“Officially: I have been an aerobics instructor, physical therapist, and religious school principal. I received my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College in July 2006. Currently, I work for Jewish Lights Press in Woodstock, Vermont. Head Case (Roaring Brook, 2007) is my first novel.
“Unofficially: I drink too much coffee and spend too much time on the telephone. I’m getting married in late December. I could probably quit my day job, if I didn’t have to pay for haircare and shoes. My year will be perfect if the book inspires people to have greater respect and empathy for people living with disabilities.”
Visit Sarah at MySpace!
Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?
Does anyone make it to publication without a stumble or two? I began writing seriously about seven years ago, after a friend encouraged me to try writing for children. That was all the encouragement I needed! At the time, I had just left physical therapy, and was looking for something creative. Like a lot of other writers, I started with picture books, then worked my way to longer manuscripts. The first time I hit page 100, I threw myself a party, complete with caviar!
I wrote four “practice” novels before writing Head Case. I accumulated a huge stack of positive rejections. I am so grateful to everyone who read that work.
My future editor, Deborah Brodie, was the first to suggest I apply to one of the MFA programs. Even though I was newly divorced and totally broke, I applied. Her comment rang true. I needed to learn more about the craft of writing. When I was admitted to Vermont College, I had a feeling that it was going to change my writing life.
I was right. VC was just what I needed. My advisors, faculty, and friends supported and guided me as I studied. I began to read more and more. Head Case was the first novel I brought to VC. I acquired an agent during my first semester, and he sold the novel shortly afterwards.
Note to all aspiring writers:
The second editor who read Head Case did not like it at all. Had we listened to her, we would have never submitted it again. We all need reminders that editors are readers, and like us, they have preferences. Finding your perfect editor is like a scavenger hunt. I’m so glad my agent believed in the manuscript enough to send it out again.
Congratulations on the publication of Head Case (Roaring Brook, 2007)! Could you fill us in on the story?
Head Case is the story of Frank Marder, a seventeen year old who sustains a complete spinal cord injury after causing a fatal car accident. He was drunk. Two people die. The novel follows his first eight weeks home from the hospital and his journey toward forgiveness.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s The Scarlet Letter (1850). I asked myself: who was today’s Hester Prynne? In today’s young adult world, what is the most unforgivable crime? I decided that vehicular manslaughter–especially driving under the influence of alcohol–was something a community would have a hard time forgiving. The “A” was his wheelchair.
As a physical therapist, I had worked with people with head and spinal cord injuries. I was always impressed and inspired by the spirit and determination of my patients and their families. But that didn’t mean I could skip the research. I talked to therapists and doctors. I went onto chat rooms and listened to what people with spinal cord injuries were talking about. I was also lucky enough to speak to Christopher Reeve, who gave me great insight into living with a spinal cord injury…in the spotlight.
What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?
I started the novel on May 9, 2004. (I know this because my son’s appendix was removed the day before. We were stuck in the hospital for five days.)
My first draft was in delineated prose. I captured emotions, moments, and observations without worrying about connecting the dots.
With Kathi, I focused on emotion. With Jane, I revised the book into prose. It was a tremendous leap for me, but one that paid off.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
There were so many. First, I needed to become an authentic boy. His voice and raw sense of humor came first, and luckily, that I never questioned.
Structure was a big challenge, too. When I began drafting, I wasn’t sure how the legal aspects of the story would fit into the novel. I talked to many judges and lawyers. At one point, I actually structured the entire book around his trial. (I’m a huge “Law & Order” fan.)
Once I knew that he would not go to jail, I began to think about his life after discharge. What would his home be like? How would his family react? When someone is injured, it affects many people. I challenged myself to re-imagine the plot from many points of view.
Then, I had to deal with the idea of paralysis. And what that would be like. And how I was going to impart that reality to readers.
As I say on the jacket of the book: I never set out to show people what it is like to sustain a spinal cord injury. I wanted to explore a character who felt trapped and labeled, a character who needed to rise above society’s judgments, forgive himself and move beyond his mistakes.
As I revised, I needed breaks from Frank. Being in the head of a completely paralyzed character was challenging and exhausting. In between drafts, I tried writing something from the omniscient point of view. I’m sure I wasn’t the easiest person to live with!
What about the young adult audience appeals to you?
It is a time of change, a period of calamity. I think my natural voice is about seventeen.
What is it like, being a debut author in 2007?
Exciting! 2007 has been a great year for YA fiction. Meeting people who have read the book has been humbling. Every day, I hear from people committed to giving books to kids, many with tragic stories of their own.
And there are so many great books being published! It’s such an honor to be included.
I’m really excited that Every 15 Minutes is recommending Head Case to students. They are a great organization dedicated to preventing drunk driving.
What has been your social-professional experience in the children’s-YA writing community? Who has made a difference for the better and how?
We have a great community, don’t we? I am so grateful to my friends, who stand by me, read my work, and listen to me debate politics, writing style, and where to buy a wedding dress!
I joined the Class of 2k7 and we had a lot of fun banding together to market our novels. It was a lot of fun! Every day, there is something to cheer for. It is a talented, supportive group.
Besides the Class, many writers have taken an interest in me and have been so supportive. I’m so grateful to my writing group and my friends and faculty at Vermont College–especially my very brave advisors: Kathi Appelt (author interview), Jane Resh Thomas, Margaret Bechard, and Tim Wynne-Jones (author interview). And people like you, Cyn, who help new writers get found.
I’m part of a VC blog on livejournal, called Through the Tollbooth. Special thanks to them–especially for covering me, when I forgot it was my week!
If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?
Don’t get stuck on one story or one point of view.
Don’t be afraid to put your work in a drawer and move on.
Get an MFA.
Don’t worry about trends.
You also work for Jewish Lights. What is your role in the company? Could you tell us about it?
I sell books to Jewish and Christian bookstores. I also organize special sales directly to synagogues. I like to sell books in bulk!
What advice do you have for fellow writers?
My advice to all writers:
Think about programs that your book can support. Ask yourself who wants to read about the characters or situation in your book. Make it easy for consumers to use your book as part of a program. Write a reader’s guide. Create a curriculum.
And even with the rise in Amazon, do not forget your independent bookseller. These people handsell books every day. They identify consumers. They read! Also most people, no matter where they buy a book, buy it because they have seen it on a shelf.
How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?
Balance? Sometimes, the best I can do is wish for it!
No, really, many things have had to be tabled. I haven’t participated in a school committee for three years. I don’t lunch the way I used to. One of these days, I’ll clean off my desk.
What do you do when you’re not in the book world?
I love going to the movies. And watching football. I walk a lot and am guilty of buying too many shoes, nice dresses. and good leather bags.
What can your fans look forward to next?
I am working on the (hopefully) last draft of Can’t Let Go, a novel that examines the aftermath of a young woman’s attempted suicide.