Wednesday, February 06, 2008

10 More Questions for Sara Zarr

So I'm feeling uber lucky in welcoming National Book Award Finalist Sara Zarr back for a second interview here at Interactive Reader. Sweethearts, her new book, released in just this past week, is receiving just as much love as Story of a Girl got.

Eight years ago the only friend Jennifer had in this world disappeared. Cam was dead, and for all practical purposes, Jennifer moved on. She buried her unpopular self and slowly transformed into another person. But while her current friends have no idea of her history, the newly named Jenna isn't able to hide her past so easily from herself, and when Cam suddenly returns to her life she must face the Jennifer she's buried as well as the event that changed everything for two 9-year-old best friends so long ago.

1. How has Sweethearts so far been a different experience from Story of a Girl?

It has been so incredibly different! In terms of the writing process, I wrote Story of a Girl over three years while in a writing group while Sweethearts came about in more like one year with just me and my editor, mostly. Also, when Story came out I had nothing to one knew or cared who I was. Now that's not the case, so I'm acutely aware of attention and expectations in a way I wasn't before. The year of writing was rough because of that, but now that it's out I'm actually more relaxed than I was the first time around. I've got a contract for two more books, and hopefully a career beyond that ahead of me and I know I'll be through this at least several more times. My perspective now is not quite so narrow. And, I've already received fan mail from quite a few teen readers of Sweethearts, and if they are happy, I'm happy!

2. On page 20* "I buried my head in my hands and laughed because that's what you're supposed to do when you are being affectionately humiliated by friends - or so I'd observed in movies and TV." That's a pretty strong compulsion to conform. Do you think that because of her experience with bullying when she was younger Jenna has a stronger than average need to blend in and look and behave exactly how she thinks society expects her to? Do you think in general people's actions are based on society's expectations? Do you ever find yourself behaving against your instincts simply because certain behavior is expected? Do you feel you might need a degree in sociology to answer this apparently endless question?

Hah! Perhaps. Let's break it down: Yes, I think that for Jenna conformity is not about being popular or admired---it's a survival mechanism. And yes, we all act according to society's expectations in small ways and big ones. I mean, not constantly, but you obey laws and line up at the grocery store instead of barging to the front and you generally don't go up to people and tell them exactly what you think of them. More seriously, you might truly compromise your fundamental morality based on expectations or based on what other people are doing. (The documentary Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room is a great study of how this happens.) Lastly, I guess I sometimes do act against my instincts, though I'm a product of society so my instincts are at least partly formed by these expectations so...I don't know. Maybe I do need a degree to answer that one!

3. One lunch Jenna eats only 1/4 of a sandwich and a low-fat yogurt. She gives a small cookie away because she felt guilty about the cheese in her breakfast. This sounds like an eating disorder, but it wasn't acknowledged in the book as such. Can you tell us a little about whether Jenna's eating habits were brought on as an element of the above-mentioned conformity and/or as a coping mechanism?

She does have an eating disorder, or at least disordered compulsive eating/dieting patterns. I mean, frankly her lunch as described above is not that different from the "meals" of many women I know who are unhappy with their bodies. I think what she has, if it's not a contradiction, is the normal disordered eating that so many girls and women seem to constantly struggle with. Even if there aren't dramatic symptoms, there's constant evaluation and adding up and guilt and trying to redeem yourself when you've been "bad" by being "good." But...the book isn't about that, and she's not in physical jeopardy because of it, so I didn't choose to address it head on. To answer your question, I think she started off using food as a comfort and companion because that's what was there. When she decides she has to change her body for social survival she eats less, but the fundamental issue of using food inappropriately is still there.

4. What about her tendency to steal food, even though she was perfectly capable of buying her own? I think my exact note was, "What's with the shoplifting?"

That's one of those things I think will either seem totally crazy or totally believable depending on the reader's experience. For a lot of people who have been, at any time in their lives, singled out as "fat," there is tremendous shame around food: looking at it, talking about it, eating it, buying it. If you know you're about to binge, you feel like everyone around you knows it, too. You imagine the cashier being able to see right into your mind when you put that ice cream on the counter, and you just feel completely naked. You can either endure this and try to act normal with your pounding heart and sweaty palms, or avoid it entirely and bypass the cashier.

5. Family in both of your books play an important role - especially father figures. It's refreshing to see in Sweethearts a stepfather character who is loved as much as a biological father might be. I think, actually, that it is one of the strongest traits in your writing that I've been able to notice so far - your ability to create amazing, layered family units with realistic flaws. They are functionally dysfunctional and so damn REAL. Where is that coming from and how do you get there?

Thanks! That's a great phrase - "functionally dysfunctional." I think it describes my own family very well, so I guess that's where it comes from, innately. I definitely don't plan it and doubt I could tell anyone else how to do it. If I wrote out just the facts of my family history and my life with no narrative, one could read it and think, "There must be a trail of destruction a million miles long!" But there really isn't in the big picture. There is love and grace and reconciliation in the most unlikely places, thank God.

6. Sex in Sweethearts isn't something Jenna does out of love - she's avoiding things and doing it more because it's easier than not doing it: "When we sank into the warm, dark pile of blankets... I went even deeper into myself, far away, exactly where I wanted to be" p93. Again, like in Story of a Girl, your lead is having sex for the wrong reasons. This time to escape rather than to find acceptance. Can you tell us a little about your thoughts and intents with this aspect of the book? Will we see a healthy sexual relationship between teens in a future book? (Is there such a thing?)

To clarify (not that it matters that much) - Jenna does not have sex, though she is sexually active (to a nonspecific degree, I admit) in her relationship with Ethan. I don't know if I'm ready or qualified to tackle the question if there is such a thing as a healthy sexual relationship between teens. I just know the particular characters and story I'm writing at a given time, and work within that. Since Jenna is basically dating Ethan for the wrong reasons to begin with, it wouldn't make sense for them to have a whole and meaningful sex life. In future books, we shall see!

7. Lies pepper the novel and they affect relationships in ways that the players could never expect. One lie transforms the relationship between mother and daughter and has a consequence that might affect that relationship for the rest of their lives. "Everything between us for the past eight years could have been different if she'd simply told me the truth. And she had no idea" p. 99. Did you know about all those lies from the get-go, or did you discover them along the way?**

I discovered them along the way. At first, Jennifer's mom was just kind of clueless, but then I started think about her as a character and decided that her cluelessness was sometimes a bit of an act, that she knew more than she was letting on. Families can be very loyal to their secrets or to a particular version of events that has somehow become absolute truth.

8. Most of Jenna's friends are involved with the school play. What is your personal experience with theater? Were you on stage? What productions?

I've been performing my whole life, from children's ballet theater to junior high and high school drama to college and community theater where I met my husband. I've been in The Mousetrap, A Christmas Carol, Oliver! (don't forge the exclamation point), Look Homeward Angel, Alice in Wonderland, and a strange little play in verse called Judevine. I also ran lights for Godspell, and worked backstage on a lot of productions. I'd actually love to get back into community theater sometime. Last year I entered a ten-minute play into a local theater's contest and it was selected for production, which was fun. But I miss being part of the show!

9. For the most important question: Can you recite the Pledge of Allegiance backwards like Jenna can?

No! It took me forever to type that little snippet in the book and quadruple-check it for accuracy!

10. What's the last great book you read that you wish were getting more attention?

It's not YA, but "Now You See Him" by Eli Gottlieb was very affecting and unusual.
Thank you, Jackie!

Thank me? I'm just the little librarian. Thank you, Sara.

Previous & future Blog Tour Stops for Sweethearts:

Jan 28: Kate Messner
Feb 1st: Shelf Elf
Feb. 4th: The Well-Read Child
Feb 5th: Big A little a
Feb 7th: Becky's Book Reviews
Feb 8th: The Romance Reader's Connection
Feb 11th: Charlotte's Library
Feb 12th: My Readable Feast
Feb 13th: Debbi Michiko Florence
Feb 14th: Mr. Media (live, according to my source...and possibly a podcast)

*Page numbers and quotes come from the Advanced Reader's Copy and may change in the final version.
**Thank you Sarah Miller for helping me find the question in that mess.


tanita✿davis said...

WOW. As always, insightful, insightful questions, and some really great answers. I can't wait to read this book -- the dysfunctions and layers sound SO very intriguing!!!

Little Willow said...

Sara, Jac, great interview. Great questions, Jac!

The scenes in which Jenna binged made me want to HUG her and tell her everything would be all right...

Sara, what did you play in Alice?

Tanita, I think you'll enjoy this book!

Anonymous said...

Jac, this interview totally rocked! I can't wait to read the book -- and I feel like I've gotten to know her a bit through your v. insightful questions. :)

Unknown said...

Thanks for linking to Mr. Media's upcoming interview with Sara Zarr on Friday, February 14 at 1 p.m. EST. The place to listen live - and call in to ask Sara a question - is . The interview will last an hour and we look forward to calls from her fans. The number is 646-595-3135.
Bob Andelman
Mr. Media