What up, YAngelists! Welcome to another installment of our Between Two Lockers author interview series. Today, I am honored and totally stoked to share my locker space with the insanely talented and super awesome Sara Zarr! Seriously, you guys, the woman is a legend. She created Cameron Quick, for God's sakes. Her books are layered with authentic, compelling characters and words that burrow deep into your heart. And while some YA books take you away to foreign lands and dystopias, Zarr's stories transport you to a reality that could be living next door to you or passing you on the street. Her stories emanate truth and shine with hope, and I consider her one of the greatest YAngelists in history. Her latest, How To Save A Life, blew me away, and it was seriously an honor (not to mention a total blast) to interview her.
THE ACTUALLY-RELATED-TO-THE-BOOK QUESTIONS
I really enjoyed switching back and forth between Jill and Mandy's viewpoints. Did you plan this structure all along, or did it develop during your writing process?
I started out thinking it would only be Jill's story, but as soon as I finished her first chapter, I realized I wanted to get into the head of this girl on the train who was about to change Jill's life. It's the first time I've done dual narration, and in the first draft, Jill's chapters felt so easy to write...I'd look up and 2500 words would be done, hours gone by. Then I'd write Mandy's, and it felt arduous, like it took all day to get 500-600 words. I think Jill is someone very familiar to me - in many ways, she is me. Mandy took more discovery, but by the final drafts her voice really came through.
Teen pregnancy is an enduring topic in YA literature, but it can often end up falling into a cliched trap. How did you approach Mandy's pregnancy in a way that made it compelling and authentic rather than something from an after-school special?
To be honest, I never thought about Mandy's pregnancy as a topic or issue. It was just the catalyst for bringing these characters together. But, I think the secret to avoiding cliche in any story is making sure the characters and their lives are real to you. That may not be in the first draft, but by the time you finish they should be living, breathing people who you wouldn't be surprised to run into at the grocery store. We all, as real people, go through life stuff that makes us go, "Ugh, I'm such a cliche!" But our experience of those things is ours, not a cliche, because we're our own human selves. So my job as a writer is to make the characters their real human selves as much as is within my capabilities.
Even though he died before the beginning of the book, Jill's dad is still a vivid character in this story. Did you base him on any dads you know?
Not that I'm aware of. But I guess I did kind of picture James Garner, about 30 years ago.
Ravi's note to Jill only confirmed my long-held belief in the magical power of yearbooks. (See also: Ben Covington's note to Felicity Porter.) Did you ever receive or write any tingle-inducing yearbook messages yourself?
I got a good one from John Perry, my best guy friend for my last couple of years of high school, and it was great because we had so many experiences together. It's the words that document real connection that have always meant most to me to give and receive. But, as an adult, I've experienced getting a seemingly innocuous note via Facebook, and then later becoming really close friends with the person that sent it. And it's cool to look back and ask, "Was that the beginning of this? Just coincidence? Or the opening words of something enduring?" Which is I think how Ravi's yearbook note feels.
Did this book go through other working titles before you arrived at "How To Save a Life"? If so, what were they? We love us some Sara Zarr trivia.
Oh man. Normally I have all kinds of titles I'm struggling through, but this one was always what it is. Right before finalizing, my publisher wanted to kick around some others, but none of them could capture both Jill and Mandy's arcs just right. A couple I thought were contenders: "How You Get There Is Where You'll Arrive" (a great line from a Philip Booth poem, but a mouthful), "Unexpecting" (which I liked to call "What To Expect When You're Unexpecting"). There's always a desperate moment when you'll try anything, and I cracked myself up with: "Child of the Corn, Child of the City" and "The Peanut Butter Wars".
Child of the Corn... that would explain a lot about Mandy.
THE YA QUESTIONS
Sara sent us this pic of her student ID, which is "appropriately blurry and small."
If your real life adolescence was a YA book...
What would you, the main character, be like?
The "oh yeah she was also there" girl, who few notice but who is possession of many hidden charms that she sometimes tries too hard to unhide. It backfires.
Who is your secret crush?
That cute gap-toothed football player who took drama just because it sounded easy.
What is your number #1 source of angst?
Bad hair days 3/5 of the time. Also: Am I fat?
At what point would the reader pump his/her fist in victory?
When Allen H. kissed me behind the portable, freshman year.
And who would play you in the film adaptation?
Is Tina Fey too old? Thora Birch, circa Ghost World.
THE SLUMBER PARTY Qs
What is your secret power?
Making people forget stupid stuff I've said.
I NEED THAT POWER.
What is your #1 favorite food?
The incredible, edible egg. (It's always good when a food is edible, I find.)
Tell me about your area of expertise.
"Emails I Have Regretted"
If you could assemble your own Ocean's 11 of fictional characters, who would you pick and why?
Jerry Renault from The Chocolate War because he would not buckle when tortured, Ky from Matched because he has a good memory, Miguel from We Were Here because he will cut you if you mess, Coe Booth's Tyrell because he is resourceful (and a good kisser), Amber Appleton from Sorta Like a Rock Star because she is a can-do gal, Lennie from The Sky Is Everywhere because she's a poet and you can't underestimate the power of poetry. I guess I should take Katniss, because, you know, she knows how to KILL CHILDREN. Alan from Sweethearts because we all need a calm father figure, Blake from Flash Burnout for photo documentation, Cassel from White Cat because, hello, magic hands! How many is that? How about that dude from Moby Dick, because studies of the Inuits show you can live a very long time on whale blubber.
A good kisser is, indeed, a powerful weapon.
What is your best karaoke song?
Sadly, I only know my worst karaoke song, because I've only done it once, to epic failure. Elton John's "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues"
Tell me something scandalous!
I think Brad and Angelina might have slept together before Brad's divorce...
I totally think so too!!!!
What is your favorite adult beverage?
Coffee with heavy cream. And if you mean the other kind? Dirty martini. GIN, people.
What book have you read the most number of times?
Frog and Toad Together.
Who is your "freebie"?
ME TOO ME TOO ME TOO! It's cool, I'll share.
YA authors are so cool. Who would you give a BFF charm to?
Mike Martin. His stuff isn't published yet, but it will be and he's gonna be the coolest of all. Too cool to wear a charm, anyway.
Out of all of the characters you've written, which one do you most wish you could be?
Haha! This made me think: "I don't know if I write the kind of characters you would actually want to BE." Deanna Lambert is pretty awesome, though.
Deanna is TOTES awesome.
If you were invited to the FYA slumber party (and obvs, you ARE), what pajamas would you wear, and what is the most crucial snack food and/or movie you'd bring?
Comfy yoga-like apparel. Crucial movie: The Legend of Billie Jean. Crucial snack: deviled eggs.
Oh man, Sara Zarr, I really wish you could come over for a slumber party RIGHT NOW. We could make martinis and help you practice your karaoke without shame!
Now, let's get down to some MASH business.
Occupy Wall Street
# of Kids
A dozen (it's cheaper, right?)
Fountain Pen Appraiser
Fox News Anchor
Lifetime supply of Mentos
Dang, Sara, you totally owned that game of MASH! Congrats! We hope you'll come back to FYA soon (but maybe leave those eight kids at home).