Episode 26

The Intersection of Epilepsy and Mental Health: A Debut Author Brings Important Topics to Light

Today our guest is Sara Staggs, former civil rights attorney-turned-author. She writes upmarket fiction and YA, and her debut novel, Uncontrollable, launches on May 25th from Black Rose Writing. Sara practiced civil rights litigation for several years before she had to stop because of her epilepsy.

After two brain surgeries in six years, she wrote a novel based on her experiences with epilepsy, which mixes fiction with autobiographical fiction ("auto-fiction"). Uncontrollable is a 5-star Reader's Favorite, and has received amazing advance reviews from Independent Book Review, Midwest Book Review, Pacific Book Review, Indie Reader, and featured in Publisher's Weekly as Booklife Editor's Favorite.  

Sara started her writing journey after her second brain surgery, using writing as therapy. She kept a journal while she was in the hospital, and started writing to deal with the trauma and PTSD that she experienced during her pre-surgical work-ups. After finishing the medical scenes, she wondered if she could create a novel inspired by her life, and the result was Uncontrollable. Sara keeps a blog about writing and publishing, living with epilepsy, and parenting a transgender child. Her next book is a YA LGBTQ+ book that she hopes to query this fall.

Sara has a three-city book tour starting on May 25th, and here is the list of events currently lined up. If you are in Portland, Dallas, or Cleveland, come see her speak and leave with a signed copy of a book that has been described by best-selling author Alisa Kennedy Jones as "UN-PUT-DOWNABLE!" 


May 25th: WEWS live interview at 10am           

Presentation at Empower Epilepsy with Cleveland Clinic neurologist, Dr. Imad Najm. Event from 5pm-8pm. Free to all. Register here



June 9th: Book event at Interabang Books at 6pm, moderated by professional speaker, Karen Cortell Reisman. Come early for food and mingling! RSVP here.


June 6th: Book reading, Q&A, and signing at Annie Bloom's Books at 7pm. Come early for food! Children welcome. RSVP here. 

June 14th: Author's Night at the University Club at 6pm. Wine tasting and snacks start at 5:30. Open to all. RSVP here

You can learn more about Sara on her website www.sarastaggswrites.com.

Sign up for her newsletter to keep up-to-date on events, her next release, and for new blog posts! You can follow her on Instagram www.instagram.com/sarastaggswrites and on Twitter @SaraStaggs. 

Support your local bookstore & this podcast by getting your copy of Uncontrollable at https://bookshop.org/a/90599/9781685132019 or see all the options to order on Sara's website www.sarastaggswrites.com.


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Shawna Rodrigues 0:01

Welcome to Author Express. Thanks for joining us today. I'm Shawna Rodrigues, one of your hosts, and the founder of Authentic Connections Podcast Network, which makes this podcast possible. This podcast is where you discover the voice behind the pages of your next favorite book. And I'm excited about the author we have for you today.

Shawna Rodrigues 0:21

Sara Staggs is an author who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novel, Uncontrollable, comes out tomorrow. So, you can get the preorder right now or if you're listening to this a day late, it is already ready for you to grab it. It has been reviewed by Pacific Book Review as a compelling story that tackles complex themes with nuance and sensitivity. Incredibly interesting, raw and unique, a book that readers are not likely to forget. It is also a five star readers favorite. She writes women's fiction and young adult. So, we are so excited that she gets to be here with us today. Welcome, Sara.

Sara Staggs 0:57

Hi, thanks for having me.

Shawna Rodrigues 0:59

I'm so excited. I don't have, you're one of the few local Portland authors. I live in Portland, for those of you listening that don't know that. So, this is very exciting to have and have many local Portland authors. So, I'm so excited to have a local author on as well. This is neat.

Sara Staggs 1:12


Shawna Rodrigues 1:13

So, tell us what is the most interesting thing about where you are from?

Sara Staggs 1:18

I think that the most interesting thing is my neighborhood and how it's sort of small town, you can walk everywhere, which is pretty cool. And it seems pretty safe. I let the kids go and just wander around. They're old enough now. And there's a really neat bookstore right up the road. And they just, know me and they know the kids by name. We've been going there forever. So, I love that my neighborhood, especially, is like, a little town in Portland, which is a little bit of a bigger city townfield.

Shawna Rodrigues 1:50

Yes, that is so special. I love that. I love that. You get to be a little town inside of the bigger city, which is a good way to have things if you're going to be in this day. And where did you grew up at?

Sara Staggs 2:00

Dallas, Texas.

Shawna Rodrigues 2:01

Dallas, Texas. So, tell me what's one of your favorite early memories from growing up in Dallas, Texas?

Sara Staggs 2:07

We had a pool. And the pool has like a waterslide that was built in like, the 70s. It was definitely not up to whatever code there ever was. So, we used it for pool parties every Wednesday in the summer. And I love all the kids that would come and the family and I, those pool parties were such great memories. We would go down the slide like, headfirst, backwards. I don't know how we didn't break anything. But the pool parties are definitely something that come to mind.

Shawna Rodrigues 2:39

I bet. That sounds amazing. And the slide is like, the most epic part about it. Because even if I got to go to pools when I was a kid, and we had an outdoor pool for a while when I was a kid too, but never with a slide that definitely takes it to a whole other level as well.

Sara Staggs 2:52


Shawna Rodrigues 2:53

Yes. I love it. And so your book, Uncontrollable, I'd love for us to chat a little bit about it. What do you think was the hardest part of that book for you to write?

Sara Staggs 3:04

Well, a lot of it. It's fiction. But it's based on my sort of lived experiences with epilepsy. And so a lot of the medical scenes are auto fiction or autobiographical fiction, which I'll explain in a second. But I think the hardest thing for me to write was when the two protagonists, the husband and wife, were not acting nice to each other, because I would get really invested emotionally. You know how that happens when you're writing?

Shawna Rodrigues 3:32


Sara Staggs 3:32

you get really invested. And then, I would find myself like heartbroken at the end of my writing session.

Shawna Rodrigues 3:41


Sara Staggs 3:42

because there's always their best selves. So, those scenes were hard for me to write.

Shawna Rodrigues 3:47

Yes, I love that. And you had to let the characters kind of take their journey and do the things they need to do and be authentic and real. And it can be heartbreaking, sometimes, so, the ways that we go and the way that they go.

Sara Staggs 3:58

Definitely. Yeah.

Shawna Rodrigues 4:00

So, what are you most excited for people to get out of your book and to learn from it?

Sara Staggs 4:04

Excited for people to learn about epilepsy, the protagonist has epilepsy. And the book kind of follows along her journey and her husband's journey about how they deal with this really dire diagnosis that she gets in the beginning of the book and the choices she has to make. And so, I think, I'm excited for people to know more about epilepsy and how common it is and kind of, what to do with it, to bring it, sort of, out of the shadows and into the light. And I'm also excited for people to read and learn about the mental health aspect. Because depression and anxiety are really common comorbidities when you have uncontrolled seizures, and so something that the protagonist faces and that has been from my advanced readers, something that a lot of them have commented on and especially in this mental health awareness month,

Shawna Rodrigues 5:01


Sara Staggs 5:02

a great book.

Shawna Rodrigues 5:03

That makes great sense. And I don't think people often relate those pieces that, what comes with those type of diagnoses and trying to work with them and grapple with them that there's additional comorbidity pieces that people don't consider. So, it's great to bring that to light and have that lived, experience that fuels your characters that then connects even more to the reader, I'm sure.

Sara Staggs 5:24

100%. Yeah, I think that you can look at it and say, Okay, well, perhaps the author went through this, and let's talk about it. And I think not only is it common with epilepsy, but with any chronic condition, right?

Shawna Rodrigues 5:37


Sara Staggs 5:38

that you can't control or maybe any sort of thing that you've had that makes you different.

Shawna Rodrigues 5:44

Yes, exactly. With your writing process and your journey, what is something that you wish you would have known sooner about writing and completing your novel?

Sara Staggs 5:53

I wish I had known that the writing part was only the beginning. I did not realize that. I thought that you wrote the book, and then you like, sent it to an agent, somehow. And then they were like, This is great. And then they sent it to a publisher who said the same thing. And then you got published, and you just had to show up a couple years later to some book signings. Writing a book, it's really a three stage process. It's writing, and then querying, and then promoting. That's that. The last two, I had no idea going into it.

Shawna Rodrigues 6:32

Yes. And for people out there who haven't published like, the more I meet writers and talk with readers, the more I learned that querying process is actually very, very challenging, because it can be hard to find the right connection, and the right home for your book that you've worked so hard on and putting so much into. And then during that process, once you find your agent, once you find your publisher, oftentimes, if you go that route, because there's many routes to go, that whichever route you go, that there's usually more refinement, and more changes the books and more in that process than people expect. And then once you finally do get ready to come out, there's a lot to do with promoting a book. I'm amazed at all you've done with really working hard to promote your book. Can you tell us a little more about the process of trying to get the word out there about your book?

Sara Staggs 7:15

Sure. I started as soon as the final edits were done, and we'd signed off on the manuscript. I started a blog. And I started a newsletter that I send out twice a month. And I actually hired a publicist. And I've some advice to authors out there. Two ways that are if you're going to invest in your book important to have if you're going to decide where do I put my money, a developmental editor before you query, and then a publicist at the end. Because even with the Big Five, they don't have a lot of resources for let's say, debut authors, they have big stable of authors, especially big name authors. And so, I would say, save your money to hire a publicist. And for the developmental editor before you begin to query.

Shawna Rodrigues 7:34

That's so wonderful that you found like the two things for you that really moved the needle for you and really made a difference. And I've definitely seen with the way you've gotten the word out and the connections you've had with your book that I've seen more of it than a lot of other debut books that have come out. So, you did a great job finding a good publicist and actually utilizing those opportunities. That's so exciting.

Sara Staggs 8:26

Thanks. Yeah, she's been great. She works really hard. I'm doing a three city book tour. It's gonna be really fun. And I know that Portland's one of them, obviously. And then, I'll go to Cleveland, and do a presentation there and then be interviewed on the news, which is exciting.

Shawna Rodrigues 8:47


Sara Staggs 8:48

And then, yeah, good to Dallas, hopefully, get extra media and then do a couple of book events.

Shawna Rodrigues 8:55

Oh, that'll be wonderful. When are you going to be in Dallas? And when are you going to be in Cleveland?

Sara Staggs 8:59

So, I will be in Cleveland starting May 22. And the event and the TV spot going to be May 25.

Shawna Rodrigues 9:09

Oh, my goodness. Yeah.

Sara Staggs 9:11

I know.

Shawna Rodrigues 9:12

This is immediately happening, y'all. So, by the time that the show comes out, it'll be in the middle of all of it. Yeah.

Sara Staggs 9:17

I know.

Shawna Rodrigues 9:18

And then, when is it in Dallas?

Sara Staggs 9:20

And then Dallas is June 6th, 7th and 8th. And so, I have an event at Interabang Books, which is a really cool indie bookstore in North Dallas. That's Friday night, and then a book event, I think at a Barnes and Noble, and that's Saturday afternoon. And then I'll be speaking at a church. I'm Jewish, but I used to like, go to this church every once in a while. Just got a long story on Sunday morning.

Shawna Rodrigues 9:54

Oh, that's so exciting. So, you have a few opportunities there. So, you're about to be on a whirlwind because we're recording this y'all, right? Like, the week before her book comes out and before you're able to hear this episode, so, this is right before she's about to launch on this adventure.

Sara Staggs:

Yeah. Oh, and then I have two readings in Portland. One on the 6th, at Annie Bloom's Books. And then the other one is the Author's Night at the University Club.

Shawna Rodrigues:

Ooh, that's so exciting. Yeah. So, we'll have to make sure we get some of those into the show notes and ones that are open that folks can attend. So, if you are in one of those cities, you're able to make plans to connect with Sara and possibly get a signature on the book that you buy for her to be of support for this. That is so exciting. So, what is the best way for people to be able to track you and keep in touch with you as you continue to write and grow with your books?

Sara Staggs:

You can sign up for my newsletter at SaraStaggswrites.com. And I'm sure that'll be in the show notes. And you can also follow me on Instagram or Twitter. Instagram is also Sara Staggs writes, and then, Twitter's just Sara Staggs.

Shawna Rodrigues:

That works wonderfully. And so for our last question, is there a book you have that you have found has been specifically inspirational or that you've really enjoyed or found interesting that you could share with all of us?

Sara Staggs:

Well, I'm working on a YA novel right now. Like, LGBTQIA novel, and so something that I found really inspiring is Felix Ever After.

Shawna Rodrigues:

Whoo, I haven't heard of that one.

Sara Staggs:

Yeah, it's a great YA novel with a trans protagonist, and my book is having a trans protagonist as well. And it was very inspiring, really well written. And so I definitely recommend that to the audience.

Shawna Rodrigues:

That's exciting. Did you find it once you've decided you're going to write the book and you found it as a copy or looking at? Or is it something you read that kind of helped inspire you to decide to write your next book?

Sara Staggs:

I found it as a comp. So, I decided to write the book. And then I started looking for comps and I found it and I read it like, five times. Just to read it.

Shawna Rodrigues:

That is incredible. That is, this is a lot about the vibe that you read it that many times. That's wonderful. And for those of you that aren't authors, and haven't heard of comps, comps are books that are similar to your book, so that as you're querying or looking for agents or publishers, that you're able to give them a sense of kind of where it fits in. And also, just as you're learning to write different genres, it's really good to be well read in those genres. So, you want to read things that are similar to what you're looking to write. So, that is part of the writing process for those out there that are hopeful authors to know what comps are and to be able to look into that. Thank you so much, Sara. This was such a delight. I am so excited for your launch. And I am so excited because I am going to attend one of those events. So, I can't wait for that and to get you to sign my book and to get to read it.

Sara Staggs:

I'm so excited. Thank you for having me. And for all of your listeners out there, buy Uncontrollable. It's gotten great advance reviews. And I'm so excited to see what happens in the future.

Shawna Rodrigues:

Yes, exactly. We'll have all those links in the show notes. So, thank you so much. Take care.

Sara Staggs:


Shawna Rodrigues:

Thanks for joining us. I hope you take a second to give us a review or a couple of stars on your favorite podcasting platform. And we'll be here again next Wednesday. Follow us on Instagram, at Author Express podcast to see who's coming up next. Don't forget, keep it express but keep it interesting.

About the Podcast

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Shawna Rodrigues

Shawna Rodrigues, Founder and Director of Impact at Authentic Connections Podcast Network, Host of The Grit Show (https://podcast.thegritshow.com) and Author Express (https://bit.ly/AuthorExpressPod) and coming in 2024- Authenticity Amplified. Shawna is a Podcast Mentor, Internationally Best-Selling Author (www.shawnarodrigues.com) and consultant.
Find her on Instagram @ShawnaPodcasts.