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Posts Tagged ‘Sara Zarr

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.

Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando is a novel about friendship and first loves. Of course, that statement describes just about all if the young adult adults out there. 🙂 It’s also about random room assignments. Ah, now therein lies a notable difference. Because Zarr and Altebrando have effectively portrayed the pre-college experience, Roomies is more than your typical reading fare.

Roomies is the first novel which Zarr has co-authored, a venture which I view as a success. Half the chapters are about Elizabeth, an only child of a divorced couple, who can’t wait to escape her New Jersey life and to restart it in college in California. The alternating other half of the chapters are about Lauren, the oldest of a family of six of Cleaver-like parents, who can’t wait for the privacy of a single room assignment. When the two are matched as college roommates, conflict naturally ensures.

While one author could naturally have pulled off Roomies on her own, how cool is it that each author took on a different persona? One author wrote as Elizabeth, whose lifestyle is comfortable enough that she can brainstorm about what appliances to bring to fill the shared room, and whose dating life is progressed enough that her biggest concern is whether or not to break up with her current boyfriend. Another author wrote as Lauren, whose parents constantly apologize to Lauren for overloading her life with siblings and who has just started to negotiate that confusing world of “friends with benefits”? The end result are two unique and complicated individuals, who just might find themselves with enough in common to form a strong bond of friendship.

Sex is not a new territory for Zarr to explore. Sometimes in her novels it has come in form of abuse or has been at the very least not desired by the main character. Other times, sex has been just an act in passing, as if sex is a natural and expected part of being a teenager. In Roomies, sex becomes an issue. One of the reasons why Elizabeth considers breaking up with her current boyfriend is that he won’t lay off asking her to sleep with him. Even her closest friends tend to view her as a prude for turning down his requests. And yet, ironically, she ends up feeling different about sex with her next boyfriend. Then there’s Lauren who, once she buys into the whole roommate deal, feels pressured to be like Elizabeth and so also finds herself wondering about whether or not to lose her virginity. While I’m just as happy reading books which don’t include sex, I appreciate how each girl struggled to make her own individual decision about what was right for her, instead of there just being one straightforward reaction. This is after all how life normally works.

What makes Roomies the biggest success for me is how it both slowly and surely brought me back to my pre-college days. And to the subsequent times when I have made major moves. Elizabeth starts out not being able to wait to leave home. She so badly wants to escape that her choice of college is on the other side of the country. This isn’t much different from my decision to uproot myself from Newfoundland to attend a college in Alabama. (High school hadn’t really been kind to me.) Throughout the course of the summer, Elizabeth falls in love as well as renews her relationship with her mom. Suddenly, saying goodbye isn’t so easy. Similarly, leaving Newfoundland for work in the United States was probably among the most toughest choices I’ve ever made.

As for Lauren, she starts out wanting nothing more than a private room. Along the way, she finds herself wishing she could just stay at home. Forever. And that nothing would change. On my part, during my first few visits home, I kept thinking about how could I just find work in Newfoundland. Just stay in my hometown. And hold onto my childhood. Forever. Of course, the reality is that my town has continued to change. As would my life is I had stayed. Change is inevitable. Which is something that both Elizabeth and Lauren come to both realize and embrace.

Roomies was a fitting book for me to read at this time. You see, every summer my husband and I visit my home province again. I’ll see family, relatives, and friends. Already I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with landmarks that have special meaning to me. I’ve also already been told of yet more changes which have occurred in my town. Going home is always a bittersweet experience. Which is also how I’d describe my pre-college days. It’s also an emotion that Roomies poignantly captures.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

When The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr became available at our local library, it became my top pick to read during National Novel Writing Month. Since that time, I have purchased my own copy and it has become my turn-to book whenever I’m in the midst of an intense writing project.

Why? Foremost, when I’m struggling creatively, I want to read a book about which there is no question of whether I’ll like it. Sara Zarr has never disappointed. Just as important, the story is appropriate for a time when I desperately need inspiration. The Lucy Variations is about a sixteen-year-old who once had a promising future as a concert pianist, but walked away from it because of a betrayal and a death, and is now exploring why she even enjoyed piano in the first place. Having participated more than once in National Novel Writing Month, I know that the closer to the end of a writing project that I draw, the more I’ll begin to question my aspirations to become a published author. At times like these, I cling to advice Lucy receives: “…. And I think if you can remember what you care about, or at least remember how it felt to care about anything, well, it helps.”

Previous novels of Sara Zarr have contained a social issue at their core. Story of a Girl explores teen pregnancy, Sweethearts explores sexual abuse, Once Was Lost explores a kidnapping, and How To Save A Life explores adoption. Of course, anyone who has read anything by Sara Zarr knows that each of these descriptions is an understatement. Zarr’s books are all also about coming-of-age, issues of faith,  and complex relationships. In a way then, The Lucy Variations is a different type of book for Sara Zarr. Unless you count the stress of being gifted and living a privileged life, there aren’t any underlying social issues. In another way, The Lucy Variations is a typical Sara Zarr book due to its multiple layers, such as the many ways we face death and chose to live, crushes on teachers and mentors, and how joy is in the smallest moments.

The Lucy Variations differs in other ways too. It’s the first of Zarr’s book to be written in third person. This viewpoint allows Zarr to focus the story on Lucy while allowing readers enough distance to help them understand her behavior in ways Lucy herself cannot. It is also the first of Zarr’s books to feature a character who isn’t from an economically-disadvantaged family. Lucy is actually the exact opposite, but comes off just as real and sympathetic as Zarr’s previous characters. Finally, it’s the first of Zarr’s books to explore romance beyond the typical high school fare. Prodigy Lucy falls first for her English teacher, bringing him coffee cake as apologies for being late to his class, and later for her music mentor. The latter is perhaps more disturbing, because Will is clearly married. Even his wife at one point asks Lucy why she is calling her husband in the middle of the night. Lucy herself isn’t sure what she needs from Will, except perhaps attention from someone who might hold the answers to questions which have plagued her since walking away from her music career. You see, Will himself used to be a musical success, but now has a life which doesn’t revolve constantly around music even if it does involve it.

Zarr told Confirm Not Conform that The Lucy Variations has “mostly a metaphor for my own relationship with writing at the time I was working on that book”. In that context, one would expect Zarr to have written yet another novel about literary endeavors. After all, most authors seem to explore this part of their past at one point or another in their fiction. I appreciate that by bestowing Lucy with the gift of music, which required some research on Zarr’s part to make accurate, Zarr made The Lucy Variations instead about the universal theme of talent. As such, Lucy’s story lies less with what type of gift she has, and instead more with what it means to have a gift, to feel stifled by it, and then to rediscover it for fun. That’s a life lesson that most of us eventually have to wrestle with, which makes The Lucy Variations a prized keepsake.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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!

Once was Lost

Fifteen-year-old Sam is a pastor’s daughter who has more than enough reasons to doubt God. Her mother has landed in rehab after a third DUI. Her father seems more interested in his congregation than in his own daughter. When a young girl from her neighborhood goes missing, Sam begins to wonder where God is in the midst of her “Venn diagram of tragedy”. Sara Zarr tackles issues of faith head-on in her third novel, Once was Lost.

Sam used to help her dad get ready for the Sunday services, and prayed every night with her parents. She once stared at a poster depicting teens of different races and imagined them as her best friends. She really believed God was as real as her parents. And she believed that once she hit high school, her life would be filled with spiritual bonding and friendship.

Instead, Sam now lives a lie. Everyone around her thinks her mom is just ill–or act as if this is what they believe. Her father does not admit to anything different from his pulpit. And so Sam continues to hide her pain and isolation. This takes little effort, actually, as no one in her youth group pays her much attention. No one talks to her, or invites her to their parties. Sam doesn’t know if this is because they don’t like her or because she’s the pastor’s daughter. The other kids certainly seem to think she’s a good girl who obeys all the rules, all the time. And, like her dad, Sam doesn’t admit to anything different. Certainly not to her growing confusion. Or her waning faith. Or her skepticism in miracles–miracles that her family so badly needs.

Not since Madeleine L’Engle have I read a young adult book that so bluntly and honestly confronts faith. As a Christian, I wish novels like this weren’t so few and far between. Some novels will mention a character’s shaken faith in passing, as if it were as inconsequential as a broken shoestring. Oh, what an inconvenience! Now where was I? Others will take advantage of their story to take a dig at God. These authors aren’t interested in discussing faith; they simply want to express their own lack of faith. Zarr knows that faith is not a trivial matter, and that doubts are not so easily shaken off. Her novels have lines like: “I attempt to see past the sky, and into God’s heaven, from where He watches, doing nothing.” Her characters’ faith is a part of them, and their struggles with it can be life changing. As Sam’s world continues to fall apart, and she finds out that her once-perfect father is capable of sin, she finds herself wishing that she could go back in time. Back to a time when her parents had the strength to pull the family back together. Back to a time when God surrounded them and guided them through any crisis.

But Sam can only go forward. To a time when her mother needs more rehab. To a time when her father has few answers in the face of tragedy. To a time when the Bible’s assurances sound flat and unbelievable. Which means that everything is going to a lot worse for Sam before it gets better. I love the realism of Sam’s world. The realism of her questions, doubts, and struggles. And I appreciate that Zarr takes the time to explore the lengthy and difficult journey back to renewed faith.

Once was Lost is a balm for those days when my faith is in question. Thank you, Sara Zarr.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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