Allison's Book Bag

Inspiration Behind Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

Posted on: May 28, 2014

Although I just reviewed it this past fall, I recently took Story of a Girl off my shelves again to reread for the umpteenth time because I’m currently doing a round-up of Sara Zarr’s books. Because there would be little point in my reviewing Story of a Girl a second time, I thought instead I’d share some information about how the novel came about.

Story of a Girl is Zarr’s first novel, one which earned the National Book Award. It’s also one of Zarr’s least autobiographical books. There’s no particular incident that it’s based on. Instead it’s a story that started with a side character who walked onto the page of Zarr’s third book.

While between projects, Zarr decided she wanted to write more about this side character. Deanna’s voice, her attitude, her vulnerability, and her toughness were all right there from the start. It was just a matter of building a story around her.

To write about Deanna, Zarr thought about the type of girl she knew in junior high and high school, the one who was always the subjects of crazy rumors and gossip. Even back then, Zarr used to think, “That can’t really be true. I wonder what the real story is….”

One day, Zarr imagined Deanna watching the Nova special “The Miracle of Life” in her high school health class. Although the scene got cut in the early draft stages, imagining Deanna’s thoughts about the film was the beginning of learning Deanna’s voice.

Zarr knew she had an older brother whose girlfriend was pregnant. She knew Deanna came from a working class family. She knew the relationship with her father was strained. From there, the novel evolved.

However, it wasn’t just Deanna’s voice Zarr heard. Deanna’s brother, his pregnant girlfriend, and their parents all seemed to have a story to tell. There were too many things going on, which meant that none of them had the power that they could or should. It took multiple versions for Zarr to figure out how to hone in on Deanna’s longing for a certain kind of life and family and to focus on what was keeping Deanna from having them. Actually, Zarr’s  handling of Deanna’s story reflects her worldview—that nobody is innocent, and it’s very rare that one person or circumstance is completely to blame.

The novel needed refinement in other ways too. For example, the central conflict between Deanna and her father was more about him being depressed and emotionally absent than about anything specific. The writing got easier only after Zarr had a specific incident, that of Deanna’s father finding his thirteen-year-old daughter in the back seat of a car with a high school boy, on which to anchor the family turmoil. Another example is that of Tommy. For Zarr, making him into a real person and not just a cardboard cutout of “bad boy” was one of the more challenging and enjoyable parts of the writing process.

As for research, unlike in some of her subsequent novels which have been inspired by real events, it didn’t take much. Zaarr had spent her teen years living in Pacifica, the setting for Story of a Girl. Like Deanna, she also worked at a pizza place in a strip mall. Moreover, even though Zarr herself had felt pretty optimistic about her future, she had also seen how so many working people in a town like Pacifica can feel trapped or in a self-perpetuating rut. Finally, in terms of the psychological challenges, Zarr explains that central to the story is the way we’re usually our own worst enemy, which is something everyone has felt.

We can talk about YA books offering hope, and how kids need self-esteem, and there is this strong “believe in yourself” message that kids get from various quarters.

But what happens when you look to yourself and you see something you don’t like–where is this self-esteem supposed to come from? I don’t believe you can just manufacture belief in yourself, or hope, though the power of positive thinking.

With Deanna, I wanted to take her into herself and have her want to have hope, and want to do what’s right, but come up against a wall the way that most of us do at some point in our lives. There had to be some external factors to help her out of the hole, because the truth is that sometimes we don’t have the inner resources.

Sara Zarr, Cynsations

For the above information, I drew on interviews at these sites:

Over the next two weeks, I’ll return with more information about or reviews of Sara Zarr’s other novels. Save the dates: May 29-June 6!

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