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.
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, sarazarr.com, 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.