Author Interview: Sarah Dessen on Just Listen

Sarah Dessen on Sarah Dessen: “I was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1970, but moved to North Carolina when I was three, so I’ve always considered myself a Southerner. I am the only one in my family with an accent. My dad is a retired Shakespeare professor, my mother a retired classicist. Suffice to say I grew up in a house full of books, where reading was encouraged if not required. I hated high school. I was not the greatest student, participated in no activities, and spent most of my time hanging out in my parking lot. The entire time I couldn’t wait to get out and move on, and yet here I find myself, all these years later, spending a part of each day back in that world. I guess a lot more was happening than I realized.” Visit Sarah’s LJ.

What about the writing life first called to you? At first, were you quick to answer or did you run the other way?

I always loved to make up stories. When I was little, I had a dollhouse I loved, and I made up an entire genealogy for the family that lived in it: personalities, marriages, divorces, everything. I taught myself to type when I was about eleven, on a manual typewriter I set up on a little desk in our TV room. I’d sit there every day, writing my little stories about my dollhouse people, or the Revolutionary War (which I was obsessed with for most of fifth grade, thanks to my teacher, Mrs. Weir.) In school, writing was the only thing that really came naturally to me, but it wasn’t until college that I realized that I could do it for more than just fun. Again, I have great teachers to thank for that. Still, it’s always been hard to call myself a writer. I think a part of me still thinks it’s too good to be true.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I actually sort of fell into it backwards. My first book, That Summer (originally published by Orchard Books, reissued by Viking Children’s Books in 2006) was actually the third book I wrote, and I just used a teen narrator because that was how the story came to me. I didn’t intend for it be YA. My agent, however, felt it was, and at first I was hesitant, because I was worried about being pigeonholed and never being able to write anything else. She told me to trust her, and I am so glad I did. Clearly, this is where I am meant to be.

For those just discovering your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

I’ve published seven books: That Summer (Orchard, 1996, reissue by Viking Children’s Books, 2006), Someone Like You (Viking, 1998), Keeping the Moon (Viking, 1999), Dreamland (Viking, 2000), This Lullaby (Viking 2002), The Truth About Forever (Viking 2004), and Just Listen (Viking 2006). My first two novels were made into the film “How To Deal,” which was released in 2003 and starred Mandy Moore and Allison Janney.

Congratulations on the success of Just Listen (Viking, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I was really intrigued with the idea of appearances, and the assumptions we make based on them. When I was in high school, I was always really envious of those girls who seemed to have everything: the perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect boyfriend, perfect life.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that nobody’s life is perfect, and that those girls probably had a lot of the same problems I did.

Just before I wrote Just Listen, I was doing a program at a school and while I was waiting, I flipped through this yearbook that had been left out on a table nearby. I found this picture in the senior page section of these three beautiful girls, obviously sisters, posing by a swimming pool. And even then, at 34, I was like, “Wow, their lives must be just great.” Which kind of horrified me: it was like I hadn’t learned anything. The book sort of began right there.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I started the book in the fall of 2004. I’d had a couple of misfires, book-wise (which always happens to me, not everything I write works) so I was feeling really unsure, and was nervous also about following up The Truth About Forever.

Writing Just Listen was really hard for me. It was slow going, and I kept going back and rewriting constantly, worrying over it. I finished it in late April, and I still wasn’t sure it was good enough to send off to my agent. I almost just stuck it in a drawer. But then I got up my nerve and sent it. I’m so glad I did! It just goes to show how you can really lose perspective if you work too hard on something.

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

As I said, it was a tough process. I think with every book now I worry so much about following up the one before it, and also about pleasing my readers, who are so eager for each novel, and wait so patiently. (I publish about every two years, which I think is slow for YA.) I don’t want to let them down. Plus, I was teaching, and grading papers, and just pushing myself really hard…it wasn’t fun. I swore to myself when I finally sold Just Listen that I wouldn’t put myself through that again. Writing isn’t supposed to be fun every day, but it shouldn’t make you miserable, either.

I loved what you said at ALAN 2006 about writing stories of girls who had romantic interests but also more going on in their lives. Could you expand on this?

It kind of bothers me when my books are categorized as strictly “romance” because I like to think there’s more going on than just a love story. I mean, don’t get me wrong: love stories are great, I’m a total sucker for a happy ending. But when I was in high school, even though boyfriends and relationships were a big part of my life, there were always a lot of other things going on as well: family issues, conflicts with my friends, academic pressure, working a job. I think if you’re going to show a true representation of any one life, it can’t be about any one thing. I try to see more of a full picture, with the romance just a single part.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

I think the most important thing is just to write. It sounds so simple, but sometimes it’s not. You can get so distracted—by having to work other jobs, or what other people have to say about your writing—but the one thing that really matters is that you just keep going, especially when you’re working on a novel. It’s so easy to get discouraged and give up. I have days when the absolute last thing I want to do is drag myself upstairs to my office, when I think I will die if I have to face my book, and all its problems, again. But sometimes, those are the days you break through, and you’d never have that great day if you didn’t force yourself into the chair and just begin.

How about those building a career?

I think having a good agent is key. I’ve been with mine for ten years now, and she’s very honest with me. There are a lot of times I’ve sent her books that were not so good because I was tired of writing, or panicked about money, and she’s told me flat out, “You don’t want this to be your next book. Trust me.” And she’s been right. The books that came after were always better, and those are ones I’m proud to see in print. It’s really scary, I think, to keep writing when you feel like you’ve failed, or you’re exhausted, or you’ve just put your heart and soul into a story that just wasn’t meant to be. But ten years in, I don’t look back at any of my books and feel embarrassed, or wish my name wasn’t on them. And for that, I’m very grateful.

As a New York Times bestselling author (hooray!), do typical writer insecurities fade away, do you feel more pressure, or are you able to separate all that from your own creative process?

I think it’s an added pressure, for sure, as I said above. I mean, I want this next book to be just as good as Just Listen, if not better. But I think the time to really worry about the reviews and everything else is when it’s done. When I’m working on a book, I have to really just focus on the story, and nothing else. Otherwise I’ll make myself nuts. That’s one reason I don’t talk about my books while I’m writing them: not even my husband knows what a novel’s about until it’s done. I just like knowing something is all mine, on the good days and the bad days. I’m sure there will come a time when I completely fall apart worrying. But it’s not helpful while I’m writing.

As a reader, what are your fave YAs of 2006 and why?

I really liked John Green‘s An Abundance of Katherines (Dutton, 2006). I was a huge fan of Looking for Alaska (Dutton, 2005), and was impressed with how he did a follow up that had the same kind of humor in places but yet was totally different in terms of characters and plot. I also liked Frank Portman‘s King Dork (Delacorte, 2006) and Tanya Lee Stone‘s A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl (Wendy Lamb Books, 2006)(author interview). To be honest, I’m really behind on my reading right now, as I tend not to read YA when I’m working on a book. But once I’m done, I’ll get caught up. I hope!

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Well, I’m a pop culture junkie—as anyone who reads my blog knows—and I do love television. These days I’m pretty much obsessed with “Veronica Mars” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Basically, my life is pretty boring. I live in the country, I hang out with my dogs, I make deviled eggs. I used to worry I was entirely uninteresting, but the truth is I think if my life was more exciting I’d never have any time to write. So maybe this is a good thing. I hope so, anyway.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Well, I am at work on a book, so hopefully I’ll have something out before too long. I’ve done a lot of promotion and traveling in this last year. I’m hoping 2007 will be all about quiet, and writing. We’ll see.

Cynsational Notes

Picture perfect: Sarah Dessen explores what drives today’s teens: interview by Julie Hale from BookPage. May 2006.

Which Sarah Dessen Character are you? A quiz from Sarah’s official author site.