Monday, June 18, 2007

In which I get to interview Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl just became my favorite of 2007 so far. Sorry Twisted (I still love you!).

Deanna made a mistake. She shouldn’t have ever gone parking with Tommy. But what could have been a private mistake turns into a very public one when her father catches her in the act, and Tommy spreads the sordid tale around school – which, in a small town like Pacifica, means everyone knows. Now it’s almost three years later, she’s done with sophomore year, and Deanna is that girl. She can’t escape her past; no one will let her forget what she did, and worst of all, her father hasn’t looked in her eyes since that night he pulled her out of Tommy’s car.

To the people around her, Deanna’s is defined by one moment -one mistake – despite the fact that she’s done nothing since then but prove otherwise.

1) I've been referring Deanna's indiscretion as a mistake. Do you think it actually was a mistake? Is Deanna the girl she is because of that choice? Do you think she would be the same girl had she seen through Tommy? Can we be defined by one single moment in time?

The word "mistake" does carry a lot of negative implications that may or may not be actual or helpful, but at the same time I'd hesitate to say that Deanna's choice was positive or even neutral. You make an excellent point, though, that I think all emotionally healthy people eventually come to understand: who we are and how we interact with the world are in large part a direct result of everything we experience---good, bad, or indifferent. Things that seem like disasters when they happen may in fact catalyze huge positive growth, even if that growth isn't something you see or understand until years later. We don't have the power over time and space to go back and make different choices, or eliminate all pain and suffering from our lives...part of growing into an adult is figuring out how we react to and process those things, which is one reason YA fiction is so compelling. Adolescence is when we start to really see how choices---as well as things that happen to us that we may not have a choice about---form us. As for whether or not anyone can be defined by a single moment, I don't think so. I do believe there can be single moments that turn us in one direction or another, or inspire change. When you look back at a map of your life, those are the landmarks.

Story of a Girl really is one fantastic scene after another. I'd like to highlight one in particular between Deanna and her father, as I think it represents in two sentences two important, linked issues in the book: "…And that's why I couldn't touch him now and try I'm sorry one more time. I didn't have it in me to be turned away again," p 105.

2) Deanna is very physically standoffish and is uncomfortable receiving affection from both friends and family. Even when she wants to hug someone or comfort them, she holds back. She got into the situation with Tommy more because she was flattered that an older boy liked her, than because she liked Tommy in particular. How much is Deanna motivated by the fear of rejection and the need for acceptance? Are these the same thing to her? How about shame and embarrassment?

I think most of Deanna's discomfort with affection comes from the fact that her family just isn't very demonstrative. I've always pictured them (the Lamberts) as having been mildly affectionate when the kids were little, and then sort of stopping all meaningful touching once Deanna and Darren became teens. I think this happens to a lot of families---I know when I was a teen I didn't want to be touched and would say, "Don't touch me," or wrench myself out of hugs, but then there were other times I literally wanted to crawl onto my mother's lap. I think it's hard for parents to know how to respect boundaries but still show affection. Fear of rejection is something that I'm sure parents experience, too. How many times do you endure "Don't touch me!" before you stop trying? That can't be easy. But back to Deanna! I always felt like her primary motivation was the longing for family, and everything she does---both the good choices and the not-so-good---can ultimately be traced back to that. It's a universal longing that can be expressed in a million ways. At the time Tommy comes along, he is at least offering her something, and she's ready to grasp at anything.

3) p 122 "…the whole idea of parents seemed like a part of ancient history." Wow. Do you think that this is a common thought among teens? How do you think this attitude affects their universe?
I don't know if it's common. I do know that I felt extremely independent when I was in high school, and like I no longer needed parents. Other than the food/clothing/shelter thing, I saw them as pretty much just a nuisance. Obviously, part of the job of a teenager is to break away from parents and start to feel for ways to think and act independently. Ideally, this is done in a physically and emotionally safe environment where parents are keeping a healthy proximity to what's going on, while letting their kids test independence. Deanna is in a sort of perfect storm of circumstances---she's at the age at which she should be testing her independence, but her parents are distracted by financial issues, Darren's problems, and crazy job schedules. Enter Tommy Webber just as Deanna needs attention and affirmation, and the results aren't surprising.

That said, now I have to defend the Lamberts. Deanna's parents are together, they work hard to provide for their family, and they let Darren and Stacy live there even if they aren't happy about it. I don't see them as "bad parents." The family actually spends more time together and is more connected to each other's lives than a lot of families that might not have such dramatic problems. There's an underlying strength that the family has, and I see them as always coming back to each other even as they have conflict. Maybe when Deanna is thirty or so, she realizes that she really does have the family she longs for.

4) Deanna writes and thinks about "the girl on the waves" to express or cope with things she doesn't know what else to do with. Can you talk a little about how that worked its way into the story and how it was for you to write those sections?

That changed a lot over the course of revisions. Originally, that wasn't in the story at all. At some point, I added a fairly elaborate story of the girl on the waves as a way to tap into things that Deanna couldn't otherwise express. That didn't entirely work, either, so in the end that part got scaled way back. It was hard to find the balance and make sure it added to the story but didn't distract, and that those sections earned their space on the page.

5)"They never tell you this part in sex ed, how to talk about what you did and why you did it and what you thought about it, before, during, and after" p 126. How effective do you think America is in educating young people about sex? Why?

Well, I don't know. It's been a long time since I was in school, and I don' t have kids, so I honestly don't know what is being taught and how it's working. I did get an email from a girl who read the book and said she thought it was a good example of the kinds of things they were talking about in sex ed---all of the potential fallout of sex, including the emotional aspects. So that's good. But then I sort of look at the evidence and how kids are behaving sexually, and I don't know. There's still a ton of teen pregnancy, STDs, and a double-standard for boys' behavior vs. girls'. I'm sure there are a number of factors---there's the influence of popular culture, what's talked about and modeled at home, peer support and pressure, the availability of other options...not just what happens in a classroom setting. Anyway, I'm definitely not an expert. Those are just my observations.

6) The restaurant that Deanna works in is…disgusting. Especially on page 164: "What Michael called 'minestrone' was really a slimy mixture of leftover pizza sauce and water and vegetables from the salad bar that were about to go bad, with some macaroni thrown in." Have you ever worked in a place like that? What was it like?

Hah! I did work at a pizza place, but it was a fairly clean chain restaurant. I embellished the gross details to contribute to the general feeling of tarnish on Deanna's life. I like to think that the impressions of Picasso's are mostly Deanna's jaded teen viewpoint and not an actual health hazard.

7) What is the first thing that you wrote for this book, and did it make it into the final product?

I think the first sentence of the first draft was, "They made us watch this video in sex ed..." There are a few sentences left from the original first chapter.

8) You received many wonderful cover blurbs from some of the biggest names in YA Lit, including 'it' boy John Green. Can you tell us a bit about the blurb process and what it was like for you?

I am very, very lucky to have such generous friends and colleagues. The process was fairly painless---I asked people I knew if I could give their names to my editor for blurbs, and they generously said yes, and most of them did end up endorsing it. I was really overwhelmed, actually, and extremely grateful. The Chris Crutcher quote was the only one that came as a complete surprise, which was of course awesome.

9) Which authors are you always eager to read their next book?

I have to get everything M.E. Kerr writes---I was reading her when I was a teen and she is still going strong. I used to count the days to a new Robert Cormier book, may he rest in peace. These days I'm always eager to see what John Green is going to do next, and I can't wait for Mary Pearson's next book. I'm also ready for a new Brock Cole or Carolyn Coman book any time.

Thank you Sara for the honor of the interview! Find more from Sara Zarr at her blog and MySpace. Then, if not before - GO READ STORY OF A GIRL!! You simply will not regret it.

Wander over to today's other Summer Blog Blast Tour interviews:

Tom & Dorothy Hoobler at Chasing Ray
Mitali Perkins at Big A, Little a
Justina Chen Headley at Hip Writer Mama
Justine Larbalestier at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Dana Reinhardt at lectitans
Brent Hartinger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Laura Ruby at Writing and Ruminating
Jordan Sonnenblick by Bildungsroman
Ysabeau Wilce at Finding Wonderland

And remember, you'll see Dana Reinhardt here on Wednesday, and Brent Hartinger in this space on Thursday. I'm SO excited!


heidi said...

Thanks. Great interview!

Kelly said...

Great interview, Jackie and Sara!

You asked some wonderful book questions, Jackie.

Jackie Parker said...

Thanks, Kelly & Heidi!

Little Willow said...

Great book, great story. I think it benefits from the feeling that teen Deena's going through it, rather than adult Deena looking back on it - as some similar books attempt to do, to see it with distance and regret. Deena's had some time since the incident, but it still is touching her life - and the lesson that she (and others) shouldn't define who she is now by what she did once years ago is something to be learned at any age.

tanita✿davis said...

Your first question is probably the best reaction to any book that anyone could ever have. Bravo. I haven't even read this yet, but now I'm open to looking at it -- and other books with characters who make what I might judge "mistakes" with the idea of being defined by a single moment in life, and how that may or may not be realistic or fair.

The other questions are also most excellent!

Anonymous said...

Good job. I keep hearing good things about this book and want to read it even more now.

Jackie Parker said...

Thanks guys!

Sarah Stevenson said...

I loved your questions about themes and process--and Sara's answers, too. Nice job!