A Conversation with National Book Award Finalist Sara Zarr

Can we handle the truth?

In Sara Zarr’s first novel, Story of a Girl, one young woman’s life is almost spoiled by the truth… at least when it comes to the details of her biggest mistake.

When young Deanna’s misguided adventure with an older boy in a car is exposed for all the world to see, she is forced to live with the consequences. Her peers, her community, her family… no one can meet her gaze in quite the same way again.

But are the consequences appropriate for the crime? Why are girls condemned when it comes to sexual indiscretion, while boys run free? Why can’t her father forgive her, and move through the crisis with her? Has the truth of the matter really been perceived at all? Wouldn’t the truth, in totality, allow for the possibility of healing, and include all of those who bear some responsibility for what happened?

These are compelling questions, and challenging issues to explore in any medium. Writing about them for young adults is an especially difficult endeavor, as parents may flinch to find their teens reading about such tough stuff.

But Sara Zarr strikes the perfect balance, writing about this territory with the authenticity of having been there. She seems to have a photographic memory when it comes to the nuances of high school experience. And while Deanna’s trials are fictional, Zarr writes about these emotions and exchanges with a knack for observation. With powerful restraint, she shows respect to her characters and to her readers, leaving certain details unspoken in trust of our own imaginations. But she brings characters to vivid life through charged conversations and situations in which the stakes are very high indeed.

Story of a Girl may be on the shelf in the Young Adult section of bookstores. But it’s an essential addition to the genre that will challenge adults as profoundly as it does youngsters. This is the world teens live in. If this book makes you uncomfortable, take a walk through your neighborhood high school sometime. See if you can handle the truth.

I had the privilege of corresponding with Sara Zarr recently, and to congratulate her on the honor of being a National Book Award finalist with her very first book. Sara and I met in a fiction workshop in Santa Fe in 2005, guided by the great novelist Erin McGraw. I was working on the sequel to Auralia’s Colors, quite a different kind of storytelling entirely than what Sara was up to. But I was taken by Sara’s lively, engaging prose, and we became fast friends. Turns out we were born in the same week, and signed our first book contracts inthe same month of the same year. We’ve been chatting about our experiences and challenges ever since, and I’m a big fan of her blog. (I even took the profile picture she’s currently using on Facebook!)

So, it is with great pleasure that I welcome Sara Zarr to The Eagle and Child, and I hope you read her book, so you can say “I read it before she became a superstar.” (But you’d better act fast, because it’s happening as we speak.)

Overstreet:

Congratulations on having Story of a Girl chosen as a finalist for the National Book Award! You must be on Cloud Nine, or even Ten.

Take us through your reaction to the news, and your feelings as the news sank in. Did you even let yourself imagine such a thing before it happened?

Zarr:

Thank you! I have, of course, imagined getting awards and honors and I’ve even let myself imagine things that are not in the realm of reality such as what witty stories I can tell on Letterman. However, at the time I got the call about the National Book Award, I’d completely forgotten that it was that time of year or even that the NBAs existed. It’s great to get that kind of news when you’re not expecting it. I think it’s still sinking in. About a week after the announcement, I had a little meltdown about what it all means and I had a “fear of success” moment. My husband, a genius, said, “If you think of this (success) as a compliment, and not as success, then you could count it learning to accept compliments gracefully.” So that’s how I want to continue to see the nomination — as a wonderful compliment.

Overstreet:

In Story of a Girl, we get an up-close-and-personal perspective on Deanna. And because of her mistakes and the pressures of teen life, she’s misunderstood and judged by those around her.

In a lot of stores like these, misunderstood characters are defended passionately by the storyteller, and the peripheral characters are shown up as being irrational and wicked and cruel. You see characters through a more forgiving lens. You see flaws in your “heroine,” and you seem to find redeeming qualities in other characters as well. Is that difficult for you as a storyteller? Are you tempted to make somebody a scapegoat?

Zarr:

No. To me, that’s not interesting. That’s a tale, not a story. I’ve always been a fan of realistic fiction as a reader—even the fantasy novels I liked were filled with characters who had changing and complex motives. Madeline L’Engle’s books, for example, are filled with gray areas and characters who don’t always make the best choices. And I guess my handling of Deanna’s story reflects my worldview — that nobody is innocent, and it’s very rare that one person or circumstance is completely to blame. Who can say they’ve never hurt anyone? Who can say they’ve never made a self-interested choice that had consequences for someone else? In fact, Tommy, the boy who is Deanna’s antagonist, is one of my favorite characters. Making him into a real person and not just a cardboard cutout of “bad boy” was one of the more challenging and enjoyable parts of the process.

Overstreet:

What stories and novels were “stairsteps” for you? What books made you say “I want to do that when I write”?

Zarr:

When I first read Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, something clicked on for me. He was so skilled at creating a mood and capturing some of the darker feelings of adolescence. I also love Anne Tyler and how she imbues real family life with so much depth and truth, while also being funny and kindhearted toward her characters. And she’s just great with language. I admire Ian McEwan and Tom Perrotta for many of the same reasons, though it’s kind of funny that when they do it, it’s “literary”; when Tyler does it, it’s “domestic fiction.”

Overstreet:

Do you think that faith makes you a different writer? Do you see connections between your spiritual convictions and your writing?

Zarr:

This kind of goes back to your question about the flaws and redeeming qualities in my characters. My understanding and experience of faith involves a compassionate and gracious God, who is also just. If I’m the creator and god of my own little universe of characters, I want to be compassionate, gracious, and just, too. Which means seeing realistically the flaws in each character, while also seeing their potential for good. The justice comes in when it comes to consequences of things characters do and say. I don’t pretend to understand how it all works on a theological level in real life, but it seems that sometimes God lets us experience consequences to their full effect, sometimes he softens the blow, and sometimes he shields us completely. So all those things are options for me in a story. In Story of a Girl, various characters are all definitely experiencing consequences: Deanna’s father loses his relationship with his family because of his refusal to show mercy. Deanna has been dealing with fallout from her dealings with Tommy for years. These aren’t punishments, just consequences. And then as the all-powerful creator of my little world, I get to orchestrate things so that my characters, who I love, get to experience grace. I love that about writing, and I don’t think I’d be that kind of writer if that’s not how I saw and experienced my own faith.

Overstreet:

You’ve written a bit about your own “awkward years” as a teenager. What are five or six things you would include in a teenager girl’s survival kit?

Zarr:

It would have to be entirely made of magic, since there is no real way around adolescence. It would include a potion that guarantees a good hair day, enchanted glasses that let you see that even the popular girls as insecure as you are, and an invisibility cloak to get you through those days that make you want to hide.

Overstreet:

Are you paying attention to the reviews? What observations have pleased you most, and are there any that have frustrated you that you’d like to answer?

Zarr:

I’m paying attention in the sense that I do read them, but I don’t think about them much after that. Some reviewers seem to “get” what I wanted to do with the story more than others, but really a book (or a movie or album) is experienced in so many different ways I don’t know if there is a correct interpretation. Probably the biggest thing that comes up is a focus on the “a girl’s undeserved reputation” aspect of the story, which to me is just a vehicle for telling the real story about home and family and the longing for reconciliation. But I don’t have a problem with that, because any time you can make the conversation topical it gives the book more exposure and a chance of ending up on reading lists and all that good stuff that keeps it in print and in readers’ hands. Also, “answering” reviews is probably always a mistake. It just makes authors look insecure and defensive. (Which we probably are but no one else needs to know that!)

Overstreet:

Some readers will find your descriptions of tough situations too tame, too “safe.” Others — especially parents — may flinch and find your story and your descriptions too raw and unflinching. Do you find it difficult to strike a good balance in writing about volatile matters like teenage sexuality? Do you struggle with questions of “too explicit” or “not explicit enough”?

Zarr:

There is a balance that has to be found. For me, that usually comes in revision. I ended up taking out a lot of the explicit language in the last draft, and just left in the instances that I felt really had to be there to be true to the characters and circumstances. I changed the rest that were there for effect or because I hadn’t given it much thought in earlier drafts. You want to give the book the best chance of actually getting read. It must have worked, because I haven’t had any real complaints about the content either way.

Overstreet:

Following up on that, surely you’ve encountered YA novels that are much more explicit about sexuality. Are you troubled by any of the things you find shelved in the YA section? How does a writer… and a reader… come to find the right kind of balance and discernment in these areas?

Zarr:

I do sometimes have issues with content in YA. I do believe that YA authors should have freedom of expression, and shouldn’t be forced to clean things up just because the audience is younger. YA readers, for the most part, are not children. They are teenagers, and the majority of potentially objectionable content in YA books is a lot tamer than what teens see, hear, and do at school. That said, my personal comfort level with content all relates to context. If the story has a soul, if the characters are real, if the way they talk and act feels true to the story, then I generally have no problem with realistic language or behavior. Sometimes it seems like it’s just there for no real purpose, and that does bother me. However, that has less to do with it being “YA” than it does with the artistic choice to include something unnecessary for the story. I have the same issue with books and movies intended for an adult audience.

Overstreet:

Your writing is admirably efficient. You must have trimmed a great deal. Were there any scenes or pages you found it difficult to prune? What might show up on the “Deleted Scenes” feature of this book’s DVD, so to speak?

Zarr:

Thanks – I did cut out a lot. But nothing that would be worthy of including here. When I first got into DVDs, I used to watch all the deleted scenes until it became clear that there was a reason they were deleted.

Overstreet:

Due to the cover, the title, the plot… this may be wildly presumptuous, but I would guess that more girls are reading your book than boys. This is your chance! Tell us guys why we should read Story of a Girl !

Zarr:

Well, I don’t think it has any of the usual things that might turn off a guy reader: mushy romance, sentimentality, boy-bashing. Deanna’s brother, Darren, is (in my humble opinion!) a great character, as is Deanna’s long-time friend, Jason. And as I said, I even love Tommy. Really, it’s a family story, and anyone who has ever been a member of a family or been a teenager will find something recognizable. In other words: everyone! Squeamish guys can always take off the dust jacket and cover it with plain brown paper, if they want.

Overstreet:

As it’s marketed to the YA audience, I suspect that a lot of adults might not give Story of a Girl a chance. Do you think it would be a rewarding read for adults?

Zarr:

Again, it is a family story. Some experiences are almost universal. I’ve heard from 70-year-old women who recognize the tension between a teen girl and her father from their own adolescence, and from middle-aged men who sympathize with the dad. And hey, time is short, and this book comes right in at around 200 pages. You can have a satisfying experience in a few evenings of bedtime reading. That’s definitely one reason I still love YA as a reader– it is some of the most efficient storytelling out there.

Overstreet:

Dream big: Who would be the ideal director for a film adaptation? What songs would play on the soundtrack?

Zarr:

I’m pretty much living that dream. Kyra Sedgwick’s production company has optioned the film rights, and I can’t imagine the story being in better hands. As the producer, she gets to pick the director, and I have no doubt she and her partner will find the ideal person if it gets to that point. I still can’t believe my fortune. As for music, I think there needs to be some classic eighties rock for the scenes that take place in the strip mall pizza place. I always imagined Tommy playing air guitar to Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise” on the jukebox and we would definitely need some Journey. And I hear Joseph Arthur’s “You’ve Been Loved” playing over the end credits.

Overstreet:

Will your next project be very different from Story of a Girl?

Zarr:

My next novel, Sweethearts, comes out in February and it is different. The main character is in a different world than Deanna, and has a much different voice. There is one bad guy who is as close to pure evil as I’ve ever gotten — no moments of humanity or compassion for him. It’s not the route I usually go, but sometimes things are perpetrated that are just evil even if the perpetrator has potential for good that has gone completely unexplored. At the same time, I wouldn’t say it’s vastly different. Like Story of a Girl it is very much about family, and reconciling the past. There are some themes I just can’t avoid.

Overstreet:

On your blog, you share the titles of your autobiography… which hasn’t been written yet. The chapter about your most recent experiences is called “15. Adrift in a Sea of Ego and Insecurity: The Full-Time Writing Life (No, really, it’s great!).” What would you hope to title the next chapter, covering the next decade?

Zarr:

“Forty and Fabulous: In Which I Sell a Screenplay and Several More Novels, and Trade In My Bus Pass for a Car”

  • Facebook

CLOSE | X

HIDE | X