Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

A new novel about a ‘sandwich’ generation explores middle age and senior synchronized swimming

Woman poses
Sarah C. Johns of St. Paul, author of the novel "The Sirens of Soleil City."
Photo by Jefferson Wheeler

Coming-of-age stories are great, but what about a beach read with whose main characters have a little more life experience?

St. Paul author Sarah C. Johns’ debut novel features three generations of women with a unique family history, and the stars of the show are in their late 50s and and 70s. And they’re working together to ready a team for a senior synchronized swimming competition.

The novel is called “The Sirens of Soleil City,” and it comes out July 9. MPR News host Emily Bright spoke with the author, who will read from her debut novel “The Sirens of Soleil City” Tuesday, July 9 at Magers and Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis at 7 p.m.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Well, coming of age stories, I love them. They're great. But what about a beach read with those whose main characters have a little more life experience? Saint Paul author Sarah C. Johns' debut novel features three generations of women with a unique family history, and the stars of the show are in their late 50s and 70s, as they work together to ready a team for a senior synchronized swimming competition. It's called The Sirens of Soleil City, and it comes out today. MPR's Emily Bright spoke with the author, Sarah.

EMILY BRIGHT: So we've got this multigenerational story-- three generations of mothers and daughters and a bonus mom in a situation I've never seen before. So let's start there. Can you talk about these two mothers and their relationship?

SARAH C. JOHNS: Yeah. So the book was inspired by my mom's own mothers. So she had a mother who was an unconventional woman, and who was married six times, and was in and out of her life. But my mother always knew that she was loved very deeply-- it wasn't her, it was just, I think, the role of mother was not a good fit for her mother in the traditional sense.

And so then from the age of about seven on, she was raised by her stepmother. And that was the consistent mother presence in her life. And so that's where I kind of started as the launching point for this book.

In real life, the two mothers were not friendly with each other. And at the end of their lives, they did end up living just a few miles away from each other in West Palm Beach. And after the death of the husband they had both shared, they did start meeting up for lunch and became friendly-ish because they shared a family.

And I just thought that that dynamic was just so interesting, that they both played this role of mother to my mother, but they had different parts in that role, you know? One was the consistency, and then one was sort of the dream, and what could life be, and what should I be aiming for?

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, that all comes across in-- this is, of course, a fictionalized version of that-- but what you describe is very much at the heart of this story. And so we have these two women in their 70s, and we have kind of our main character, Sherry, who's 57. And you had this great phrase where she says, in the past couple of years, she's only done light mothering and light daughtering, where she's kind of been on her own. Nobody's really needed her.

But at the start of the book, that's all changing because she is called to help both her mothers for different reasons, who are living near each other in Florida. She leaves frigid Minnesota. And her daughter, meanwhile, is about to have her first child. So she's about to flip into high gear. So talk to me about this sandwich generation where you're just being pulled from both sides, because it's such a thing.

SARAH C. JOHNS: It is such a thing. And for Sherry, she has not worked outside of the home for years, but her husband refers to her as the family CEO. And he's starting to talk about retirement. And he's getting excited about these plans, and she's just getting so angry and frustrated thinking, well, where's my retirement? I don't get a retirement.

You've all put me in this position where I'm managing this family. And her daughter is expecting her to be a very active grandmother, which that's something that she would like to do, but, at the same time, it's an assumption rather than a request. And her mothers both lived their lives not thinking about the future.

They weren't socking away money and they weren't eating their fruits and vegetables, shall we say, the way they should have. They were of that generation where a cocktail and a cigarette was no need to wait till 5 o'clock all the time.

So she just feels like, here I am having to clean it all up. Everyone's looking to me for this. And she's put off by this. But, at the same time, there's this question of wants and needs through the book. And I think she really needs to feel needed as well, you know?

She really needs to feel like these people could not go on without her. But she's also resentful of that. And I think that the book takes place 25 years ago, but nothing's changed in women in middle age being expected to be the family caretaker. They're expected to look after aging parents. They're expected to have their child's needs top of mind and to help them not till 18 at all, but well into adulthood and to still be that sounding board, and that advice center, and just that security blanket.

It's an honor, in a way, too, that everyone's looking at you. But it's very hard to feel that when you're in the moment and everyone needs something.

EMILY BRIGHT: My mom always says, life comes in bunches.

SARAH C. JOHNS: It does. That's the truth. As I was writing it, I was thinking, well, is this too much to do all at the same time? But that's how it works. That's really how it works.

EMILY BRIGHT: Yes, it is. Pause while we all consider that moment in our life. OK, so Sherry comes up with a really clever solution, which is she decides that the solution for many of these things is a senior synchronized swimming competition. Tell me more about that.

SARAH C. JOHNS: Well, that was a throwaway line in the first draft of this book. I knew there was a pool because--

EMILY BRIGHT: Because Florida.

SARAH C. JOHNS: Because Florida. And also because that's the social hub. That's where this group of women in Soleil City, the apartment complex, live. And it's called a senior apartment complex, but there's no amenities at all. That's Soleil City. It's an apartment complex that I don't think really exists much anymore.

But, yes, so there's this pool. And I was thinking, well, what is this that could keep them all there? So synchronized swimming came in, which, for me, writing was the most fun. I had the members of the synchronized swimming team to really put some time and effort into-- Dale's neighbors at Soleil City-- and they were all a blast to write.

EMILY BRIGHT: And Dale is the artist mother.

SARAH C. JOHNS: Dale is--

EMILY BRIGHT: The OG. Original--

SARAH C. JOHNS: She's the OG, yes. Dale is the artist mother. And her friends, there are newer friends, but they all talk to each other as older women who no longer maybe care for niceties as much anymore. They're very blunt and honest. And that was very fun to write.

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, those were my favorite characters. You have this what becomes a troupe, basically, of women in their 70s. And there's been a trend lately that I've started to see of books featuring main character women, more, who are in their 70s or 80s who have a life, and are interesting, and have this rich past, and are doing things now. And these women are nobody's nice grandma.

SARAH C. JOHNS: No, they're not. They're not. The book takes place in 1999. And 75 in 1999, even a generation ago, is very different from 75 now, which my mom will feel called out here, but when she read the book, she's still identifying with Sherry, the woman in her 50s. She's the same age as the older woman.

But I just I think that now, today's older woman is so much more active, and, thankfully, in many, many cases, healthier because of just so many early detection and so much more knowledge. For me as a writer, the coming of age books have their place. And they're great. And they definitely fulfill a need.

And it's fun to meet someone at the beginning of their adulthood. But to write about women in their 70s, even 50s, who have just these years of experience, and adventure, in a lot of cases, and heartbreak, and loss, and excitement behind them-- that's fulfilling as a writer. There's just so much there.

The other thing is I was swimming laps in the morning at the Y, and I would butt up against the silver sneakers group that would come in. And watching those women, it was just this life drama every day because there were women who were getting hugs because it was their first time back after their husband had passed away or they had become a grandmother well, after they thought they ever could.

There's just so much happening there. Life just is bigger, I think, at that point, because everything-- I'm the mother of a teenage daughter, and there's daily drama there.


SARAH C. JOHNS: But it's pushed aside in favor of the next drama that comes up. And I think when you're in your 70s, the drama sticks around a little longer because it's a little bit more meaningful and a little bit more life-altering.

EMILY BRIGHT: Sarah, thank you so much for talking with me today.

SARAH C. JOHNS: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

CATHY WURZER: That was Emily Bright speaking with Saint Paul-based author Sarah C. Johns. You can see Sarah read from her debut novel The Sirens of Soleil City tonight, as a matter of fact-- Magers & Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis. It starts at 7:00 PM.

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