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From the May/June 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

An Interview with Sarah Dessen

by Roger Sutton

s cyclically happens, there’s a lot of attention being paid right now to boys reading or, more exactly, boys not reading. But what about the girls? In the interests of fair play, following the money, and not ignoring what’s already on the radar, I decided it was time for a chat with YA author Sarah Dessen. Having written nine unabashed — and haunting and literate — “girl books” (including the June release Along for the Ride, reviewed in this issue) and having inspired a ferociously loyal readership with fan groups on MySpace, LiveJournal, and Facebook, Dessen says she likes that her book jackets are “pink and cute” and isn’t afraid of the term chick lit.

ROGER SUTTON: You live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Is that where your books are set?

SARAH DESSEN: Actually, I’ve made an effort to not use a specific setting. I wrote a book in college that I did set in Chapel Hill, and I hated that people in my writing workshop were always obsessing about specifics, like how far things were from each other — “It takes longer to get from the airport to the hospital than that!” So I decided that I wouldn’t set my books in an actual place anymore; I would create my own little world. It’s true that Chapel Hill is where I’m thinking of when I’m writing, but I try to set my books so that they could be anywhere.

RS: In your head, though, do the books feel like they take place in roughly the same area? Sarah Dessenland?

SD: Yes, they do. There are neighborhoods that are mentioned again and again throughout the books — certain landmarks, restaurants. People who have read all the books seem to appreciate that continuity. They like catching all the little details. In the last few books in particular I’ve been mentioning characters and places from earlier books, kind of an inside joke.

RS: So readers can put it all together into one big meta-narrative.

SD: It’s been challenging, because I always think I’m being very clever, sneaking in these mentions. But I guess I’m not nearly as slick as I think I am. With my last few books, practically the day that they’re published somebody is on some website saying, “I found them all,” and listing them, complete with page numbers.

RS: You have very fervent fans.

SD: They’re fantastic — they buy the book the day it comes out and read it incredibly quickly and then immediately e-mail me and ask when the next one is due! It’s really the highest compliment. Young adults are an amazing audience to be writing for because you’re catching people at their most enthusiastic about reading. Adults are a little more reserved. I still get excited about good books, but I don’t get jumping-up-and-down-screaming excited. It’s such a passionate time, adolescence. I remember the feeling in high school, and even in middle school, of reading a book and really connecting with it on that elemental level of “somebody understands me.” It’s so powerful. It’s a great market to be writing for because you connect so strongly with your audience.

RS: I think part of that connection is that you create these characters that girls — and I’m assuming that most of your readers are girls — can see themselves in and relate to. Yet they are all individuals. I see a lot of common themes in your books, but each one of those girls is a different person. How do you balance making a character particular with making her universal?

SD: There are certain things about the teenage experience in our culture that are always going to be there: the issues you have with your parents; the boy you have a crush on who doesn’t know your name; the friend who isn’t nice to you, but for some reason you’re friends with her anyway. But then there’s room within those experiences to make each character unique.

The thing that all my narrators have in common is that they are girls on the verge of a big change. And how they deal with that change is where the story comes from. When I was in high school, I was never happy with myself and always wanted to believe that there was the potential for a big change to happen in my life. You know — that I was going to meet some amazing guy and come to some stunning realization about myself that was going to make my life better. I think that’s very appealing at that age, because it can happen. At that age, a girl can go away for the summer and when she comes back in the fall, she’s completely different. She’s taller, she’s blossomed. There’s so much potential. That’s why I like writing about this age, because there’s still so much room to come into one’s self, so much change happening fast and furious. There’s a wealth of material there.

RS: I notice that you often start with a precipitating offstage event. For instance, in The Truth About Forever the death of the father takes place before the book actually begins, but it sets in motion all the things that happen to the heroine.

SD: I think that’s often how you feel as a teenager, that the world is happening around you, and you’re sort of whirling and getting bounced around within it. I remember feeling that way, that I didn’t have much control over my own destiny. Everything was happening to me, and I was just trying to keep my head above water.

RS: Do you think of yourself as a writer for girls?

SD: I do. I don’t kid myself; I don’t think a lot of boys are reading my books. My books are so firmly fixed in the girl mindset and the girl point of view. Women tend to want to share our experiences more, to talk about what’s going on with us. Especially when things are going badly or you’re stressed out, to find some commonality or sense of recognition in a story is very comforting. Boys are different that way. They don’t want to talk about everything that’s going on with them. One comment I get again and again from girls is, “I read your book and it is my life, it’s like it’s my school and my teachers.”

RS: And that’s also the theme of your books. It’s not just that you have readers, who, because they are girls, explore their emotions through reading. Your books are about young women trying to understand themselves and their place in the world.

SD: My setup, usually, is a character feeling disjointed and out of place, maybe because she once felt more in place and then something happened, as you mentioned in The Truth About Forever, that made her lose her footing. Or, she’s never felt that she fit anywhere and has been looking for a way to find her place. It’s a pretty universal experience: much of adolescence is just trying to figure out where you fit in, where your spot is, who your people are.

RS: Do you think that that’s something particular to girls?

SD: No, but I think the willingness to explore it is. Girls are much more willing to face the fact that they’re looking for it, and more willing to reach out for it, than boys. People have said to me many times that I should write a book from a boy’s point of view. All I can say is that I spent four years of high school sitting around with my friends analyzing what boys were thinking. That’s all we did. We would sit at lunch and be like, “He said hi to me in the hall — what did that mean?”

RS: Nothing!

SD: Right, completely cryptic! So I can’t even imagine saying what some boy means. Or what he’s thinking. I don’t know how boys think. I wish I did.

RS: In the 1980s, there was an earlier wave of “let’s have more books for boys” going on. A number of women writers tried their hand at a male perspective. But the characters weren’t real boys. They were male, but they would talk to each other and to other people as if they were women. It was as if the goal of these books was to take these tough characters and turn them into women. Put ’em in touch with their feelings. Make ’em cry. Make ’em talk about things. And I wasn’t convinced.

SD: Teen readers can tell if someone’s writing about them and it’s not right. One of the most important things in writing for teens is to be genuine, and not to write down to them, not to proselytize or try to force-feed them a message. My books are not about social issues. I’m just telling the kind of story that I want to hear, writing the kind of book I wanted to read when I was in high school.

RS: Do you have an opinion about the term chick lit?

SD: I’m not as offended by it as others are. But I also think it’s become too wide a term. We sort of throw anything with a pink cover into the category now. It used to be targeted very specifically, and now anything that isn’t Literature and has women in it is chick lit. It seems like you’re one or the other, you’re “literary” or you’re “chick lit.” And that’s unfortunate, because there are lots of shades in between. But I’m not offended by it, because I am writing books for girls. I like that my covers are kind of pink and cute. I’m not gonna lie. In high school that’s the kind of cover I wanted to pick up. That’s still the kind of cover that I’m drawn to!

RS: I’m looking at Lock and Key right now with its pink striped cover. Kids who like chick lit are going to pick up this book, even if they don’t know your name, simply because of the color and the design.

SD: My books used to have covers that looked a lot younger. And then Penguin reissued all my books as trade paperbacks and gave them new covers that were much more sophisticated. Now they look more like something a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old wouldn’t mind being seen carrying around. I’m grateful for the cover change, because I think it brings my books to a wider audience, which is what I’m always looking for. I’m always hoping that as many people as possible will find something to relate to in the story.

RS: Including a readership beyond YA?

SD: I have quite a few adult readers who started reading my books when they first came out, when they were teenagers, and now it’s been ten years and they’re still reading my books. And I hear from a lot of moms who read the books because their daughters are reading them. YA is enjoying this big resurgence now anyway, where adults are reading YA and realizing that you don’t have to be a teenager now, but if you ever were one, you’re going to find something to relate to. People have strong feelings about their high school years. They either really liked high school, or really hated it. You rarely find people who have no opinion whatsoever.

RS: Where do you fall?

SD: I didn’t like it very much at all. I liked my friends and everything, but as far as the whole experience — no. I was not a good student. My brother was this great academic champion, and there was no way to live up to that, so I didn’t even try, I just floundered about. And I kind of ran with a bad crowd, whom I’m still with, but now we’re all older . . .

RS: Who, like bad girls? Were you smoking dope out in the parking lot? [laughs]

SD: I was definitely hanging out in the parking lot, I’ll tell you that. And I was definitely not a stellar student/role model. I wasn’t academically driven at all. I didn’t really make an impression; I didn’t participate in a lot of events; I didn’t belong to any clubs — I was just getting through. And then I got to college and cleaned up my act, got very serious about academics, and did very well. But it took me awhile to get it together.

RS: What do you think made you into a writer?

SD: I think the fact that I read so much as a kid, for starters. My parents constantly bought me books and encouraged me to read, and encouraged me to read up. Everyone in our household was always reading. And I had a lot of encouragement with my writing. My mom and dad read everything I wrote. And then, after putting my parents through all this stuff in high school and being on the five-and-a-half-year plan in college, I finally graduated. But instead of getting an actual job, I was like, “I think I’m going to write a novel and just keep waiting tables for a while.” My poor parents! But they were much more supportive than a lot of people would have been. They paid my health insurance for a while. And they would come to the restaurant where I worked and leave me extravagant tips when they knew I couldn’t pay my phone bill.

RS: Speaking of parents, your adolescents have some very fraught relationships with their mothers.

SD: Yeah, definitely. I actually get along very well with my mom, and I always feel bad when people read my books and think she’s this overbearing monster. But happy relationships aren’t fun to write about. That’s the truth. Well-adjusted people aren’t that interesting. It’s a lot more fun to write about the fraught stuff. But even within the complicated relationships in my books, there is love, and that’s what I hope to show. Just because you don’t see eye-to-eye with your parents doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection.

RS: Do you ever wish you could write something completely different?

SD: As far as genre, no, because I can’t imagine what else I would write. People ask me if I’ve ever thought about writing fantasy, and I’m like, “Ugh, no.” I’m way too lazy, to be honest. And for the same reason I probably couldn’t do historical fiction. I would have to spend a lot of time planning and researching, and I like to sit down and just start writing. I used to be a lot harder on myself about that. I used to worry, “Maybe my books are too similar to each other. They’re all using this same neighborhood in this same little world.” But one of my very favorite writers is Anne Tyler. Every single one of her books is set in Baltimore, and they all have certain qualities in common. Yet each novel is unique. So I think it can be done, and that’s what I’m endeavoring to do. Eventually I may try something different, but for now, as long as I keep having fresh ideas that I’m excited about, I’ll keep on with it.

From the May/June 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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