Interview: Sara Zarr
Current Mood: pleased
Current Song: Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield
A new novel tells the STORY OF A GIRL growing up in California under the eye of her judgmental father. Something happened three years ago, something that changed his view of his only daughter. Something that he will never let her forget. ( Read my full-length review. )
Congratulations on the buzz surrounding the release of your debut novel! What has been one of the most memorable release-related events related so far?
Thank you! The book was in stores sooner than I expected, and there was a day right around Christmas when I got two emails from teen readers saying how much they loved the book and what it meant to them. That was the best feeling ever, because sometimes it's easy for YA writers to feel like they're writing for reviewers and teachers and librarians, who are all adults. Having genuine teen readers like your book is the best kind of validation.
What was it like to grow up in Pacifica?
My time in Pacifica wasn't as bad as Deanna's, but it certainly felt stifling. Until I got a car, at least.
Why did you chose to set your novel there, as opposed to a fictional town?
I don't have anything against fictional towns and reserve the right to use them in the future, but I always saw this story in Pacifica and I figured I might as well use the real details rather than try to recreate it in a fictional way. I think it was a great place to be a teenager if you had a car or a nonworking parent who could chauffeur you everywhere, if you surfed, if you enjoyed keg parties, if you blended in. For the rest of us it was a bit of a challenge.
Where do you see Deanna in five years? Ten years?
Great question. I think she goes to community college, at least, probably while working full-time. I think she moves out right after graduation and never moves back home. I don't think she gets too far from Pacifica, at least not right away. I don't think she would ever want to be that far away from Darren and his family. Maybe in ten years she's living in another Peninsula town, working hard and saving up for a new car or a trip. Single, taking care of herself.
Was STORY OF A GIRL the first title given to Deanna's tale, or did you have others in mind?
Oh, at one point it was called THE MIRACLE OF LIFE, then later it was TOGETHER ALONE. During some revision that line showed up on the opening page -- "in my head I wrote the story of a girl" -- and that stuck. It seemed to work on a few levels: there's the story of Deanna -- her own story, there's the story of the girl in her head, and there are the various versions of the stories people tell and believe about her.
How long did it take to develop, write, and sell the manuscript?
I believe I started the very first draft in 2002, and sold it in 2005. I was working full-time, though, and didn't have deadlines so there was a lot of non-working time during that period. Now it takes about the same amount of time for me to write a book, it's just more compressed because I'm working consistently.
What advice, if any, do you have for teenagers dealing with judgmental peers and nasty rumors? With a difficult home life?
Oooh. Tough question. Fortunately for me, I never had to deal with nasty rumors about me, though to my shame I'm sure I helped spread a few about others. I did feel judged quite a lot, as I'm sure most of us do. I think you just have to go forward and live your life, because you can spend a lot of energy trying to counter the rumors or get back at people and those things are not likely to help. The best news is that junior high and high school do eventually come to an end. The pain is not indefinite. Sometimes the best you can do is focus on your future and have those one or two people you trust and try to rise above the rest.
It's kind of the same thing with a difficult home life. My father was a tortured alcoholic (non-functioning, could not keep a job, etc.) but was gone by the time I went into junior high. I got along with my stepfather, but there were still challenges. I think both my sister and I were probably clinically depressed but back then we didn't know much about that, so we all chalked it up to teen angst. Anyway, I think it's great when you can find people who understand. For example, I went to Ala-Teen for awhile, which is a group for teens with alcoholic parents or siblings, and it's just a relief to know you're not alone and to even be able to laugh about it. Even if you don't go to a specific group like that, telling a trusted someone about your situation takes some of the burden off. Family problems feel about a million times worse when there is all this pressure to keep a secret and you feel like you're the only one whose life isn't "normal." The older you get, the more you find out that no one's is.
At your website, you have assigned titles to the many chapters of your life. You are currently "Adrift in a Sea of Ego and Insecurity: The Full-Time Writing Life." How's life on the ocean treating you?
Hah! Well, right now it's pretty good. Insecurities are boundless, of course, but I also think ego is the same kind of pitfall. It's really the flip side of the insecurity coin. When you start to get good reviews and peer respect and fan mail and all that great stuff, you can convince yourself that you are Important, and being Important is a big job and creates a lot of pressures that only feed into the insecurity when your Importance feels tarnished. So I just try to keep a balance and remind myself that my number one job is to write the best books I possibly can and beyond that I really don't have much control. Since I spent ten years writing before I sold my first book, I also remember how it felt to be on the other side of this fence and so I'm very, very grateful. So much of the game is hanging in there and plugging away until all the right elements converge on the time/space continuum; I know I'm not here thanks to my own fabulousness. The world would have continued to turn without my book, and I could have led a productive life without getting it published, so in a way it's all gravy.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
I'm terrible at questions about favorites or lists or anything like that. When I'm really enjoying a book and totally absorbed in it, to me it's my favorite book of all time. Until I get to the next book I enjoy and then that one is my favorite and I forget about the last one. I'm very fickle that way.