I interviewed author Sarah Dessen, the woman who made me want to read and write
It’s been said time and time again: Never meet your heroes. But when you’re stubborn like me, you tend to ignore this stock phrase, throw caution to the wind, and face your heroes (and your fears). That’s exactly what transpired after I learned that author Sarah Dessen was coming out with a new book, Once and for All. That lightbulb above my head burned bright, powered by a single query: Can I interview Sarah Dessen, the woman who shaped me as a reader and a writer?
I always liked to read, but never loved to read — until I met Sarah’s words. Within the pages of her books, I found solace in characters who were flawed like me, in plot lines that mirrored my own adolescence, and in entire chapters that helped me come to terms with the changes going on in my own life.
As you can imagine, when Sarah agreed to an interview, I did not take it lightly. As a result, the following interview comes from the perspective of not only a Sarah Dessen fan — but from the perspective of a reader, a writer, and a fellow woman who’s also trying to figure it all out.
HelloGiggles: Your characters inspired me and empowered me so much growing up. What is one thing you always want your female characters to have?
Sarah Dessen: I would say confidence, but I also think it’s one of the hardest things to have. I always hope that, by the end of a book, that someone has come a little further towards feeling more confident within themselves … Because I think that’s something I struggle with all the time. Hopefully, the character evolves over the course of the book.
You know, some characters come in and they are already very confident — they think they know it all, like Remy in This Lullaby, then find out that they don’t really know anything. She’s the exception, she’s definitely the one who has it all together, or thinks she does. Everyone else is sort of a work in progress.
HG: You mention that, while this book was coming to fruition, you thought a lot about your own wedding. Are there any details or specific experiences you pulled from your wedding when writing this book?
SD: Yes and no. That was the first wedding I was involved in from beginning to end. Up until that point, I’d been a bridesmaid, I’d been a flower girl when I was a kid. But your own wedding is a whole other level of involvement. I very much remembered how it was the biggest deal in the world at the time. I took a year to plan my wedding, which I would not do again, because it took up so much of my time — and it was one day! Now I look back, and I’m like, all these things that were so important — like the napkins and the cake and the appetizers — are just this big blur. Luckily, it was a happy blur. We didn’t have any big disasters or anything, but I was so worried about so many things.
I think, definitely, a lot of the dress drama. You know, there’s always something that happens at the last minute. My dress dropped the hem, and so we were all down on the floor with safety pins trying to make it look like I wasn’t dragging my slip down the aisle. There’s always something that goes wrong.
HG: When your narrator says, “It wasn’t ever the true solution, but a water never hurt,” it reminded me of my mom. Is there a specific example of something you included in this book that reminds you of someone you love?
SD: My mom is very similar to [Once and for All narrator Louna’s mom] Natalie, in some ways, in that she’s just very cynical about things, and she always has been. She doesn’t candy-coat things … My mom is a New Yorker, and growing up down here in the South with her, as a kid, we moved here when I was three, and all the other moms were pearl-wearing southern ladies. Then here’s my mom, the New York feminist, who comes in and just shoots it straight from the hip … I think that’s the way Natalie is as well. She’s very good at her job, but she suffers no fools. That’s probably why she’s good at her job, because she’s not buying into the fairy tale.
HG: I could relate to your description of people wanting to have “perfect” things in life. It also reminded me of why I loved The Truth About Forever so much. Can you talk more about how the idea of perfectionism influences your writing and characters?
SD: 2004, The Truth About Forever came out, and 13 years later, I’m still grappling with the same issue. I think even more so now, for people, with the internet and Instagram and this fear of missing out — especially with weddings. When I was planning my wedding, there was no Pinterest. There was no, “Oh my gosh you have to make every little thing perfect.” But it goes even bigger than that.
The Truth About Forever — I wrote that while I was teaching college at UNC, and I was seeing so many of these female students of mine — the boys didn’t seem to have this problem — but they were struggling under this thing that actually has a name. It’s called effortless perfection, which is: You’re supposed to be an amazing student, and an incredible friend, and look great, and have it all together, and it’s just supposed to look really easy. Nobody can do that. They were just buckling under the weight of this expectation they had set for themselves, and I hated to see it because nothing’s perfect.
But I think, with weddings, we get into this whole fairy tale to the ninth degree. This perfect day, and “my day,” and you go on Pinterest and there are these beautiful mason jars with fairy lights in them. But then when you do them yourself, they look terrible … What you think it’s going to be and what it ends up being are two totally different things — and that’s just life. It’s weddings, it’s having children, it’s marriages, it’s relationships, it’s writing books. Nobody is perfect.
HG: Another thing I could relate to is your recent li.st tweet about anxiety coping mechanisms. Personally speaking, writing makes me anxious. Does writing or being a #1 New York Times bestselling author or going on tour ever cause you anxiety? How do you deal with it?
SD: My problem is — I finished this book last May. Normally, I would’ve started a whole other book and it would have crashed and burned in between. I tried not to do that because I only have a certain amount of good writing in me, and I’m finally — 20 years into this career — starting to realize that. It’s okay to take a break between books. I get in this thing of, “I’ve gotta write more. I need to start the next one right now.” And that never works for me. I always need a pretty long break. So, I try to read a lot. Exercising helps me. I started meditating this year — just because the world seems so into it. But that’s very hard for me, when you’re an anxious person, to sit still for five minutes. But it’s helping.
Reading is a big part of it. I was actually just writing a piece for Goodreads about how I started carrying a book around in my purse last month. Because I was feeling like, every time I had a minute, I was on my phone freaking out about one thing or another. And I was like, “You know what? I’m going to start carrying a book, and I’ll read.” It’s made a big difference. Not huge, but it’s noticeable.
As far as the writing, I think that’s why you’re a writer. I don’t know very many writers who aren’t anxious. You’re using your brain for something that a lot of people don’t do. You just see the world differently, and in order to feel things enough to write about them, and to write about them well, you have to really feel them. And that’s hard. That’s anxiety-producing. So part of it is acceptance, I think — I hope.
HG: When I read that you took a break after Saint Anything, because you weren’t sure you had another book in you, it reminded me of all the times my friends and I have pressed pause when we personally doubt ourselves as writers. Have you ever felt this kind of doubt? And how do you bounce back from it and remind yourself that you have it in you to be a writer?
SD: I think I always doubt myself. I know I do. I’m doing it right now. Because I haven’t been writing for the past year. Well, I can’t say I haven’t been writing. I wrote — I hate to call it an “adult” book, just to differentiate between between a young adult book, and it sounds like an adult movie or something — but I wrote a contemporary novel, and I don’t think it’s very good. So I did that, and it’s been a couple months since I finished that, and I’m just twiddling my thumbs. But I had to write this essay and I was in this total spiral, like: What if I can’t do this anymore?
You have to just sit down and do it … Because you can do it, and you just have to prove that to yourself. It’s like Groundhog Day. You have to prove it to yourself every time. And that’s the way I feel when I’m working on novels, too … I wish it wasn’t like that, but that’s why long breaks are not feasible, because then you really will start to think you’re not gonna ever be able to do it again. So it’s good if you’re doing small bits of writing here and there, just to sort of prime yourself, so you can be like, “Okay, okay. I’ve still got this.”
HG: Since you mention that you are writing a “adult” novel, do you ever think you will stop writing for and about teens?
SD: I don’t think so. After I finished Saint Anything — some books are just harder to write than others. We talked about The Truth About Forever earlier — that was a book that almost killed me. That book was really hard to write. And then Just Listen was really hard to write. Those two were just brutal, but some are easier than others. And Saint Anything, that was my twelfth book, and I was like, “Twelve is a nice, even dozen. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I could just stop. Maybe I’ve done enough.”
But then, I started this “adult” book — I need to come up with another name for it, if I’m going to be talking about it — this contemporary novel, and I just didn’t feel the same way about it. I just didn’t feel like I was as good at it, to be honest with you. So I set it aside, and then Once And For All kind of bubbled up out of nowhere, so I wrote that book. Then when I finished it, I had some time on my hands to get back to the contemporary book and I ended up finishing it. But, I still don’t feel like it has the spark that my YA stuff does. There’s something about that voice that I am better at. And at this point in my life, I need to play to my strengths.
I don’t know if anyone will ever see this 400-page [beginning] that I have written about these other people, but I think it was good. If all that comes out of it is that I am reminded that this is my lane, this is a good place to be, I’m happy here. Then that’s good — it’s worth it.
HG: What do you love most about the Young Adult genre?
SD: Well, right now, I love how many new voices there are. My first book came out in ’96 and, at that point, there wasn’t even a Teen section at the bookstore. So my books were in there next to Corduroy and The Giving Tree. And now, I was just at a conference, and there are people writing from every possible point of view. You have LGBTQ voices. You have women who are writing about girls with weight problems. You have people writing about other races. The Hate You Give is the #1 book in the country. That, to me, is the most exciting thing. Is that it’s just blasted open the door, and there’s so much happening.
I think other people are realizing it, in other parts of publishing. I think this happened a while ago, like with The Fault in our Stars, in that these stories don’t just appeal to teens. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have some kind of strong feeling about their adolescent years … I mean, look at 13 Reasons Why — that book alone was a phenomenon, but look at the Netflix series. I think it’s a very exciting time to be here, and to be in this genre.
HG: Speaking of Netflix, would you ever want to see one of your books made into a Netflix series?
SD: I would love anything like that. I had a movie, many years ago, in 2003. It was a really fun experience — I had really nothing to do with anything, but they were very nice to me … I think, with my books, it’s hard to break them down into one good pitch sentence. You know, like: “Girl falls in love with vampire.” I actually feel like [my books would lend themselves] better to a longer form. But I’d take anything, and I remain ever-hopeful.
HG: It makes me genuinely happy when I see that you’ve come out with a new blog post. Why is it important to you to maintain this kind of writing?
SD: You know, I used to blog a lot. I had LiveJournal, I did it like 5 days a week … But my daughter was growing up, and it was just a lot of content to be doing. So, it was sort of a bittersweet thing to stop. And I’ve transferred over to other things. Twitter is definitely my weapon of choice. And you can start a thread of tweets to make longer points — the li.st app is also nice for that. Every once in a while [a blog post] is just nice, especially to catch people up. To do a blog post and have it all in one space, on my website, where people can find it. But I also think, [because of] our attention spans, people don’t blog as much anymore. It’s sort of just these short little bits of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.
I just discovered Instagram Stories — I’m late to the party — and that’s been kind of fun. I think I might do some more of that, especially on tour. But there’s nothing like being able to sit down, and write it all up, and get it the way you want it, and just push it out there … The norms change and everything, but I’m still gonna keep the blog on my website. Every once in awhile, I’ll definitely be doing something.
HG: What is one piece of advice you’d give to all the women out there who want to be doing what you’re doing?
SD: I would just say to keep writing. The most important thing is showing up and sitting down and doing the work. I always say, [I was not], not by a long shot, the best writer in my college seminar. There were people in there who could write sentences that would make you weep, but they never finished anything. There’s a lot to be said for showing up.
When I’m writing, I write at the same time, every day, and I’ve sort of trained my brain that that is when I write. So if I’m not writing at that time, I’m very aware of it and I feel guilty. I run on guilt, in a good way. It’s [really about pushing] through what other people are saying. Try not to pay too much attention to what everyone else is doing. Focus on your work and your voice. And just keep going.
Everybody’s like, “Oh, well I get writer’s block.” And I’m like, “Well, it’s about Page 75 when it gets hard.” The first 75 pages are usually kind of fun. And then, between about 75 and 320, it’s really, really hard. Then the last three pages are fun because you’re wrapping everything up. And I’m saying that as someone who has 13 books that have been published, and another 12 that have not been. I can tell you, it doesn’t go away. I don’t trust people who say they just sit down and the words flow. I just don’t believe that. I think everybody struggles, and that’s why I try to be honest about it, so that people know they’re not alone. We’re all here just trying to get the words down every day.
HG: What book are you currently reading?
SD: I just finished this amazing book that I’m becoming a total evangelist for. It’s not a YA book, but it’s called Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett. It’s so good. I have a friend, here in town, who used to work at the independent book store, and she’s literally bought a carton of them and she’s handing them out to everybody because she loves them so much, and she gave one to me. I kind of have a book hangover, like I’m scared to start anything else because I think it’s all going to suffer. The voice is so, so good, and the story is so unusual. I hope it gets a whole new audience this summer, because people should be reading it … It’s special.