Writer Sara Zarr had an experience last night that any author would kill for – sitting in the audience at the Marriott Marquis Times Square in Manhattan, her first novel, Story of a Girl, a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature.
For a first-time fiction author, such a nomination is remarkable, and it would be fun for both of us to tell you that she won, but it wasn’t meant to be, not this time around.
Don’t shed too many tears for Sara, however. She’s young, talented, and has already completed her second young adult title, Sweethearts, due on Valentine’s Day 2008 from Little, Brown.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: First of all, congratulations on being nominated.
SARA ZARR: Thank you very much.
ANDELMAN: How are you doing today? Last night must have been a little rough after all the build-up.
ZARR: It was fabulous, and it was devastating all at the same time, and it was a really wonderful evening that I will not soon forget. But it’s definitely, as much as you can say it’s an honor just to be nominated, it would be even more wonderful to win, but it was a great night, and it’s all a positive.
ANDELMAN: You mentioned in your blog entry at 2:00 AM that you had quietly put your acceptance speech aside. I have a feeling you’ll get to use it for something else down the line.
ZARR: It’s interesting, because I, of course, I’ve been pondering this since last night, and when you are in a situation like this, you have to be prepared to win because if you do win, you want to speak eloquently and thank everybody, and you don’t want to trip on your way up to the podium, so you kind of walk through it so much in your mind and practice your speech that some part of your consciousness, even though you know you have just as good a chance of losing, or not winning, I should say, as you do of winning, some part of your consciousness has mentally practiced this so much that it’s a little bit of a shock to the system, I think, when it doesn’t happen because at least I didn’t walk through or practice what I would do if my name wasn’t called, and perhaps I should have.
ANDELMAN: To do the flip side of it.
ANDELMAN: Did you meet anyone particularly interesting last night?
ZARR: I met just amazing people. The other finalists in the young people’s literature category were all delightful, and we got to spend most of Tuesday together, the day before the awards. We had a press conference with 250 teens from local schools that had all been given copies of the book and read them and came and did a press conference format and asked us questions, and then we had a signing at the library, and I got to enjoy the company of my fellow finalists there. I really wanted to meet Jonathan Franzen. I’m a big fan of his, and I saw him walking through the reception, but he was very purposely walking somewhere. I’m not the type to chase someone down, so that was unfortunate, but it was a great night, and I met so many wonderful people.
ANDELMAN: I understand that something tipped you off even before the announcement that you hadn’t won. Can you tell us about that?
ZARR: Yeah, well, they call all the finalists’ names and project our books onto the screen, and that’s very exciting, and when the woman, Elizabeth Partridge, whom I’m sure was very nervous, as she was the first presenter, announced my name as Sara Zane, which is not really close to Zarr at all, so that was kind of a tip-off. I figured if I was going to win, she probably wouldn’t have misspoken my name, and that’s when I slid my acceptance speech back into my purse in my lap and got ready to clap for Sherman.
ANDELMAN: Oh my. Is that when you also mentally slit your wrists?
ZARR: It took a little while to catch up to that, but….
ANDELMAN: Ouch. That must have been hard, and I imagine you are sitting at your table, I guess, with your publisher and your publicist and your agent, and suddenly nobody knows where to look.
ZARR: I think what was maybe more challenging about it than it would have been in another circumstance is that the winner, Sherman Alexie, and I have the same editor, and we’re with the same publishing house so we were all at the table together, and so we were celebrating. It was a win for the table, and I think if I had been the only one, then we all could have sort of looked at each other and commiserated together, but the table was really celebrating, as I was, too, because I love Sherman, and I love his books, so that made it a little harder to sort of balance happy for him, happy for the publisher, happy for my editor, sad for me, but also happy just to be there as a first-time author. Being a finalist is a huge honor on its own, but yeah, it was a real, sort of mixed bag of emotions that you’re processing all in a span of ten seconds.
ANDELMAN: I am sure, as you go forward in your career, you will look back at that and, win or lose, you will remember that as a major moment.
ANDELMAN: We’re talking today, I’ll point out, because we share an agent, and he was telling me a couple of weeks ago how excited he was for you. He had never had an author who had been nominated for the National Book Award. You’re both young people. This is coming from someone who’s like 100.
ZARR: He’s younger than me. He’s a lot younger than me.
ANDELMAN: Is he younger than you?
ZARR: I’m older than I look. I’m 37, which I know is not old at all. It’s still very youthful, but so many people in publishing are in their mid to late twenties, and when I’m out with my publicist and my editor’s assistant and folks like that and they were born in the 1980s, and Michael (Bourret)’s a youngster, too.
ANDELMAN: Right. Well, I know he was very excited for you and is still very excited for you. I want to make one more reference before I forget to your blog, and this will be the second and last reference to sarazarr.com, but I was surprised to read there that you actually have a story connecting you to the category’s winner, Sherman Alexie.
ZARR: Well, I’m from the West. I grew up in California, and I live in Utah now, and any writer or reader in the West is very familiar with Sherman and his work, and he’s always been a celebrity in my eyes. About four years ago, I went to hear him speak at the Salt Lake City Public Library, and he talked for an hour, hour and a half, and he was just amazing. He was just super-sharp and had great, funny, true observations about life and politics and writing and parenthood and just the whole bag of what he does. I was really star-struck and too shy even to really talk to him afterwards and say how I enjoyed the talk, and if you had told me that four years from then I would be sharing a National Book Award experience with him, I would not have believed it, and it’s a real treat. And the nice part is he’s truly a kind and warm and wonderful person who I’m glad to have shared this experience with.
ANDELMAN: Was Story of a Girl taking shape in your mind yet at that point? Were you imagining yourself…
ZARR: Yes. I don’t remember what year that was exactly, but Story of a Girl has been with me quite a while. It probably was already at least one draft of it done at that time because I had won the 2003 Utah Arts Council prize, which is given to an unpublished work, and so a draft of that won the prize in 2003, and then it was a process of searching for the right agent and then waiting a long time before that happened. So there were a lot of years in between there. And then, of course, as you know, there is quite a delay between when you sell a book and when it comes out, so I think Michael and I sold that in the spring of 2005, and then it came out in January of 2007. It’s been with me quite a while.
ANDELMAN: Sara, it doesn’t feel to you that that time goes by so quickly?
ZARR: In retrospect, of course. In the middle of it, it’s like eons, like the Ice Age just sort of creeping along.
ANDELMAN: I got paid yesterday for book work I completed in March, and this is now November, so I hate it. I love writing and publishing the books, but boy, between finishing it and seeing it, holding it in your hands, it is an eternity. Let’s actually talk about the book, Story of a Girl. I read it. Like I said, I’m like a hundred years old, and I read it with a little hesitation because a), I’m not a girl, and b), I’m long past being a young adult. But I have to say, after reading about 30 pages, I just couldn’t put it down. I read straight through. I just thought your sense of pacing was remarkable.
ZARR: Well, thank you.
ANDELMAN: How different is the finished product from what you had four or five years ago?
ZARR: It’s different in that it’s better, obviously, in the re-writing and editing process. What I wanted to do, my vision for the story and the emotions I wanted to explore and evoke, the finished book is as close to that original vision as it can be. I think the earlier drafts were more attempts at getting closer to that vision, but in re-writing, that’s when you really get there. There are some details that are different, some plot details. There’s less going on in the final draft than there was originally. I got some feedback along the way that there was a little bit much.
Originally, Deanna’s father actually had Gulf War Syndrome, and that was a source of a lot of his depression and angst in the family. And that kind of seemed like enough material for a whole other book so I decided to give him a more everyday kind of problem of just being a working-class high school graduate and father trying to provide for his family, having one job for twenty years and getting laid off and not being able to recover from that.
ANDELMAN: It’s hard not to want to ask you how much of your lead character is you, or whether you’re lurking in the supporting cast at all.
ZARR: I’m lurking everywhere in the book. Nothing that happened to Deanna, in terms of the details of her story, ever happened to me. I think the emotions that she experiences are definitely part of my experience. In terms of details of characters and their lives, I’m more like her friend Lee, kind of a good girl from a reasonably stable family, eventually, once my mom re-married. And I think there’s a little bit of me in Darren, the big brother, of just kind of wanting to take care of people I love. And the parents, I have a lot of sympathy for the dad and the mom. I can’t break down my personality and say where I am in each character, but they’re all based on emotional truths, if not incidental ones.
ANDELMAN: Do I have this right? It takes place in a place called Pacifica, and you grew up in Pacifica.
ZARR: I went to high school in Pacifica. I grew up in San Francisco from about age two to 11, and then my mother re-married, and we moved to Pacifica. And I went to junior high and high school there, and it’s very close to San Francisco. It’s really just a fifteen minute drive. But in terms of what it was like to live there as a teenager, it was vastly different than what my experience would’ve been in San Francisco. At least at the time, I went from a really diverse, interesting neighborhood to just a really all-white place where no one walked anywhere, and there was nowhere to go if you didn’t have a car, and people just seemed, they were about twenty years behind what was going on, clothes, music, and culture than the city fifteen miles away.
ANDELMAN: From your descriptions and the atmosphere that you create for Pacifica in the book, it sound like a lot of places that I’ve driven through and never stopped or that I’ve seen a little of, or that, my other suspicion is, that they will not be giving you the key to the city anytime soon.
ZARR: Pacifica, as an adult, when I go there now, I really appreciate it. My in-laws still live there, and it’s just a cute, little, coastal bedroom community of San Francisco, and there are some great people who live there. I met my husband there doing community theater. Now that I have a car, I have a lot of love for Pacifica. But as an adolescent, there’s just something about it that I think is hard for a lot of kids, and I don’t think anyone in Pacifica would disagree with me.
(Return to Part 1)
BOB ANDELMAN: Why do you think kids get so absorbed by drama at that age? One of the things that kept hitting me was that, for Deanna, she obviously had a hard time seeing that there was any life past the city limits of Pacifica or that she couldn’t escape past those limits. It kind of reminded me of one of the Planet of the Apes films where they had their territory, but they couldn’t go beyond a certain point because it was the great unknown back there, and it was dangerous, and they’d never go past it.
SARA ZARR: I don’t know if I can really articulate enough to answer your question, but I do think adolescence is a particular time that is not childhood, and it’s not adulthood, and you are becoming something that you’re going to be, and at the same time, you’re living in occupied territory, basically. You don’t have a lot of control over your life. You’re living on the property and under the roof of other adults who you may or may not respect and/or get along with, who may or may not respect you or get along with you or make efforts to do so. I think there’s a sense of being in limbo, that you’re just waiting for this life to end and to just have some freedom and be able to make some choices of your own and break free of whatever role your family or your friends have put you into. And that, in itself, generates a lot of drama and angst and existential pondering. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if there’s a biological/psychological reason. I know there’s been research lately about how adolescents’ brains are different than adult brains and different than children’s brains, and they just function in different ways, and I think there’s something biological, too. Adolescence is kind of a new concept in America. A hundred years ago, people Deanna’s age would be married and working on a farm or working in the city but being expected to contribute to society and start living their lives. And then this whole idea of high school and adolescence is pretty new when you look at the long-term arc, the big picture.
ANDELMAN: I was thinking about high school, obviously, while reading this and reflecting on it, and I was thinking, I wondered if there’s anyone for whom high school doesn’t suck on some level. I’m approaching my 30th reunion at, and I’ll mention it by name, North Brunswick Township High School in New Jersey, and my memories of the psycho-social drama of those days still sends a shiver down my spine.
ZARR: I think that’s why people respond to Young Adult fiction, and that’s why I’m always encouraging people of all ages to read more Young Adult fiction. You never do forget. As you just said, you never forget what it feels like to be 13 or 14 or 15, and a lot of us still walk around in our 30s and 40s really in touch with that insecure 13-year-old that wants to be accepted and wants to be liked and is not quite sure if we’re worthy of that. And I think young-adult fiction is just a great place where all those things are allowed to be explored in a way that’s not quite yet cynical. I don’t think good Young Adult fiction should go to the side of sentimentality about it, but there is sort of a freedom to say these little things do matter, and I don’t have to look at it from this jaded adult perspective all the time. And the little emotional deaths that happen to us everyday are important. It’s not always about the big epic adventure stories.
ANDELMAN: I was completely sucked into this story of a 13-year-old girl who made a mistake and is made to pay for it for years to come. And that leads me to something else that I have to ask you. By the end of the book, I had developed this intense curiosity about Deanna Lambert. And as successful as the book has been, I wondered if you’ve felt pressure to write a sequel — because I would buy it.
ZARR: Good! I get a lot of messages from teen readers on myspace.com, and this question comes up a lot. They feel like the ending is pretty open-ended, and they want to know what happens, like right after that moment, what happens the next day, what happens the next year. I haven’t thought seriously about writing a sequel. I think sequels to work, you have to have the right story for the characters and be as inspired by a particular journey they are going to go on to write a sequel and make it work. I wouldn’t want to write one just for the sake of capitalizing on people’s interest in Deanna, so if the right story comes up and the opportunity comes up, I would never say no, because I love those characters, and I would love to see what they do, but I haven’t given them much serious thought.
ANDELMAN: You’re not ready for it yet.
ZARR: No, no, not yet. There are other irons in the fire.
ANDELMAN: Maybe you would have to live some more of your own life to be able to picture how maybe her life will be in 10 years.
ANDELMAN: Like I said when we started, I got 30 pages into it, and I was like, well, okay, and then suddenly it just grabbed me, and I had to read the rest of it. I was quite surprised. You were talking about the Young Adult category. I sometimes go back to this. I have an 11-year-old, and she had seen the film Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and wanted to read the book, which is great, and she read the first book and then found that there was a second and a third, and she read those, and she can eat these books; they are like candy to her. Then I remember seeing, and I can’t remember the name of the author of the Sisterhood books, but I saw that she had endorsed another book by another author who is called Peaches, and I thought, well, great, if she’s endorsing it, it must fit into that genre, it would probably be okay for my daughter to read, and I got it, and I gave it to her, and then she came to me and said, “Dad, there’s a lot of language in here that I probably shouldn’t be reading.” And I thought, Really? And I looked at it, and I went, Oh, my God! It’s like, Oh, my God! And then we were going to buy the fourth Sisterhood book, and then we heard all the warnings that these aren’t the same girls that they were… It’s the same characters, but they’re like six years older, five or six years older than they were when the series started, so if you have a younger child who’s reading this, don’t. So where I’m going with all this is I wonder if there’s a fine line in this category that you’re in of, there’s no graphic sexual content in Story of a Girl, there’s a lot of stuff that’s implied, but it’s not graphic, and I wondered, where is that line that keeps you in the category, and what goes over the line?
ZARR: Well, that’s an ongoing dialogue among writers and publishers and editors. Young Adult fiction has become a category that encompasses so much, and they are, in fact, starting to add other categories, like lower YA and upper YA, to kind of help people know if it’s more like 11 to 13 or 14 or more like a 14 to 19 or 20 kind of a book. There’s a huge range, and also, when you look at adolescents’ lives, there’s a huge range of maturity in terms of thought and behavior and ability to look at stories and think about what they may or may not mean for their own lives, and it’s hard to say that a book that’s okay for one 13-year-old would be okay for another 13-year-old, and I think this is where it’s important for parents to pay attention to what kids are reading and have those conversations. I think the fact that your daughter brought the book to you and said, “I am not sure I should be reading this,” is a great sign that you have that kind of relationship where you talk about these things, and she has her own sense of what’s appropriate for her, and I think that’s great. I think that’s what every parent should kind of be working toward. It is tricky.
All writers, I think, most writers that I know, what we really want is to be true to the particular story we’re telling, to authentically tell a story to be true to those characters in that story, and though there is sometimes an expectation when you are writing for younger readers that you have a responsibility to the readers, for a lot of writers for young adults, that can just be a big burden. We get a little defensive. We feel like there’s a lot of stuff on TV that parents don’t seem to have any problem letting their kids watch that is a lot more questionable in our eyes than the context of a work of literary young adult fiction, and it’s just one of those things, like I said, you have to be in conversation with your kids and know your kids. When you see an author’s endorsement of a book it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be the same type of book that that author has written or that it’s going to be appropriate, and it’s just one of those awareness things. Young Adult fiction is not like it was 30 years ago. It’s not sort of a safe go-to genre for anyone in their teens. There’s a huge range, and now, really, nothing is taboo in terms of content, so you really do need to read those story descriptions and figure out if that’s something that’s going to work for your kids.
ANDELMAN: Yeah, and I should say that her bringing that book to me, that was six months ago. Now, she’s watching “Ugly Betty” with her mother and I suspect being exposed to far more adult story lines than were in that book.
And along the line of movies and TV, I was just kind of curious if you had had inquiries about adapting the Story of a Girl for Hollywood?
ZARR: In fact, yes. Actually, Kyra Sedgwick and Emily Lansbury have a little production company, I shouldn’t say little, I don’t know, have a production company together called Mixed Breed Films, and they have optioned the movie rights….
ANDELMAN: Oh, congratulations.
ZARR: ….to the Story of a Girl, and I’m really excited about that. I love Kyra Sedgwick, and I just think she’s the right person for it, and I’m excited to see if that goes anywhere.
ANDELMAN: So, let me see if I remember how the game works. So that puts you one degree away from Kevin Bacon?
ZARR: I believe that is correct. One degree, and then now you would be two degrees, and anyone who sells you would be three, etc.
ANDELMAN: Beautiful, beautiful. I feel my life changing already.
What can you tell us about your new book, Sweethearts, which I think I mentioned will be out Valentine’s Day 2008.
ZARR: Sweethearts is the story about two kids who in elementary school were each other’s only friend, a boy and a girl, Cameron and Jennifer, and they were sort of outcasts for different reasons, and something happens that they experience together in fourth grade, something traumatic. They end up getting separated and don’t hear from each other for a long time, and then it’s now senior year of high school, and Cameron moves back into town and starts going to Jennifer’s high school, and as we say in the YA world, “Drama ensues.”
ANDELMAN: That would be the counterpart of “Hilarity ensues” in a sitcom?
ZARR: Yes, exactly. There’s not a lot of hilarity in this book.
ANDELMAN: I’m sorry. Obviously, from the title, I think I understand why it’s tied to Valentine’s Day, I think.
ZARR: Yes. Originally, the book was going to come out in April, and then Little, Brown did such an amazing job with the cover, the cover art — there’s a pink cookie heart on the cover — and with the title, it just seemed a natural fit to move it up to February.
ANDELMAN: You spent all those years writing the first book, which is not unusual. How long did you have to write this one, and then how hard or easy was it to kind of slip back into that mode?
ZARR: It was very fast and very difficult. Although when I say fast, it’s a little bit hard to tell exactly if you broke down how many hours for Story of a Girl to versus how many hours Sweethearts took, because when I was writing Story of a Girl, I was working full time, and there would be long chunks of time when I wouldn’t be working on it at all, and then there were long chunks of time when it was out with different agents and editors were looking at it, a lot of waiting and not doing anything with it. So to say three or four years is a little bit deceptive, because I don’t know how big a percentage of that time was spent actually working on it.
But when I was writing Sweethearts, I was writing full-time, and I was working on it nearly every day and several hours a day, so it did feel fast, and it was very difficult, not the work itself, but that whole second book psychosis thing where you feel like you might be under the sophomore curse, and Story of a Girl was getting such positive reception, it was easy to feel like there was nowhere to go but down and be worried about disappointing everybody with a follow-up. But my editor and my wonderful agent sort of counseled me through that whole thing, my agent especially, a lot of hours on the phone, where I was almost crying but not quite, just holding it together and having to put down the phone and say, “Excuse me, I have to blow my nose now.” But it was all psychological. I don’t think it really had anything to do with the actual work, and I realized it was really important to just finish it. I talked to Chris Crutcher, who is a great author of Young Adult fiction, and he’s been writing for 20-some years, and I met him at a conference at one point last year and talked to him about the second book stuff, and he said he knew more writers who just almost literally had nervous breakdowns in the writing of their second books and never finished them, and I just knew I had to finish this book to just get over the symbolic hurdle, if nothing else, and just get it done, and it’s turned out great. I’m really excited for February.
ANDELMAN: So not so concerned about meeting unreasonable expectations at this point?
ZARR: I think it’s a different kind of a book. I think it’ll attract maybe a little bit of a different audience, maybe some new readers. Maybe some people who loved Story of a Girl won’t love it, but I think people who didn’t love Story of a Girl might love this one. You just never know, but I’m over the unnecessary anxiety about it. Now I just have the normal anxiety.
ANDELMAN: And I understand you are already working on a third book.
ZARR: I am, yes.
ANDELMAN: Anything you can let out about that at this point?
ZARR: No. It’s a little early… it’s not superstition, but I just don’t want to talk it to death before I’m really done writing it.
ANDELMAN: I would have been very disappointed and surprised if you had said anything more than that, so I think that was a good answer. Before we wrap up, I’m kind of curious, when you were writing the first book, what were you doing professionally? Where were you in your life?
ZARR: I have held a variety of dead-end administrative jobs ever since I graduated from college. I didn’t study writing in college. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I decided to really go for the whole writing novels thing, and I kept taking jobs that wouldn’t be too stressful, that I wouldn’t have to sort of bring home with me, jobs I could just leave at the door so that I could write in the evenings, and so I think when I started it, maybe I was working as an indexer for the Gale Group, just indexing periodicals. That was pretty exciting. I’ve worked as a church secretary, I’ve worked as an office manager for a small company, but for most of the writing of it, I was working as an indexer and then a church secretary.
ANDELMAN: Have any of these people that you worked with in the preceding years, have they caught up to you? Have they figured out what’s become of you?
ZARR: I write under my maiden name, so I have a different name, a different last name at all those jobs, and I don’t know that everyone’s really made the connection. But I have heard from some people who, at the indexing job, I worked under my maiden name there, as well, and some people tracked me down, but it was kind of a secret second life, so I don’t know how many people really know. But the important thing is, people that I knew in high school, if they ever Google me, they will find me and see that I am successful.
ANDELMAN: They will be surprised. Well, it seems to me like you are doing okay.
ZARR: I am. I am doing well.
ANDELMAN: As I said in the introduction, fear not for Sara Zarr. I think she’s going to come out of this okay. Sara, thank you so much for joining us today on Mr. Media.
ZARR: Thank you. It was a pleasure.