Daily Archives: February 1, 2008

Author Interview: Sara Zarr


I’m so very happy to bring Sara Zarr to Shelf Elf today, with an entirely yummy interview (every bit as satisfying as the pink frosted, heart-shaped cupcake on the cover of Sweethearts, her brand new book – I guarantee it).

A lot of people have romantic visions of what it means to be a writer. So, what’s one part of your job that’s truly dreamy and fantastic, and one part that’s not.

Dreamy and fantastic: Not having to get up at a certain time in order to be in a certain place (usually).

Not so dreamy: Figuring out how to balance the writing and non-writing parts of being an author.

What inspires you?

There are certain moments when I’m in a beautiful place (could be a natural setting, or just a clean and cozy room), and a bird is singing or there’s an amazing song on the stereo or I can smell homemade soup, and I’m feeling a powerful surge of love or regret or yearning…when all of those things (place, five senses, emotion) converge AND I’m aware of them, it’s a magical moment that makes me feel like all things are possible and I want to dash to the computer and capture it all. Of course, this rarely happens, so I have to rely on more practical methods for getting work done. But it’s nice when you have those tiny windows when life seems to be in Technicolor.

Do you procrastinate when it comes to writing, and if you do, what is your worst procrastination technique, and your best cure?

Yes. Writing is rewarding, but it’s always difficult and my nature is to avoid anything difficult. The most insidious form of procrastination is all the busy work that relates to my writing career. It’s insidious because I can rationalize days and days of that and convince myself it’s okay because it’s still work. The best cure usually boils down to good old self-discipline. Once I start writing, it’s not quite so terrifying.

When you were a teen, what book really changed you, or affected you in a powerful way?

I can’t single out any one book, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Madeleine L’Engle’s A House Like a Lotus. It was in the O’Keefe family line of stories and when I read it, I expected more of the same kind of fantastic and sci-fi-like adventures L’Engle had written before. It turns out that Lotus is this great and complicated piece of realistic fiction. I grew up with L’Engle books; when Lotus came out in 1985, I was 15, and felt in a way that in reading about Polly crossing over into adulthood, I did, too. At that time I was experiencing (as we all do at that age, I think) disappointment in people I admired and realizing that even the best adults couldn’t be perfect. It was a kind of loss of innocence that I went through, and so did Polly, and that really stayed with me.

Do you have a goal as a writer?

To create a satisfying reading experience, and not go crazy doing it.

What are you reading at the moment?

About two seconds ago the library notified me that my hold copy of Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher is in, so I finally get my turn at that!

What character would you most like to be from a recent read?

There’s this character in a Miranda July short story who teaches swimming to senior citizens. Only, there’s no pool and this character may not actually know how to swim, so she’s teaching them on the living room floor. I wouldn’t mind having that kind of dedication and optimism!

I read your recent Book Notes piece for Sweethearts, where you wrote that your novel is not a romance, but a story about love. How would you explain the difference?

When I think of romance I think of looking at your beloved as someone without flaws, and spending every waking moment anticipating a kiss or touch, and daydreaming about your future together and manipulating your life and their life to be together. When you’re in a romance, you often sort of set aside reality. Love, the non-romantic kind, bumps up against reality all the time. Jenna and Cameron’s story is about a love that comes about not in spite of reality and limitations and flaws, but mixed right in with those things. Also, I think they truly want the best for one another. Romance, in my opinion, is quite a bit more selfish than that.

It seems that you resist what most would view as conventional happy endings. Do you see the conclusions of your novels as “happy endings” for Deanna and Jenna?

I think they’re real endings. And I do think they’re happy endings, in a way. Without giving too much away, I think what happens at the end of Sweethearts really is best for both of them even if there’s not a sunset to ride off into.

In Story of a Girl, Deanna imagines the girl she wishes she could be, but struggles to get away from how she’s been defined by other people. She works hard to take her life into her own hands again. In Sweethearts, Jennifer transforms herself into the girl she had always hoped to become, and then finds the change leaves her hollow and lonely. Both of your novels look at transformation. What is it about this theme that interests you?

I haven’t given that much thought. I guess transformation is so much a part of life for everyone, all the time. We all have things about ourselves or our lives we want to change. Very, very few people would say they are happy with everything exactly as it is. Look at shows like What Not to Wear or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition or Flip This House or Trading Spaces or The Biggest Loser or even Miami Ink. They are all enormously popular, and they are all about transformations. I mean, most of that is just surface stuff, but I think those shows tap into something deeper about how we all long for some kind of meaningful growth or change, for a fresh start, for a big eraser to get rid of all the shameful and embarrassing and ugly things and replace them with the new and shiny and beautiful—or in the case of Miami Ink, to make a permanent mark or scar that is evidence that something significant happened. I think in a way, Jenna and Cameron are each other’s evidence of something they never told. That’s why Cam has to come find Jenna, and why Jenna’s reaction is so powerful.

If you were to select companion reads for Sweethearts and/or Story of a Girl, what would you choose?

Jo Knowles’ Lessons From a Dead Girl is kind of the anti-Sweethearts. There are two childhood friends who undergo something traumatic together, but instead of being healed by rekindling a relationship, they need to drastically separate so that the heroine of the book can survive. It was one of my favorite books of 2007.

A little randomness:

Since I read Sasha Cagen’s book, “To do list: from buying milk to finding a soul mate, what our lists reveal about us,” I’ve become super curious about people’s to-do lists. Do you write to-do lists, and if you do, would you mind sharing one?

Funny you should ask! I love to-do lists and just happen to have one right by my laptop:

p/u tax env @ co-op prop
p/u Perrotta book from library
p/u car! (pers. check)
figure out $ – bank by 1/30
go over itinerary & make to-do list [can you believe ‘make to-do list’ is on my to-do list?]
HAIR – trim
5-yr plan
contact Kit re: Phoenix

If you could be amazingly good at something in addition to writing (which would be totally unfair BTW), what would it be?

Songwriting and performing said songs.

A big thanks to Sara for her thoughtful responses (and for sharing her current to-do list… interesting, very interesting…). An even bigger thanks to Sara for her two novels, Story of a Girl and Sweethearts. Read my review of Sweethearts here, and find links to other reviews too. So go get ’em kids. Sweethearts is available today.


Poetry Friday: February

I don’t think this poem needs any introduction this morning… just check your calendar (and if you’re in Toronto, get out the snow shovel).

February – by Margaret Atwood

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard…

For the rest, visit Poetry Foundation.

(photo © Michael Jastremski for openphoto.net CC:Attribution-ShareAlike)



The ARC of Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts arrived at my house in an envelope containing a tiny box of crunchy, sort of tangy, red, white and pink hearts. While this kind of cutesy marketing might be greeted with indifference by some hard-nosed and snooty reviewer types, it works wonders with simple, sweet-toothed readers such as myself. Immediately, I had high hopes for this book. The best part of this sweetness is that the title of the novel reveals itself as more than a little tongue-in-cheek once you’ve read Zarr’s book, which takes a deep look at whether it’s possible to have – and to hold onto – your soul mate.

When they were young, Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick were not the cool kids. They didn’t care much, since they found that their friendship was more than enough to sustain them through the sometimes stormy, sometimes mundane world of early elementary school. They understood each other in the profound and mysterious way that some young kids can understand each other, without ever having to say much. Sara Zarr conveys the intensity and depth of this childhood friendship convincingly, which is crucial, given that we must believe in the power of the relationship for the rest of the novel to have any force or believability.

In fifth grade, the children experience a horrible event and Cameron disappears. Jennifer believes he has died and struggles to cope with this terrific loss. Years go by and Jennifer transforms herself into an entirely new, thinner, socially-accepted young woman, complete with boyfriend, stable family life, and a new name. Then Cameron walks back into her life and the past creeps in with him.

I think many teenagers will love this book. It’s just right the way that it shows that deep love cannot be all sweetness, that it can be founded on something challenging or secretive or even traumatic. There is real tension throughout the novel, as Zarr offers us only brief flashes of the awful event that the children experienced. We want to know the whole story, but we have to read on to learn more. This doesn’t feel manipulative since Jenna can only seem to handle thinking about what happened to her in fragments, the whole being too difficult to relive.

I think teenage girls all over the place should organize Sweethearts slumber parties where they stay up late, late into the night talking about Zarr’s book, eating too many pink cupcakes and then dreaming about their own Camerons. Swing past tomorrow, when I will share my recent interview with Sara!

Until then, read a few other reviews:

teen book review
The Well Read Child
Big A little a
A Patchwork of Books
Kate Messner
Jen Robinson’s Book Page