The Sarah Dessen Interview

January 13, 2012

If you’re a fan of the young adult genre (and if you are, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s more to it than vampires and werewolves), you’re probably heard the name of today’s interviewee. She’s the author of 10 novels (many of them New York Times bestsellers) which have won numerous awards and accolades. Just a few examples: Just Listen was a Booksense Top Ten Pic, An ALA Best Book for Young Adults and in YALSA Teen’s Top Ten; This Lullaby was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Borders Group Original Voices Finalist, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist and Someone Like You was An ALA Best Book for Young Adults, A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, a barnesandnoble.com Best Teen Novel of the Year, Winner of the South Carolina Young Adult Book Award and was adapted into the movie How to Deal. Her most recent book, What Happened to Goodbye, was released in May 2011. I hope you enjoy this interview that I think is a revealing (and, from a writer’s point of view, reassuring look) at the life of a prolific and popular author.

I’ve read that several of your stories have been influenced by your real-life high school experiences. Prior to publication, have you ever spoken to any of your friends who you felt may have recognized themselves in your characters?
I've been pretty careful not to use anything too specific about anyone. I find that the more I depend on real life, the less interesting the story is. It's much more common for me to take something that almost-happened, or I wish had happened, and then follow that possibility. That said, I have used names of my friends as teachers and other things, just as a little wink. Also then I will know if they actually read the book or just said they did.

On that note, do you ever refer to old journals, yearbooks or photos to jog your memory of what life was like when you were in high school? How do you keep in that mindset?
Personally, I don't have to work very hard. I still live in my hometown and pass by my high school regularly, and I did marry someone I met then, as well. However, if I spent ALL my time with high school friends that wouldn't be good either. I think the mindset, for me, comes mostly from just remembering. It was not the best time for me. But the upside is that the feelings and events are kind of burned into my brain as a result.

In an earlier interview you said, “In high school, I was the oracle. My friends both loved and hated this about me.” How so?
I remembered all the stories. I still do. Which means that if my friends ever wanted to revise their histories to deny certain things (boys they dated, in particular) I would totally correct them. They hated that. On the other side, though, I was the one who could tell all the stories and make us laugh. Someone has to remember. Even if you sometimes want to forget.

Do you ever disagree with your editor? How do you know who is right?
I'm lucky that I have a really, really good editor in Regina Hayes at Viking's Children's Books. I call her my Just Right, as I have former editors the way other people have ex-boyfriends. Some were good fits, some not so much. Regina is VERY wise, and she won't push an edit unless she really feels it needs to be done. I also have learned to pick my battles. If you fight for every single thing, your voice loses impact. Editing is altogether collaborative, in the end. If you have someone good, you can learn SO much.

What do you think is the difference between a Young Adult book and an adult novel that happens to be about a young adult?
I know there are librarians that have much better answers to this question. To me, the difference is that a novel that involves the narrator looking back with adult perspective is contemporary fiction. A narrator who is a teen right then, without benefit of hindsight, is a young adult book. But I may be totally off on that. There are a lot of theories!

For you, what’s more difficult, writing the first draft or the editing process?
Always the writing process. Editing is hard but nowhere NEAR as tough as facing that blank page and blinking cursor each day. You're all alone and no one else can do it. At least with editing you have someone in the trench with you.

Have you written any complete books that didn’t get sold? Do you consider those dead and buried or do you think about trying to resurrect them and alter them?
I have SO many books I didn't sell. Some my agent rejected outright, others made it all the way to my editor to be turned away. Not everything is a winner, which is tough when you've devoted eight or nine months of your life to something. But usually, if I am honest, I have a sense when I'm rushing something or it's not right. I just hope I'm wrong. My agent is so totally honest, which is just what every writer needs. She won't let me sell a crappy book, even if I want to. I also have a few regular fiction books that I wrote years back that no one was interested in. I'd love to think they're good enough to get another shot but...I think if I write for an older audience, I'd like to do it with all the experience I've had in the last ten years, not with something from before.

When you found out that you were having a baby, did you make a schedule for yourself in terms of how writing, editing and publishing would fit into your pregnancy, delivery and then early days of child-rearing, or did you just make it work as you could?
I was writing Lock and Key when I found out I was pregnant, so we knew we were dealing with a time issue more so than the other novels. I finished it in the spring, edited during the summer, and finished everything on my end it pretty close to when my daughter was born in the fall. Because we did the writing and editing much closer together than normal, I had from September to May or so to just adjust to being a mom before I had to start promoting. And I did a VERY small book tour, only four dates or so, only one overnight. But writing with a kid isn't easy. I have sitters who help me weekday afternoons, but if they get sick or have a conflict, I just don't work that day. The controlling writer freak in me goes NUTS when that happens. But I just have to roll with it. So I try to do just that.

How much time to you allot yourself each day or week to be in touch with your fans or promote your books? It seems like that would be a tempting way to “work” while simultaneously procrastinating writing.
I feel like Twitter was tailor-made for me, because I can do short spurts all day long. I loved my blog, but doing daily, then thrice weekly entries was really time consuming. 140 characters is perfect. And I just have to be super strong when it comes to my work time. Shut the browser, ignore the email alerts, and just WRITE. It's actually easier now that I know I only have four hours a day, five days a week. It forces me to get serious.

You’ve said: “I am a serious rule-follower, sometimes to my detriment.” What does that mean?
Oh, I just can't ever be a free spirit and just relax. When it comes to work, as I said above, this is good. I'm very disciplined, which with writing is often half the battle, or more. But it also means that if I want to, say, play hooky and chocolate and watch Bravo all afternoon, I feel horribly guilty. I wish I could find a nice balance. I wish I could find any balance, these days.

How do you feel about Goodreads? I know a lot of authors consider it a necessary evil.
I belong to Goodreads but honestly am not super active on it. All this stuff would take all day if I let it! I do Twitter, very little Facebook, the occasional blog post and very few emails to my mailing list. And that is still a LOT. I am lucky to have a very web-savvy assistant who does some of the heavier lifting for me.

Do you have a tradition for celebrating pub day?
I usually try to read at one of my favorite hometown independent bookstores, The Regulator, on my pub day. We've done that the last four books or so and now I am superstitious about it. Also I eat a lot of potato chips and try NOT to obsess, usually not very successfully.

Which magazines do you subscribe to?
Oh, dear. I should totally say The Economist, right? Truth: US Weekly and Entertainment Weekly. I also get Newsweek but I'd be lying if I said most weeks it didn't go directly into recycling. Sigh.

I know you like Modern Family: what other shows do you watch?
This is another guilty pleasure of mine, TV. I love ALL the Housewives franchise on Bravo, but pay penance by only allowing myself to watch them while I'm working out. (Also, my husband will not tolerate them on in his presence.) I also regularly watch The Office, Parks and Recreation, The New Girl, Grey's Anatomy, Kitchen Nightmares and Good Morning America. Sadly, that is not the whole list, but I'll stop now.

What’s been your favorite book that you’ve read with your daughter recently?
We are really loving Say Hello to Zorro! by Carter Goodrich. We are also big fans of the Llama Llama books by Anna Dewdney. I love how much she enjoys reading. She looks nothing like me---a ringer for my husband---but with her love of stories I see myself in her.

What’s your worst (by which I mean best) waitressing story?
I had a woman slap my hand once. She'd ordered a salad and eaten it. The plate was clear, fork diagonally across it. I asked if I could take it, she ignored me, so next time I went by when it had not been touched, I reached for it. She smacked my hand. I remember going back to the wait station all like, "I cannot even begin to talk about what just happened at table two." It was awful. I still see her around town sometimes. Am always tempted to smack her, but have restrained myself so far.

What’s the last book or story you read for fun?
I just finished Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, which was not an easy read, but I'm so glad I persisted. Right now I'm reading Elissa Schappell's Blueprints for Building Better Girls and it is fantastic. I wish I had more time to read!

How does it feel to be the 301st person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I'm flattered. And doing it while my daughter is watching TV and jumping on her trampoline, which makes it all the more special.