Tuesday, November 1, 2011

HOW TO SAVE A LIFE Interview With National Book Award Finalist Sara Zarr

I met Sara Zarr a few years ago at a dinner our publisher threw for educators and YA enthusiasts. Being new to the YA game, I was eager to meet other YA writers and chatted up both Sara Zarr and Sarah Ockler. (If I remember correctly LB's fab Victoria Stapleton was billing our trio as a 'Sara(h) sandwich.') We three authors promised to read each other's work and follow up. Happily we did.

As I made my way through Zarr's books and traded e-mails with her here and there, we found we had a few things in common. Sara's become an Internet buddy and a trusted colleague. She works hard on her craft and even harder on keeping it real. I've become quite a fan of both Sara and her novels. 

As I've enjoyed all three of Zarr's previous books, I'm happy to report that HOW TO SAVE A LIFE may be her best yet. BUY A COPY RIGHT NOW! (And win one below.) The deceptive simplicity of her clean stellar prose is matched by the authenticity of her characters. There's a reason Sara Zarr's novels have been so popular and celebrated.

Synopsis followed by the interview:

Jill MacSweeney just wants everything to go back to normal. But ever since her dad died, she's been isolating herself from her boyfriend, her best friends--everyone who wants to support her. You can't lose one family member and simply replace him with a new one, and when her mom decides to adopt a baby, that's exactly what it feels like she's trying to do. And that's decidedly not normal. With her world crumbling around her, can Jill come to embrace a new member of the family?

Mandy Kalinowski knows what it's like to grow up unwanted--to be raised by a mother who never intended to have a child. So when Mandy becomes pregnant, she knows she wants a better life for her baby. But can giving up a child be as easy as it seems? And will she ever be able to find someone to care for her, too?

Critically acclaimed author and National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr delivers a heart-wrenching story, told from dual perspectives, about what it means to be a family and the many roads we can take to become one.

Q: Thanks for stopping by, SZ. They say writing the sophomore novel is the hardest and the third means you survived the second. But this is your fourth published novel. Congratulations. Does number four hold any significance for you? Was the book-four writing process different? Harder? Easier?
SZ: Well, way to nail it, "they", because that was certainly true for me. Writing my second book was really rough, and the third did feel like a survival situation. And I must say, writing How to Save a Life was a real joy, about as good as writing gets. Still hard work, but work I looked forward to most days.

Q: One of the major themes of HTSAL is saying yes, or maybe being open to possibility—being less defensive. In very different ways, both Jill and Mandy struggle to say yes. Has saying yes ever been difficult for you? What inspired you to write about this theme?

SZ: It's funny - in some ways I feel like I say "yes" to myself a lot, and not always in great ways. There was so much "no" in my life, growing up, in a lot of areas that are important to kids. Not because my family was stingy or anything, but that was the situation; we were limited in material and emotional resources. So now I'm very, "Yes, you can be lazy. Yes, you can buy that. Yes, you can bail on this." It's so much harder for me to say yes to truly good things, like real rest, hope, belief in the possibility of things getting better. Receiving grace, receiving love...it's hard. Because we can either think we don't deserve those good things, or we have a cynical doubt that they will actually effect meaningful change. It's one of my life themes, and will probably always come out in my work in some way.

Q: On the website Image you wrote: “Mother's Day … can be a painful day for some women who are my age or older, and, like me, childless. For me, the day doesn't arouse any emotion other than regret that once again I've failed to get a card for my mom.” And yet you write a beautiful book about how the process of creating life can heal and save. As a childless reader/writer myself, I found the juxtaposition of the two aforementioned pieces extremely chewy. What say you on this matter?

SZ: Ah, I hadn't thought about that! First, as you know and understand, I'm not anti-parenthood. But, there are so many ways to create life outside of parenting, so many ways to give birth to good things. I think it happens most often in human relationships, which is why I think I'm always writing about relationships. Pregnancy is just such a handy metaphor for so much!

So much of life is spent waiting. We are in expectation and hope of new life in some area almost all the time. That expectation is often accompanied by fear or dread or the anxiety that either a painful past will repeat itself, or some fresh hell is on its way. Is this thing I'm waiting for going to turn out well, or will it be Rosemary's Baby? And I think Mandy and Jill experience both sides of that sense of waiting. The baby comes to represent everything, it bears so many of their hopes for new life, and there's a sense of being on pause until that painful/joyful moment of yes finally comes. (I don't think that answered your question!)

Q: Did you have to do a lot of research for this book?

SZ: I did some. I poked around adoption web sites, but the main plot centers around a kind of gray-market situation, where there are no agencies or lawyers involved. And I just figured when it comes to something as potentially complicated and fraught as adoption, people will go to all sorts of lengths and concede to all sorts of conditions and compromises. A good friend of mine is a doctor, and I took her out for a glass of wine to get all my pre-natal care questions answered. The most fun researchy thing was taking a trip to Omaha to get a sense of it, then taking the train from Omaha to Denver, as Mandy does, and then going out to Casa Bonita with Denver friends. (For those who don't know, Casa Bonita is an awesomely tacky theme restaurant immortalized in a South Park episode, and now in How to Save a Life.)

Q: There’s a tasteful sex-positive scene between two characters who are very good friends. In a book that explores the subject of teen pregnancy, I thought the inclusion of this scene—between two characters who don’t end up in trouble because of sex—was smart. Will you please comment on the scene and why you chose to include it?

SZ: As is always the case with sex in my books, I didn't plan or plot or premeditate that scene. I follow the characters, and that just seemed like the right scene in the right place with the right characters. They've known each other a long time, have been an off-and-on couple, and the character wants to connect with something. A positive sexual connection with a person you trust can be so comforting, and life-giving. It seemed natural. (And, in retrospect, maybe I've redeemed Deanna's not-so-great experience in Story of a Girl a little bit by including this scene.)

Q: There’s a line in the book that hit me hard. Mandy recalls the moment her mother saw she had developed breasts. The mother purchases a bra for her daughter and then says, “Your childhood is over.” And yet years later and pregnant, Mandy still very much needs a mother. Did that line feel weighty when you wrote it?

SZ: Writing Mandy's mother was so difficult. I didn't want to make her into a joke, though she comes out with some crazy stuff. My editor for this book, Jennifer Hunt, worked with me a lot on finding the balance of this cluelessly careless-with-humans woman who was also the only mother Mandy ever knew, and a little bit of comic relief in some of Mandy's recollections about her mom. I worked on that particular memory quite a bit before that line came to me, and yeah, it seemed like an important (and truly sad) moment in Mandy's life.

Q: One of your narrators is born into a loving supportive family and the other is not. In some ways the books seems to be saying something about luck and fate. And yet the way these two characters meet might be viewed as a direct attempt to manipulate fate. Were you trying to comment on fate by writing HTSAL?

SZ: No. I generally think "fate" is just a cool word for "this is the situation." Whether you think God, or "the universe", or fate put the situation in front of you, there it is. And we all have to deal in reality. (Or at least, we are better off dealing in reality. Mandy's mother does not, and you can see where that gets her.) Mandy and Jill have very different realities, but they are both trying to face it and deal.

Q: We hear endless stories about predators and bad people on the Internet. But yours is a story about good people—a teen and an adult—meeting on the Internet. It’s an essential part of the plot, but were you trying to make a point here?

SZ: Nah. I was just trying to figure out how the adoption got set up in the first place! The Internet seemed like the obvious choice, as that tends to be where we turn when we're asking ourselves, hmm, I want to do this thing, and how would that work? I imagine Jill's mom, Robin, up late during the holidays, Googling with a glass of wine nearby, and unexpectedly making this life-changing contact with Mandy.

Q: Advice for up-and-coming writers?

SZ: Write! Try not to freak out about things you can't control. Keep your head down and do your work. That's the same advice I give myself.

Q: What’s next for SZ?

SZ: I'm working on another YA, The Lucy Variations. It's a lot about re-finding lost joy and a missing self, the effect non-parent adults can have on adolescent lives, and coffee. Hmm, I'm detecting a theme...

Q: Thanks so much for speaking (typing?) with us today!

SZ: Thank you for the great questions!

You can find Sara Zarr on Twitter, Facebook, and at www.sarazarr.com

Good news, readers! I'm giving away two copies of HOW TO SAVE A LIFE. To be entered into the giveaway, just make a comment below. If you wish to purchase HTSAL, please do so. You won't regret it. I've added these links for your convenience: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Indiebound / Powell's


ArtieLange said...

SZ wrote:

"It's so much harder for me to say yes to truly good things, like real rest, hope, belief in the possibility of things getting better. Receiving grace, receiving love...it's hard. Because we can either think we don't deserve those good things, or we have a cynical doubt that they will actually effect meaningful change. It's one of my life themes, and will probably always come out in my work in some way."

If Sara Zarr continues to weave this theme into her books, then she will not only contribute something significant to literature, she will also provide a real gift to those folks, like me, trying to make a life out of our hours on earth.

Rob L.

kent said...

"Fate" is just a cool word for "this is the situation". That's a great way to look at it! Very nice interview. Congratulations on the new book, Sara.

Alicia said...

Sara, I like what you say about expectation and fear. I swing between hope and dread a lot and lately I've been trying to slow down the swing a little.

Anyway, a great interview to go with a great book. And I love that author pic!

Debbie / Cranberry Fries said...

I've read Sara's other books and really like them! I can't wait to read this next one, I've hear such great things about it. Great interview!

Alaina said...

Thanks for sharing this interview. I've just recently discovered Sara Zarr's novels and am excited to read HTSL very soon.

Joanna said...

Loved your commitment to "yes" and perspective on giving birth to good things. A tweet brought me over here - new site and new author to me, very happy for these encounters and plan to buy How to save a Life.

katieleigh said...

What a great interview. I love the idea of a theme of saying "yes." Can't wait to read this book.

noir said...

Sara Zarr's twitter account is also a lot of fun to read as well - I started reading before I had a chance to get her first novel!

Heather Leah said...

Wow, Q...great interview! Heartfelt and thoughtful questions that elicited an equally open exchange! Thanks for posting this!

Zarr's new book sounds like something I could relate to emotionally in a lot of ways. I'm looking forward to reading it!

Keep those words (both fiction and interviews and musings) coming, please!

Dayse D. said...

I hope this is open worldwide, because I really love Sara Zarr and I would love to read How o Save a Life.
so yeah :)

Alysa said...

Great interview! I have found Sara Zarr's writing really fantastic and understated. Excited to read this one.

Alaina said...

P.S. I would really really love to get a copy of the book :)


evanjamesroskos said...

i copied the line about Fate and then saw Kent already applauded it. Consider this a "me too!" Great interview. I really really can't wait to read this!!

Sara Z. said...

Thanks for the comments, all! And for the great interview and kind words, Q. I always enjoy our conversations.

Shari Green said...

Loved this interview! (Great questions, Q.) Thanks so much to both of you for sharing this.

agchurchill said...

Great conversation! Sadly, I haven't read that much YA since leaving teaching-- reading this made me realize how much I'm missing out. Definitely putting this one on the wish list. Thanks!

sarahockler.com said...

Wonderful interview. How to Save a Life is my favorite Sara Zarr book, and I loved getting some additional insight about the characters and story here.

I also want to go on record as saying that Casa Bonita is pretty much the strangest place ever. It's not far from where I live... in fact, one of our friends insists on having his birthday party there every year! Of course I'll always think of Sara now when I'm eating my sopapillas.

No need to enter me in the contest. Just wanted to share my Sara-love and encourage everyone to check out this fantastic book!

Scott Humfeld said...

Great interview. Thoughtful questions, thoughtful answers. This blog never lets me down.

Becky said...

That sounds like a must read! Great interview!

skim said...

Sara Zarr is amazing. What a great interview! I'm throwing my hat in the ring, but if I don't win, I'm definitely getting my hands on this book ASAP anyway. :)

Q said...

Thanks to everyone for the great comments and kind words. We appreciate it. I hope you will all read HOW TO SAVE A LIFE. The winners are KatieLeigh and Alaina. Please send your mailing address to matthewquickwriter [at] gmail.com and I'll send a copy to you pronto. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with A.S. King on her new fab book EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS and--if I get it together--a blog post documenting my day on THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK movie set.