Author Interview: Sara Zarr on The Story of a Girl

Sara Zarr on Sara Zarr: “I grew up in San Francisco in the seventies, when lower-middle class people could actually afford to live there. I went to public school, played with kids in the neighborhood, and roamed all over the city with my sister, a bus pass, and little parental supervision!

“One of my favorite places was the public library. There’s a branch on 9th Avenue that has this enormous children’s room–almost a separate building, really–and I remember how empowering it was to fill out that little slip with a golf pencil.

“Around middle school we moved to Pacifica, a unique bedroom community of SF that is only twenty minutes away from the city but can feel like a different universe when you’re a teen with no car.

“After surviving high school, I went to San Francisco State, got married, and had a couple of short careers before really focusing on writing. My husband and I live in Salt Lake City now, which is pretty different from the Bay Area but we love it. And it has great libraries! (The Salt Lake City Public Library was just named “Library of the Year” by Library Journal.) At any given time we’ve got twenty or thirty library books around the house.”

What were you like as a young adult?

I had sort of a split personality in high school, as I’m sure a lot of people do. With my friends (who were mostly in the drama department), I was loud, brave, and funny–at least, I’m pretty sure I was funny. In unfamiliar surroundings or with kids who were above my social status as drama geek, I fell strangely silent and became self-conscious about everything I said/did/wore/thought and almost never took risks.

I’m pretty much the same way now, come to think of it! A total wallflower when I’m in a new or uncomfortable place, but with my friends I can get greedy for the spotlight.

What inspired you to begin writing for this audience?

I’ve always loved YA literature, from about age twelve right up to today. The author who really ignited my passion to write was Robert Cormier. My heart sort of stopped the first time I read The Chocolate War (1974)(excerpt), and I remember thinking yes, yes, this is how it is. Even if the situation in the story is extreme, there was that overwhelming “yes” in how I read it, that he nailed what it feels like to be in high school.

I know Cormier and that book especially continue to be controversial, but I was one of those readers who found solace in his unflinching look at the potential for evil, and the feeling of hopelessness that so often accompanies that transition from childhood into adulthood, the no-man’s land adolescence can feel like. I think my first attempts at writing were responses to Cormier’s books and the mood they put me in.

John Knowles’ A Separate Peace had a similar effect on me, and I also loved ME Kerr, Norma Fox Mazer (author interview), Judy Blume (author interview)…all those pioneers of contemporary young adult fiction.

As I got older, I never lost my love for YA, and every story that emerged from my own mind featured characters in that strange place that adolescence is. Someone (I can’t remember who) has said that childhood is like living in occupied territory. Adolescence is when you start to grope and grasp for your own piece of land outside of that, and the issues of identity that surround that are just ripe for stories.

I have to admit I’m not that conscious of my “audience.” I think every adult still has their inner teenager to grapple with, and the things I write about usually correlate in some way to things I still go through now at thirty-five.

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Oh, yes. Many, many stumbles! I could write a book. If someone had told me when I started that this would be a decade-long journey before I even got to the starting line, I don’t know if I could have persevered. (Usually it’s for the best that we can’t see the future!)

I started my first YA novel around 1995, and had a little sprint at the beginning when I landed a good agent with that manuscript. I expected it would take a few months to get going, and then I’d just sit back and watch the money roll in! It didn’t exactly happen like that. We had some interest in the book, but nothing that worked out. The market was a lot different back then–YA was pretty tough to sell while picture books were doing great, but the truth is that book wasn’t ready for publication.

Meanwhile, I wrote a second novel but was so overcome with fear and uncertainty at that time that I never showed it to my agent. In 2000, when we moved to Salt Lake, I started another book. My friend got me into a great writing group where I started to learn more about craft and took my writing more seriously. This breathed much needed new life into my dream. I finished the third novel, felt pretty excited about it, and sent it to my agent. This was December of 2001, I think. Six months passed. Still unsure of the author/agent dynamic, I didn’t want to “bother” my agent and waited patiently for word. During this time, I started my fourth book.

Eventually, my patience wore out and my agent and I ended our relationship. Within weeks of that, I was laid off from my job. It was summer of 2002, and the economy was suffering the after effects of 9/11. I had no job, no agent, and no prospects. There was a dark month of the soul wherein I questioned whether I should keep writing–maybe it was time to get a real career and invest myself elsewhere. I registered for a week-long writing workshop that summer and decided that at the end of that week I would know if I should give up or keep going.

The twenty pages I brought to that workshop were the beginnings of what would eventually be Story of a Girl. The responses from my teacher (Robert Clark) and my classmates were enough to convince me that I should keep going, and gave me the boost I needed to finish the book.

In early 2003, I began my search for a new agent. I did get a quick response from one big agency, but they saw some problems and requested a revision before deciding. The notes they sent were very good and the suggestions sounded right, so I embarked on a major revision and sent it back in July, assuming the next I heard from them would be an enthusiastic “yes.” While I waited, I submitted the revised book to the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Competition, which has a YA category every other year.

In September, still waiting to hear from the agency, I found out that Story of a Girl had taken first place in the UAC competition. This was another much needed validation that I wasn’t fooling myself about my abilities, and also confirmation that this book, these characters, had something special. So when the big agency sent me a “we like it but we don’t love it” rejection in January of 2004, the UAC prize kept me from falling too deeply into despair.

I chose to focus virtually all my energy in searching for an agent rather than a publisher, because I didn’t just want to publish a book. I wanted a career, and I wanted a partner who would help me develop that career, someone who would be an ally and, ideally, a friend.

By mid-2004, I’m pretty sure my query letters started to sound a little desperate. I just didn’t know why no one was biting—I had a good query letter and a prize-winning book, after all!

In October, I sent a query and some pages to Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. He was quick to respond, and I sent him the rest of the book. I had a good feeling based on our e-mail exchanges, but again months went by.

I registered for the SCBWI New York conference, which was in February 2005. I e-mailed Michael to let him know I’d be in town and I’d love to meet him in person if he wanted to get together to talk about the book. He agreed. When I walked into his office, I went in assuming he was on the fence about my book and that I had to win him over with my personality and somehow convince him, without seeming desperate, that he should sign me. The meeting went well, we hit it off, and when I got back to my hotel he had e-mailed me the agency agreements.

Michael had great instincts about the book. We did a revision together and in late April were ready to send it out. Things happened quickly, then—the first week of May, Jennifer Hunt at Little, Brown bought it in a two-book deal. Little, Brown has turned out to be the perfect place for me. I love working with Jennifer and everyone there, and Michael has turned out to be the perfect agent. So if that ten years was what it took for all the pieces to come together–the right book, the right agent, the right publisher and editor–then that’s how it had to happen.

Congratulations on your upcoming debut novel, The Story of a Girl (Little Brown, January 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this story?

When I finished my third book, there was a side character who sort of haunted me. Deanna was one of those characters you don’t plan for who seems to walk onto the page one day out of nowhere. It wasn’t just her–it was her and her brother and his pregnant girlfriend and their parents, who all seemed to have a story to tell.

A woman in my writing pointed out that there were some echoes of Carson McCullersMember of the Wedding in Deanna’s story, so I decided to explore that more–the ways we can fixate on a person or people who might save us from an existence that’s challenging us more than we’d like. Also, I wanted to write about a character who, at 16, already feels like she has a past. Adolescence is supposed to be when you’re moving towards a new beginning and getting ready to fly, but what if it felt more like you were already worn out and world-weary, that your whole future was more or less set?

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Original drafts of the story were very different. Deanna’s father had Gulf War Syndrome, and the central conflicts weren’t well defined. Basically there were too many things going on, which meant that none of them had the power that they could or should. I needed to hone in on Deanna’s longing for a certain kind of life, a certain kind of family, and focus on what was keeping her from that.

As for research, it didn’t take much. I spent ages 11-18 living in Pacifica, and my memories of what it felt like to live there and the kinds of people I saw every day are still vivid. Like Deanna, I worked at a pizza place in a strip mall, and even though I felt pretty optimistic about my future, I saw how so many working people in a town like that can feel trapped or in a self-perpetuating rut. Or, like Tommy in the book, they’re in a rut willingly and don’t really see anything wrong with it.

In terms of the psychological challenges: the events in the book are not at all autobiographical, but central to the story is the way we’re usually our own worst enemy, and I think that’s something everyone has felt.

We can talk about YA books offering hope, and how kids need self-esteem, and there is this strong “believe in yourself” message that kids get from various quarters.

But what happens when you look to yourself and you see something you don’t like–where is this self-esteem supposed to come from? I don’t believe you can just manufacture belief in yourself, or hope, though the power of positive thinking.

With Deanna, I wanted to take her into herself and have her want to have hope, and want to do what’s right, but come up against a wall the way that most of us do at some point in our lives. There had to be some external factors to help her out of the hole, because the truth is that sometimes we don’t have the inner resources.

That’s not to say that Deanna isn’t strong, and that her inner strength doesn’t help her at all, but ultimately it takes this little community of others to help her find what she’s looking for.

During the writing of the book there were challenges going on in my own life that turned out to be remarkably similar to Deanna’s. Telling her story became a way to help myself through that time. I missed the comfort of that when it was finished.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

The usual: you have to write, you have to read. And think about the big picture. Right now, the YA market is hot and it seems like people are making deals left and right. If you spend a lot of time reading blogs and hearing publishing gossip, you can feel like the only one in the world without a multi-book deal in the works and it’s easy to feel over the hill even if you’re only 25 or 26. But if you get caught up so much in making the deal, you’re going to forget (or never experience) the joy in the act of creation itself, and the magical moments when a character you didn’t expect comes to you or a plot turn surprises you, or how it feels to see yourself making vast improvements in the simple process of revision.

In the current climate, my advice would be to slow down. Even though I wouldn’t have chosen the ten-year plan for myself, now that I’ve lived it and have seen what it gave me, I wouldn’t trade it in for faster success.

What are some of your favorite recent YA reads?

Mary E. Pearson‘s A Room on Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005)(author interview)(recommendation) is an absolute gem—it explores some similar territory as Story of a Girl, and I love the quiet, poetic feel of it.

I loved Scrambled Eggs at Midnight by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler (Dutton, 2006)(co-authors interview).

E. Lockhart (author interview) has nailed some magical formula of fun, commercial fiction that is also true and good and moving. If she could bottle that, I’d buy.

Kirsten Smith’s The Geography of Girlhood (Little Brown, 2006) is a novel in verse that made me cry, and I’m also crazy about A Different Kind of Heat by Antonio Pagliarulo (Delacorte, 2006) and Tara Altebrando‘s Pursuit of Happiness (MTV, 2006)(excerpt).

There are so many, many YA books to discover and love. The market is just overflowing with amazing writers.

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

I love listening to music and discovering new music and live music. Being a novelist is well and good, but if I could pick my talent I’d be an awe-inspiring singer-songwriter. Either that or a filmmaker–I love movies and would go to one every day if I could afford to. My Netflix queue is a mile long. Cooking, blogging, and going out to lunch are also favorite pastimes.

What can your fans look forward to next?

If all goes according to plan, my next book with Little, Brown will be about childhood sweethearts who find each other again while in high school, only to discover that their lives have gone down drastically divergent paths in the intervening years.