the May/June 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
An Interview with
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.
You live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Is that where your books
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
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
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
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
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?”
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
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?
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!
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
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.
the May/June 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine