Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

In a starred review, School Library Journal calls Sara Zarr's debut novel, Story of a Girl, "realistic fiction at its best," and VOYA says the first person narrative is "unusually senstive and perceptive." We are thrilled to have first time novelist, Sara Zarr, here at the Cafe to talk about her well-received book and also share a little about herself.

Mary P: Tell us about Story of a Girl! What was your inspiration for this story?

Sara Z: The character Deanna Lambert was my inspiration. She'd turned up as a side character in another book I wrote, and I realized she was the most interesting thing going on in that book and I sat down to write about her and the voice was just there. The specifics of her story changed through various revisions, but her voice and her outlook on life were the guiding forces. I wanted to know what had happened to her that made her so tough, and what was beneath that exterior? The surface details of the story are that her father caught her with an older boy when she was 13, and how that changed all her relationships. For me, it's mostly about family, and emotional survival under extreme duress.

Mary P: I loved the relationships in the story and how they evolved. Like VOYA said, it was unusually sensitive, which made it all so real. How has the publication of your first book been different than you expected?

Sara Z: Well, I was a bit surprised that the publication didn't suddenly make me feel validated, secure, fearless, and complete. I still struggle with all the same old demons, plus some new ones. That said, my first book experience has been about as awesome as it could possibly be. My publisher (Little, Brown) has been amazingly supportive and enthusiastic, reviews are good, reader response (from both teens and adults) is positive, and I feel like it's gotten the right kind of attention. I know many authors have a different experience on various fronts or have excellent books that fall through the cracks when they shouldn't. I feel very fortunate.

Mary P: What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Sara Z: Getting started on the daily work always feels like an epic battle for some reason. There are so many other things vying for my attention---things that seem to offer a lot more on the instant gratification front. Writing is the ultimate delayed gratification. You can work for months on something before seeing any results that you're happy with.

Mary P: Yes, I think authors win the award on the delayed gratification front. But there are all those little moments too, where the writing just feels so right and that keeps you moving forward. There were lots of those great "moments" in Story of a Girl. Do you have a favorite line, passage, chapter from this book?

Sara Z: I really love the scenes between Deanna and her older brother, Darren. I don't think I could pick something specific---it feels like a betrayal of whatever I don't pick! There's something about their relationship, though, that I find really sweet and tender even though they are both so tough in their own ways.

Mary P: Was there any part that you struggled with or avoided writing?

Sara Z: With this book, I never shied away from the emotionally difficult parts. They were actually pretty cathartic for me; the hard part is always hitting exactly the right pitch---not overstating, not understating, not being too literal but still being clear, etc. I never saw Deanna as a victim and wanted to make sure she didn't come across that way. At the same time, she definitely took unfair knocks and the people who should have helped her deal with them (i.e. her parents) abdicated that responsibility. So overall, the biggest challenge was writing honestly about a situation in which no one had really been right and weaving all the fallout into a compelling story.

Mary P: Which you did beautifully. Have you ever wanted to quit writing?

Sara Z: I don't know if "wanted" is the right word, but there were definitely times I wondered if I should. It took about ten years from when I started writing seriously to when I made my first sale, and every single year during that time I'd think, "This is my year." And then it wouldn't be, and I'd wonder how many more years it would take. I didn't take career jobs because I knew I wanted to write, so around age 32 or 33 I really started thinking maybe I should go back to school and get a real career and move on from this dream. Also around that time I lost my first agent, got laid off of my job, and basically had no hope or prospects. It was a tough time. It was actually Deanna and her story that kept me going. I just had a feeling about this book, that this would be the one.

Mary P: If you could be anything else besides a writer, what would it be?

Sara Z: I would love to make a movie some day. ("What I really want to do is direct!") During my career crisis, I thought about being a nutritionist before realizing that you actually had to take chemistry and science and stuff and basically be pre-med. I also really enjoy the house-wifey aspects of my life now that I'm home more.

Mary P: What were you like as a teen?

Sara Z: Sort of the social version of "jack of all trades, master of none." That is, I had friends in a lot of different social circles but never felt entirely a part of any of them. My closest cohorts were the drama geeks. I was fairly studious and well-behaved...a dork, is what I'm trying to say.

Mary P: But a very talented one ; ) Thank you so much, Sara, for sharing with us. Congratulations on such a fine debut. We wish you, Deanna, and Story of a Girl much success!


~~Cafe Note~~ As a regular part of our interviews, featured authors will pop back in for one week after their interview is posted to answer any other questions blog readers may leave for them. So if you have any questions or comments for Sara, fire away! !


Anonymous said...

Sara, I'm really looking forward to reading STORY OF A GIRL. And it always makes me feel better hearing about another procrastinator. :-) --Dotti

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Great interview - I'm really looking forward to this book!

MarPerez said...


I'm interested in your revision process, especially since you managed to stick with this book for so long. What do you love about revision? (No fair saying nothing :) What's the hardest part for you about revising?


Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Wonderful interview! If you could go back in time as your glowing-debut-novelist self and speak to your beginning-writer self, what would you tell her? What did she do right? What might she have done differently?

Little Willow said...

Great interview! So glad that STORY is getting the accolades and attention it rightly deserves, Sara.

Sara Z. said...

Ah! I am supposed to answer questions now. I understand. First, thanks all for the kind words!

Here we go.

Mar - I think the hardest part of revising is when the manuscript is ALMOST there but not. quite. It's one thing to go from 50% there to 98% there. Quite another to go from 98% to 100%. It just requires this excruciating, minute work and I always despair over my ability to do it. What do I LOVE? When I'm doing that minute work and have a breakthrough, it is the most satisfying thing about writing by far, you know, when you truly execute the vision the way you wanted.

Cyn: Ooh, good question. First I'd say, "Guess what? You did it!!" Then after the beginning me stopped jumping up and down and squealing, I'd lead her to the couch and say, "It's really awesome how you haven't given up. Your persistence is what will ultimately make the difference. But you COULD work harder, you know. A little less TV and IMing, a little more novel-writing, you know what I'm sayin'? Also you probably shouldn't have stayed with your first agent as long as you did. Be confident enough to find an agent who really loves you. And don't drink martinis near the laptop. If one of those goes in the motherboard, it's $1500 down the drain. Don't say I didn't warn you."

Brent Hartinger said...

Yes, isn't it interesting how publishing a book DOESN'T solve all your problems? It sometimes even, uh, creates new ones?

But I'm thrilled you're enjoying your success.

Congrats on the book. It's on my list.

bostonerin said...

(at the winter SCBWI conference, Jennifer Hunt read the opening of your novel and explained how she fell in love with it--a lovely endorsement!)

I'm interested in how you're balancing the business aspect of the industry--promotions and marketing--with your writing, now that your book is out. Is it difficult to divide your attention? How do you approach this?

Sara Z. said...

Thanks, Brent!

Bostonerian - great question. I still haven't struck a balance that I'm happy with. I want to and need to be writing a lot more - really just shutting down everything else and getting in solid, uninterrupted writing time every day.

I'm thoroughly convinced that I have plenty of time to devote appropriate energy to both writing and the business stuff. That is, there are enough hours in the day. I'm still learning how to manage's definitely the biggest challenge of being in charge of your own schedule. Ideally, I would block out 3 hours a day for writing and not check my email, my voicemail, etc. Another 2 hours should be more than enough to take care of business stuff. Then in theory, I'd have time leftover to read, manage the rest of my life, see movies, etc.

Unfortunately, this ideal relies wholly on my own enforcement of my schedule...the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, etc. I'm working on it. It's my primary goal of 2007 to get this aspect of my daily life together. Ask me again in a year and I'll tell you how it's going!

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