Sara Zarr had quite an amazing year in 2007. She was the first-time novelist that blew readers and critics away with her novel, The Story of a Girl. 2008 sees the release of her second novel, Sweethearts, and I am very pleased to be a part of the celebration. (The novel released last week.) Be sure to visit her official site.
BL: First of all, I just want to say how much I loved Sweethearts. It had me at hello. Which leads me to ask, how did you come up with the beginning? That sequence of images—“A dripping faucet. Crumbs and a pink stain on the counter. Half of a skin-black banana that smells as old as it looks”—are so strong. Was this something that came to you as an “aha” moment? Or did you struggle with choosing just the right words to hook readers?
SZ: Thank you! Those opening images actually came from a basic writing exercise I used when teaching a creative writing class a few years ago. I put up some pictures on the overhead projector and told everyone to freewrite. I did the exercise, too, and wrote those sentences and planned to use them in a story cleverly titled The Boy and the Dripping Faucet. I never did write that story, but when I was revising Sweethearts I found those old notes and the image of little Jennifer standing eye-level with the counter in Cameron’s house and seeing those things came to me. It’s funny because I don’t use writing exercises much myself in my own process, but whenever I do, the results end up somewhere I never thought they would.
BL: Cameron and Jennifer—Jenna as she comes to be known—are such authentic characters. Right from the very beginning, their story, their drama, feels so real. What inspired you to write Sweethearts? And how did Jenna and Cameron come to be?
SZ: I’d sent my agent some pages for a potential second book and while he liked them, he wondered what else I had going on. One day while telling him about a childhood friend of mine who got back in touch after 25 years and how interesting I thought it was that two adults could feel so bonded over a brief childhood friendship, he said that it sounded like a great idea for a book, so that was the jumping off point. Little Jennifer is an exaggerated version of myself when I was in grade school; high school Jenna is a little bit me and a lot fiction. Cameron was inspired by my childhood friend, Mark, but I made up the details of his life and the childhood friendship he has with Jennifer. As always happens, those characters inspired by real people developed more and more into their fictional selves as I wrote the story.
BL: I’m curious—and maybe others are as well—but when did you write Sweethearts? Was it before, during, or after the (quite successful) release of Story of a Girl?
SZ: I started it before the release of Story, but the major work and key revisions happened after.
BL: Does the success and popularity of your first novel make you more or less anxious—or excited if you will—when it comes to the release of your second novel?
SZ: It’s different. With Story of a Girl being so well received, the pressure was definitely on as I wrote Sweethearts. For a time, I psyched myself out and was convinced the second book would be a complete disappointment and failure. I’ve had zero perspective and have had to trust the assurance of my agent and editor and the initial response and reviews. But now that it’s out, I’m a lot more relaxed than I was when my first novel first came out. I know what to expect and don’t obsessively Google myself or worry about the book. In a way, it’s more fun now and I’m happy because Sweethearts being published is a different sort of personal triumph than the publication of Story. Second novels are notoriously difficult for writers to get through, for a host of psychological reasons, and also this was a project with an arduous editorial process (more so than with Story), so finishing it and having it well received so far feels a bit like I’ve climbed the mountain and now get to enjoy the view. (Until it’s time to edit the next book!)
BL: What does it mean for you—or what does it mean to you—to have received such praise and attention for Story of A Girl? Would you rather have critical acclaim from critics and peers (other authors) or would you rather have eager and enthusiastic fans begging for more? (In other words, how do you measure success?)
SZ: Do I have to choose just one? Critical and peer support are great for the ego, because it’s usually public and if you feel like you have something to prove (and most writers do, I think) being publicly recognized gives you a sense of affirmation and, sometimes, vindication, and assures you that you belong in this world. Fan support, on the other hand, feels really personal. Teen readers, especially, have no agenda and nothing at stake if they say they hate or love your books. They don’t know me from Eve, and their response is 100% about the story and the characters, not about me as a person or personality. So if my story and characters are compelling enough to make them want to find and email me the second they put down the book, that’s the best feeling and I very much treasure every single letter and email from readers.
How I measure success for myself is an even broader topic. I want to be commercially successful enough in terms of sales to have a long-term career. I want to be successful in terms of being happy in that career and figuring out healthy work/life balance stuff. I want to be successful in how I manage myself and my insecurities so as not to go bonkers or become someone who is paranoid and bitter, or on the other extreme falsely modest while secretly feeling entitled. It’s a tricky career with a lot of different waters to navigate!
BL: How much attention—if any—do you pay to awards and best-of lists and bestselling lists? I know Story of A Girl was a National Book Award Finalist, an ALA Best Books for Young Adults, ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, and appeared on the Librarians’ Choices 2007...
SZ: Well, I paid a lot of attention to the National Book Award thing! It’s an award that involves a lot of planning and participation and wardrobe, so it’s impossible not to. It’s hard to not pay any attention to any of these things because I’m part of a community that keeps them on the radar, and my publisher is interested, and it does have certain implications for the book, so yes, I do pay attention. However, I also know that there are plenty of books I love that don’t get awards or on lists so I know those things aren’t the final word on what is good or worth reading. (Easy for me to say now – ask me again when I don’t make any lists!)
BL: The cover of Sweethearts is so simple and so perfect—in my opinion. Can you share what your first reaction was to seeing it?
It’s always weird to see a cover for the first time, because it’s someone else’s idea of what is the best visual representation of something very complicated and abstract. After the initial (like, ten-second) shock, I absolutely loved it.
BL: Do you have a favorite scene in Sweethearts? One of my favorites—and I have many—is the scene where Cameron and Jenna really sit down to have their first real conversation since he’s returned. And he tells her “I’ve been talking to you in my head for eight years, writing epics and sequels to epics, and sequels to the sequels.” Were some scenes easier to write than others? And how did you know when you had the ending just right?
SZ: I had the ending---or at least the framework for it---pretty early on, which was a relief because endings are hard. What often happens to me is that my favorite scenes come in the very last draft, when I finally know the characters better than I ever have and am putting in those last pieces to make it emotionally resonant. For example, the memory of little Cameron showing little Jennifer the snow as if it’s a personal gift, or the scene near the end when Jenna’s stepfather, Alan, comes in her room at night and doesn’t know how to comfort her. Something magic happens in the final draft…I don’t know how or why. I experienced the same thing with Story of a Girl. (And I try to remember it now that I’m in an early, ugly draft of my next book!) Or now that I think of it, maybe they only seem magical to me because they are the newest and I haven’t had to read them five hundred times!
BL: Theme songs. What song do you think best captures Jenna? Best song that captures Cameron? Best song that captures their one-of-a-kind bond?
SZ: I might answer this differently depending on the day, but for now…
Jenna: “Born” by Over the Rhine
Cameron: “Close Your Eyes” by Steve Earle
The bond: “Satellite” by Guster
BL: The book flows a bit between their fifth grade year and twelfth grade year—so this question I suppose could apply to both ages—but what where you like at Jenna’s age? How are you similar? How are you different?
SZ: At Jenna’s age I was a little bit like her. I had friends and, at one point, a cute boyfriend that I always felt was too good for me (or felt that other people thought that). I often felt insecure about my place in my social circle (who doesn’t?). I struggled with my relationship with food and my body. I had a great stepdad who sort of changed our lives. But I wasn’t as pathological as Jenna is with her insecurities, and I didn’t feel haunted by anything. I had a sister and was active in church and not nearly as isolated. I was involved in drama and, unlike Jenna, loved being onstage.
BL: Slightly changing topics now, what are some of your favorite young adult books either from when you were growing up or now?
SZ: Off the top of my head, then and now: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, I Stay Near You by M.E. Kerr, A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher, Brock Cole’s Celine, Speak (of course!), Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Wiess, A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary Pearson, and my friend Ann Dee Ellis’s debut novel, This Is What I Did:
BL: Was there an author that inspired you to become a writer? Is this something you’ve always wanted, always dreamed of?
SZ: I don’t think it was a particular author so much as my love of reading and stories in all forms, whether it was a great Joan Aiken book or a particularly satisfying episode of The Brady Bunch! I’ve been making up stories in my head my whole life. Transitioning to successfully getting them into publishable words was a ten-year process that started when I was about 25.
BL: And getting really off-topic, if you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
I would make lunch dates. With Robert Cormier, The Virgin Mary, Kate Winslet, Mike White, Jesus and his disciple Peter (not at the same time because Peter would probably hog Jesus), Richard Thompson, the two grandfathers I never met, Bill Bixby, Harriet Tubman, and Britney Spears. Not necessarily in that order. I realize that’s a lot of lunch for twenty-four hours.