Allison's Book Bag

Inspiration Behind How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Posted on: June 3, 2014

In 2012, as part of a round-up of books about adoption, I reviewed How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr. Because there would be little point in my reviewing How to Save a Life for a second time, I thought instead I’d share some information about how the novel came about.

It is Sara Zarr’s fourth book, one which garnered the honor of a Best Of list from such recognized reviewers such as American Library Association, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, as well as being a Junior Library Guild selection, and a Guardian Teen Book selection. As with Story of a Girl, it’s also one of Zarr’s less autobiographical books, having been inspired by a writing exercise.

Zarr found a writing prompt which said to write a scene involving an adult talking his or her aging parent out of adopting an infant. Because Zarr writes young adult, the “adult” in her version of the scene was seventeen. Out of the twenty minutes the exercise allowed, Zarr ended up with a story which interested her enough to try expanding it into a novel. (If you’re interested in hearing an audio interview with Zarr which elaborates upon this exercise, check out Teaching Books.)

How to Save a Life alternates between the viewpoint of two teenagers. At first, Zarr had a lot of trouble writing from the viewpoint Mandy, the pregnant girl who plans to give up her baby. Writing from the viewpoint of Jill, the girl whose mom wants to adopt at age fifty, felt more natural. Zarr related more to Jill and so could better understand her and the way she dealt with pain. Mandy was more of a mystery to her, however, and it took some time to find her voice. The switching itself though wasn’t hard. Zarr enjoyed the freedom to do that and the different storytelling things an author can do with a shared narrative.

Another challenge with How to Save a Life was figuring out the plot. Zarr had these people, and the basic situation, but a situation is not a story. Thinking about what brought each girl to the moment they were now in took some work. Zarr’s favorite parts to write were the ones that bring Jill and Mandy in direct conversation and even confrontation. Whenever they were on the page together, it was a lot of fun for Zarr.

As for research, Zarr poked around adoption web sites, but also had to rely on her gut for many of the details because the main plot centers around the idea that there are no agencies or lawyers involved. A friend of hers is a doctor, which helped in getting all her pre-natal care questions answered. Zarr says the most fun research thing was taking a trip to Omaha to get a sense of it, then taking the train from Omaha to Denver, as Mandy does, and then going out to Casa Bonita (a theme restaurant immortalized first by South Park) with Denver friends.

Then there’s also the old adage about write what you know. Zarr worked for a chain bookstore when she was in college. She remembers certain things about the relationship between the store, the region, and the faceless monolith the employees just called “Corporate.” There was also a real-life counterpart to Ravi, the guy whose job was loss control for the region. One night that guy scared Zarrby appearing in the dark parking lot after closing to search my bag.

While Zarr doesn’t remember how she came up with the names of Jill and Mandy, she does have a specific process for picking character names. If a name doesn’t come to her right away, she’ll look at lists of baby names until she see one that feels right. Sometimes she’ll even change names in subsequent drafts if she realizes the original name doesn’t fit.

The title does have specific sources. Zarr says The Fray band’s song of the same title played a part. And there’s a title of a Flannery O’Connor story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” which Zarr think relates to all of the characters in the book. It’s not really the baby’s life that’s at stake–it’s their own lives, and their own need for family.

When asked in interviews what she’d like readers to take from How to Save a Life, Zarr has varied answers. Foremost, readers should have a great reading experience! She also agrees with Matthew Quick’s (of Silver Lining Playbook fame!) assessment that one themes is saying yes or being open to possibility. Finally, Zarr observes that if one looks at all of her books together, one could say that a central theme is: “We all need the love and support of other people. But other people can be hard to love, and we can be hard to love, and it can be hard to give and receive love. But it’s worth trying.”

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

The rest of the week, I’ll return with more information about or reviews of Sara Zarr’s other novels. Save the dates: June 4-June 6!

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