Author Interview: Sara Ryan on The Rules for Hearts

Sara Ryan on Sara Ryan: “I write books and comics for teens and others. I’m also a librarian.”

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

The Rules for Hearts is my second novel, and it came out in April from Viking. My first, Empress of the World, came out in 2001, and honestly, it’s funny that you used those phrases, because after Empress, there was a stumble of about three years’ duration, and then a sprint.

Shortly after Empress was published, I wrote an entire manuscript–several drafts, in fact–and then threw it out. It was my first attempt to tell my protagonist Battle’s story, and it became increasingly clear that it was simply the wrong story. It wasn’t what happened. As soon as I knew that in my gut, around the spring of 2005, I dragged the old manuscript to the trash and started writing Rules. Fortunately, I have an extremely patient editor!

Congratulations on the release of The Rules for Hearts (Viking, 2007)! Could you fill us in on the story?

Thank you! I’m thrilled, as you might infer from my answer to your first question.

In Rules, Battle Hall Davies moves to Portland, Oregon for the summer before she starts at Reed College. What she wants: to reconnect with her brother Nick, whom she hasn’t seen since he ran away four and a half years ago. What she gets is more complicated: a room in Forest House, a part in a Theater Borealis production, and immersion in a world of strong personalities, mixed signals, lies, and–finally–truth.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the book?

After I wrote Empress of the World, I knew that Battle Hall Davies–who’s the love interest in Empress–needed her own voice. In Empress, we only see her through her girlfriend Nicola Lancaster’s eyes–beautiful, compelling, ultimately inexplicable. But of course, that’s not how Battle sees herself.

I also knew that Battle’s brother meant a lot to her. I wanted to see how he compared to the vision of him she built up in his absence from her life.

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

Great question! Someone asked me, while I was working on Rules, what the biggest difference was between being a first-time author and writing a second book. I said, “The weight of expectations.” That was a huge challenge, and I think it’s one that a lot of authors share.

Three more challenges:

1. Getting Battle’s voice right. Nicola’s voice in Empress of the World is not far off from my own, and I share Nic’s tendency to over-analyze both myself and everyone else within range. But Battle isn’t like that, and it took me some time to figure out how to make her voice feel true. That was one of many places where my editor, Sharyn November, was especially helpful. She helped me to see that Battle is much more comfortable in her body than Nic is, and so she experiences the world in a more immediately physical way.

2. Writing a believable (if dysfunctional) sibling relationship. One of the most important relationships in Rules is the one between Battle and her brother Nick, but I’m an only child, so I don’t have any firsthand experience. So any time I was in the company of siblings, I paid close attention to their dynamic. When I was writing the scenes with Battle and Nick, I tried to convey a complicated combination of love, loyalty, teasing, worry and exasperation on Battle’s part.

3. Revealing what happens with Battle and Nicola Lancaster’s relationship after the end of Empress of the World. I’m fortunate enough to have lots of fans who were eager for Rules to be the next chapter in Battle and Nic’s blissful romance. But (SPOILER ALERT) I knew that the truth of Nic and Battle’s relationship was more complicated. They’ll always be important to each other, but the roles they play in each other’s lives have shifted, and may shift again.

On the less-challenging side, research was relatively easy, as I took the lazy writer’s way out of setting the story in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I’m a little worried that the Pittock Mansion folks might track me down and demand an explanation, but aside from that…

Could you tell us about your comic writing and how the two worlds intersect?

Well, I can’t draw, but I love writing comics. So I am super lucky to be in Portland, Oregon, which is chock full of cartoonists. And I’m closely affiliated with Periscope Studio (as a matter of fact, I’m at the studio as I type this) which means that I’m surrounded by seriously talented artists, or as I like to think of them, potential collaborators.

Portland is also a center of zine culture, and I’ve taken kind of a DIY zine-style approach with some of my comics work (though I’ve also had comics published in Cicada Magazine and in a Hellboy anthology from Dark Horse). I attend a fair number of comics and zine conventions, and it’s nice to have my short comics available as little chapbooks.

As for how the worlds intersect, I actually have a couple of comics stories about characters who are also in my novels. “Me and Edith Head,” illustrated by Steve Lieber, is about Katrina Lansdale, Battle and Nic’s good friend in Empress of the World. It takes place before Empress happens, and it’s about how Katrina develops her interest in costumes. Another story, “Click,” illustrated by Dylan Meconis, is about Battle’s senior year of high school, between Empress and Rules. It’s why Battle won’t be attending any high school reunions. You can find both of them on my website.

You’re also a librarian! Wow, how do you do it all?

Um, I’m not sure! But it helps tremendously that I feel connected to a very supportive community of writers and artists, and an equally supportive community of librarian colleagues in the Young Adult Library Services Association.

What do you do when you’re not writing or connecting books to young readers?

I am a thrift-store-and-estate-sale addict. Also, I try to restrain my cat’s appetite for destruction.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were a beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I would tell myself something that Sharyn told me numerous times during the process of working on both Empress and Rules: It will take as long as it takes.

Do you have any thoughts on contemporary YA fiction more specifically? How about stories with GLBTQ characters or themes?

This may sound a little starry-eyed, but I think writers should tell the stories that they’re passionate about, and then worry about whether or not publishers will be receptive. I honestly believe that publishers–and readers–will respond to a powerful story. And if you let the fear that publishers won’t be receptive to your controversial themes (GLBTQ or other) stop you from telling your story, how will we get more great stories that include those themes?

What can your fans look forward to next?

I don’t know yet! More comics and more novels, certainly, but watch my website for specifics.