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Interview: Sarah Darer Littman

Sarah Darer Littman likes chocolate and hates cucumbers. She shares my love for the movie Charade. I share her books with my customers and friends. I've followed her blogs for a few years - I even named one of them! Thus, it was my pleasure to interview her for this year's Winter Blog Blast Tour.

When you were a child, what did you think you'd be when you grew up? How close to that dream is your life now?

Believe it or not, when I was really little I wanted to be an airline stewardess (I guess you'd say "flight attendant" these days) which is ironic because now I hate flying! I guess when I was younger though, flying meant adventure - going new places and meeting new people, and that's something that I still love to do, I just don't really enjoy the flying part of the equation as much.

After my stewardess/flight attendant days I wanted to either be an actress or a writer - mainly a writer - but after I graduated from college, I did neither, because I was told, "You'll never make a living as a writer!" So I spent many years working first as a financial analyst and then as a dairy farmer's wife before finally, just before I turned 40, making the decision that I needed to follow my dream. I'm finally able to be a writer and it makes all the difference to be able to work at doing what I love, even though it's not an easy way to make a living.

I'm so happy that you're writing, because I love your books. In your first novel for kids, Confessions of a Closet Catholic, an almost-twelve-year-old Jewish girl named Justine, aka Jussy, privately 'tries out' Catholicism to see what it's like. Did you ever do any of the things that Jussy does?

I didn't ever sit in my closet and confess to my teddy bear, but I had a lot of Catholic friends growing up and was always fascinated with Catholicism as a religion. There's something about all those rituals - the candles, the incense, the ability to offload your sins on a weekly basis instead of having to save them all up for one big day like we have to in Judaism. And as a Jew growing up in a largely Christian society, I had major Christmas envy!

How long did it take to write Confessions? To sell it?

It took about a year to write. I was almost finished with it when I attended my first SCBWI conference in New York. When I attended editor Julie Strauss-Gabel's talk she showed a slide of herself in high school playing the drums surrounded by all these blonde girls playing the flute, and told us, "This is who is reading your manuscript." I knew right then that I wanted to send Confessions to her, because I figured the person buying a manuscript about a girl giving up being Jewish for Lent was going to be someone not afraid to be quirky. As it turned out, it was quite serendipitous because Julie had been wanting to working on a book with a Jewish theme but hadn't received anything that worked, so when she received Confessions, it all came together nicely. I sent the manuscript to Julie's slush pile with "SCBWI Conference" on the envelope, fully expecting to wait six months and get a rejection, but three weeks later, she called me with an offer. I could barely speak when we were on the phone, and as soon as I hung up I started screaming and dancing around the kitchen. My kids still talk about how Mom went crazy!

Your next novel is also close to your heart. Purge is the story of Janie, a young woman being treated for an eating disorder. How did you manage to write so frankly about something that's touched your own life?

I have struggled with body image issues since I was a teen and was actively bulimic for many years as an adult. I feel very passionate about Purge, because I know how easily eating disorders can take over, but I also know that with therapy it is possible to recover and to lead a healthy and productive life. Purge is ultimately a hopeful book, because I do genuinely believe that there is hope for people who struggle with body image issues and eating disorders. It isn't an easy process - and the novel doesn't try to gloss over any of the difficulties involved in confronting an eating disorder - but it is definitely a worthwhile one.

If readers suspect that they or their friends or relatives have eating disorders, what would you advise?

Get help! My editors at Scholastic Press, Jen Rees and David Levithan, have been really fantastic about putting in an "eating disorders resources" section in the back of the book, with websites, reading suggestions and treatment referral information. Don't be discouraged if the first person you approach isn't supportive. When I first spoke to my doctor in England, he said, "Well, I suppose telling you to stop won't do any good, will it?" I thought, well, if I could just stop, I wouldn't be coming to you for help, would I?

You are very forthcoming in your blog posts, in which you discuss not only writing but also your life and your family. You are quite passionate about a lot of causes, such as juvenile diabetes. You even have a second blog in which you express your political beliefs. You also speak at schools and conferences. Is it easier to discuss these topics online or in person? For better or for worse, my life is, quite literally, an open book. I made a conscious choice to be open about topics such as suffering from depression and bulimia, because I feel that it's important get these subjects out in the open. My hope is that by speaking out about the challenges I've faced I can perhaps help others who might be facing similar problems. Too often mental health issues are treated as something we should be ashamed of and hide. I know that I'm a stronger person for having been through what I've been through, and have faced the difficult journey to recovery.

I have, unfortunately, learned to be somewhat more guarded about what I write online, after a really unsavory chap wrote something extremely unkind following a post I made about my suicide attempt. It was one of those moments where you realize that there are some incredibly cruel people out there. Fortunately, I've found those people are few and far between - except when it comes to writing about politics! I don't think it will stop me from being open about who I am and what I've experienced, because I'm a person of faith, and believe strongly in the power of purpose. I say, only half jokingly, that G-d gave me the gift of being able to express myself, then chose to give me a lot of "material". Far be it from me to mess with the plan!

Do your kids read your books?

You know that saying about how you're never a hero in your own hometown? Well that's definitely true in my house! It's quite interesting how my kids' friends seem to think I'm cool (in fact, one of my son's school mates even thought said I was "hot," which my son found extremely disturbing!) yet to my kids I'm the World's Greatest Embarrassment, particularly when I'm showing any outward signs of enjoyment such as singing or dancing. I've learned not to take this personally - at least not too much, anyway! *wink* My kids both read Confessions, but not 'til after they came to the book launch and saw all these other people making a fuss about it. Neither of them have read Purge or my third book yet. I'm sure they'll get around to it eventually. They are proud of my being an author, despite my being an embarrassment at times.

Do either of them read your blogs?

My daughter likes to read my blog, especially when it's about her. She likes to retain veto power over my portrayal of her "image."

You are the proud owner of a sparkly tiara. What inspired this purchase, and when you do wear it? I was going through a very difficult period in my life and was pretty depressed when got a call from Heidi Estrin telling me that Confessions had won the 2006 Sydney Taylor Book Award for Older Readers. Talk about just what the doctor ordered! That evening, two friends of mine took me into New York City to go out for drinks and dancing to celebrate. We were walking along the street in the Village when we passed a store that sold sparkly faux jewels and gorgeous tiaras. One of my friends insisted that since I'd won an award I NEEDED a tiara! People kept coming up to me and asking me if I was getting married and I'd say, "No, it's WAY better than that . . . My BOOK just won an AWARD!!!"

Any news on your recent book proposal? (Or: What's next for you?) I'm very excited to be working with Jen Rees and David Levithan again on my third book, which still doesn't have a title, but is about a Jewish girl from Argentina who lost her aunt in the 7/18/1994 terrorist bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires. Her family emigrates to the US shortly after 9/11 as a result of the economic crisis in Argentina. After having grown up in England during the IRA bombing campaigns of the early 1970's, I find it disturbing me that many of my fellow Americans seem to think that terrorism was invented on 9/11. I wanted to explore the idea that terrorism isn’t limited to one country or one emotionally loaded date on the calendar – one person's 9/11 is another's 7/18 or 7/7 and although the language in which we express them might be different, feelings like grief and loss are universal. I'd actually started work on this book about two years ago and then put it in a drawer when I decided to write Purge. One day I met with a mother/daughter book group about Confessions at afterwards one of the moms e-mailed me to thank me, and told me that her daughter had become interested in writing when she lost her father on 9/11. She asked me if I'd ever considered writing something on the topic, because there wasn't anything out there for her daughter. I pulled the synopsis for this book out of the drawer and sent it to her. She was so enthusiastic that I ended up speaking to Jen and David about it. I'm glad that they were enthusiastic too!

Name your ten favorite books of all time.

This is like the hardest question EVER!! I think this list probably changes every week. But here it is for now - a mixture of books for grown-ups and for kids.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant (These two above are two books I cannot read aloud to my kids without crying)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (definitely the best of the series, IMHO)
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Diary of Anne Frank (It just kills me to think of what she would have gone on to accomplish if her life hadn't been cut short by the Nazis)
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (ditto)
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (and can I admit to having a major crush on the author too? I saw him crossing the road at BEA!)
and, because the rest are so serious:
No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman
Hot Water or pretty much anything by PG Wodehouse

Visit Sarah's sites:
http://www.sarahdarerlittman.com
http://saraclaradara.livejournal.com
http://saramerica.livejournal.com/

I posted a mini-review of Purge at SparkLife. My full-length review will be printed in the spring, closer to the book's April release date.

I spoke to Sarah about Purge again in June 2009.

Wednesday's WBBT schedule:
Ellen Klages at Fuse #8
Emily Jenkins at Writing and Ruminating
Ally Carter at Miss Erin
Mark Peter Hughes at HipWriterMama
Sarah Darer Littman at Bildungsroman
M.T. Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Mitali Perkins at MotherReader

Tags: blog tour, books, interviews, sparklife, wbbt
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