Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #70:
Sara Zarr (and Jules and Eisha weigh in
on Sweethearts)

h1 March 25th, 2008 by Eisha and Jules

Check it out, ya’ll: we’ve got Sara Zarr in da house. That’s right, National Book Award finalist, Cybils nominee, generally kick-ass writer for young adults, Sara Zarr.

She first hit the scene with Story of a Girl, which won rave reviews and landed her in the NBA nominee camp for its gritty, funny, touching, and – yeah, why not? – inspiring depiction of a girl who makes a really bad decision and has to figure out how to live with the ugly consequences. But unlike a lot of teen novels, in this case the consequences of having sex at 13 with the wrong boy aren’t tangible (pregnancy, STD) – instead, Deanna has to deal with becoming a legendary “slut” in her small town, falling from her father’s favor, and wondering if she’ll ever be asked on a normal date by a nice boy. As School Library Journal said in a starred review, “This is realistic fiction at its best. Zarr’s storytelling is excellent; Deanna’s reactions to the painful things said to her will resonate with any reader who has felt like an outsider.”

Sweethearts, released in February by Little, Brown and Company, tells the story of one girl’s metamorphosis. High schooler Jenna Harris has transformed herself from the childhood Jennifer, also known as “Fattifer,” to Jenna — popular, thin, happy, and someone who actually dates. As a child, she and Cameron Quick were best friends and fellow social pariahs (“time almost stopped when we were together. We didn’t have to explain it or understand it or talk about it, ever. Everything was innocent. It just was.”) Cameron suddenly disappears, following a harrowing experience with Jennifer, involving his father, when the two of them were only elementary school-age (”Other memories stick, no matter how much you wish they wouldn’t. They’re like a song you hate but can’t ever get completely out of your head, and this song becomes the background noise of your entire life, snippets of lyrics and lines of music floating up and then receding, a crazy kind of tide that never stops.”) Jennifer determines she’s lost the only friend she ever had — ”Cameron as my only friend, for all those years, my whole life. Just us enduring everything together with complete understanding and unquestioning loyalty, in a world that only we occupied.”

But when Cameron suddenly reappears in her life, seemingly out of nowhere, Jennifer — who also has mother issues (”I’d learned to get along without her when I didn’t have any other options”) — must relive the past she shared with Cameron, address the “infinite well of helplessness that I’d spent most of my life believing had swallowed us up,” and face full-on the two questions that start to haunt her, the ones she is convinced are for Cameron but later realizes they are for her former self, the one she so quickly discarded in order to take on her new identity: “How could you have left me? And Why didn’t you say goodbye?

{Notice For Our Dear Readers: Mild plot spoilers are included in the conversation below! Consider yourself warned.}

Jules: So, Eisha. What did you think, especially having read her first novel, Story of a Girl, which I still haven’t read?

eisha: Well, first I think you need to read Story of a Girl, because it’s pretty dang amazing. I know, I know, you have a teetering to-be-read pile already, but try to wedge this one Jenga-style up closer to the top. It’s worth it.

As for Sweethearts… I liked it. I really liked it. One thing Sara Zarr has proved she can do well in both books is really get into the heart of what it’s like to be an outcast. I don’t mean a little chess-club geeky, I mean total social pariah. Given the strength of this depiction, the way these characters are defined and doomed by the opinions of their peers, Jennifer/Jenna’s willingness to lose herself in her new fake identity makes total sense.

I was also deeply impressed by the intensity of the relationship between Jennifer and Cameron. I mean… well, it’s hard to describe it without giving too much away, but… this whole novel is throbbing with their shared chemistry, but there’s no sex. A connection like that is hard to get right on paper, especially in a teen novel, where you’ve got a girl protagonist who’s obviously dissatisfied with her boyfriend, and – surprise! – here comes her childhood best friend all grown up, mysterious, and hot… All signs point to some kind of physical consummation, right? But no! It didn’t need it. I loved their friendship, and I loved the way Zarr didn’t follow the expected pattern — especially at the end.

How about you?

Jules: I really loved it, and this is my first Sara Zarr Experience, so you’re right — I’ll have to go read Story of a Girl now.

I see what you mean about their relationship. Both characters are so fully-formed, and their relationship was so believable and real to me that I found the book unputdownable. The way Zarr paces the revelation — what happened at Cameron’s house that traumatized them both — was also a big factor in my inability to put the book down ’til it was over. That could have been disastrous, but she did it well. All the tension she established — but not gratuitous tension, which would have just made me angry — made it a real page-turner.

I also love how, at its heart, it’s a story of redemption. Jenna truly believes that Cameron saved her that day, and here he is in her life again. The intense tenderness in their relationship was almost palpable, it seemed. Very real, very heart-rending without being sentimental. I love the moment when Jenna talks, at the book’s close, about the people who . . .

for whatever reason, are as much a part of you as your own soul. Their place in your heart is tender; a bruise of longing, a pulse of unfinished business . . . Just hearing their names pushes and pulls at your in a hundred ways, and when you try to define those hundred ways, describe them even to yourself, words are useless. If you had a lifetime to talk, there would still be things left unsaid.

And, speaking of that tenderness-without-overbearing-sentimentality, o my heavens that story Cameron tells her at the end about the baby doll he stole from kindergarten class and how he took care of it? Well, I found that very moving. I had to put the book down for a minute and soak in that lovely moment.

Finally, I have to add that I love — in the midst of the rage over things like The Secret — what I suppose you could argue is the book’s very theme — when Jenna says, declaring that “the motivational speaker was wrong,” . . .

Life was mostly made up of things you couldn’t control, full of surprises, and they weren’t always good. Life wasn’t what you made it. You were what life made you.

eisha: That is a good quote. And a good point about the redemption theme. Several characters (Jenna, Cameron, Jenna’s mom) do manage to come to terms with mistakes they’ve made and regrets they have about the past, and gain a greater understanding of who they really are in the process, but they’re never too schmaltzy about it.

Now, seriously, J. – read Story of a Girl so we can talk about it too.

And now for the interview… Actually, this is a real treat – and kind of a challenge – for us, because Sara Zarr first came to our attention from the excellent interview she conducted with John Green when he was on maybe the first-ever blog-tour for An Abundance of Katherines (co-reviewed here). At the time, we hadn’t done any interviews yet, and we were utterly impressed – and maybe a little inspired. Since we’ve already interviewed John, too, it seems fitting that now we get to complete the circle (triangle? square?) and get to know Sara better. So, thanks, Sara, for taking the time to virtually hang with us, and for setting the blog author interview bar so high.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: How did Story of a Girl (SOAG) being a finalist for the National Book Award impact your writing? Did you feel any outside pressure (or internal pressure) to top it with your next book?

Sara: Fortunately, the National Book Award stuff happened after Sweethearts was all finished and in production. I put enough pressure on myself writing Sweethearts as it was—just having a well-reviewed book out as I wrote the next one definitely challenged my mental health. Although, I’m sure if I’d had a poorly-reviewed book out while I wrote, that would be tough, too. Basically, there’s always pressure! The secret is to figure out how to deal with it.

7-Imp: Both SOAG and Sweethearts feature characters on the very outermost edge of society, and particularly focus on how those characters are defined by the insults and gossip of their peers. Why is this such an important topic for you? What are you trying to say about — or to — the fringe-dwellers?

Sara: I think that every single person over the age of five has, at some point, endured teasing by their peers. So everyone knows what it feels like to be hurt in that way. Why it affects some people more deeply than others depends on a lot of things—your basic sensitivity, your security in your own circle of friends, and, probably most importantly, your parents ability to show love and support and give you some sense of identity. With both Deanna and Jennifer/Jenna, there is a sort of perfect storm of circumstances mixed with the normal traumas of growing up. While I think everyone has felt, at times, the way they do, in fiction you need to externalize these things to give the reader something to hold on to, so maybe I made their lives harder for the sake of storytelling. (Sorry, girls!) As far as what I’m trying to say to or about fringe-dwellers, I’m not sure. I do know that I’m drawn to the topic because I was a fairly sensitive child, and though I never dealt with the level of being outcast that my characters do, I felt the pain pretty acutely, and the sensitivity and identity issues definitely colored my experience of adolescence (not to mention much of adulthood). I think the viewpoint of the outsider is just in my writer’s DNA, as it is for so many writers—which is probably one reason we are writers.

7-Imp: One striking thing about SOAG is that Deanna never seems morally conflicted about having had sex at age thirteen; she only seems regretful for the backlash from others finding out about it. Have you gotten any flak for this?

Sara: No, I haven’t. I don’t know that she would define it as a moral issue, but I do think her regret is about so much more than others finding out. She regrets that she let Tommy into her life the way she did, that he didn’t have the decency of a real friend, that her first sexual experience wasn’t with someone who cared enough about her to even take her anywhere nicer than the back of his car, that her father caught her in the very act, and how that has affected all her relationships. I expected some flak, I admit, but I think when people read the story in context they have a lot compassion for Deanna and the things that led to her making the decisions that she did. And if she had it all to do again, she would have chosen something different.

7-Imp: Publishers Weekly wrote of Sweethearts, “{f}lashbacks to a horrifying episode with Cameron’s father are revealed slowly and carefully, filling readers with a sense of dread, but ultimately her memories teach Jenna something surprising about her own strength.” As I mentioned above (Jules here), the slow reveal of what happened with Jenna and Cameron on that fateful day left me kind of breathless. It was well-crafted. Was it difficult to pace that and structure the novel that way?

Sara: Yes! I’m glad it worked for you. I have mixed feelings about the use of flashbacks, in general. Potentially, they can take you out of the story and interrupt the flow of things, or annoy some readers by teasing with info instead of giving it all at once. I’m sure there are some people who aren’t fans of the flashbacks, but they seemed right for this story. I felt like I needed to get into little Jennifer’s head directly to get across who she was back then and what she and Cameron went through in contrast to who she is later as Jenna. Relating it in some other informational way wasn’t going to work, I don’t think.

7-Imp: Are you still recording the audio versions of both SOAG and Sweethearts? And what was that like? Crazy-fun or crazy-making — or both?

Sara: It was incredibly tiring, and incredibly meaningful. I auditioned to do it, and was convinced I wouldn’t get the job, but I wanted to know that I’d tried. When they hired me, I immediately freaked out. The experience itself was very special. The director, Cassandra Campbell (who is also a voice and stage actor), had really connected emotionally with both books (especially Sweethearts) so we had some pretty special moments in the studio. It was a real privilege to reconnect with my characters that way, and also to use some of my dormant acting skills that used to get a lot more action when I was doing community theater back in the Bay Area. I was surprised how exhausting it was, though! You only work about four or five hours a day when recording, and I would just collapse at the end of it.

7-Imp: We love your song playlist for Sweethearts (over at largehearted boy). We are big music-lovers and always look for excuses to ask authors about what they’re listening to now, so there’s our excuse for you. So, what are you listening to now?

Sara: Right this very second my husband is playing a Mose Allison CD, which is kind of a jazzy/bluesy thing. And after watching Elton John on Larry King Live the other night, I’m eager to pull out some of my old favorite Elton albums—especially “Caribou” and “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player.” In newer stuff, I’ve recently discovered Nina Gordon and have been writing along to her a lot.

7-Imp: Your two novels are YA ones. Do you have any desire to write for other ages, such as picture books or middle-grade novels or even adult novels? Or is YA where your heart is most firmly lodged? (Or, by chance, does the issue of audience not ever really enter your mind when writing?)

Sara: If I write for another audience, it would be adult; I do have some ideas and pages of adult stuff. I think that most YA fiction has more in common with adult fiction than with middle-grade or picture books, and at least for me it seems like a more logical move. I wish I could write a great picture book or middle-grade novel! Kids at that age are so great. At a recent store event, I didn’t have an audience show up for my reading, but some little kids had gathered around the reading chair and wanted me to read from my book, so I found a clean, innocent page and read that. Then they started bringing over other books for me to read aloud and I thought, gee, it would be great to have an audience of six-year-olds! They’re so enthusiastic!

7-Imp: We read that Kyra Sedgwick and Emily Lansbury optioned SOAG. How is that coming along? Is it already in production?

Sara: I haven’t had any updates lately, but as far as I know it’s in the screenwriting stage. Laurie Collyer (Sherrybaby) is attached to write/direct, so now that the strike is over I think that’s where things are. I stay out of it! I told Emily and Kyra that I trust them completely, and I’ll stay out of it unless they solicit any input. I really do believe that once a book is optioned for another medium, it kind of becomes a whole new thing and you have to let go of whatever attachment you have to its original form. I mean, obviously you hope that the soul of it bears resemblance to the book, but film requires different things than text, so I’m sure some elements will have to be expanded or contracted to make it work.

7-Imp: You hit it right out of the ballpark with your first novel (Booklist writing, “{t}his is a thoughtful, well-executed debut from an author who understands how to write for teens”). What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring authors?

Sara: Lately what I tell people is to enjoy writing. Enjoy it! Enjoy the process and the craft and art of it, and the magic that happens when you sit down and characters do unexpected things or plots take unplanned turns or you somehow pull an amazing sentence out of nowhere. One thing writer friends told me years ago was that after you’re published, writing never feels the same again, so I should enjoy it. Of course I ignored them and didn’t understand what they meant, but they were right and now I give that advice to others.

7-Imp: As book lovers, we love to ask: What books or which authors influenced you as a young reader?

C.S. Lewis

Sara: Authors that made me absolutely love books during those fertile reading years between learning how to read on my own and having too much homework to enjoy it: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Joan Aiken, Marilyn Sachs, Beverly Cleary, Madeleine L’Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, C.S. Lewis {pictured here}, Robert C. O’Brien, and of course the great Judy Blume.

7-Imp: A lot of our readers like to hear authors talk about this. If, by chance, you hate this question, just promptly ignore it: Tell us about your writing process (starting wherever you like: getting the idea, starting to write, under deadline, etc.). Do you outline plot before you write or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Sara: I usually start with the idea, and that comes from observing something about life and letting my mind wander with “what ifs.” Then I have a vague idea of the main characters and maybe a few key moments, and then I just start writing and see where it goes. If it holds up past twenty or thirty pages, I get more serious about it and might knock together some sort of synopsis, but my process is basically: write. I don’t tend to write very messy first drafts. I’m a little too type A for that, so I edit as I go. There’s still tons of revision necessary, though!

7-Imp: What’s next? Are you working on a new novel, by chance, or any other writing projects you can tell us about?

Sara: I’m working on my third YA novel for Little, Brown. That should be out in late 2009 or early 2010. I’ve also got some back burner stuff that I dabble in. Oh—and an essay in an anthology on body image coming out this fall, called Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?

7-Imp: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

Sara: I’m so open on my blog about my interests and daily life—I feel like most people probably know too much about me! Okay: I played second clarinet in a community orchestra through high school.

7-Imp: If you could have three (living) authors — whom you have not yet met — over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Tina Fey

Sara: Ooh, tough question. First I’m going to cheat a little and say Tina Fey {pictured here}. I guess she’s more “writer” than “author”—a screenwriter and TV writer. She’s just about exactly my age and has done such a wide variety of stuff with her talent. I admire her a lot and would love some of her drive to rub off. Joining me and Tina would be Tom Perrotta and Anne Tyler. (I don’t mention any YA authors, because I’ve had the good fortune to meet or at least have access to the ones I admire!)

7-Imp: Is there a question you wish interviewers would ask you, but they usually don’t? Feel free to ask and answer here.

Sara: “What did you get on the AP English test in high school?”

Oh, that old thing? A 5! Booya!

*The Pivot Questionnaire*

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Sara: “And.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Sara: “Incentivize.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Sara: Authenticity, kindness, compassion, humor.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Sara: Cruelty and willful stupidity.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Sara: “Bastard.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Sara: Birds singing at dawn.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Sara: People talking during a movie.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Sara: Filmmaking.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Sara: Proofreading the phone book (I once applied for this job!).

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Sara: “Welcome home.”

* * * * * * *

We at 7-Imp like to do nerdy resource lists at the end of our author and illustrator interviews — all for those folks wanting more information on the person being grilled. Well, the afore-linked largehearted boy page already did that for us. If you visit that link about Sara’s Sweethearts song list, you will see — at the bottom — a fabulous list of other interviews, including the one with The Edge of the Forest, conducted by Kelly Herold in October of last year; Jackie’s interview at Interactive Reader from June of last year; the January ’07 interview at not your mother’s bookclub; the School Library Journal interview, also from January of this year; the National Book Foundation’s interview with Sara; and much more.

But, because Sara has quite the robust online presence (a very good thing, indeed), here are some more interviews. To be sure, this list is not comprehensive, but it’s a start:

Bonus for Sara and John Green fans: Sara’s aforementioned interview with John from September 28, 2006.

5 comments to “Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #70:
Sara Zarr (and Jules and Eisha weigh in
on Sweethearts)”

  1. Great interview as usual, guys. Love what Sara has to say about her six year old audience. Very cute 🙂

  2. Thoroughly enjoyable interview! Thanks, ladies. And doesn’t that frosted cookie look good?

  3. Thanks for the shout out – I’m glad it’s there, because it was one of my better interviews (I think). But hey – this isn’t supposed to be about me, but about you guys!

    I love the book discussion up front (and Jules, you really do need to get to Story of a Girl sometime – it’s awesome!) And I loved hearing more about what Sara’s up to now. Well done, as usual, ladies!

  4. thanks for a spirited inter-re-view! I just read SOAG and had quite a few put-down-and-pause moments. Deanna’s voice is just so real … I’m reading Sweethearts now …(I closed my eyes through the spoilers)

  5. […] Authors in the Round soiree-thingy on Friday night at the Southern Festival of Books. I got to meet Sara Zarr and hang out with her a bit. She was much […]

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