Monday, November 09, 2009

Interview with Sarah Zarr!

Today we have an interview with the amazing Sara Zarr, author of National Book Award finalist STORY OF A GIRL, SWEETHEARTS, and her most recent ONCE WAS LOST. And can I just say I love the cover? So simple, but very effective.

Tell us about ONCE WAS LOST.
ONCE WAS LOST is about fifteen-year-old Samara, a pastor's daughter in a rural town where a young girl from the community goes missing. That crime precipitates a crisis of faith for Samara, who was already on the brink of one. So there is that aspect of it going on---a character study---but it's a mystery, too, as everyone tries to figure out what happened to the missing girl.

What was the inspiration behind your idea?
The first seeds of the story go back to the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, which happened here in the community where I live. That case got my "what if" wheels turning. What if I were a teen who sort of knew Elizabeth, but couldn't really call her a friend? What if we were in the same tight-knit religious community? What if I were already in the midst of a personal crisis when a crime like that happened? How would it change my view of the world at such a formative age? The book is not about that particular case, in the end, but I was able to use some of those memories and details, as well as the feelings I was having during that time, in the story.

How long did it take to get from the initial idea to a completed novel?
It's hard to measure, because I started and stopped so many times. I first started with the story back in 2002, and dabbled in it now and then for years. In late 2007 I started seriously shaping it into a the novel that it would become, and first turned it in to my editor in fall 2008. Then we did a serious of major (but fast!) revisions that we wrapped up in spring 2009, and I can't believe it became a published book so quickly after that!

What was your favorite part of writing this book? Least favorite?
I loved being able to really dig into some of the doubts Sam had about her religious faith. As someone who grew up in church, I was often afraid of doubt. It would have meant a lot to me to read about a character with the same questions I had but was afraid to ask. I also loved writing the scenes between Sam and Nick, the older brother of the missing girl. He was a somewhat unexpected character. My least favorite was the first major revision I did for my editor. I rewrote the book from third person into first. That's like writing a whole new novel, but in a very short time. I didn't think I would make it.

How often do you write, and how much do you write in one sitting?
I try to write Monday through Friday, especially when I've got a deadline (which is always, lately). It doesn't always work out when I'm doing promotional stuff for the current book, but I get unhappy fast if I'm not working. Generally I go one to three hours. I usually have some goal, like a chapter or a thousand words or some tangible chunk that will help me feel like I'm progressing. Some days it's a lot of hair-pulling and staring into space, other days it flows and flies.

How is your career different now from when your first book was published?
The biggest difference is that I have an audience. When you start out, no one cares. There are lots of new books to read---why yours? You hope to win them over. Then when you do, you know you can't slack off. Knowing I have an audience keeps me working hard, and also I interact with them through my blog and social networking sites. At the same time, I still write primarily to please myself and write the kind of book I would like to read. That hasn't changed, nor has the fact that writing is difficult! Finding publishing success doesn't solve the basic problem: how do I translate an imaginative vision into language?

How did you get in to writing for young adults?
It wasn't so much a conscious choice. The stories I come up with just seem to always involve characters who are 15, 16, 17. That's my natural writing voice. And, as an adult I've always been a fan of YA literature as much as of books written specifically for grownups.

What are you working on now?
I'm working on my fourth book for Little, Brown. I can't say much about it because it's too early in the process, but it should be out some time in 2011.

What does your writing space look like?
I have two primary spaces: one at home, which is a nook off the dining room and has a simple IKEA desk, with a Levenger Editor's Desk on top of that. I've got some plank shelving for supplies so I can keep clutter off my desk, and adjacent to IKEA desk is my grandmother's little writing desk that is sort of a staging area. My other space is an office I rent away from home. Desk, big monitor, love seat, and stacks of books. Here are some pictures of both spaces at their cleanest!

How much do you read, and what are you reading now?
Not enough! I'm working on rediscovering the joy of reading and figuring out how to let go of everything I know about the publishing industry and let myself get lost in a book. I just started FEELS LIKE HOME, a young adult novel by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, and I'm also reading Marilynne Robinson's HOUSEKEEPING. But slowly, because I do not want it to end.

Thanks for sharing so much with us! I have truly enjoyed reading your books, and I look forward to more of them.

To see more of what Sara is up to, check out her website,, or her blog, For a chance to win a copy of ONCE WAS LOST, go here.


Sherrie Petersen said...

Great interview, Tabitha! I loved hearing about her writing process and the idea behind Once Was Lost. Great title (from Amazing Grace, right?), and great cover, too! I'm looking forward to reading this :)

Nayuleska said...

Very true interview - especially how writing can go well one day, and not so well the next!

Thank you for the interview :) Another good book for the TBR pile.

Jordanna Fraiberg said...

I loved this interview, especially the details about Sarah's writing process. Just what I needed to read before getting started today. Thank you!

PJ Hoover said...

Oh, Once was Lost sounds wonderful! I really enjoyed Story of a Girl.
Great interview!

Unknown said...

I got to finally meet Sara in Cincinnati -- it was incredible to hear an author talk about the process without the gloss. She's a solid, intelligent, creative force. And I'm glad she's still reading my novel Feels Like Home.


Elizabeth Bradley said...

I enjoyed this interview with Sarah. I will definitely check out her book. It was cool how she supplied a peek at her two writing spaces as well.

Anonymous said...

Once Was Lost is definitely one of my fave reads of the year. :)

Loved this interview (great questions!). Thanks, Tabitha and Sara.

Mary Witzl said...

Good interview, Tabitha. I love the simplicity of the title, 'Once was Lost'. It even hints at a hopeful resolution.

And I loved the writing in 'Housekeeping', so lyrical and beautiful.