writers tell you that in order to become successful, you have to pack
up and dwell in New York City for years just to get a little
recognition. But try telling that to Sara Zarr. Getting rave reviews
for her books from local papers all the way to the New York Times, not
to mention a movie deal on one of her books, she's proved to be a
literally force without having to leave Utah to do it. Now with a City Weekly Artys
nod and a third book on the way, it doesn't look like she'll be
stopping anytime soon. I got a chance to chat with Sara about her
books, how she got into writing, her thoughts on other local writers,
and some other random topics that came to mind.
Gavin: Hello Sara, thanks for chatting with me. First thing, tell us a little about yourself.
Sara: Hi, thanks for having me! I grew up in San Francisco, on the north side of Golden Gate Park, back in the seventies when working class families could still afford to live there. When I was a teen, we moved to Pacifica - a little bedroom community south of the city - but I moved back to town as soon as I graduated from high school, and spent eleven more years there until my husband got a job here in Salt Lake in 2000. We said we'd give it two years, assuming we'd soon be fleeing back to California, but it didn't take long for us to fall in love with SLC.
Gavin: How did you first get interested in writing, and what were some of your first attempts at it?
Sara: There were a few key circumstances of my childhood that set me up to be a writer: 1) Books and reading were valued in my home. My mom read to us every night, and it seems like we were at the library several times a week. 2) We lived pretty close to the edge, economically, and while my friends were accumulating piles of toys, my sister and I relied on good old fashioned "make believe" games. 3) I grew up in a family with alcoholism. This seems to be true of a lot of writers and artists. There's something about that dynamic that forces you, from an early age, to be emotionally self-reliant, and emotional self-reliance requires a healthy imagination and rich inner life if you want to thrive and not just survive. You create a little inner retreat from what's going on in reality and draw on that for your joy. Also, in an unstable environment, you're constantly acting out in your mind different scenarios for any potential circumstance, and the habit of "what if" is formed early. My first attempts to put all that imagination into written form included a narrative from the point of view of my teeth, and making my fourth grade vocabulary sentences as interesting as possible. e.g. "Oh bother with fashion!" cried the disgusted, untidy girl. Don't tell me that's not gold.
Gavin: Who are some of your favorite authors that inspired you and your writing?
Sara: Like most female readers of my generation, I was way into Madeleine L'Engle. And when I discovered Robert Cormier's YA books, I was absolutely blown away and couldn't get enough of him. After that, I sniffed out every realistic YA novel I could find by authors like ME Kerr, Cynthia Voigt, and of course the great Judy Blume.
Gavin: Did you do anything with your writing while at San Francisco State, or were you mainly focused on getting your degree?
Sara: I didn't study writing in college at all. Well, I started out as an English major, but kind of hated it so switched to Speech Communication Studies, with a sideline in drama.
Gavin: I read you did start writing until many years down the road. Why did it take you so long to pursue the idea of writing for a living?
Sara: I guess in an era when fifteen-year-olds are on the NYT best seller list, twenty-five (which is when I started) sounds like "many years down the road," but I think that's still pretty young. I just didn't see "being a writer" as an option. It seemed like saying that I wanted to be an astronaut, or the President. That was something other people did. I didn't know any authors, and I don't remember an author ever making a school visit where I was. The Internet changed everything for me because suddenly I could research this whole "being an author" thing in a safe way, without having to voice my dream and risk having it shot down. I started reading author interviews, talking with writers in chat rooms, and discovering it wasn't such a crazy idea after all.
Gavin: How did you get your start in writing for a living, and were there any first breaks into the process.
Sara: Once I'd done my research into the world of writing for real, I decided, in 1995, that I would finish a novel. That was my first goal - to write a whole book. That's what it's all about. Ideas are pretty easy - almost everyone you meet has an idea for a novel and they "just have to write it." Very few people who say they want to be writers actually sit down and complete the painful process of transcribing your idea into words. So I knew that was step 1. And then, in 1997, I went through the whole beginner's process: doing market research, cold querying agents, sending the book out, getting rejections. My first break was when a good New York agent signed me based on that first novel I finished. That did not result in a sale and ultimately she and I parted ways, but it was an important confidence builder and helped me (and others) take my nascent career seriously.
Gavin: Did it come easy for you, or was it more trial and error?
Sara: Nothing about writing comes easy for me. Lots and lots of trial and error, both in the creative process and in the business part of it.
Gavin: What was it like to win an award from the Utah Arts Council in 2005 for Story Of A Girl?
Sara: It was actually 2003, which seems so long ago now. It was great, especially because in 2002 I was seriously considering giving up. I'd been at it seven years and felt like something should have happened by then. I was tired and discouraged. But I felt very strongly that Story of a Girl (which was my fourth completed novel) was going to be the one to break through, so I couldn't let it go.
Gavin: In early 2007 you got that book published. Was it hard to find a publisher or were you picked up pretty quickly?
Sara: In early 2005 I found a new agent, and after that things happened very quickly. He signed me in February of that year, and I did another revision of the book. He sent it out in late April and the offer from Little, Brown came in early May. Then there was the waiting time between selling it and its publication. I thought January 2007 would never come!
Gavin: How did you feel about the response the book got after it's release?
Sara: When you're done with a book and waiting for those first responses, you have no idea what to expect. You hope you've done your best and that people respond. So when the first reviews and reader responses started to trickle in, and they were good, it was an incredible feeling. You know not everyone is going to love your book, you just hope that a few people get it and hear and understand your voice. And of course, finding out last fall that it was a National Book Award finalist was kind of the ultimate validation and assurance that I have a career ahead of me.
Gavin: You followed that book up with Sweethearts earlier this year. Did that book come harder or easier to write after the success of the previous one, or did you really notice any change?
Sara: It was harder, definitely, because that book was all about the transition from writing as an unpublished author to writing as a published one. Before you're published, no one knows who you are or cares what you're doing. You can tell people you're writing a book and the response is, "Oh, that's nice," followed by awkward silence. When you're in the middle of that stage of your career, it sucks, because all you want is to be published and for people to read and care about your books. But I have to say that I miss that now. Now, a lot of people care what I'm doing, and that creates a certain kind of pressure. As I wrote Sweethearts, I had to learn how to protect the creative process with one part of myself, while the public self was being Author Sara Zarr and managing all the non-writing things that come with a writing career. It was rough. I really almost had a nervous breakdown!
Gavin: What did you think of the media attention you got after that one came out?
Sara: I was still suffering from some of my Second Book Psychosis, so I was convinced it would be a huge flop. When the trade reviews started coming in and they were even more positive than the ones for Story of a Girl, I was ecstatic, and relieved. Also, Sweethearts has generated a ton of reader mail. It's a very emotional story, and I get a lot of email from teens begging to know what happens to the characters after the last page. Those kinds of letters are better than even the most gushing trade review.
Gavin: I understand at one point there was talk about it being optioned for a movie. What's the progress on that?
Sara: It's actually Story of a Girl that's been optioned. Kyra Sedgwick and her production partner, Emily Lansbury, have the option, and as of right now there's a draft of a screenplay that everyone is happy with (by Laurie Collyer, who wrote and directed Sherrybaby). Now it's in the financing stage, which is of course where most movies fall apart, but I'm hopeful that someone (or some many someones) out there will believe in the project enough to make it happen. If anyone out there has a rich uncle interested in movies, let me know! Sherrybaby was a great film, and I know that Laurie would do an amazing job directing Story of a Girl.
Gavin: A little state-wide, what's your take on the local literary scene and the writers coming out of it?
Sara: Utah is on fire, especially in the children's and young adult market. I don't know if people really realize how many critically acclaimed and top-selling authors in young people's lit we have here. I'm grateful to be a part of it.
Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make it more prominent?
Sara: The publishing industry is all about New York, and it's hard to think of two places more different than New York and Utah. But if Utah authors keep producing excellent work, and get it nationally published, the work will speak for itself.
Gavin: Do you have any advice for other local writers about their work and getting published?
Sara: I keep thinking about something Walter Kirn said at the book festival here a couple of years ago: "Go to New York." He wasn't necessarily speaking literally. He just meant that if you're going to write, strive to be in there where it's all happening, to make it in mainstream publishing and go where people are thinking and talking about things that are part of the big cultural dialog. I think a lot of writers start with local publishers, or if they are LDS feel like submitting to LDS publishers is a safer bet. But to have a career that transcends cultural boundaries, strive to be nationally published. Try to get a New York agent. Shoot for selling to publishers with national and international profiles. As Kirn put it, "Go to the middle ring of the circus, in with the lions." That isn't to dismiss local publishers. If you write a book that is a perfect fit for a local publisher, that's who should publish it. And look at Shadow Mountain - a Utah publisher that is truly national - hugely successful with the Fablehaven books all over the NYT list. Shadow Mountain is going to be more and more a player in the coming years, I think, building on what they've already done to bring attention and respect to Utah authors.
Gavin: If you had to make a list, who are some of your favorite local authors?
Sara: My favorite local YA author right now is Ann Dee Ellis. She's also with Little, Brown and has a very unique voice. And there's one up and coming whose first book comes out in November. Her name is Emily Wing Smith and her book is called The Way He Lived. I think it's a great example of a book that is very Utah (it's set here, with LDS characters) but transcends culture with craft of writing and a story that tackles those big, universal questions. I don't know of any local publishers that would touch that kind of realistic YA fiction. Emily's book will be out with a national publisher, Flux/Llewellyn.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on the local book stores and how they're holing up against bigger chains.
Sara: The King's English always seems to be thriving. The key to indie book stores doing well is in all the extras, because obviously they can't compete with pricing. The King's English has it all: a knowledgeable staff, frequent events, a print newsletter, an email newsletter, a blog, and a well-stocked store. Salt Lake is lucky to have it.
Gavin: Do you feel like books are in decline with some being published online, or do you believe there will always be an audience there for a hand-held copy?
Sara: There will always be people who want to hold a printed book. The industry will definitely continue to change and adjust to new markets, and authors have learn to adjust with it, but I don't ever see a day without traditionally published book.
Gavin: What can we expect from you the rest of the year and into next?
Sara: I'm working on my third book for Little, Brown. Hopefully it will be out next fall - we'll see. This fall, I'll be around town with some stuff for Teen Read Week, Utah Council of Teachers of English, and the Utah Humanities Book Festival. My full schedule is on my website.
Gavin: Finally, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Sara: Yes! This Saturday, August 23, there's going to be a great book event at the Anderson Foothill Library. It's called The Rapunzel Roundup - a celebration of the release of Shannon and Dean Hale's graphic novel, Rapunzel's Revenge. A bunch of local authors will be doing a panel from 1 p.m. - 2 p.m., then from 2 p.m. - 5 p.m. There will be a bluegrass band performing, book signing, free autograph books for kids, and all kinds of western-themed fun. Kid-friendly, free, and local!