Sunday, December 13, 2009

Interview With Author Sara Zarr

A few days ago I had the oportunity to interview Sara Zarr, an author who has just released her third novel for teens, Once Was Lost. Her first two novels, Story of a Girl and Sweethearts, are not only critically acclaimed but popular reading among teens as well. Story of a Girl was in fact a ribbon-winning finalist in the 2007 National Book Awards. Her latest novel, Once Was Lost, takes on matters of faith in the life of a  pastor's teenage daughter in a very real but flawed family and world.

Thanks for taking time to chat with me, Sara. Before I ask about the books, could you just tell us a bit about yourself? Family, a little background?

I grew up in San Francisco in the seventies---it was a really interesting place and time in which to be raised. My parents were both creative people who met in music school; my sister and I played instruments throughout childhood and adolescence. By the end of high school I was more interested in writing and theater than in music, but when I went into college I didn't feel like I had "permission" (from myself, I guess) to go into creative writing. I started as an English major, hated it, and switched to Organizational Communication. I didn't start seriously pursuing writing until I was about 25, then it took ten years before I sold my first novel.

 What did you like to read when you were younger? Were there any authors or books that you feel influenced your own writing or your desire to write?

When I became an independent reader and through about age twelve, I loved all kinds of books: fantasy, historical fiction, science fiction, realistic fiction. Once I got into junior high, I was much more interested in realistic fiction, I think because I wanted some kind of understanding or company as I went through all the complicated things you start going through in junior high and high school. I remember a few books in particular that stuck with me and made me want to write: A Separate Peace by John Knowles, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, I Stay Near You by ME Kerr. I liked the way those authors seemed to get complex emotional experiences right.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer? What made you take this path? And why write books targeting teens?

Writing was something I'd wanted to do from way back, and always had pieces of stories and ideas written in journals, but it wasn't until after college I got brave enough to give it a serious try. There was never any question that I wanted to write young adult fiction. It wasn't so much a conscious choice. Every story I thought of had a teenage character and was set in a high school environment---it's just my natural writing voice. Once I got serious, I wrote three complete novels without any tangible success...a lot of rejection, a lot of discouragement, and some near-success experiences. Then I wrote the book that became my first published novel, Story of a Girl.

I read that your first book, Story of a Girl, was a National Book Award finalist. Congratulations.  I'm sure that was an exciting experience.

Thank you---it really was exciting, and an honor. I couldn't have asked for a better start to my career.

What prompted you to write Once Was Lost?

In summer 2002, a girl named Elizabeth Smart here in Salt Lake City went missing. It was a case that got national and international attention, and definitely dominated the news locally. 2002 wasn't a great year---9/11 wasn't that far behind us, the war in Iraq was gearing up, the economy was bad, and it seemed like the country was generally depressed and tired of bad news. I know I was. Smart's kidnapping was another tragedy piled on top of tragedy on top of tragedy. I was working at a church at the time, and also attending my own church regularly, and very saturated in this faith that said God was good and loved us. Yet I found myself feeling extremely hopeless and cynical about all of it, unable to find any comfort. All of my experiences and feelings began to take shape as a story---a kidnapping in a small town seen through the eyes of this pastor's daughter who was asking the same kinds of questions I was.

It seems like most books that deal with ministers and their families fall into two widely divided camps: the super-Christian, squeaky-clean type where the pastor has all the right answers and acts according to what-would-Jesus-do; or the side where it's all negative with sham, pretense, power-hunger and phony hypocrisy. You didn't take either side, instead presenting a more honest, real-life family.  I know you didn't grow up as a PK, but did you put some of yourself and those you knew into the characters?

I didn't grow up as a PK, but my mother was the secretary of the church I grew up in, and I spent a lot of time there. And I worked as a church secretary myself for about three years. So I've had a long time to see church culture from the inside, both as a kid/teen and as an adult. In all of my church experiences, the pastors and members were all just regular people, sincerely trying to live their faith in a complicated world. I was lucky in that I never was in a community where phoniness or hypocrisy were the norm. That isn't to say people weren't flawed, or never made bad decisions, never acted wrongly, never hurt anyone, never spoke an insincere word. There were always a few people sprinkled in who were difficult, or self-righteous and overly focused on outward shows of piety. But all in all people were a lot like Sam's dad and others in the book: making sincere efforts, but usually falling short, as we humans tend to do. When I was a teen, I never found a young adult novel that portrayed faith as this kind of normal, everyday, up and down thing. As you say, it was always one extreme or another. I wanted to write about a family that had the kind of faith I was familiar with: sincere, but complicated.

 I'm going to make a little confession here. I'm 57, but in so many ways I could identify with Sam. I remember my own feelings and conflicts when I was a teen, as well as those of my close friends. And I found myself crying as I reflected on the story after I finished reading. So do you hope to appeal to just teens or more?

I always say my books are for teenagers and anyone who's ever been a teenager. I don't think you ever forget what it felt like to be fourteen or fifteen or sixteen, feeling unsure about your identity, feeling frustrated with your family as you start to develop independence from it, wanting to hold on to some of the things from childhood while at the same time wanting to strike out on your own. I've got a lot of adult fans, and I'm happy to have them.

What do you hope the readers will take away with them after reading Once Was Lost?

My first hope as a writer, always, is that any reader just comes away with a great reading experience---that the characters and situations feel real to them, that when they finish the book they think, wow, that was good, and, hopefully, that they're still thinking about it for a while after they finish. There's other stuff to take away in the book (and in all my books), depending on what experiences and ideas a reader has. On one level, the book is a mystery. It's also a family drama. There's also plenty there to think about in terms of faith, and how faith changes as you transition from childhood to adulthood---that could be religious faith, or faith in family, faith in one's identity, faith in the basic goodness and safety of the world. Some of the things I thought about as I wrote the book, questions I was interested in exploring, were: Is any situation/relationship beyond hope? Can you ever really say "it's too late"? If so, how do you know when?

What stories are you working on now or have ready to go?

I'm working on my fourth young adult novel. I can't say too much at this point, but it's got two narrators from very different worlds. It should be out in 2011.

 Thanks once again for agreeing to do this interview with me. I know our readers will be interested in knowing more about you. Is there anything else you'd like to share before we part?

I love to hear from readers, and I always reply eventually. Anyone should feel welcome to drop by my web site,, where I blog regularly about writing and life and faith and a lot of other random stuff. I'm on a blogging break for Advent, but will be picking it up again after the New Year. Thanks so much for having me!

Good-bye for now. I hope you and your husband enjoy this Christmas-time together.

Thank you; you, too.

1 comment:

David Meigs said...

Excellent review and interview. Awesome!