Sweethearts? YA novelist Sara Zarr and Mr. Media reunited! INTERVIEW

Sara Zarr, YA novelist, Sweethearts, Story of a Girl, Once Was Lost, Mr. Media Interview

Sara Zarr, author of ‘Story of a Girl’ and ‘Sweethearts’

If you’ve ever thought about writing novels, you might want to think about envying YA novelist Sara Zarr’s career.

Her first, best-selling, young adult title, Story of a Girl, was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Awards. Book two, just released this month, is Sweethearts. It has earned glowing reviews and — even better — excellent sales.

I interviewed Sara a couple months ago, the morning after the 2007 National Book Awards. She was a delightful guest, even in the face of disappointment, and I made her promise to come back when Sweethearts was released.

Sara Zarr WebsiteFacebookTwitterYouTubeOrder Once Was Lost from Amazon.comOrder Sweethearts

More Sara Zarr podcast interviews with Mr. Media: Once Was Lost (2010)

You can LISTEN to this interview by clicking the audio player above!

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr, Mr. Media Interviews

Order ‘Sweethearts’ by Sara Zarr, available from Amazon.com by clicking on the book cover above!

[amazon_link id=”B005IUJ23S” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Happy Valentine’s Day. How are you spending Valentine’s Day?

SARA ZARR: I am spending Valentine’s Day unpacking from my little Sweethearts tour, and then I’m gonna help a friend move, and then I’m gonna watch “Project Runway,” which was recorded last night. So if anyone calls in and gives it away, I’m going to have to hang up. So that’s my romantic day.

ANDELMAN: That’s it, huh? No plans?

ZARR: Valentine’s Day doesn’t figure hugely in my life or my marriage. What I think about Valentine’s Day is that it’s a good excuse if you have a crush to let someone know. And so when I first met my husband, I did send him a little Valentine’s card to kind of let him know that I was thinking about him, and then, 17 years later, here we are.

ANDELMAN: And he’s still waiting for another card?

ZARR: Probably, yes.

ANDELMAN: Let’s talk books. How different is it publishing the second novel compared to being the first-time author?

ZARR: It’s really different. Well, the writing process was a lot different because Story of a Girl was out while I was kind of finishing the last few drafts of Sweethearts, and Story of a Girl was doing well, and it was hard not to feel the pressure of feeling like there’s something at stake now, whereas before, there wasn’t. And the nice thing is with the second book, now I kind of understand what to expect in terms of what the publisher does, of what I do. Because when you get into publishing and publish your first book, there’s no sort of guide for new authors telling you how everything works and what to expect practically and emotionally and all of those things. Now that I’ve been through it once, I’m a lot more relaxed this time and just enjoying it a bit more and not obsessively reading every single thing that every single person says about the book. That’s probably healthy.

ANDELMAN: Sara, I have to ask you because, as you know, we share an agent. Are you telling me that Michael Bourret, our extraordinary agent, did not give you a copy of “Book Publishing for Dummies”?

ZARR: He did not, and if he has one somewhere in his office, I’m going to find out about it, and he’s going to pay.

ANDELMAN: I don’t know whether to feel bad for you that he didn’t give it to you or feel bad for me that he did give it to me, and he didn’t feel you needed it. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m going to have to think about that.

ZARR: Try not to take that for “Dummies” thing personally.

ANDELMAN: One of the other things we talked about last time around was the possibility of the sophomore jinx. I think you were a little nervous about it then. I imagine you’re feeling a little better about it now.

ZARR: I was very nervous although, at the time we talked, the editorial process was finished. It was completely out of my hands so there was nothing I could do about it anyway. But I have to admit that it was a relief to see the first couple reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus and get positive reviews. After that, I just kind of breathed out and figured well, some people will like it better, some people won’t like it as much as a different book, and I’ll get some new readers, and that’s great. I’m very relaxed and, of course, having that nice National Book Award finalist sticker on my first book is kind of good for the self-esteem, if ever I’m feeling a little low.

ANDELMAN: We spoke the morning after the National Book Awards. You didn’t win. My favorite story about that was that you had your speech that you had practiced and got down to the right amount of time. It had never occurred to you to practice your reaction if you did not win, which I thought was wonderful.

ZARR: Right, the game face.

ANDELMAN: But I’m thinking, since then, and I don’t know if you’ll agree with me, but as a first-time author, maybe they did you a favor by not naming you the winner because it just seems to me that anything you would do after that would be so hard to live up to having that tag, “National Book Award Winner,” that it would be tougher. “National Book Award Finalist” gets to follow you around just the same, and you don’t have to produce the greatest novel on the face of the earth to live up to that the rest of your life.

ZARR: I think you have a point. Definitely being a finalist was absolutely the best thing that could happen for my career, but at the same time, it’s just an award. I have kind of mixed feelings about awards. Of course, if you get them, you think they’re great, and they mean a lot, and if you don’t get them, you’re like, “Ah, it’s just an award.” Now I have that experience behind me, and I like having the sticker on my book, but I also think writing is still hard. Every book feels like I’m doing it for the first time. I want to do a lot of different things. And I know that when I read award-winning books, I don’t always like them so it’s just the opinion of that particular group of judges for that year, and it’s great for one’s career, but it’s not any kind of final verdict on your ability as a writer or your value as a person.

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr, Mr. Media Interviews

Order ‘Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr, available from Amazon.com by clicking on the book cover above!

[amazon_link id=”0316014540″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]ANDELMAN: That’s true. I remember — it’s been about 20 years — but there was a period of time when I was doing a lot of magazine work, a lot of investigative stuff. Much to my surprise, this magazine had entered my work into a competition, and I actually won awards. I think I won like five awards, which was amazing, because I’d never in my life won anything for anything, and so I was excited. And my editor at the time just decided to bring me back down to earth, and he said, “Hey, listen ‘Pro’” — that’s what he called me, Pro – “Listen Pro, awards are like assholes, everybody’s got one, get over it.” I was just like, “Ooooo-kay.” From then on, I never cared again.

ZARR: Somehow, I’m glad I don’t have someone like that in my life, but yeah, that’s true.

ANDELMAN: Boy, sometimes we romanticize in the crusty old bastards in the business.

ZARR: Yes.

ANDELMAN: Sometimes we could really live without them, I have to say. Story of a Girl, which was a wonderful book, one I really liked that a lot…

ZARR: Thank you.

ANDELMAN: …and you had the luxury there of keeping that book in the oven a long time. Wasn’t that a couple years to gestation?

ZARR: Yes, it was a few years.

ANDELMAN: And then this one, my sense is that you popped this one out, and I don’t mean that in a deprecating way, but you kind of popped this one out, I’m thinking, in about a year, right?

ZARR: Yes. During the time I was writing Story of a Girl, there was a lot of waiting. There would be periods of four to six months of waiting to hear back from editors and agents, and so it wasn’t like I was literally working on it every day for three years. Now that I’m writing full-time, Sweethearts just happened in a more compressed amount of time, but there was no waiting. I was working on it pretty much all the time. The waiting time is good. It helps you get distance from the work, and you don’t really have that luxury when you’re writing under contract to just sort of let it marinate and stew and then go on with the rest of your life while you’re waiting for magic things to happen in your subconscious. It’s definitely different and faster, and we’ll see if I can keep up that pace with future books. I’m not sure about that.

ANDELMAN: I know you have a contract for the third book. Where are you in the process on that?

ZARR: I hope my editor isn’t listening.

ANDELMAN: No, it’s just me and you.

ZARR: Just me and you.

ANDELMAN: It’s just me and you, yes.

ZARR: Page-wise, I’m probably like a fourth of the way through the book, but it feels really rough to me, and I have to turn it in in December. I’ve got a little while, but this year already feels like it’s going by fast so I definitely need to get cracking now that the Sweethearts promotional stuff is dying down.

ANDELMAN: Certainly, the book’s not written yet. You don’t want to give it away, but tell me a little bit about the process for you on working on the book at this point. You’ve gotten past that first book and the elongated period of time, and now you’re doing this professionally. This is how you’re making a living. So as you approach it, tell me about a typical day. Are you a first-thing-in-the-morning person? How do you approach actually doing the work of the writing now?

ZARR: I have tried a lot of different things in hopes that I hit upon something that is the magic key to making work easy and enjoyable all the time. And what I’m discovering is that there is no such thing, and so I don’t get up at the crack of dawn and start writing. One of the benefits of the self-employed lifestyle is having your own schedule, and so I like to ease into the day and sort of see my husband off to work and have my coffee, and then, ideally, before lunch, it’d be good to get started and then maybe wrap up at three or four. Sometimes that’s just a lot of staring into space and procrastinating, and sometimes it’s three or four hours of actual writing. It just really depends on where I am with the book. Sometimes it’ll really go pretty quickly in the beginning, and then you hit the middle. And you know how it’s going to end, but meanwhile, you have to fill up 150 pages with stuff. Not just “stuff,” but my writer friends and I joke about how we’ll have sections of drafts where we write, “stuff happens here.” We don’t know what, but it’s to remind us that something has to happen in the middle.

ANDELMAN: That’s the way I’ve always read it happens. I’ve always heard that that was the plan usually, that “something” goes in the middle…

ZARR: Something happens, yes. It’s a good sort of rule of thumb for fiction: “Something happens.”

ANDELMAN: Have you found that there’s a particular room that you like to work in, any kind of music, or do you shut off the phone? Really take us inside the process for you.

ZARR: I have a little work area in my house that I share with my husband, and then I also rent an office away from home because offices are fairly cheap where I live in Salt Lake City. It’s nice to have a place that’s just mine that I can go to and get out of the house is the main thing because sometimes you can realize you haven’t gone anywhere for three days, and that’s not a good way to live. Sometimes I’ll work at home and just kind of sit at my computer. I used to work with music a lot, but I’m finding with this book I’m working on now that silence is working better for me. I don’t turn off the phone, but I don’t answer the phone, but that’s nothing new. I never answered the phone before. I just let the machine get it. And I try and keep myself off the Internet for like an hour at a time so that I can get a consistent thought process going. I don’t work in my pajamas, generally. I’m one of those people that I don’t really feel like the day has started until I shower and dress and put shoes on so I’m not lounging around in my pajamas and robe like some writers do. I don’t know if you’re expecting me to tell you something really exciting about my lifestyle. That’s pretty much it – sitting at a computer.

ANDELMAN: Sara, now I’m concerned that you’ve secretly got me on video, and you know I’m sitting here in my robe and underwear conducting these interviews. I thought the green light was supposed to come on if the video was on. I’m trying to get a handle on that.

I don’t do fiction, but I work on a lot of books, and it seems to go through periods where it swings. Right now, I like to get everybody out of the house. I like to get started early, crank up whatever I’ve got in iTunes lately, usually something ‘70s or ‘80s-related because I’m an old man, and I block everything out. You mentioned the Internet, and I wondered about that. It is one of the most fascinating things in our lives, and it is the biggest time-killer around. I’m curious if that is a problem for you at all. You do wind up devoting too much of your workday to it, and before you know it, you’re into the next day.

ZARR: It is a problem, and the problem with it is just what you’re describing, that it is work. As you know, you have to promote yourself, and if you want people to come back to your website, you have to have dynamic content that’s changing, hopefully daily or at least a few times a week, and then there are emails to deal with. You feel like you’re working, and you are working, but that work never actually ends, and so you have to end it and just say, “I’m stopping this now for a few hours.” It’s definitely a challenge. It’s something that will be the number one thing that keeps me from being as productive on the creative front as I want to be. It’s a positive for my career because a lot of the success that I’ve had has come from word-of-mouth and people who have followed my blog, and I feel like they know me and want to support me and then tell their friends. And that’s really good, and it’s been a positive for me, but at the same time, there does come the moment where you have to say, “Okay, I’m done with this now,” and I have to write. And that’s definitely difficult because writing, as you know, is hard, and for some of us, writing blog posts or answering fan mail or dealing with publisher stuff is easy, and so what are you gonna do? You’re going to take the path of least resistance, which is the business side of it, at least for my type of personality. The creative work is the part that’s hard and scary, and so, of course, I don’t want to do it so I delay that as long as possible. So it’s a good thing I have deadlines.

ANDELMAN: Is there a caller with a question for Sara?

MICHAEL BOURRET: Yes, there is a question for Sara.

ZARR: Oh, hi, Michael.

BOURRET: Why isn’t she working now?

ZARR: I’m busy doing publicity!

BOURRET: Oh, so that’s that “other” kind of work you were talking about.

ZARR: Exactly.

BOURRET: Very good.

ZARR: And, hopefully, we can stretch this out all day.

ANDELMAN: We have a limit because I’ve got book work to do, too, Sara. Folks, this is Michael Bourret with Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. He represents Sara and this other loser, me.

BOURRET: It’s true.

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr, Mr. Media Interviews

Order ‘The Lucy Variations’ by Sara Zarr, available from Amazon.com by clicking on the book cover above!

[amazon_link id=”031620501X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]ANDELMAN: Michael, do you have any stories you can tell us about Sara? You want to take us back in time a little bit to maybe when her work first crossed your desk?

BOURRET: Yes, she was a wee lass before she’d written anything of substance. No, Sara’s an amazing success story, obviously, of her own and for her own reasons, but for me, as a writer who did come in through slush with a very attention-catching query letter that referenced Freaky Friday. Whether or not I had liked the original or the Lindsay Lohan version better. If anyone actually cares, I think they are both very different, different films, but they both have their merits.

ZARR: Okay.

BOURRET: It’s important. But anyway, then she sent me her material, which was really great, and it was immediate from the first few pages and obvious that Sara’s a terrific writer. And in reading the novel, it was 90 percent there and really didn’t need much work because she’d been working on it for so long and really honing her craft and doing all of her homework and obviously approaching the right agent, which is so important.

ZARR: So modest.

BOURRET: I know. Well, the right agent isn’t necessarily some sort of number one agent on the list. It’s about getting the right fit. Obviously, I think it’s been a good fit.

ANDELMAN: Michael, we probably have some people listening or maybe reading the transcript later who are wondering how did she get that separation from the slush pile, which is, for those who don’t know, the slush pile is basically all the writers who send in stuff unsolicited, and it just piles up, and eventually, the agents look at it. How did she get separation from that big pile of manuscripts to become “Sara Zarr, National Book Award finalist”?

BOURRET: There were two things. One was that her query letter was well constructed and direct. Was it the most brilliant pitch for a book I’d ever heard? Honestly, Sara, no, but it said what the book was.

ZARR: I know.

BOURRET: It said what the book was about so I understood. It also mentioned her qualifications, which were that she had won an award, the Utah Council of the Arts Award for 2005, is that right?

ZARR: 2003.

BOURRET: 2003, geez. Time really flies. That’s scary. So the fact that it mentioned she had won an award, and then she really did add this personal note asking about Freaky Friday, which I reference on the website in an essay or something. And it had that little bit of a personal touch. So between those three things I thought you know what? I need to take a look at this, and then, of course, like I said, the manuscript spoke for itself.

ZARR: And then I did, and I tell this to aspiring writers who are on the search for agents, I did follow up with him. A period of time had passed, and I was curious what was going on so I sent him a very brief, courteous email to just follow up.

BOURRET: I actually found that email the other day.

ZARR: Did you? Well, yes, we extensively save all our communications.

BOURRET: We do.

ZARR: And that, I think, helped move it to the top of the stack, too, because I had experienced in the past with a magazine piece I’d done that sometimes those little follow-up notes or calls just remind people yes, that’s around here somewhere, and they pull it out. But you can’t harass them. You have to wait a reasonable amount of time and be brief.

BOURRET: It was a very appropriate email that just said, “I haven’t heard from you in a little bit, you requested my email on this date, and I’m curious to see what you have to say.”

ANDELMAN: Michael, when you took Sara on as a client and when you started taking her work around, do you remember some of the response that you got early on? How did that go?

BOURRET: The response was fantastic from the first person who read it. I sent it out, and I think it was three days later that someone said they really loved it, had read it, and was sharing it with other people. And we did wind up selling it at auction. It’s very rare for a literary novel for the kind of fiction that Sara does to sell at auction just because, usually, you find that one editor who really connects with it, but yes, everyone did. There was no question that Sara was gonna be a star.

ANDELMAN: I remember when you told me about Sara, and I was kind of like, “Young Adult literature? I don’t know, Michael.” And you said, “Let me send you the book, read the book,” and I read the book, and 20-25 pages, I was thinking, “This is pretty good, but I don’t know if I’m going to read the whole thing.” And then somewhere, and I’ve told this story before, somewhere around 30-35 pages, I was just hooked. And I think that that was something that happened with the second book as well. There is something, and maybe someone smarter than I can put their finger on it, but there is something in the nature of the way Sara writes that just grabs you, and you’ve gotta keep turning those pages.

ZARR: My goal is to have that happen closer to page one. Thirty is a little far, but yeah.

ANDELMAN: But I’m not the target audience either so it’s a little tougher sell that way.

BOURRET: And you do have to keep hooking people, which is, I think, the difficult thing. The thing about books is you typically don’t read them in one sitting, though I’ve had several people tell me that they read Sara’s work in one sitting. Most people don’t because you can’t. It’s too much time, and most people, unfortunately, don’t sit down with a book the way they do with a movie or episodes of a TV show on DVD. So you really do have to keep hooking them over and over and over again, and I think that’s, in constructing a book and the editorial process, that’s part of the challenge is to keep that momentum going so that every time you finish one page, you want to know what happens on the next.

Roomies by Sara Zarr, Mr. Media Interviews

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[amazon_link id=”0316217492″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]ZARR: And I can comment a little bit just on sort of a technical craft level of how that happens, I think. I do sort of think in scenes. I’m a big movie lover, and I’m from the TV generation and always before the commercial break, there’s something, “Ooh, I gotta keep watching that show,” or in a movie, each scene leads to the next and makes you want to keep watching. So when I end a section or a chapter, I try, whether it’s an emotional note that makes people want to read what’s going to happen next or an event, I do think in those terms. I don’t know if I started out doing that super-consciously, but I think because of what I like about books and movies and TV and stories, it sort of happens organically in the way I write.

ANDELMAN: Michael, coming back to this, how easy was it to go out and sell that second novel, and at what point in the process did that happen?

BOURRET: Well, actually, when we had the auction, we wound up getting an offer for two books. So the second book was under contract before it was even a twinkle in Sara’s eye, which, you can ask Sara, was both a blessing and a curse, I think. And since then, obviously, selling books three and four, which we just did in December, was much easier even though the first time it was pretty easy. Her publisher was quite interested in working with her again.

ANDELMAN: So you’re back with Little, Brown for three and four?

ZARR: Yep.

ANDELMAN: Oh good, good.

ZARR: Very happy to be so.

ANDELMAN: Except for the actual having to write the book.

ZARR: Yes, as I mentioned, that part’s hard.

ANDELMAN: What was the line? “It’s always easier to have written than to write.”

ZARR: Yes.

ANDELMAN: Yes.

ZARR: When I look at Story of a Girl or even more so when I look at Sweethearts, I look at the physical finished book and listen to people talking about it. Part of me just doesn’t even know how it happened. There’s something about the writing process that’s somewhat mysterious, and when you’re in it, you just can think this is never going to work. And then through revision and the natural process of evolution, you come out with a book, and it’s somewhat miraculous. I can still hardly believe it myself. As Michael mentioned, writing a second book under contract, having a contract for it before I even really had the idea of what the second book would be, was different from the way I’d written before because when you don’t have a contract, you can kind of start a book and be with it for a while and decide is this really the book that I want to write? And when you write it under contract, you sort of turn in maybe 50 pages or so and a little synopsis, and then the publisher says, “Yes, this does sound like the book that we want you to write.” And so if you change your mind kind of through the process, it’s not impossible to alter that course, but when you start feeling insecure whereas when you weren’t under contract, you might just move on to something else. Once you’re committed to that book, you have to work through the hard part. You’re kind of married to it, and you just have to, since it is Valentine’s Day, you have just like a marriage or relationship. You have to work through the hard times, baby, so that you can come out with something that you love.

ANDELMAN: Come try jumping over to the non-fiction world. We’ll have that conversation in a whole ‘nother way. Michael, I know that your two favorite writers are on the phone with you.

BOURRET: That’s true.

ANDELMAN: And we are both…

BOURRET: Except for all the other favorite writers of mine who aren’t on the phone with us.

ANDELMAN: Yeah. Well, I was going to say, and, of course, Sara and I are both committed to projects for the short and long-term.

BOURRET: Yes.

ANDELMAN: So I don’t know if you have time to stay with us, or if you want me to let you go.

BOURRET: Actually, I’m in the middle of negotiating a deal right now, but I wanted to call in and talk to my two favorite people who happen to be talking on this radio show right now.

ZARR: Thanks for calling in, Michael.

BOURRET: Of course. I told you I would, and I did so there you go.

ANDELMAN: Thank you, Michael.

ZARR: A man of his word.

BOURRET: Enjoy the rest of your talk, and I’ll be in touch with both of you soon.

ZARR: Thank God he’s gone!

ANDELMAN: I have a question for you from the chat room from Coll. She would like to know how you got into writing in the first place.

ZARR: It’s funny. I’ve been asked that a lot while I’ve been out promoting Sweethearts. And I’m just realizing that I barely even remember, but what I tell people — and I don’t even know if this is true or just a construction of my imagination after the fact, but…

ANDELMAN: You’re a writer. Make something up.

ZARR: This is true. My mother read to us almost every night. I loved books growing up. I didn’t buy a book until I was probably in my twenties really. I had a few books around the house, but my go-to place for books was the library, and we always had stacks and stacks of books. So I was just really tuned in to stories from an early age, and I don’t know if it’s a chicken-and-egg thing, but either as a result of all those stories or if it’s just something in my personality and that’s why I love the stories, I had a very active imagination.

My family was on the poorer side growing up, and so we didn’t have fancy toys, just books and a few stuffed animals and board games, and so my sister and I would play imaginary games all the time, and that was my favorite thing to do with friends. We’d play “Little House on the Prairie”-oriented games, wagon trains, and orphanages with mean school marms, all sorts of crazy stuff. And so I guess it’s just sort of a natural progression to want to tell stories, too, but in terms of writing as a career, I didn’t meet any writers till I was 24 or 25. And I’ve been telling this to kids when I’ve been doing school visits. I never had an author come to any of my schools when I was a kid. To think of being a writer as a career sounded to me a lot like saying I want to be an astronaut or I want to be the President. I knew people did it, but they must be special people, not normal people, and I didn’t realize it was something I could do for a job. And then when I started meeting writers, I thought, “Oh, they’re normal people, and they’re just normal people who actually cared enough to finish books and re-write them over and over again until they were publishable.” I just decided that’s what I wanted to do, and I started doing that and thought my first book was great, and it would be published right away, and it wasn’t. And then I thought, “Well, I’ll write another one,” and then that didn’t happen. Then I wrote a third one and lost my agent over it. I had a different agent before Michael. And then I wrote Story of a Girl. So it was a process of failure and rejection for ten years and then triumph.

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr, Mr. Media Interviews

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[amazon_link id=”0316036056″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]ANDELMAN: Sara, we’ve got another call here for you.

ZARR: Great.

ANDELMAN: I think this is Coll from the web chat.

COLL: Hi. You use a lot of your childhood memories and your experiences in your books, and it’s Young Adult fiction. Do you have any other interests that you do that help you to write, and is it completely different from your writing career?

ZARR: I probably don’t have as many interests as I should. Sometimes I feel like my life is a little narrow right now with so much focus on writing. As I mentioned, I love movies, and I feel like that sort of cross-pollinates my imagination in an interesting way. If I see a great movie, it makes me feel like I want to go write a story or write a book. I’m really interested in computers and cooking. I don’t think there’s a lot of direct influence on my writing, but anything you can do to have a full and interesting life and have friends and social interaction just all goes into that well of experience and imagination that you can draw on when you’re writing a book.

COLL: And do you think you have to have a certain level of literary experience like doing a writing course or education in order to achieve what you want?

ZARR: I think there are a lot of different ways to approach having a writing career. I didn’t study writing in college. In fact, I was an English major when I started college, and then I hated it so much that I changed it to Speech Communications. And then I never really took any official classes or workshops or anything like that. It was kind of learn by doing. I read a lot and wrote a lot, and as I mentioned, wrote three novels before my first published one so I had sort of the practice of finishing a novel. I think the best thing for me was I was in a writers’ group where most of the people in the group — all of the people in the group — were a lot better and more experienced than me, and I learned so much so quickly being in a group like that and reading their work and seeing what worked and having them read my work and comment on it.

I think, from what I’ve heard, people who do end up enrolling in creative writing and essay programs and things like that, it sort of accelerates the learning because you, by necessity, usually you’re spending at least 25 hours a week writing. And when you’re in school, you feel like you have to do it because it’s homework, and so it validates the time that you spend doing that, and it can accelerate the process whereas if you’re sort of starting on your own, and your friends and family are like do you even know what you’re doing, and why are you spending so much time with this, and you’re not making any money? Being enrolled in school kind of is a signal to them that this is what I’m doing, but I don’t think there’s any one right way to approach a writing career. The main thing is to write.

COLL: How easy or difficult was it to get your first book published?

ZARR: It was difficult. Well, I should say, I focused a lot of energy on finding an agent. I don’t know if you heard when my agent called in, but I always…

BOURRET: Yes, I did.

ZARR: I always knew from the beginning that I would not be good at the business part of it, not because I’m not organized or smart or anything like that, but I knew, emotionally, I’d have a lot of doubts about what I was doing, and I would be satisfied with a lot less in terms of attention or contract details, things like that, because I’m just kind of insecure. So I always knew I wanted someone to be kind of a business partner with me, which is what an agent really is, and so I focused virtually all my energy on finding an agent rather than a publisher. That was a really long, difficult process. I had one agent, and that didn’t work out so I fired her, or we ended our contract, and then I found the agent that I have now. That whole process was three or four years, but then once I had the right agent, you can do everything right, but then still timing has to work out, the market’s in the right place in terms of the kind of stuff you like to write, and then it ends up on the right editor’s desk, and you have the right agent. In order for those things to converge, to work out for you, you just have to be patient. I have a writer friend who likens it to standing in line for a movie or something. You just stay in line. You eventually get up to the counter, but if you get out of line, then you’re not going to get a ticket. There are a lot of people who want to be writers. You just have to stay in the game and keep going, and you have to make sure that it’s really something you want to do because if you lose that enthusiasm, you’re not going to put up with years of waiting and rejection.

COLL: Brilliant. Thank you very much for that.

ANDELMAN: Sara, you mentioned your blog before, and I want to give that out. It’s www.sarazarr.com. How has that worked for you in terms of promoting your books and interacting with your readers?

ZARR: It’s been great. I actually started blogging the second I heard the word “blog.” I think it was 1999 or 2000. As soon as I heard about this thing called a blog where you could just spew your opinions all over the Internet free of charge, I signed up. I had actually been blogging for a long time and read other writers’ blogs, and a year or so before I even sold my book, had kind of gotten into a little bit of a blogging network with people and already starting to meet other writers and aspiring writers. I will say that when I sold Story of a Girl, and I knew I was going to be a published author, I deleted my old blog, my whole one from like 2000 to 2005 because it was pretty personal. And I just all of a sudden felt uncomfortable thinking I could be this public person and have so much personal information, not details about where I live or how people could find me and stab me to death, but just personal feelings and experiences and talking about friends and family and things. So I deleted that. I still get personal on my blog, but it’s personal with boundaries.

ANDELMAN: So, Sara, you deleted the stuff that might get you on Howard Stern, and you kept the stuff that would get you on Oprah.

ZARR: Exactly, exactly Bob. Or on Mr. Media.

ANDELMAN: Or on Mr. Media, exactly!

ZARR: But it’s been great. I know a lot of writers read my blog and a lot of librarians, too. If anyone out there writes a blog, you can start to think that the only people who read your blog are the ones who comment, and that might be like 12 people. And so you think, “I’ve got 12 readers. I can be pretty loose.” But I can’t tell you, when I’ve gone to national conferences like American Library Association and things like that, the number of people that come up and say, “I read your blog everyday,” and they’ve never commented. And then you have to multiply that by whatever factor. So you do want to kind of make sure you’re not coming across as a jerk.

ANDELMAN: Or worse. I maintain a couple of blogs, Mr. Media, of course, and then some other things, and I have cut back in what kind of information I’ll put up there about myself or things because, yes, you do realize that it’s going out to a lot of people you really have no control over, and there’s certain things you don’t want to share. It’s kind of an iffy thing. There are a lot of pros, but there are also a few cons that are creeping into it as well.

ZARR: I think another thing that writers need to think about is people involved in their career and who could have influence over their career reading their blog, and if you kind of get a reputation as someone who’s bitter or envious or kind of always talking bad about other writers or other books, it’s not really good for you. You need to find a trusted circle of friends to complain to but not to the whole entire world.

ANDELMAN: How have you celebrated the high marks in your career, whether finding out about the NBA award, the nomination, being a finalist there or getting that new contract for the next two books? Have you done anything special for yourself, your husband?

ZARR: Celebrating is not my strong point. I’m one of those people who always thinks when good things happen they’re going to get taken away any second. I think that’s just sort of a habit of childhood and the home I grew up in. I would like to learn how to celebrate these things because I tend to have a lot of stress and think I don’t deserve this or people are going to find out one day that I’m a complete fraud. That always taints my good experiences so I’m trying to learn to celebrate things. I’m very grateful for everything that happens. It’s more sort of a psychological thing. I sort of have a moment with myself and remind myself of all the years that I worked for it and wasn’t achieving it, and there is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes, but I don’t think I celebrate. I don’t know. Every day is a celebration, Bob. This is my problem with Valentine’s Day. I want to express to my husband that I love him everyday, and I’m sort of everyday really glad to have a writing career. I haven’t gone on any extravagant vacations or anything like that. Maybe someday when I make my first million, I’ll do something like that, but I think I’ve spent enough money on clothes getting ready for the National Book Awards to count as my celebration for a couple years.

ANDELMAN: You’re still in Salt Lake City, maybe not some people’s idea of where the author of Story of a Girl and Sweethearts might be living. Is that going to be a long-term point of residence for you, or are you going to migrate to the big city?

ZARR: I’m from the big city. I’m from San Francisco. I’ve been there and done that, and again, maybe when I make my first million, I could afford to go back. But I really love Salt Lake, and we’re here for my husband’s job, and as long as he’s happy with his job, then we’ll be happy here. I don’t know. It’s really all about his career in terms of where we live, and I’m happy to go anywhere, although with all the snow, I really wouldn’t want to go to the Midwest or the Northeast. But I’m flexible in terms of where I live just based on wherever his job takes him. And there are a lot of writers who live in Salt Lake, and it’s a pretty fun community. I set Sweethearts in Salt Lake because I love it so much, although my editor, when I first turned in a draft, kind of said, “I don’t know about Salt Lake as a national title, if that’s going to be a place people can relate to.” But we’re all just normal people here with the same life experiences and emotions that people outside of Utah have. So in the end, it did end up staying set in Salt Lake, which I’m very happy about.

What We Lost by Sara Zarr, Mr. Media Interviews

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[amazon_link id=”0316232181″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]ANDELMAN: So you think you’ll do more for the Chamber of Commerce in Salt Lake than perhaps you did for Pacifica?

ZARR: Maybe, maybe.

ANDELMAN: I kind of sense that you’re to Pacifica what David Simon is to Baltimore.

ZARR: I think, actually, people who live in Pacifica totally get it.

ANDELMAN: Right.

ZARR: And again, as I mentioned in our previous interview, it’s a great little place to live. I can see it, as an adult, that it’s a very appealing community, not so much for a teenager without a car, and I think people get it. They know I’m not hating on Pacifica or anything.

ANDELMAN: So what’s next? You’ve got a book that’s due in December 2008, and then you’ve got another one, I guess, what, a year after that?

ZARR: Yes, although I think maybe it’s 18 months after that because, as I mentioned, I wasn’t sure I could keep up the pace. So we kind of built some more time into my contract. And just living life. My husband’s in grad school so getting him through grad school and then, hopefully, Story of a Girl, the movie version, will happen. Since we talked, there’s officially a writer/director attached, and now that the writers’ strike is over, hopefully, that will move forward, and that would be really exciting to see as well.

ANDELMAN: Can you mention who the writer/director is?

ZARR: Yes, it’s Laurie Collyer, who wrote and directed SherryBaby, which was a really wonderful movie that had a few Golden Globe nominations the year it was out. I think she’s just kind of the right person for this movie so I was very happy to hear that she was involved.

ANDELMAN: That’s great. I was actually moving toward asking you about that, and, of course, because the movie was optioned, you are one…What did we decide? Are you one degree from Kevin Bacon?

ZARR: I think I might be two or possibly three.

ANDELMAN: Really?

ZARR: I’m not sure if the person who actually knows him is zero degrees or one degree. So I don’t know. I’ve met Kyra Sedgwick now so maybe that’s two degrees. I’m not sure.

ANDELMAN: What was that like? Where did you meet her, and what can you tell us about that?

ZARR: Oh, it was great. She just couldn’t be nicer and more normal, and it was really fun to talk about the book and imagine possibilities for the movie. And I’ve got nothing but excitement for that. It was very nerve-wracking. Before the actual meeting happened, I was probably more nervous than I’d been about anything else in this whole process. I just felt ill, but it was fine once it started.

ANDELMAN: When and where did you meet?

ZARR: We just met for coffee when I was in New York. I can’t give you details, Bob. I have to protect Kyra’s privacy.

ANDELMAN: Oh, of course you can. Who am I gonna tell? Who am I gonna tell? And what about Sweethearts? Is there any movie action on that?

ZARR: Not yet, although the woman who is Kyra Sedgwick’s production partner on Story of a Girl read and really enjoyed Sweethearts, and she also works as a scout for another production company and passing that on to them with her recommendations. So we’ll see.

ANDELMAN: Let me come back to Story of a Girl because I want to see if I can ask something in a roundabout way and get a different answer.

ZARR: I was not the school slut.

ANDELMAN: No, no, no, no. That wasn’t the question. But if you’re going to continue and insist that, I guess we’ll just have to accept it for now. The last time we spoke I had mentioned that I got to the end of Story of a Girl and felt like I really wanted to know what happened to Deanna Lambert. And so my question is: with Kyra Sedgwick’s production company, did they buy the rights to the book or the character?

ZARR: The book.

ANDELMAN: Okay.

ZARR: The work. That contract was probably twice as complicated as my publishing contract so I can’t tell you for sure all the different things that were included. There might be action figure rights involved. I don’t know, but the thing that’s optioned is the work.

ANDELMAN: Well, the reason I ask is that Tim Dorsey, who has done a series of Florida-based crazy action novels, funny, silly, Carl Hiaasen-type books, had said that his first book, he’s written eleven of them now, his first book was optioned, and that gave them the rights to all the characters to do, like if they wanted to do like a series of movies with a character, and so I’m looking for some way to find out what happens to Deanna Lambert. What can I say?

ZARR: Why don’t you write some fan fiction? You know about fan fiction, don’t you?

ANDELMAN: Yeah, but okay, but does Captain Kirk have to sleep with Deanna Lambert? That’s all I know about it.

ZARR: Yeah, and Spock is in there somehow I’m sure. Yes, you can write your own ending to that story.

ANDELMAN: Alright. So I guess the answer is that there’s no movement on a sequel to Story of a Girl.

ZARR: No.

ANDELMAN: Okay.

ZARR: And yes, that is the answer.

ANDELMAN: Alright. Well, there was one other thing that came up. Sweethearts, and we haven’t really talked about it that much, but it’s the story of these two kids who meet. I think they’re about nine years old.

ZARR: Yes, they meet in grade school so they know each other from probably age six or seven through nine.

ANDELMAN: Since we spoke the first time, of course, I’ve had the opportunity to read Sweethearts, I was thinking about it this morning, though. Have you seen any of the episodes of “Pushing Daisies”?

ZARR: No.

ANDELMAN: It’s interesting. It reminded me of it a bit. “Pushing Daisies” starts off with the story of this boy and girl, they’re about five or six years old, and they just know somehow that they’re meant for each other. Then something terrible happens, and they’re separated.

ZARR: Uh-oh.

ANDELMAN: And they find each other years and years later. I guess, technically, they’re like in their 20s, which is a little older than your two, and I just thought, “Wow.” There’s no connection between the two? I’m not saying one had anything to do with the other. It couldn’t possibly, but it reminded me of Sweethearts a lot.

ZARR: Are you accusing me of something here, Bob?

ANDELMAN: No, no, no, no, no. I wouldn’t do that at all. I wouldn’t do that at all, but I was curious whether you had seen the show, that’s all.

ZARR: No, I haven’t. And the funny thing is the inspiration for Sweethearts came from a real-life experience that I had with a childhood friend who then found me years later, and now we’re very good friends. And I think it’s interesting when that happens. My wanting to write Sweethearts was part of sort of an effort to understand how people who hadn’t seen each other since they were nine-years-old could meet again at 37 and still experience a strong bond and feel just easy together and like they’d known each other their whole lives.

 


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About Mr. Media® Interviews-Bob Andelman

Bob Andelman is the host and producer of Mr. Media® Interviews. He is also the author or co-author of 16 books, including The Wawa Way with Howard Stoeckel, Building Atlanta with Herman J. Russell, Fans Not Customers with Vernon W. Hill, founder of Commerce Bank and Metro Bank UK, Mind Over Business with Ken Baum, The Consulate with Thomas R. Stutler, The Profiler with Pat Brown, Built From Scratch with the founders of The Home Depot, The Profit Zone with Adrian Slywotzky, Mean Business with Albert J. Dunlap, and Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. Click here to see Bob Andelman's Amazon Central author page. He is a member in good standing of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (member page).