Interviewed by Heather F.
Heather F.: Congratulations on the success of your novel, the National Book Award nominated, "Story of a Girl" and the recently released "Sweethearts." Please tell us a little bit about them.
Sara Zarr: Thanks! I think of both books as family dramas, though they are both YA and focus on the lives of teens. In Story of a Girl, the main character is basically on a quest for redemption and reconciliation with herself and with her family after an incident in the past that everyone knows about. Sweethearts is also about confronting the past, though the circumstances are different and the incident in that book has been a secret to everyone but the two main characters. In both stories, family---the one we're born into and the one we create---plays a big part.
HF: Jennifer Harris, one of the main characters in Sweethearts, manages to do what so many teenagers want; she reinvents herself into Jenna, now a thin, pretty, popular girl, when she reached high school, yet feels herself a fraud. You write so truthfully! Do you find it hard to write with the voice of a teenager, now that you are an adult?
SZ: I'm still pretty in touch with my inner adolescent, so voice is usually not an issue for me. Much harder than that are the basic "what should happen next?" types of things that you have to deal with when writing a novel.
HF: Both your novels deal with the pain and awkwardness of growing up. How conscious of the reader are you when you write? Are you writing for the YA audience specifically or are you shelved that way?
SZ: That's a great question. First, I'm writing for myself. I'm writing what I want to write in the way that I want to write it. I mean, I do love YA and intentionally write in that category, but as the many adult fans of YA know, teen books aren't "junior novels" that aren't quite real or satisfying. Sometimes I think I'd love nothing more than for the whole category to go away and just be blended in with the rest of books, but when I've said as much when speaking to a teen audience they look kind of horrified and like having a section that's just "theirs" at the store.
HF: How much do you draw from your own experiences when writing?
SZ: I draw a lot on my emotional experiences. The details of plots and stories are almost total fabrication, but all of the emotional challenges my characters deal with are things that I've struggled or continue to struggle with myself. They boil down to the basic human questions about identity and purpose and desiring connection untainted by our weaknesses. I think the lives of adolescent characters are perfect for exploring those.
HF: Do you consider yourself to be religious? What impact does that have on your writing?
SZ: I am a devout Christian, but I guess I don't think of myself as religious, if only because that word is so loaded with social and political baggage that I'd rather not lug around. Every writer's writing is influenced by her worldview, and I'm no different. There's this great Katherine Paterson quote: "...when I write...it is in the hope that the works of my imagination will somehow reflect the image of a God who creates in beauty, judges in mercy, wrestles with those in puzzlement or anguish, shapes the end by steadfast love and unfailing grace." Even if my characters don't believe in or aren't aware of a god like that, I try to be that god as the creator of my characters and the world they're in. Not every reader is going to see that, and it's actually not important that they do---once a reader starts interacting with a book, it's a very personal experience for them and it's not about me anymore. The impact of my faith on my writing has a lot more to do with me and the satisfaction I get from what I do.
HF: When did you first start writing? When were you sure this is what you wanted to do all your life?
SZ: I've been writing since I was a kid, but it wasn't until about age 25 that I became fairly certain that this is the career I wanted. Nothing else inspired any passion in me and if writing hadn't worked out I'd still be taking dead end job after dead end job, aimless and unmotivated!
HF: Do you have a favorite place to write? Do you have any writing rituals?
SZ: It depends. I can write anywhere, really. I like my office (it's away from my house, which is good). The only ritual is that I ease into my day: coffee, breakfast, email, gym...all that stuff first. To me there's no real advantage to self-employment if I'm still getting up before dark and rushing around to be somewhere!
HF: What writers have influenced your work the most? What is it about those particular writers that you admire?
SZ: No doubt I'm influenced by the YA writers I read when I was a teen (and into adulthood): pioneers like Robert Cormier and M.E. Kerr and Madeleine L'Engle. I also love Anne Tyler, Robert Clark, Ian McEwan. I think all of those authors have a particular combination of skills that result in books that are great stories in terms of keeping the pages turning, but they also find ways to explore the bigger life issues within the minutiae of regular life. Even L'Engle's work about such fantastical things as time travel and parallel universes always, to me, feels grounded in real life and emotion.
HF: Do you read a lot? Do you read most contemporary books, classics, or a mix?
SZ: Not nearly as much as I want to, lately. Now that I'm in the book business, reading doesn't feel like as much of an escape as it used to. I read mostly contemporary books but I've got grandiose fantasies about catching up on all the classics I missed and re-reading the ones I loved.
HF: What's on your nightstand to read right now?
SZ: WAKE by Lisa McMann, BEFORE YOU KNOW KINDNESS by Chris Bohjalian, and INVISIBLE by Pete Hautman.
HF: What jobs have you done in the past? If you weren't a writer, what would you most like to do?
SZ: I've been a file clerk, cook, sandwich maker, church secretary, office manager, indexer, corporate trainer, and more! As for what else I'd like to do - I recently heard a story on NPR spotlighting the job of "script supervisor" on a movie set. It requires obsessive attention to detail and an intense need to be right. I thought that sounded perfect for me!
HF: What can your fans look forward to next?
SZ: I've got an essay on body image in an anthology coming out this fall called DOES THIS BOOK MAKE ME LOOK FAT? My next novel won't be out until late 2009 or so. Personally, I hope the time goes by slowly. I could use a little rest!
Thanks so much to Sara Zarr for her time in answering our questions. You can visit her website HERE.