Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Dozen Questions, with Sarah Dessen

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Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen is the sort of author that you start reading as a teenager and never really outgrow. Her bestselling novels are ostensibly for young adults yet the predicaments her characters face ring just as true to adults who are young at heart. The North Carolina-based author will be making a rare appearance in Toronto this week in support of her latest novel What Happened To Goodbye (Penguin Canada). Dessen recently sat down with YA author Anna Humphrey (Mission (Un)Popular) to discuss her creative process, the joys of travel and why every writer’s office needs a mini-fridge.

Dessen will appear at Indigo at the Eaton Centre on Wednesday, September 21st, 7 p.m. She will also give a talk and signing at North York Central Library, hosted by Natalie Kertes of Small Print Toronto, on Thursday, September 22nd, 7 p.m. See Open Book's Events Page for details.

Anna Humphrey:

What Happened to Goodbye is your tenth book!! Tenth!! Does that kind of blow your mind? Also, have you found that writing has gotten any easier over time?

Sarah Dessen:

I honestly can’t believe I’ve published ten books. When I see them all together on a bookstore shelf, it’s hard to even imagine how it all happened, although I am so grateful that it did. I’d love to say the writing has gotten easier, but I still struggle on a lot of days, just like I did when I was working on the first one. Writing has always been a mystery to me: some days it flows really well, others I end up deleting everything I’ve done at the end of the day. I wish I could figure out how to make them all great days, but I have no clue.

AH:

What’s the best writing advice anyone’s ever given you?

SD:

Many years ago, when I was still waitressing, my parents paid for me to go to a publishing institute. There was an author there I admired and asked him what advice he would have for someone who was just starting out. He said, “Always remember that your opinion of your work is the most important.” I’ve come back to that again and again, because it remains true. It’s easy to get clouded, especially deep in a draft: you have to be able to trust your gut. And if I don’t believe in my story, I can’t expect anyone else to.

AH:

Did you map out the plot for What Happened to Goodbye before you started writing, or just dive in and see where Mclean’s story might go?

SD:

I never start a book until I have what I call the “skeleton,” which consists of the first scene, last scene, climactic scene and first line. It gives me a general sense of direction (which I need, or the book goes nowhere) without setting too many limits. I knew I wanted Mclean to be someone who had been playing roles in her life and then was suddenly forced to be herself. I also loved the idea of the model town. But the original story, and the entire second half, was very different. I had this whole subplot about a best friend she’d left behind, who was in an accident…oh, I get tired just thinking about it. It didn’t work at all, so I ended up tearing it out and writing the second half of the book over under serious time pressure, which was nuts. I would not recommend it. But somehow, I did it. I’m still not sure how.

AH:

Luna Blu, the restaurant in What Happened to Goodbye, seems so real — the sounds, the smells, the chaos. Was it based on any restaurant in particular?

SD:

The chaos was definitely based on my own experience waitressing at the Flying Burrito here in Chapel Hill. But the physical descriptions were more similar to another local restaurant, 411 West. It’s helpful to me to have a map in my head when I’m working, and I’m lazy, so I tend to pick places I know well. Like most of the things in my books, though, it began with a tiny bit of real life — a layout, a really good appetizer — and I made it up from there.

AH:

It’s always fun to see how the characters we know and love from your older books make cameo appearances in your new works. And, I have to say, of all the characters in What Happened to Goodbye, I fell in love with Deb the most. Do you think she might pop up in another book down the road or (a girl can hope) maybe even have a book all her own one day?

SD:

I have to say, I have really loved that people have taken to Deb so much. I felt the same way about her! She basically marched into the book and almost took it over. I kept having to rein her in, bring the story back to Mclean. In the original draft, I had this whole subplot about how Deb played the drums, and a scene where she auditioned for this band. It was so much fun to write, but my editor — rightfully, I think — pointed out that it was pulling too much focus away from the rest of the story. That said, I love that not only embraces her quirky neurosis but thrives on it. I wish I could be more like her! And you never know, she may turn up again. She was so fun to write, I can’t imagine I won’t be tempted to bring her back at some point.

AH:

Your main characters tend to have one-of-a-kind names that suit them perfectly... like Auden in Along for the Ride, Remy in This Lullaby or Mclean in What Happened to Goodbye. How do you decide on a name?

SD:

The name always comes first. Before the plot, the title, anything. It’s how I know I am ready to begin another book, when I come across a name and something just clicks. Really, I’ve gotten them from everywhere: celebrity magazines, newspaper articles, people I know. Colie from Keeping the Moon was a name I took from a girl who came through my signing line, years ago. Mclean is actually a distant family surname on my mom’s side, and I always wanted to use it. I think the fact that they are unique is because when I was a teenager, I always wanted a more exotic name. I always thought Sarah was so boring, although now I can’t imagine being anything else.

AH:

What does a typical working day in the life of Sarah Dessen look like (if such a thing as a typical day exists)?

SD:

Well, I have a very active four-year-old daughter, so nothing is typical. She wakes up very early, which is why, if you follow me on Twitter, you see I’m often up then as well. I try to fit in Twitter and emails and all that stuff in the mornings, either when she’s in preschool or when we’re running errands or at the park (with mixed results, but I do my best). On weekday afternoons, I have a sitter for four hours. That’s when I write. I get twenty hours a week, but it’s really more than a part time job. I am always scrambling! But if I get a good hour and a half in each day, I’m more than happy.

AH:

You tend to tackle tough issues that teens face in real life... everything from eating disorders and sexual assault in Just Listen to the pain caused by infidelity and divorce in What Happened to Goodbye. How much research do you do when you’re writing about a particular issue? And are there any issues so dark that you’d never consider writing about them?

SD:

The hardest book to write, I think, was Dreamland, because it was a story about a girl in an abusive relationship. I had to built her up as a character, then break her down to nothing, which was so draining. But I’m really proud of that book, because I’ve heard from so many girls that it helped them when they were in similar situations. That said, I don’t ever start a book thinking it will be about a particular “issue.” I focus more on the voice of the main character, which to me is more important. When I am writing, I try not to think about what anyone else would say and just follow my gut. Then, in editing, if something is too much or too harsh, I consider my options as far as changing it.

AH:

Even though it’s been a couple of years since you’ve personally been a teenager, you write really authentic teen dialogue. Is there any particular thing you do or place you go to keep up-to-date with how teens talk?

SD:

I wish I could say I watch Teen Mom and shows like that solely for research. But I’d be doing it even if I was an accountant or something. Embarrassing, but true. I think, also, that it’s tricky to try and keep up with the current slang and fads, because it will date the book later on. I just write what I hear in my head. I’m glad people think it sounds authentic!

AH:

You share so much of yourself with your fans — whether you’re blogging about your daughter, your favourite TV shows or your love of devilled eggs. How do you decide what’s private and what’s fair game?

SD:

It’s a tricky thing, for sure. I don’t put pictures up of my husband or daughter, and try to keep the truly personal details of their lives out of my blog and Tweets. I think it seems like I reveal a lot more than I actually do. As far as the pop culture thing, since I am self-employed, the internet is like my water cooler. I need to talk to someone about the Real Housewives, so I am so grateful for the outlet.

AH:

It seems like you travel a lot to promote your books. What’s great about that? What’s not-so-great?

SD:

I actually travel less now that I did before I became a mom. I think it seems otherwise because when I do go away, it’s for more times, but shorter stints. I don’t like to be gone more than three nights at a stretch. What’s great is that I get to meet my readers, which makes all the crappy writing days so worthwhile. Not so great is missing my family. I will say that being able to sit on a plane and read, uninterrupted, feels like a big luxury these days. As is sleeping in a hotel room without a baby monitor screaming in my ear. It’s fun for about two nights. Then I get lonely and want to go home.

AH:

Finally, I have to ask... I’ve heard that your husband built you an over-the-garage backyard writing office with a bathroom and mini fridge. Is it as dreamy as it sounds? And has having a dedicated work space made you more productive?

SD:

My office is seriously awesome. It was like the dream of my life to have my own, dedicated working space. I’d had an open office over the living room (where I could hear every bark of my dogs, every cry of the baby) and then moved to the guestroom, where I could shut a door but had to work with my laptop on the bed. The office helps me do a better job of demarcating when work stops and my home life begins. I write there, and leave my writing there, so it’s not diluted by all the chaos of my household. My mother always quoted Virginia Woolf, that a woman needs a room of her own. I feel very lucky that I have mine. Does it make the writing easier? Not really. It’s not about where or when I do it, or even how I do it. Every day is different. Ten books in, that’s the one thing that has not changed at all.


For more information about WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE please visit the Penguin Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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