Sara Zarr is the acclaimed author of six novels for young adults, most recently Gem & Dixie, published by Balzer+Bray in April 2017. She’s a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner. Her books have been variously named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, the Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library and Los Angeles Public Library, and have been translated into many languages. She divides her time between Utah and California.
What led you to becoming a writer?
This is a tough question for any writer. I think it’s one of those things that is with you very early only but turning it into a career is different. I grew up in the 1970s without electronics or a lot of toys. I loved to read and I made stories up in my head, and my creativity manifested as playing imaginative games. In college I was pretty directionless as far as I wanted to do for a career. I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Organizational Communications, and worked in administrative jobs and various other corporate jobs. I didn’t have a career track, and definitely not one in a creative field. However, at about twenty five years old, I realized that being an author was an actual job, and I spent about ten years teaching myself how to write novels. In 2007, the fourth book I wrote, Story of a Girl, was the first to be published.
What motivated you to start writing books for young adults?
I always loved young adult fiction from the 1970s and 80s, the stuff I was reading when I was in high school, and since I was just twenty-five when I started writing, I was still close to those high school years. So those were the kinds of stories that came out. Now, at forty-eight, I find myself getting more interested in writing from adult character perspectives. It seems that the further I get away from my high school self, the further my characters and stories do as well.
Another driving force behind my writing was my family dysfunction. I think this is true for many if not most writers. The home I grew up in was chaotic, religious, and we had alcoholism running through the family tree. I experienced parental abandonment in the practical and emotional sense, and because of that, I’ve always been interested in exploring those aspects in my fiction. My characters, mostly teenage girls, are usually experiencing some type of parental abandonment in the mist of the already-difficult life stage of adolescence. My stories focus on how my characters manage to navigate all that.
Why did you make adoption a focal point in How to Save a Life?
Like my previous books, How to Save a Life starts with a teenage girl. She’s waiting for a train with her mother. On this train, there is a pregnant teenage girl who’s getting ready to meet the adoptive mother of her baby (who also happens to be the mother of the first teen girl, the one waiting for the train). The book has a back and forth narrative between the two teen characters—the pregnant girl and the one whose mother takes her in. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that it isn’t necessarily about what’s going to happen with the baby but instead, how this young mother is trying to get the parenting she needs and how families are formed, broken, and formed again.
I don’t necessarily have any personal experience with adoption but I have adult friends who are adoptive parents and my best friend growing up was adopted. As a writer, I don’t like to start so much with a theme or topic. It’s more about characters that take shape in my mind, and most of them have some kind of troubling family dynamic. I focus my work on how families succeed and fail at giving and receiving love and support to and from one another.
Are you working on any upcoming projects?
I’m finishing up a book that will be out in the Spring of 2020. The title is not final so I’ll leave that part out, but this one has a slightly (only slightly) more functional family dynamic than my past novels. It’s a multigenerational story and will also be the first time I’ve written from a teenage boy’s perspective. I’m excited for it to be out in the world next year!
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