I’m very pleased to be a stop on Sara Zarr’s blog tour for the release of her latest book, Sweethearts. She is also the author of the 2007 National Book Award Finalist Story of a Girl. Both books are amazing, and, if you haven’t read them, go and do so! Now! Anyway, without further ado, here is my interview with Sara.
How long have you known you wanted to be a writer? What was your path to publication like?
I’ve known I wanted it to be my career since I was about 25 (12 years ago!), and I enjoyed writing and stories long before that. My path to publication, like so many, was pretty rough. Every year from about 1996 to 2004 I thought, “This is it. This is my year.” In 2005, it finally was. Those who want to write for publication have to have a lot of patience. You’ve got to wait for your skill, your voice, your stories, the right agent, the right editor, the right market to all converage on the time/space continuum. It takes a lot of faith to believe that will happen.
How has the experience of being a published author been different from what you expected?
I’m surprised and disappointed that I’m still as insecure as I always was! Sometimes, maybe even more insecure. Writing hasn’t gotten any easier. There no sense of arrival. I’m surprised and delighted by the enthusiasm of fans. Their emails mean so much, and always seem to come at just the right time. The support and general wonderfulness of peers in the YA world and the people at my publisher (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) have been great, too.
What was your inspiration for writing Sweethearts?
While casting about for ideas for a next book, my old childhood sweetheart got back in touch and we had this cool, surprising bond. I let my imagination wander and started asking those “what if” questions that are always the beginning of a good story.
Are you like Jenna (or were you at her age)? How?
A little, yeah. I never trusted my place in my social circle and always felt surprised whenever it would dawn on me that my friends actually cared about me. Like Jenna, I turned to food when stressed or lonely or bored. I had this boyfriend once that I thought was too good for me and I imagined other people asking themselves, “Why is he with her?” Little things like that went into Jenna’s personality.
In Sweethearts, you tell two stories about Jenna and Cameron–one from their shared past, and then the story of their present. Was it difficult to tell both stories simultaneously, without giving up either one?
It was a bit of a technical challenge. Dealing with flashbacks or stuff from the past is always a trick. You don’t want a giant info-dump at the beginning, but you also don’t want to annoy the reader by withholding too much for too long. I’m still not convinced I hit the perfect balance but I tried to space the flashbacks out in a way that made sense. The story from the past was important for understanding the story of the present so I didn’t want to give it short shrift. That was something my editor and I worked on quite a bit.
Why do you write for a young adult audience? Do you, would you like to, or do you plan to write for other audiences?
Really, I don’t think about the audience much while I’m writing. Selfishly, I try to write a story that I would love to read, and those seem to mostly involve teenagers. I’ve always been a fan of YA and think the YA category is one of the richest and most interesting in publishing right now. I do hope to have a long career in which I get a chance to try a lot of different things. Lately in my dabbling time I’m trying to figure out how to make short stories work. Everything I start feels like the beginning of a novel.
What jobs have you done in the past? If you weren’t a writer, what would you most like to do?
I have had major job ADD since I first entered the workforce at 16. It’s a good thing I’m a writer, because my “day job” resume looks awful—I rarely lasted anywhere more than 18 months because of boredom or impatience with a work situation. I’ve been a file clerk, a cook, an office manager, a church secretary, an account rep with a printing firm, an indexer, a corporate trainer, a data entry cog, a receptionist…anything to pay the bills while I pursued writing. I honestly don’t know what I’d do with myself if I weren’t a writer. The things I’m seriously interested in would require a lot more education and I don’t know if I could do (and pay for) college again. I wouldn’t mind making a movie some day!
What are you writing now (if you are okay with sharing that)?
My main job is writing my third YA novel for Little, Brown. Some of the ingredients are: a pastor’s daughter, a small town, a crime, an older man, a parent in rehab, an excruciatingly hot summer.
You do a wonderful job writing realistic characters and capturing the relationships between them. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers struggling to do the same thing?
Thanks! I think the key is to work from the inside out. For instance, if you’re writing about a mother-daughter relationship you might start out thinking, “I want this mother and this daughter to have communication issues” (or trust problems or anger or disappointment or whatever the thing is) and try to layer that on top of the story like so much spackle. That doesn’t work, though—for me, anyway. I have to know the characters a bit and get a sense of their story and then go in and really think about where those problems might come from and how they would manifest in small, subtle ways. Human interaction is so much about the tiny ways we miss each other or manage to connect, the little letdowns and minor triumphs. Being aware of those things in your own life definitely helps when you’re trying to get them into a story.
Now, the ask-yourself-a-question question! What’s a question I didn’t ask you that you’d like to be asked (and the answer)?
I love to cook, and when I used to subscribe to Bon Appetit I always enjoyed the last page where they’d interview some celebrity and say, “Name three things in your refrigerator right now.” And so: leftover turkey loaf, a bag of red potatoes, and some buttermilk I keep forgetting to use in my baked goods.