A self- help ap­proach to swear by

Best­selling au­thor Sarah Knight is a lead­ing light of the phe­nom­e­non of straight- talk­ing self- help books that refuse to mol­ly­cod­dle read­ers, writes Tanya Sweeney

The Irish Times Magazine - - INTERVIEW -

More often than not, self- help tomes have often run a very short gamut, from fog­gily ethe­real to down­right con­de­scend­ing. Many of these books have promised much and de­liv­ered lit­tle, be­ing equal parts fluff, faux- em­pow­er­ment and slo­ga­neer­ing. It was only a mat­ter of time be­fore some­one spot­ted the gap­ing hole in the mar­ket: self- bet­ter­ment for peo­ple who ab­hor be­ing told what to do.

Wel­come to the world of the sweary self- help book, a phe­nom­e­non that has shaken up the usu­ally Zen out­post of pub­lish­ing.

Its ori­gins can be traced back to 2011, when the chil­dren’s book Go the F** k to Sleep, by Adam Mans­bach, be­came a global best­seller. It was swiftly fol­lowed by a mael­strom of turn- the- air- blue ti­tles: Michael and Sarah Ben­nett’s F** k Feel­ings, Mark Man­son’s The Sub­tle Art of Not Giv­ing a F** k, Faith G Harper’s Unf** k Your Brain and, closer to home, Ir­ish au­thor Caro­line Fo­ran’s Own­ing It: Your Bullsh* t- Free Guide To Liv­ing With Anx­i­ety.

The ap­peal is ob­vi­ous: most of these ti­tles open the self- help mar­ket up to peo­ple for whom the very idea is anath­ema – peo­ple who hate be­ing told what to do.

“There has been a real ex­plo­sion of those ti­tles, start­ing with, I think, [ Jen Sin­cero’s] You Are a Badass,” ob­serves au­thor Sarah Knight. “They’ve been able to find their au­di­ence – this core group of peo­ple who ei­ther didn’t like or feel like they needed self- help books.

“The re­sponse I get from read­ers all over the world is, ‘ This is like hav­ing some­one giv­ing me a swift kick in the ass, as op­posed to the friend who will just pla­cate me in the mo­ment’. Peo­ple have writ­ten to say that the books have helped them in a way a doc­tor or ther­a­pist might not have been able to – maybe be­cause it’s a bit more blunt and prag­matic.”

It can’t nec­es­sar­ily be said of every well­be­ing guru, but Knight cer­tainly talks the talk. At the very least, she ap­pears to be liv­ing her best and most serene life: we Skype from her home in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, which she shares with her hus­band, Judd.

Pre­vi­ously Knight had worked for 15 years as a book ed­i­tor in New York on ti­tles such as Gil­lian Flynn’s Dark Places and Jes­sica Knoll’s Luck­i­est Girl Alive, though cu­ri­ously had worked on zero ti­tles in the self- help cat­e­gory.

Yet the road from there to here didn’t nec­es­sar­ily run all that smoothly. The death of a child­hood friend re­minded Knight and her hus­band that life can in­deed be short, but pulling the rip­cord on a suc­cess­ful ca­reer, one where Knight’s per­sonal iden­tity was tied to her pro­fes­sional suc­cess, wasn’t ini­tially with­out trauma.

“When I quit my job, I had so much more cre­ative en­ergy,” she re­calls. “I read the Marie Kondo book [ The Life- Chang­ing Magic of Tidy­ing Up] and, walk­ing down the street, I had an idea to write some­thing about not giv­ing a f*** and the idea of do­ing a de­clut­ter­ing popped into my head. It was a com­bi­na­tion of in­spi­ra­tion and then hav­ing the men­tal space to get it done.”

“It” be­came the pub­lish­ing hit of 2016, The Life- Chang­ing Magic of Not Giv­ing a F** k. On the sur­face, the book was a par­ody of Kondo’s de­clut­ter­ing in­struc­tion tome, but at its heart was a mes­sage that many ev­i­dently needed to hear.

Knight’s book en­joyed a mo­ment, of­fer­ing read­ers the tools to free them­selves from so­cial obli­ga­tions they didn’t want to ful­fil and friend­ship ties that were more hin­drance than help. A year later, a sim­i­larly ir­rev­er­ent ti­tle, Get Your Sh* t To­gether, en­joyed equally healthy sales. Each one is breezy and ban­ter- heavy, shot through with warm hu­mour and colour­ful lan­guage. And, as Knight notes with pride, her lat­est book, Calm the F** k Down, has “surged ahead” in terms of pre- orders, mak­ing her into some­thing of a self- help be­he­moth.

“I feel like the books are sort of a repre-


■ Self- help guru Sarah Knight has a no non­sense ap­proach to self- im­prove­ment.

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