Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Sara Zarr

Posted on: June 6, 2014

SaraZarrInterviewI’ll read anything by Sara Zarr. Until recently, the entire list of her books was on my wish list. Not to read. But to buy. I’m that much of a fan. And now every single one of books, including three which are signed, are on my shelves. Not only do I love her books, but she’s an inspiration to me as a creative person. She knows what it’s like to experience rejection but to persevere. Fear is also not unknown to her, but she also has worked past it to find the courage to keep putting her words and beliefs on paper. As you can imagine then, my skin tingled when I got the chance to interview her. 🙂

ALLISON: You are my favorite current author. Not only because of the great books you’ve written, but also because of the advice you’ve given to struggling writers. Many authors have shared their difficulties in getting published, but few speak of the challenges that follow. You’ve talked about if one is ever going to get past the beginning stages of writing, “one has to learn to live with what really amounts to a constant state of failure”. How did you learn to live with failure?

SARA: Thanks for your kind words about my work. As for failure, I think “failure” can be a harsh word and I don’t mean it in the accusatory sense. I mean that there is always a gap between the original vision for the work and the finished work. You try to get as close as you can using every tool at your disposal. I don’t know if I’ve learned to happily live with the gap, but I accept that it’s there while also trying to close it. That’s just part of the deal when you want to create something that starts out only existing in your imagination.

ALLISON: In one interview, you said that you didn’t start thinking of writing as a career until college. What were other career options you considered and/or pursued?

SARA: I wasn’t a person with any career dreams or goals, and that had a lot to do with complicated family-of-origin issues. For me, success would be paying my bills on time and avoiding poverty with some sort of job that I didn’t hate. Letting myself dream of a real career I could actually love and be good at took some time. Meanwhile, I made ends meet with some jobs I did enjoy but weren’t going to go anywhere – admin jobs, food service jobs, etc. It wasn’t until I met authors myself (in my mid-twenties) that I realized authors weren’t magical privileged people. They were regular people who wanted to write and practiced it enough to become good. When I realized that, it became possible for me.

ALLISON: In an article you wrote for Hunger Mountain, you said: “My previous books featured small stories about everyday life. This one had a certain feeling of largeness and importance that scared me.” Which type of book do you prefer to write? Why?

SARA: I think that quote may have referred to Once Was Lost. And in the end, that also turned out to be a story of everyday life and family, but it had a bigger and more dramatic context (a missing girl, big questions about life and faith). No matter what I write, it will always wind up being somehow about the meaning in everyday life and our closest, most regular relationships–friends and family. No matter how “big” the concept or the backdrop, I’m pretty sure those will always be my stories because I personally believe in the meaning to be found in those things. It’s exciting to read about big mysteries, apocalypses, hauntings, crimes, and epic romances. But in the end our lives our made up of the small, daily stuff, and I never get tired of exploring those small things and trying to see the hugeness that lies inside.

ALLISON: Your characters tend to be flawed, the type of characters that one could dislike. But you always make them likeable. How do you find the balance between creating a character who is very human but also gains reader sympathy?

SARA: My editors are always help in this. Usually in early drafts, my characters flaws are completely running the show. In revision, I look for the humanity in everyone (even the “bad guys”) and try to give each character a moment of being her best self. I think that helps the reader see who the character tries and hopes to be, and can sympathize and cheer them on.

ALLISON: As someone who is both an author and a college writing teacher, what advice would you give to grade-school teachers of struggling/reluctant writers?

SARA: I don’t really feel qualified to speak to this–teaching for an MFA program is a lot different from teaching elementary school! But, probably the most important thing is to avoid labeling the kid as a non-reader or struggling writer. When appropriate, less focus on trying to get kids to like certain kinds of books and less focus on grammar and spelling would probably help them gain confidence. I think once they get a fear of doing it “wrong” when it comes to reading and creative writing, that just shuts them down. Maybe if grammar and mechanics could be separated from creative assignments, that wouldn’t happen so much. If you give kids a “tell a story” assignment, don’t write corrections all over it. Comment on the story, and encourage the imagination. And don’t give up on helping them find books they do enjoy reading. Those are my thoughts.

ALLISON: I also like that your books raise questions about faith. Why did you make the choice to not provide answers to these questions?

SARA: Probably because I don’t know the answers!

ALLISON: What made you decide to co-author Roomies?

SARA: It was a fun diversion from the contracted books I had to write. We kept the project secret until we’d written two drafts of it, so the writing of it involved no pressure. And I’ve always admired Tara’s writing. We tried it as almost an experiment, and it just sort of worked!

ALLISON: Surely you and Tara did not agree on everything. How did you resolve your differences?

SARA: We had very little discussion about each other’s sections. The nature of the story meant we didn’t have to actually coordinate the plot very much–our threads were pretty separate. We didn’t give each other notes, and we didn’t communicate about the plot unless we absolutely had to. Then we left the more critical eye to our editor.

ALLISON: Some authors become so sought after that they stop being available to readers. In one interview you said that a favorite part of being an author is hearing from readers. How do you find the time?

SARA: Truly, I am not inundated with communication like so many authors. I completely understand why some authors just can’t even reply to anything. It’s every author’s right to choose how to deal with reader communication. Also true: as I’ve gotten busier, I’m less good at responding to every single letter or email I do get. I try, and really appreciate the letters, but the work always comes first. I enjoy twitter for this. Getting a tweet in appreciation of one of my books is fun, and pretty easy to respond to if I catch it.

6 Responses to "Interview with Sara Zarr"

I enjoyed them. Thanks!

You’re welcome! I appreciate getting to share the books of one of my favorite authors with you.

I love Sara’s books, too, and have appreciated her honest sharing about creativity, faith, etc.

Really enjoyed the interview! Thanks, Sara and Allison! 🙂

Nice to hear from a fellow Zarr fan! I’m glad you liked the interview. It took me hours to figure out the perfect questions. 🙂

I really enjoyed your interview with Sara Zarr, Allison, both because I’ve liked what I’ve read so far by her and because she comes across as a real person. I’m looking forward to reading more by her.

I hope you enjoy the two books by Sara Zarr that I brought for you to read. Next summer, I’ll try to bring the rest of them. 🙂

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