Today I have the great pleasure of hosting Sara Zarr (author of last year's Story of a Girl and this year's Sweethearts). Sweethearts is a very moving story about the love between two neglected children, Jennifer and Cameron, who are separated and then meet again in high school (my review is here).
Me: You write about the characters in Sweethearts with great compassion--it was clear you cared about them. Was it hard to write them into miserable circumstances? I'm thinking not so much about the more "traditional" abusiveness of Cameron's situation, but the neglect that Jennifer experienced. Her mother is a decent person, who loved her, but obviously for the purposes of your plot you couldn't make her realize what her daughter was going through. But were you tempted, in your own mind at least?
Sara: It's always hard to put characters you love through pain, but I have to say I was never tempted to do it differently. I have a lot of compassion for Jennifer's mom, too, who is caught up in this cycle of poverty and doing what she thinks is best and the necessity to get out of it as soon as possible. In doing what she truly thinks is best for Jennifer, she doesn't realize how much her daughter needs her. I think a lot of parents who sort of live on the edge of poverty have to make that choice and there's no good answer. The physical and practical needs are more immediate than the emotional ones. Your life becomes about paying the rent and figuring out how to get out of that cycle.
Me: And related to my first question, when you write, do you feel that there is an inevitability about all the events that even you can't escape (which is the feeling that Story of a Girl, in particular, gave me) or do your characters surprise you and go off on paths you hadn't anticipated?
Sara: A lot of stuff happens in revision. Characters might do or say things that weren't part of my original plan, but ultimately those things to seem to end up serving that original, inevitable path. Which is interesting to think about, because in theory the author has the power to do anything she wants, while in reality I think you're right---sometimes even the author can't authentically alter the story's destiny.
Me: After Cameron disappears, Jennifer reinvents herself as Jenna, an attractive, popular high school student, very different from her plump, sad, childhood self. Did it help the writing process to have a character with two different names and identities, or did it add a confusing schizophrenia to it all? Is she Jenna or Jennifer or both to you?
Sara: I never had trouble separating (or joining) them in my own mind. To me, she's Jennifer, grown up, calling herself Jenna and having a different outside appearance but dealing with the same fears about herself and the world around her that were ingrained early on. She's Jennifer who has transformed her outward self, and now the inside self is catching up.
Me: Reading your book made me want to eat cookies. Like Jennifer, I found great comfort in childhood by curling up with a good book and lots and lots of cookies (although I didn't actually require comfort in the same way that Jennifer did--I just really liked books and cookies). The only reason I didn't eat cookies with your book is that I make a point of not keeping cookies in the house. Not that they would actually be in the house for long, but still. Was this a habit of yours as well, and do you have a favorite childhood cookie?
Sara: Jennifer's eating issues come straight from me. I ate for company and comfort and entertainment as a kid, and continued that habit well into adulthood, into a full-blown compulsive eating disorder. It was only when I had made some sort of peace with that and learned ways to manage it that I could write about it. So I don't keep cookies in the house very often, either! I do like a good homemade chocolate chip cookie now, but back in the day you could give me a package of Oreos or Nutter Butters and I'd be in cookie heaven. Or Fig Newtons. Or Lorna Doones. Or...sorry, what were we talking about?
Me: You and I were both teenagers in the 1980s, which is a longer time ago every year. I just had my first online chatting experience a few weeks ago, and goodness knows I have no clue about the trappings of today's popular culture (although I didn't back then either). Have you made an effort to study Modern Teenagers? Did you have to practice on line chatting and so forth, so as to get it right in the book, or have you kept up with the technology?
Sara: Oh, I've kept up with technology. I was chatting online back in the CompuServe era when you paid for Internet by the minute! I'm kind of a computer geek, and a gadget geek, with a not quite healthy attachment to my laptop.
Me: Story of a Girl was your 4th book, the first one to be published. What has happened with books 1, 2, and 3? Will we ever see them?
Sara: They are far, far away in drawers and on disks. I don't think we ever need to see them. In retrospect, they were "practice novels." Of course, at the time I didn't think so and would have been offended if anyone suggested that!
Me: Do you think you're going to stick with realistic teen fiction, which you are obviously good at, or are you tempted by other genres, or even by happier stories rather than sad (but hopeful) ones?
Sara: Realistic fiction is definitely my thing. I have nothing against happier stories, but whenever I try to write one something angsty and tragic happens so maybe it's not in my genes. I'm interested in writing for all kinds and all ages of audiences, though, and hope to try a lot of different things over the next thirty years.
Me: And finally, here you are on this blog tour, being asked innumerable questions. If it were me, I would have been preparing mental answers to possible questions weeks in advance. Is there any question that you've been hoping would be asked, but hasn't been yet?
Sara: I don't have enough perspective on the book yet to think up possible questions. Maybe in a couple of years I'll think of something I wish you'd asked, and I'll get in touch!
Me: Thanks very much Sara! I enjoyed Sweethearts (in a sad and anxious kind of way, of course, which is what the subject matter called for) very much, and I'm looking forward to your next book-- I hope it cooperates!
Here are other stops that Sara has made on her tour (if I've missed anyone, let me know!)
Largehearted Boy (playlist for Sweethearts)
Kate Messner's Book Blog
The Well-Read Child
Big A little a
Becky's Book Reviews a