Alum, immunologist and debut novelist: Sarah Sasson 

13 May 2024
Sarah Sassoon in front of a bookshelf at a table covered in books

Alongside doing something for the greater good, Sarah writes fiction to “make sense of the world”. 

When Dr Sarah Sasson arrived at UNSW as an 18-year-old, her plan was to complete an undergraduate Science/Arts degree majoring in immunology and biochemistry as well as English, and to become a medical journalist. 

“When you're in Year 12 and you say you want to be a writer, everyone pushes you towards journalism,” Sarah said. “But I discovered the forms I most enjoy are creative writing, like poetry and fiction.” 

“Then through my courses at UNSW, and meeting Professor Tony Kelleher at the Kirby Institute who became a mentor figure for me, I became more curious about clinical medicine. So, after my undergraduate degree I did graduate Medicine and then completed my PhD at UNSW.” 

Sarah said she has always pursued a career that centres around helping people or benefitting the community. She now has a split appointment. She spends part of the week at Westmead Hospital as an immunologist where she sees patients and runs diagnostic tests. For the remainder of the week, she works as a Senior Lecturer at the Kirby Institute, where she runs a wet lab research program, researching diseases with an immune basis.  

“My research interests are cancer-immunology and for the last few years I have been working on COVID-19 and other forms of respiratory disease,” she said. 

Creative writer and novelist 

Although the fast turnaround times of journalism didn't appeal, Sarah kept writing for herself “to make sense of the world”, especially during her medical training which was “physically and emotionally challenging”. Her first published piece was in UNSWeetened, the University’s annual literary journal. 

“About 10 years ago, I tried to get a volume of poetry published. The publishers would say: ‘We aren’t interested in poetry, but would you write a novel?’ 

“When I had my first child, I had a voice saying, ‘I want to write a novel,’ and another voice was saying, ‘you’re a mum now’. I was like, oh, I’d better start because I don’t want to wait until he's 20. 

“I didn't have a view of the whole work, but I knew I wanted to write a coming-of-age novel, and I was very interested in ambiguous loss. It’s when we lose people in our life and there are question marks about what happened, and maybe some of those questions are unanswerable.” 

The result is Tidelines (published this year by Affirm Press) which has received critical acclaim.  

“It sounds ridiculous, but I hope it will inspire other people to chip away at something. It took me five years to complete the first draft and then another two years editing, then three years trying to find a publisher. It's been a long road,” Sarah said.  

“I still remember the phone call from Affirm Press when they wanted to acquire it. Somehow in that phone call it all became all worth it – all those long nights and efforts. It's just an amazing feeling to have someone read your work and say they want to publish it. It's extraordinary.” 

Another alum, Letitia Davy who is buys for and manages a bookshop in Dulwich Hill, said “Sasson's writing is beautiful, lyrical and haunting. Tidelines is a brilliant debut novel.”

Sarah has already started her second novel, a dark comedy, which focuses on protagonists a bit older than those in Tidelines.  

With two children and full-time work, it begs the question, when does she find the time to write fiction? She’s said she’s lucky to get an “energy kick” in the evenings when everyone else in the house is sleeping – so she writes “in the hemlines of the day”. 

What’s the best advice you have received? 

Enjoy the ‘season’ you are in – during physician training, work took up nearly all my time and then with a newborn, I largely exited from the professional world. No one has their life balanced every single day.  

What makes you happy? 

In our technology-dependent lives, the opportunity to unplug and spend time in nature. 

What day in your life would you like to relive? 

My wedding, where I had different people from my life at the same place at the same time. 

What is the best thing you have read in the last year? 

Stay True by Hua Hsu, which won a Pulitzer Prize in Memoir, and The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey, Winner of the New Zealand Fiction Book of the Year 2023.

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