Hostile Questions: Sarah Dessen
Posted by: Daniel Kraus
Let me just throw a few Sarah Dessen titles at your face. That Summer. Someone Like You. Dreamland. What Happened to Goodbye. Did that hurt? Not enough? Well, she’s got a bunch more, so you might as well relent and read a few. Refuse and face the wrath of her army of devoted fans–seriously, they’ll outflank, outnumber, and overwhelm you and then you’ll be forced to join their ranks. Your boot camp will drill into you Dessen’s finely observed poignancy, angst, and wisdom, and you know what? When it’s all over you’ll be thankful for the tough love. Which means I can stop throwing books at your face.
Just who do you think you are?
It depends on the time of day you ask me. If it’s 5:45am, when my dogs and kid want to get up, I am basically that grumpy old person who looks like they’ve been hit in the face with a frying pan. Mid-morning, I’m that frazzled mom at Whole Foods trying to get through the line before preschool pickup. But 1-5 each weekday, if my sitters show up as scheduled, then I get to be a YA writer. When that’s over, I’m Fred Flintstone, sliding down the back of his dinosaur, the workday done. Except for Twitter, where I am always that person squinting at my phone/ipad, one finger raised, saying, “Just one more second.” I’m not proud, but there it is.
Where do you get off?
People always think that because I write about teenagers I am somehow an expert on them. Not true: I haven’t been a teen since 1989. (Oh, my God, is that TRUE? Sadly, yes. I just did the math.) So clearly, I’m not exactly current, and I don’t make a concentrated effort to keep up with what’s happening in the teen world today. That said, I am a bit of a pop culture junkie and I love TV, so I’m not oblivious either. When it comes to writing, though, I don’t draw on what’s around me as much as go back to what I remember. High school was not a good time for me. I was sad and kind of lost and only made it through because of good luck and great friends. Technology and slang and fashion can all change, but that sense of what it feels like to be dealing with so much, all at once, never changes. That’s what I draw on. All these years later, I still remember it pretty well.
There’s all kinds of labels on publishing. For the longest time, I was a Young Adult Writer, but now I also get called a Romance Novelist, or sometimes Realistic Fiction YA Author. To me, the monikers don’t mean much. I never set out to specifically be a writer of teenage fiction. I just wrote a book with a fifteen year old narrator, and the agent who bought it said, “This is YA.” At first I was really resistant. I’d just come out of a really competitive undergrad writing program and was all about being Taken Seriously as a Real Author, and I felt like YA might not give me that. I was SO wrong. The adolescent voice is what I do best, and even without labels or genres I can only hope that I’d have found my way to where I am, somehow. The bottom line is, I write the kind of books I wanted to read when I was a teen, as well as the ones I want to read now, in my forties. Good stories with strong characters, at times touching, other times funny, that I can take something from and carry it with me. There’s not a label or manual for that. But when you know, you know.
What is your problem, man?
If I could change anything about myself it would be to agonize less about writing. You’d think that by the eleventh book, I’d feel a certain amount of confidence in my process and the final product. You would be wrong. I am just as in knots about this one as the last, and the one before that, all the way back to the first. To me, writing is like this lovely miracle that I have NO CONTROL OVER WHATSOEVER. I can do the same thing every single day—sit in the same place, at the same time, with the same preliminary and necessary chocolates—and the results are always different. Some days are great, like the narrator is dictating right to me. Others I want to crawl under my desk and curl up into the fetal position. And you just never know what you’re going to get. I used to try to figure out why this was, and how I could change it, but now I’m thinking is all just part of the process. You have to be a little crazy to do this. And that’s the thing: I keep doing it. So there must be some sense in it, somewhere.
Haven’t you done enough?
Apparently not, as The Moon and More is, as I said my eleventh book. How did THAT happen? And because of the lag in time between finishing final edits and a book release, I’ve actually already turned my attention to the NEXT one, whatever that may end up being. Whenever I finish a first draft, I think, “That’s it. That’s the last one. I cannot do this again. I must spare everyone around me the madness it causes.” Then I take a few weeks off, watch a lot of Bravo, eat pizza, see some movies. And before I know it, another story starts bubbling up. I can fight it off awhile, but eventually I just get too squirrelly and have to sit down and see where it goes. I’ll curse myself later, but I’ll do it. It’s how everyone of my books begins.