Oh man, guys. I’m so excited about this interview!! I am so grateful to have gotten a chance to sit down with Sarah Dessen before her event here at Children’s Book World in Haverford, PA (my favorite indie in the area) and chat for a bit about writing and how YA has changed and more! She is SO SO lovely and I really enjoyed talking to her. The event itself was LOVELY and there was quite the crowd. One of the biggest I’ve scene there and I loved watching teens and adults alike fangirling over Sarah and telling her how much her books have meant to them. She’s a great speaker and is so engaging with her audience so it was just a great event all around!
Question: There’s been a lot of discussion recently about “books for boys” and “books for girls”, and I’m sure you probably get pigeon-holed as the latter sometimes. What are your thoughts and experiences with that?
Sarah: I think what I’ve seen more of than necessarily books for girl or boys is, in the bigger chain bookstores (not the independents), they have teen fiction and teen romance and they have me shelved into teen romance.
Me: And your books are so much more than just a romance!
Sarah: I know! And not that I’m bashing romance, I think romance is great, but I feel like if I only had romance in my books than I’d be okay with that but I feel like, especially in Saint Anything, there’s so much else going on.
Me: *agrees furiously with specifics from Saint Anything*
Sarah: And I’ve talked to YA writer friends of mine who are like, “it stinks because I have that I’ve one book I’ve written in YA romance and one put in YA fiction and people can’t find them.” It’s like, if you love a book you go to the bookstore you go to find a book by that person. So it’s really frustrating. I just wish people would give them a chance. I understand when you have a cover like this with the beach and everything (Jamie note: she pointed to a copy of Someone Like You I believe) but I was really happy with this cover (Saint Anything). When they came back with it I thought, “Okay it’s a little bit darker and it’s a little bit deeper and so is the book so maybe it has a chance. It looks more adult even so it has the crossover potential. I am the first to say I don’t have a ton of boy fans but I do have some, ya know, and they come through and I don’t think books are male or female anything. Books are just universal. Books are for everybody. I understand the sales technique in these bigger bookstores trying to compartmentalize but I think it works against it and it’s frustrating.
QUESTION: So, along with this, what I love about your books is that are ALWAYS about more than just one thing. There are complicated relationships and dynamics of all types. I just love how you balance the friendships, the romance, the family and the individual journey. How do you balance all that in your books, especially because in YA the romance angle seems to be the big seller.
Sarah: Well, because high school’s never about one thing. Life isn’t about one thing to me. Even now, at my age, my daily life is my family, my friends, my work. I’m as tied up with my mom as I am with my daughter. And when I was in high school it was the same thing. It was never just about the boy I was involved with or just my friends. It was like my friends, my boyfriend, my work, school. It’s like, you are are cheating yourself if you aren’t giving yourself the opportunity to show the whole picture. Every day was never about just one thing. Nobody’s life was like that.
Me: I think that’s what makes your books so relatable. I was never just dealing with my crush. It was like trying to balance going out with my crush while trying to keep my grades up and deal with my overprotective, strict mom who I had to beg to let me go out with my friends let alone my crush My parents and home life were a huge part of my daily struggles outside boys and friends.
Sarah: Right! Exactly! I think also in YA, and this is something I’ve said before, I think a lot of times the parents are not there. And I know some YA writers just don’t really want to write adults. They just want to write the teens and the parents are like the Charlie Brown adults where they are just like MWA MWA MWA (Jamie note: her Charlie Brown adult impression is on point). For me, my parents were never one note characters in my life. My mom was just as complicated as I was if not more so. So for me I never felt like I could write about being a teen without bringing in the whole family and all that dynamic because it IS where you learn everything and then you kind of take what you learn dealing with your family into the rest of your life. And, for better or for worse, it shapes who you are.
*interlude where I gush all about Jamie & Cora in Lock & Key because I’m currently audiobooking that one and how Sarah, just in general writes amazing adult characters and how there is a lack of great adult characters in a lot of YA*
Sarah: I think it’s (writing the adult characters) been my way of incorporating my adulthood. I keep getting people asking me if I’m going to write a book with an adult narrator and I’m just like, “I don’t know..it just doesn’t come.” But that’s been my way. Like, when I wrote about Cora & Jamie, I wasn’t that much older than them. And Cora was trying to get pregnant and I was trying to get pregnant. When I wrote Along for the Ride Heidi had this newborn that wouldn’t stop crying, I had this newborn that wouldn’t stop crying. So it’s like the secondary character are a way of putting my current experiences because high school was a while ago!
Question: So you have written 12 novels, which is amazing, and so over the many years of your career you have seen the YA landscape change generally and probably personally. What do you think has been one of the biggest things that has changed in the YA landscape since you started your journey?
Sarah: I think the biggest thing is that it’s become more mainstream. I mean, when my first book was coming out there wasn’t the YA section like there is now. There was no Harry Potter, there was no Twilight. My first book, which came out in 1996, was shelved next to Corduroy and Goodnight Moon and they didn’t realize teens wanted to be in a different place. And, back then, adults weren’t reading YA. They just weren’t. Like my husband said last night, when he came to my event, “there were so many adults there. Readers are growing up and they are still reading your books.” Harry Potter made it okay to read books that were written for children and teens. And that’s been the biggest change for me is this moving of young adult literature into the mainstream..it’s just an amazing thing. And giving the books a shot! Just because you aren’t a teenager now, if you were ever a teenager, they will appeal to you.
*interlude of chatting about how things YA characters are still dealing with are still relevant to life now and Sarah brings up a great point about how, with reading YA as an adult, there is a safe distance and perspective.*
Reader Question (Thanks Gaby!): I know you’ve talked about how you’ve tossed as many manuscripts as you’ve published. Are there any characters or stories that you miss and kind of want to bring up again? Because I know you’ve talked about how sometimes they’ll make their way into other stories in different ways.
Sarah: Yes! Like Caitlyn from Dreamland was part of a book that didn’t work. It was a book about a girl and a boy who lived next door to each other, grew up and it sort of followed them into their 20’s and it didn’t work. But this whole chapter of her with this abusive boyfriend did work so I pulled that out. And even in Saint Anything, there was the book that I put aside before it, and Eric from Saint Anything was the boyfriend of the girl in that book. I just liked him and he just sort of lasted. So, yeah I will pull from those. I just sort of save everything because you just never know. Sometimes it’s a very small thing I’ll put in. At the very beginning of the Truth About Forever Macy and Jason are doing a project with this girl named Amy Richmond and she basically says that she doesn’t get this Shakespeare stuff and she puts her head down on her desk. I wrote a WHOLE book about Amy Richmond. Amy and her best friend Reese and it was this whole book. I know the whole backstory of Amy Richmond. I was like, “I put so much into this book. Nobody’s ever going to see it but I’m just going to put her in so somebody reads her name.”
Me: Is it frustrating to put so much time into a book and then not do anything with it?
Sarah: It is and it isn’t. I’m trying to change what I’m doing. Because right now I’m not working on anything. Right now I’d normally be about halfway through a book that I was going to abandon because I’ve never, I think just The Moon and More was the only one, that I’ve ever started and ever stuck with. I would be writing a book right now out of panic because OMG Saint Anything is out and I’ve got to put another book in the pipeline. I’m not doing that this time and I feel like if this is the last book for a little while and this is the one I stick on it’s a good one to let it be. And, like you were saying, with 12 books I started to feel like I’m looking at the long run now. And there aren’t that many YA writers who have that many unless you are looking at someone like Meg Cabot who has so many books spanning so many genres. So I’m just really curious about how people keep writing consistently. I’m looking for quality rather than quantity right now.
Me: So if you were talking to a debut author would you have any advice for them to have a career with the sort of longevity yours has?
Sarah: I think you have to be disciplined. You have to keep writing. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend having 13 failed books like me but it’s really good to start another book when another one is in editing if you can. And I think being grateful, you know, because I’ve seen a lot of people who have their first books get a lot of attention when they come out and their first book signing is like this (*points to the massive crowd in the next room). I didn’t get this until like now. I didn’t even go on tour until my 6th book. I would go to events for my first 5 books and it would be like my mother-in-law, my mother, my boyfriend and like two people from the bookstore. That’s it. So I’m SO appreciative for all of this. For every single person that turns up. So, yeah, I think just sort of keep your head and just keep writing. And be gracious because nothing good comes from not. That’s the long game and it’s all about the long game.
Thank you Sarah for the lovely interview!
I have to say, my dear readers, that this last part Sarah talked about she practices what she preaches. She is one of the seriously most gracious and sweet authors I’ve met. I was so intimidated to do this interview because she’s SARAH FREAKING DESSEN but from the first minute it felt like chatting with a friend and Sarah Freaking Dessen is a lovely, down-to-earth person whose is so deserving of all her success and should be an inspiration to all authors to work hard in their careers.
Thanks to Penguin I have a copy of Saint Anything, a double-sided locker poster and necklace to give away to one lucky reader!
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– You must be 13 years or older to enter — if you are not — please have someone who is that age or older to enter for you!- Please use the Rafflecoptor to enter the giveaway.