Earlier this week, I went to the launch party for Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen here in Los Angeles. While a new Dessen book is always something to celebrate, I had an especially good time because I had the chance to interview Sarah before the event. Yes! The grand dame of contemporary YA herself!
There was already a line an hour before the event at Children’s Book World, with readers of all ages waiting excitedly to see her. The lovely employees ushered me into the green room View Spoiler »which also happened to be their office/ARC closet–!!! « Hide Spoiler, where Sarah was waiting, looking fresh and pretty in a cheery pink dress that her daughter had chosen for her.
I’m going to be very girly for a minute and tell you that the polish on her hands and her toes matched her dress. ADORABLE.
Q&A with Sarah Dessen (paraphrased a bit, since my notes are messssy)
Wendy: In Saint Anything, Sydney’s family dynamics with her brother and her parents are just as important as her feelings for Mac. I love that your books are about family and friendships as much as they are about growing up and swoony relationships–is this something you consciously make an effort to include in your books?
Sarah Dessen: I write from my own experiences, and being a teenager is about a lot of things; friends, family, why am I in a relationship, why am I not in a relationship, jobs, academics, and so on.
Wendy: I wrote in one of my review of The Moon and More that your books are about absolutely nothing and absolutely everything at the same time.
Sarah Dessen: Yes! That’s an interesting way to put it. Some writers pick a topic and write around that, but I like to include it all.
Wendy: Have any of your characters been inspired by people in your own life? They feel so warm and flawed and quietly complex.
Sarah Dessen: My brother is nothing like Peyton in Saint Anything–he’s a very successful professor of music at UC Irvine. But the sibling dynamics are definitely there. Before I wrote this book, I actually wrote another one and was struggling with it–until I realized I could write about someone going through a crisis not from perspective of that person, but from the point of view of the family. And Layla, the best friend? I wrote the friend I wanted to have.
Wendy: While fantasy books and science fiction are very popular, why do you think character-driven contemporary novels continue to hold appeal for both teen readers and adults reading YA?
Sarah Dessen: Your teenage years are a tumultuous time–your hormones are crazy, everything is new. I think for adults, it’s really an emotional touchstone. Everyone also has an opinion about high school–you were really into it, or you really hated it, like I did. When you read about it, you get to experience it from a distance. I think contemporary YA can also be harder to write than some other genres.
Wendy: It’s harder to write well for sure. You can’t hide behind wild concepts or elaborate world-building.
Sarah Dessen: Every once in awhile the idea of my writing a book with vampires comes up and it always gets thrown out!
Wendy: My mind is sort of blown by that.
Sarah Dessen: It’s just not for me. But I’m very grateful to be writing right now–it’s an amazing time for YA. When I started 20 years ago, there was no Harry Potter, there was no Hunger Games. I’m grateful to Gayle Forman and John Greene and the other authors who have contributed to bringing contemporary YA back.
Wendy: I really appreciate the quietness of your books– there’s usually not a “quest” or a complicated set-up, and yet readers are engrossed in each girl’s story and want to know what will happen to her. For example, in The Truth About Forever, you set the book after Macy’s father’s death, it wasn’t the big dramatic event of the book. It was about living the life after that.
Sarah Dessen: A lot of readers told me that they related to the way Macy felt. As someone who luckily has not lost her father, I was glad I was able to capture that.
Wendy: Saint Anything was a difficult book for you to write. You’ve written about your decision to take more time with it, and I can only imagine the kind of pressure that a writer must feel if you’re faced with a deadline while dealing with a massive case of writer’s block.
Sarah Dessen: There’s a rather famous photo of me putting 13 books I’d started on my driveway to show everyone. There are a lot of books between the books that get published, sometimes a secondary character you get a little time with in one book might have a whole other book about them in my closet. Even if those books never get published, I think they help shape the other ones–sometimes a book comes out of setting a book aside.
Wendy: It’s fun how you allow us little glimpses into what your characters are up to with little cameos. I still wonder sometimes what Macy and Wes are up to, so I was excited to see them in a couple of your later books. You don’t tend to do sequels, though–I’m sure you must have been urged to by many fans, is there a reason why you’ve resisted?
Sarah Dessen: Once I’m done with a book, I’m done! I’m just not a sequel kind of girl. By the time I’ve finished a book I’ve read it so many times that it’s time to move on. I actually did craft the first chapter for a sequel to This Lullaby, but it’s just not going to happen.
But I like doing the little cameos as a thank you to the readers who have cared enough to ask what happened to everybody. As far as I’m concerned, life is good, everybody is happy, and the couples are all still together.
Wendy: They’re definitely still together in my mind, too. Your books often includes food that makes us drool! For Saint Anything, it was pizza and French fries and Dum Dum lollipops. Are these the foods you were making your way through while you were writing?
Sarah Dessen: You know, I was writing during the winter, which is my least favorite season, and I think I was just craving comfort food. (I had french fries for lunch today!) But food is community, and people bond over food, too.
Wendy: Which books meant a lot to you when you were a teenager?
Sarah Dessen: Judy Blume, Lois Lowry. (Sarah described being a little awestruck over Judy, and I sort of spaced out because I was thinking about how I did the same thing last summer.)
Wendy: What are your favorite books you’ve read this year?
Sarah Dessen: I tend to only read YA when I’m not writing YA, so right now I’m in the middle of The Royal We, and I loved All the Light We Cannot See. I also listen to a lot of non-fiction audiobooks in the car, like celebrity memoirs. Anne Tyler has my dream career, in terms of the longevity, continuity, and quality. I inhaled her newest book A Spool of Blue Thread.
Wendy: Well, thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Sarah! I love your books, and it’s been a pleasure meeting you. I’m glad you took your time to write the book the way you wanted to write it.
Sarah Dessen: Once Saint Anything came, it came fast and furious. This book is close to my heart and I feel very passionately about it. Who knows what the future will bring?
Wendy: No vampires, though.
Sarah Dessen: No vampires. Or zombies. I’m just such a Muggle.
After our interview, Sarah joined the party, where she read an excerpt from the book and showed the audience a sweet “Happy book launch” note her daughter had handed her before she left that morning. She took some questions from the audience, who then lined up for cookies, Dum Dum lollipops (which play a part in the book!), and photos with Sarah.
Win an Autographed Saint Anything ARC
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Giveaway copy was provided by the publisher.
I haven’t had a chance to write my review yet, but if you’ve never picked up a Dessen book and you like quiet contemporary YA books about ordinary girls, you should definitely check out her books! They are perfect summer reading. I’ve read everything she’s written except for one book, which I’m saving for a rainy day.
My thanks to Sarah Dessen for the lovely interview, to Children’s Book World for being gracious hosts, and to Viking Juvenile for inviting me.
Saint Anything just released in stores this week, and is available online and in stores everywhere.