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Wexford native Sarah Tarkoff's debut novel pulls no punches

| Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Sarah Tarkoff
Sarah Tarkoff

Sarah Tarkoff didn't shy away from contentious ideas for her debut novel.

“Sinless,” (Harper Voyager, $15.99) explores the intersection between science and religion by way of a young girl, Grace Luther, who finds herself in the middle of an ethical dilemma in the year 2031: Does Grace follow the Great Spirit, a catch-all designation that has united the world's religions and made its followers perfect human specimens? Or does she join an underground movement that defies the status quo?

Tarkoff, a Wexford native who lives in Los Angeles and writes for the TV show “Arrow,” was inspired by a modern literary master.

“I've always been a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut and 'Cat's Cradle' specifically,” Tarkoff says. “I love how he just created this new religion in it. He's super-detailed, it feels real and from the very beginning he tells you it isn't real. And yet you're saying ‘I really like that, I want to buy into that.' ”

Tarkoff, a 2005 graduate of North Allegheny High School, attended the University of Southern California where she studied screenwriting. After graduating from USC, she worked as personal assistant for production companies in Los Angeles “getting coffee,” before being employed as a script coordinator for television series including “Gossip Girl,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Mistresses” and “Arrow.” Tarkoff parlayed those experiences into full-time writing gigs with the animated series “Vixen” and “The Ray” and “Mistresses” and “Arrow,” where she now works.

Writing for television helped Tarkoff develop the fast-paced and breathless style of “Sinless.”

“Screenwriting is the basic fundamentals of storytelling,” she says. “So the way you translate it is you want to have characters who want something very badly, and there are obstacles and the stakes are high. You build from there.”

The plot for “Sinless” grew out of a pitch Tarkoff worked on for a company that specializes in changing people's appearances in effects-heavy films. She reworked that concept to a religion where appearances change depending on fidelity to the Great Spirit; the faithful are beautiful, the unbelievers are misshapen and deformed.

“Sinless” also explores how science and theology are often pitted against each other.

“I feel like it's a pretty new idea that you can't do both (science and religion),” Tarkoff says. “Isaac Newton spent more time with the Bible than he did with his scientific theories. There is, I think, a history of being able to have both. … The divide now is huge. People are afraid now of what will happen if religion goes away. Religion gives you comforting answers. There's a place to go after you die. People who you love might still be there. Anything that threatens that, people are afraid of.”

“Sinless,” the first book in the “Eye of the Beholder” series, has a dystopian aspect that might have seemed atypical 10 to 15 years ago. But the success of Suzanne Collins' “The Hunger Games” opened the gates for science fiction written by women.

Tarkoff thinks the sci-fi genre, which originally featured male perspectives and ideas save for rare exceptions such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey, offers countless opportunities for storytelling.

“To me there's so much more you can do with science fiction,” Tarkoff says. “There are more kinds of stories that you can tell. Stories that are based on relationships, stories that are based on science, and I think those stories are more attractive to young women. There's a huge resurgence in female driven science fiction like 'The Hunger Games' Three's so much being done in that space, specifically for young women. I hope that this next generation is going to grow up with an appreciation for the genre.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Literary events

Jan. 13: Stephen Coleman, author of “Discovering Gettysburg,” an unconventional look at the grounds of the Civil War battle. 1 p.m., Andrew Carnegie Free Library, Carnegie. 412-276-3456, carnegiecarnegie.org

Jan. 16: Marie Benedict (Heather Terrell) book launch for “Carnegie's Maid,” a fictionalized account of Clara Kelley, who worked as Andrew Carnegie's maid. 6:30 p.m., Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley. 412-741-3838, penguinbookshop.com

Jan. 18: Rebecca Drake book launch for “Just Between Us,” a thriller about domestic violence in an affluent suburb. 6:30 p.m., Riverstone Books, McCandless. 412-366-1001, riverstonebookstore.com

Jan. 18: Black Futures, discussion featuring photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier and writer Fred Moten. Sponsored by Center for African-American Poetry and Poetics. 7:30 p.m., Heinz Chapel, University of Pittsburgh Campus. caapp.pitt.edu

Jan. 21: Nicola Yoon, YA author of “The Sun is Also a Star” and “Everything, Everything.” Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Words & Pictures series. 2:30 p.m., Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, Oakland. $11. 412-622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org

Jan. 29: Paul Beatty, Man Book Prize winner of the “The Sellout” in 2016, the first American to win the esteemed literary prize. Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Ten Evening series. 7:30 p.m., Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland. $35-$15. 412-622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org

All events free except where noted.

Fantastic Five Book Recommendations

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories,” by Denis Johnson (Random House, $27) A posthumous short-story collection by Johnson, the author of “Tree of Smoke” and “Jesus' Son,” who died in May.

“Gnomon” by Nick Harkaway (Knopf, $28.95) A chilling, futuristic novel about a society in which everything is surveilled and recorded. By the author of “The Gone-Away World.”

“Heart Spring Mountain” by Robin MacArthur (Ecco, $25.99) After Tropical Storm Irene hits Vermont, a woman returns home after eight years to look for her estranged mother. By the author of “Half Wild: Stories.”

“Robicheaux” by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, $27.99) Dave Robicheaux is Burke's most beloved character, a Louisiana sheriff and Vietnam veteran who is also an alcoholic. In the new book Robicheaux starts to investigate a murder, then realizes he may be the culprit.

“The Gone World” by Thomas Sweterlitsch (Putnam, $26) The Pittsburgh-based author of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” returns with another visionary blend of science fiction and mystery. Set in Western Pennsylvania, an NCIS special agent is called on to solve a mass murder, only to be caught up in a time-travel vortex of deceit and intrigue.

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