Monday, February 4, 2008

Sweethearts Blog Tour: Interview with Sara Zarr

I recently had the opportunity to read and review an advanced reader copy of Sweethearts and interview the author, Sara Zarr. Her first novel, Story of a Girl , was a 2007 National Book Award Finalist, and I predict her second novel, Sweethearts, will win even more. It's truly amazing...See my review here.

A special thanks to Sara for so thoughtfully answering my questions:
The Well-Read Child (TWRC): In Story of a Girl, Deanna is an outcast at school, and in Sweethearts, Jenna and Cameron were both school outcasts when they were younger, all for different reasons. Why have you chosen to make your main characters unpopular kids who've faced some very tough situations in life? Are you basing these characters on people you've known in your own life?

Sara Zarr (SZ): The older I get and the more conversations I have with people about the experience of adolescence, the more I realize that virtually everyone feels like an outcast at some point in their childhood or teen years---even the kids we look at from the outside and identify as popular or as fitting in. I definitely felt that way, even though I didn’t personally experience any prolonged or extreme ostracizing. That feeling, whether or not it’s based in reality, seems so universal…almost biologically innate. I’m interested in exploring that feeling, so my stories tend to externalize it to make it more concrete. From the concrete I can delve into the more abstract and emotional parts of it. So to answer the latter part of your question: yes and no. I based those feelings of isolation on my own experience and what I’ve observed in others, but neither Jenna/Jennifer nor Deanna were based on anyone real.

TWRC: How did the idea for Sweethearts come to you?
SZ: I did have a little boyfriend in grade school---Mark---who left a ring and note in my lunch bag one day. Years later, when I was an adult, he found me online and we got back in touch via email. Considering how young we were when we knew each other, I found (and find) it strange and mysterious that we still share a meaningful connection. It got me thinking about that inexplicable kind of bonding that can happen between some children, and I wondered if Mark and I had gone to the same junior high and high school if that bond would have held---if we still would have been friends, if we would have dated, and just how strong that loyalty would really be in the face of the normal changes friendships go through between childhood and adolescence, but we never had because we lost touch between second grade and age thirty. So the book started by exploring that “what if” and going from there.

TWRC: As I was reading Sweethearts, I felt that I was peering into Jenna's soul and actually feeling what she was feeling. I felt a lump in the pit of my stomach as she relived that terrifying day at Cameron's house, and I could actually feel her anger and confusion and heartache when Cameron came back. As you were writing the book, how did you manage to so successfully convey her thoughts and feelings?

SZ: First of all, thanks, because that’s a great compliment! Every writer hopes to draw readers into the character’s world and let them experience the emotions, too. Second, I have no idea how I did it. It’s just something that happened in the process of rewriting and rewriting, and my editor kept pushing, saying that for the bond to be believable the reader really, really had to feel it with Jenna or else the whole story wouldn’t work. So there was a lot at stake if I didn’t get it right!

TWRC: What is your favorite scene in Sweethearts?
SZ: I have a few, but the one that jumps to mind (maybe because it’s cold and snowy right now) is the scene with Jenna and Cameron on the porch in the early morning hours after a snowfall. I grew up in San Francisco where there was no snow, and even though I’ve lived in Utah seven years now I still think those first few snowfalls of the season are so magical and romantic. I wanted to set the book during the transition from fall to winter just so I could have a snow scene!

TWRC: Do you identify with any of the characters in the book?
SZ: Oh, definitely. There’s a lot of me in Jenna. I used food throughout my childhood and young adulthood the way she does, and I’ve always wanted to explore that in a story without making it a story about an eating disorder. And I’ve been the fat kid, and have lost weight, and experienced that dissonance of carrying around the fat emotions in a different body. Having grown up in a household with alcoholism, I also identify with her feelings of needing to be in control and feeling like something bad could happen at any second.

TWRC: What do you hope your readers get out of Sweethearts?
SZ: The most important thing is that they have a great and hopefully satisfying reading experience.

TWRC: Why do you write young adult books? Have you ever thought about writing for other age groups?
SZ: I don’t know, really. When ideas for stories come into my head, they’re always about teenagers. Even when an idea for a story with adults comes to mind, I immediately start thinking how to tell it with teen characters. It’s kind of a mystery. I do hope to have a long career during which I can try a lot of different things, so we’ll see.

TWRC: Where do you write?
SZ: Wherever…the couch, at a desktop computer, home, my office. I don’t tend to need a particular setting as long as I’m comfortable and clear-headed.

TWRC: What other books or authors have influenced you the most?
SZ: My favorite authors when I got into YA were Robert Cormier, Madeleine L’Engle, M.E. Kerr, Brock Cole, Han Nolan. I also love Anne Tyler and Jonathan Franzen and Nathanael West. I’d love to write a novel someday that is as heartbreaking and funny as something of Anne Tyler’s. I think I have heartbreaking down, but I’d like to be able to have more of that kind of “aren’t we humans stupidly funny?” humor that Tyler does so well, because that’s more true to my core personality. My books might leave people with the impression that I am carrying around a big old load of angst all the time, but the truth is I love to laugh and am fairly easy going.

TWRC: What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
SZ: I’ve got an essay in an anthology on body image coming out this fall. It’s called Does This Book Make Me Look Fat? and in my essay I explore some of the stuff I mentioned about my relationship with food and body. And I’m working on a third book for Little, Brown but it’s too soon to talk about that yet---don’t want to jinx myself!

Thanks so much Sara for taking the time to talk about Sweethearts.

Other stops on the tour:
(I'll be updating throughout the week, so let me know if I've missed you!)
January 28: Kate Messner
February 1: Shelf Elf
February 4th: The Well-Read Child
February 5th: Big A little a
February 6th: Interactive Reader

Other blog reviews:
A Patchwork of Books
Big A little a
Bookshop Girl
Charlotte's Library
Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Kate Messner
Kids Lit
Teen book review
The Page Flipper
Young Adult (&Kids) Book Central
Shelf Elf