In fact, Durst maintains that the process of writing her newest novel, “Enchanted Ivy,” began the moment she stepped on campus.
“I could not have written [the book] without Princeton,” Durst said. “It’s woven into every sentence.”
“Enchanted Ivy,” which was released Oct. 12, follows a high school girl’s magical adventures at her grandfather’s 50th Princeton reunion. It’s also a story about getting into college, a time Durst said was particularly daunting.
“I found that to be one of the most stressful parts of my life,” Durst recalled. “I think it’s because I saw college as a giant turning point.”
Many pivotal scenes in the novel are linked to other memories that loom large for Durst, including areas of campus. One battle scene takes place on the golf course behind Forbes College where Durst sledded on lunch trays. And the gargoyles of several campus buildings come alive as characters.
Durst returned to campus twice while writing the book.
“One thing I’m fascinated by is the intersection of reality with fantasy,” Durst said. “I think it’s very interesting when the two collide. I wanted to get my Princeton reality as accurate as possible before I brought in the fantastical element.”
“I walked every step that my character, Lily, walked — including sneaking around the areas where you’re not supposed to go,” said Durst, laughing.
Durst emphasized that more than the campus itself, her education encouraged her to pursue a career she had considered an impossible dream.
“Princeton taught me to stand on my own,” Durst said. “It gave me a chance to figure out what I wanted: to be a writer. It helped me confirm that.”
Durst majored in English with a certificate in theater and dance. Her creative senior thesis, “To Ride a Dragon: A Play in Two Acts,” addressed the theme of disillusionment and the contrast between reality and fantasy.
This was “one of the first creative writing experiences that I saw all the way through to the end,” Durst recalled. “I could do this. I could share my work with other people. I could craft a whole story that works.”
Durst also cited a course on fantasy literature, taught by religion professor Albert Raboteau, as a source of major inspiration. “[Raboteau’s] point was that fantasy is important because it restores a sense of wonder to a jaded world,” Durst explained. “It’s something I believe in very strongly … It provides that joy, that imagination, that sometimes gets lost.”
After graduating, Durst spent a year in England working on a manuscript that was never published. Still, she credited the experience with kick-starting her career.
Her first published novel, “Into the Wild,” tells the story of a 12-year old girl with monsters under her bed and came out in 2007 with the help of Andrea Somberg ’01, Durst’s literary agent.
“I sold Sarah’s first book in June 2006,” Somberg said in an e-mail. “I had received multiple bids from publishers right before Reunions. Sarah and I sat in the basement of Quad discussing which offer she should accept.”
Until this March, Durst also worked in marketing for Target Analytics, a company that works with nonprofit organizations. At this job, Durst said she “basically sent a lot of e-mails.” But the job balanced her life and allowed her mind to work subconsciously on writing.
Indeed, writing is a crucial part of Durst’s daily routine. “If I don’t write, I get grumpy,” Durst admitted. “It is a part of what I am. It’s how I understand the world.”
Instead of approaching a story with a specific message in mind, Durst said, she prefers to first focus on plot. She then uses themes to tie plot elements together, such as the idea of unlocking secrets in “Enchanted Ivy.” The first task for Lily, the novel’s protagonist, is to find the “Ivy Key,” which opens the gate between the ordinary Princeton and a magical one where boys are weretigers, turning into tigers at full moon like werewolves.
Her novels, Durst said, resonate with themes of hope, empowerment and an optimism that she believes characterizes fantasy.
“Sarah’s books, and ‘Enchanted Ivy’ in particular ... work on several different levels,” Somberg said. “They’re great stories that have the power to transport you for a few hours, but there is often a hidden subtext, a deeper significance woven throughout.”
At Princeton, Durst was a member of Theatre Intime, Triangle Club and Quadrangle Club.
She also met her husband, Adam Durst ’96, in their freshman year residential college adviser group in Forbes. They married in 1998 and now have two children.
Durst has contracted for two more novels with her publisher. Her next novel, “Drink, Slay, Love,” builds on the recent popularity of vampire novels, telling the tale of a 16-year-old vampire girl who develops a conscience after a wereunicorn stabs her in the heart.
Her advice for aspiring writers is that success requires resolve.
“You do not have to major in English,” Durst said. “More than talent or intelligence ... you need stubbornness. You can’t wait for things to fall into your lap. Be conscious of your choices and know that you’re choosing something because you love it. Stick with it.”