Sarah Beth Durst ’96 began writing stories full of dragons and unicorns at the age of 10. She published her first novel in 2007, a middle-grade fantasy titled Into the Wild that is populated by witches and talking cats. This month, she will release her 22nd novel, The Bone Maker, which takes adult readers on a journey against dark magic.For Durst, writing fantasy novels for children, teens, and adults is a way to tell stories about ordinary people finding the strength to change the world. “Fantasy is a literature of hope and empowerment,” Durst says. “People need that escape into someplace else where it feels like it’s all going to be OK. The books say, ‘You are not alone. This person can defeat a dragon. You can defeat whatever you are going through.’”
Durst’s senior thesis as an English major — a play with stage directions such as “a dragon lands on the stage” — helped her “hone my love for banter and revealing characters through what they say,” she says. Her next-door neighbor in Forbes College during her first year was Adam Durst ’96, who is now her husband.
In Durst’s fictional worlds, vampires and were-tigers roam freely, and spunky heroines launch high-stakes adventures. Her novel The Queen of Blood, about vengeance-seeking spirits, won the 2017 ALA Alex Award, which recognizes books that appeal to teens. Vessel, which takes place in a desert land with sky serpents made of unbreakable glass, won the 2013 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature. Her young adult novel Drink, Slay, Love, which Publishers Weekly called “a fresh, modern, and humorous twist on the vampire novel,” was made into a Lifetime movie. Race the Sands was one of Amazon’s top 20 science fiction and fantasy books of 2020.
Durst hears often from her dedicated fans, who send emails recounting how they dressed up as one of her characters for Halloween or how her books helped distract them while they were sick. “You’ve created a character that’s a friend for them, and that means the world to me,” she says.
During the pandemic, Durst has used Zoom to visit schools in Virginia and Georgia and speak with librarians in Florida. For her upcoming book tour, Durst, who lives in Stony Brook, New York, will make virtual visits to venues in California, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.
For Durst, creating the magical worlds where her characters live is the most satisfying part of writing. “For readers to suspend disbelief, they have to believe your world is real,” she says. “The more plausible it is, the further the reader will follow you into the fantastic.”
Durst set her fourth novel, Enchanted Ivy, at Princeton, transforming FitzRandolph Gate into a portal between the real Princeton and a magical one where gargoyles speak and a student becomes a magical tiger. The main character, 16-year-old Lily, discovers this secret world when she attends Reunions with her grandfather. Says Durst, “My magical Princeton has pretty much a smorgasbord of every magical creature that I adore.”