom, my parents, or whoever were saying, “That was so nice. You’re cute.” And I was, “No. No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all.”
So I then realized that maybe the on-air camera thing, I would meet some barriers, not in terms of being cute, but in terms of, I would constantly be upset, annoyed that I’m being judged by this and not by what I do and what I create. And also, I have to say, in all the internships I did during my college years, most of the producers were men. I met very few female producers. And so then I felt like, “Okay, am I just a sock puppet? Am I just a puppet that’s on screen?” I didn’t like the whole thing, I was a budding feminist in the ‘90s. And I was just like, “This is not happening for me.” So I went into newspapers and I said, “English comes easy, I’ll do newspapers and magazine work. And that’s the same thing, only I write it down, and it’s easy anyways.”
So I went into that. And then I think my junior year in college, I was told again by brilliant other business people — and I love business people — “If you just get a degree in journalism, you will not make a dime when you get out.” I was on college loans entirely. I was a student in debt. And my parents are military. So, my dad is a career Army officer and they had already been restationed out of Virginia to Michigan. And if you are a military brat, like I was, an Army brat, then they don’t got money. They don’t got money to have you come home and live in the barracks with them.
No. You got to provide for yourself.
Right. So I had student loans. I knew I couldn’t go home to my parents. [inaudible 00:05:25] live with them anymore, and I needed to make money as soon as I got out. So I quickly took on some extra classes, did some summer work, got a double major in journalism and business, public relations. Then right after college, I got a job that just paid. I just wanted money, to be honest.
You graduated from college with a double major in journalism and public relations. So for me, the ordinary career path would be a mediocre communications job in the business world. Right? You go in, you learn the ropes, you pay your dues. But if you’re a writer at your core, there’s a creative spark there, and there’s a curiosity that the business world just wants to stamp out. So what was that like? I mean, you’ve got middle-class roots, you’re an Army brat, and you go to work in the corporate world. So what was that experience like?
I put it this way, and I shouldn’t have, at a book festival in front of a very large crowd where I said that working, I got a job at a chemical company in Richmond, Virginia, and working there doing technical copy — like you said, middleman, communication stuff, writing speeches and PR releases — “that it was soul-sucking,” is what I said to the crowd. And it got a good laugh. And then I saw a hand raise and I said, “Yes, sir. What?” And then out of the crowd stood and said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I was your boss.” I kid you not.
He had since left the company, but I was like, “Never say that again.” But to your question, it was soul-sucking. And at night, I would go home, I would read novels, and I started writing my first novel, which never saw the light of day. I trashed it, but it got me into MFA school. So then I applied to MFA school and I went back and got my master’s of fine arts in English creative writing. And that’s where I wrote my first book. That was my thesis.
I’m really curious about that moment when you said it was soul-sucking, and your old former boss stood up and said, “I don’t know if you remember, but you used to work for me.” I think in that moment, he could still be proud of you. He could still be amazed by your accomplishments and recognize that was not the job for you. Because when you’re mismatched, there’s a gap between your passion and your skills and what you want to do with your life. Anything could be soul-sucking. It’s not a description of the job, it’s more a description of you. Correct?
Absolutely correct. He wouldn’t have been in that crowd, I knew, if he didn’t deeply care about me. And afterwards, we laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed. My husband still tells that story at dinner parties, because it just hilarious. And he was so loving, and he said exactly what you said. He said, “I’m so proud of you. I knew you wouldn’t stay there. I knew you weren’t meant for that job.” I think for business leaders out there listening to this, if you see a gift in one of your employees that you think they would be better suited in a more creative outlet, encourage them. I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Well, I’m curious now, because you’ve got this amazing career as a writer who earns a living, right? I mean, you provide for your family, you do all the good things in this world. Let’s work backwards. Why don’t you tell me about your current book, “Mustique Island.” What’s that all about?
So my current book, “Mustique Island,” is the name of the book. It is about an island called Mustique that is real and is in the most southern tip of the Caribbean, the curve of the Caribbean, that sort of crescent shape of it. And it is a privately owned island that is one of the few places in the world that I know of that even now, currently, and in modern times is privately owned. So the person who owns it is king, without any sort of authority over him. He can do whatever he wants.
And everyone who comes onto the island basically signs up to obey whatever rules that person puts down. So Colin and Anne Tennant owned it at the time. They don’t now, but they owned it in 1972, which is when the book opens. And it opens with a woman named Willy May, who docks her boat on the island and decides that she’s going to try to make anew there and to establish herself as a person there.
And one thing in the research that you have to know about this island is that Colin Tennant was a real person. And I read his memoir. And he wrote a memoir about the island and how he developed it according to his memory. So, we’ll just put it that way. And as we know, history is told how that person wants us to remember it. And also by usually the people who have the power at the time. So Colin Tennant was a white nobleman who then told the story of his island according to how he wanted us to remember it. I probably believe 10% of what he wrote because the rest of it is just crazy. But what I did get out of his memoir is a sense of the real parameters that he put on this island, and what the island was like for the people who were then on it.
And so one of the things he said very openly and proudly in his memoir is that there were three criteria. First off, he bought the island, and then he started going bankrupt because he was spending all this money to develop the island. And so he decided the best business — actually he didn’t decide, his business partner told him — the best business sense, because he was terrible with money and business, would be to decide which pieces of land on the island he didn’t really need or didn’t like or were kind of ugly. And he would then sell them to someone out there, whoever, that — he would decide. And then they would then buy the island. He would get money, and then they would pay to have that developed on their own. And then he would get money from that, too, and you’d get money. And so it would snowball. So that’s what he did. He started selling parcels of the land.
And his three criteria for coming over to buy the land was that you had to be beautiful enough by his standard, rich enough. And you had to be scandalous enough that you wouldn’t whistleblow on what went on on the island. He’s very proud of this in his memoir. And so one of the people he brought over was — wooed to buy, and she did — was a real-life woman named Billy Ray. And she was a Texan who was divorced from a British baron husband who had two grown daughters. And she was sailing the globe in a boat that she built, trying to find a place to land, because she’d been blackballed from good British society for the divorce and taking all his money, and then he died. So yeah, all this is real, all this is the truth.
I’m fascinated by it.
Yeah. I took those bones. Those were all the real parts. From there, I went all fiction with my character, Willy May is her name, so I changed the name. And then her two daughters are Hilly and Joanne, because these were real people. And Hilly and Joanne are still alive, and they have family. And they’re all still in the Caribbean. And so I wanted to protect their private, true identities and give them that. I’m a very introverted, very private person, and so my privacy is important to me. And I thought just because it’s a good story doesn’t mean that these real people want something just splayed out there. I have a heart for that, so I wanted to protect the real people.
So everything else is fiction. And it’s about this island, that — one of the things, so many things — but one of the things that makes it spectacular is that part of it Colin gave away as a wedding gift to Princess Margaret. And so Princess Margaret has a villa on there. It’s there to this day. And it was where she went to getaway and do what she pleased and played all sorts of games. We’ll just put them as games, lots of games. And they’re in the book, the games, scandalous games. And so that was a lot of fun to dig into being Princess Margaret in character in this book. And Mick Jagger shows up in the book, and that he really has a place there. So there are a lot of celebrities.
Well, I’m really fascinated because you’ve got a distinction in this book between the wealthy and the working class. Right? The rich and the poor, that seems to be a theme throughout the entire book. So why don’t you tell us a little bit more about that, and what drew you to make that distinction, and why that was important for you?
I see a lot of parallels between our times now, and anything in history really, but I think about what we’ve come through pretty much since 2016 until now. And there’s a lot of the powerful and the rich, and the majority have the power and the riches and the majority. And if you are a minority — and I’m Puerto Rican, so my mom is Puerto Rican — if you’re a minority and you don’t have a lot of money and not a lot of power, sometimes you are kept in that place. And it’s hard to rise up, even though we tout this American dream. But that American dream is very selective, actually, and there’s a lot of qualifiers and definitions. And then you have to stop and think, “Who made up that American dream?” Like I said earlier about who tells history and what they want you to think. And so, who made up that American dream and what are the definitions of it right now? And I think that right now they’re very much uneven. And so that was definitely on my heart when I was writing this.
And then this sort of British hierarchy that plays into it was just too perfect. I just mentioned that I’m Puerto Rican, so the Caribbean is my lifeblood. I grew up going many times a year. My grandparents and my cousins — let me just tell you, the way Hispanic culture works. So my grandparents live in a very tiny town on a finca, which is called a farm, in a town called Aibonito in Puerto Rico. And I am basically first, second, third, fifth, a 10th cousin with every single person in a hundred-mile radius or something insane. So that culture is very family-oriented and very close-knit. So Mustique Island, even though it is a British, privately owned island, it’s part of that original sort of — Taino Indians is what they’re called — that actually were first there, who were then colonized by the French and the British and the Spanish. And so there’s all these different languages in the Caribbean. You think, “Oh, well they’re different countries.” No, they aren’t. They’re actually all one. It’s just different people walked in the door and said, “We own you now, speak our language.”
So you bring all of that to this idea of the book. And not only do you talk about class, which is so incredibly important, but you also bring faith in, which is a theme throughout the book. So can you talk a little bit about faith as a theme, as well?
Yes. I am a person of faith. I’m a person who believes in supernatural, divine intervention, grace beyond belief, all of the hope, all those things, because I don’t think I could live an hour without those, believing in those. And I think especially after this — not especially, I was before, but the pandemic just really drove at home that you can have a goal. Right, Laurie? You can have something that’s in front of you like a golden ring. And you can think that thing that is out there is the ultimate, and it will make you happy. When you get that thing, it will make you happy. It’ll make the world. Your life will be just fantastic, and you can strive and work to get that golden ring, which my characters do in this book.
Willy May wants to be accepted. She wants to be seen as a part of the popular in-crowd, as noble, as rich enough, as beautiful. She wants to be all these things that she thinks will then make her, raise her up to a status of being acceptable by all, and admired and loved. That’s the thing, loved. And so, she does all this work and tries to attain it. And then when she gets what looks like it, she realizes it’s not what she thought she wanted, isn’t what she wanted. And it doesn’t satisfy her, and it leaves her empty, and it leaves her more empty than she was before even, because now what has she sacrificed to get this golden ring that isn’t — It’s what she thought she wanted, but it’s not what she needed. And when suddenly that hits you, that what you thought you wanted is actually not what you needed, and now that you got what you wanted you’re emptier, that’s a horrifying, scary, terrifying place to be.
And so, what’s the solution? Because there will always be that next thing. Then you go find the next ring. Right? Then you, OK, well maybe I need something else to hit that fix. And faith is the only thing I have found as the answer and the solution to that, that satisfies that to, where you can say, “If I get it or I don’t get this brass ring, that’s not who I am. That’s not the total of my worth as a woman, as a person, as a spirit, as a soul on this earth and the universe. That thing doesn’t matter.” What matters is the people you love, and the legacy you leave, and the touching of spirits along the way, and that sort of path that you tread — the progress of going forward towards something that’s beautiful is really the essence of life. And that’s faith. There’s no other way to put it. So it’s very important in this book.
And I also wanted to show that it’s confusing. That’s the thing. So many times you see people talking about faith or something supernatural, and they’re so confident about it. And you’re like, “Well, I’ve got questions. I’ve got a lot of questions.” So I wanted to put that in the book, that it’s confusing. And everyone thinks that their brand of faith is right. But what if it’s all right, and the way we’re doing it is the wrong? Putting parameters on this is the one right way, and this is the other right way. And if you’re a Protestant then, “Oh mm-mm, because I’m a Catholic, and I know you’re wrong.” And if I’m a Catholic and I see you, Protestant, you’re wrong. And if I’m a Buddhist — I mean, it just goes on and on until we’re all so angry. And then we’ve lost the actual foundation of what faith is about, and that’s all it comes down to is loving each other. That’s all it comes down to. That’s all we’re asked to do and meant to do.
And so that I definitely wanted to weave into that. It’s OK to be curious and be confused and doubtful, and to question the authority, and the definitions, and the parameters, and all the rules. It’s good to question rules, so that is celebrated in this book.
Well, that’s a really beautiful description of class and faith, and I’m so excited for our community to go out and buy a copy of “Mustique Island.” So if you were to tell people to go out and find it, where do you want them to go? Where do you want them to purchase it from?
Oh gosh, an independent bookseller, please go to your local independent bookseller. If you don’t know where it’s at, just go online and Google one of the indiebooks.com and find it, or you can order from my hometown bookstore, and I will sign those copies. And that’s at BookmarksNC.org. So go there, and it’s called Bookmarks. You can also just Google it and find Bookmarks in North Carolina, Winston Salem. And I will hand-sign them for you. So those are my favorite places.
Perfect. We’ll make sure to include a link in the show notes. And I want to thank you again for being a guest on the show today.
Thank you so much, Laurie. This was such a pleasure. I hope your readers enjoy “Mustique Island.”
Hey everybody. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Punk Rock HR. We are proudly underwritten by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is the B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head on over to thestarrconspiracy.com. Punk Rock HR is produced and edited by Rep Cap with special help from Michael Thibodeaux and Devon McGrath. For more information, show notes, links and resources, head on over to punkrockhr.com. Now that’s all for today and I hope you enjoyed it. We’ll see you next time on Punk Rock HR.