Interview Series – Sara Zarr

Sara ZarrSara Zarr is the acclaimed author of five novels for young adults, most recently The Lucy Variations, which the New York Times called “an elegant novel.” Her sixth, a collaborative novel with Tara Altebrando, came out December 2013. She’s a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner. Her books have been variously named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, the Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library and Los Angeles Public Library, and have been translated into many languages. In 2010, she served as a judge for the National Book Award. She has written essays and creative nonfiction for ImageHunger Mountain online, and Response as well as for several anthologies, and has been a regular contributor to Image‘s daily Good Letters blog on faith, life, and culture. As of summer 2013, she’s a member of the faculty of Lesley University’s Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Sara also hosts the This Creative Life podcast. In fall 2014, she received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. Born in Cleveland and raised in San Francisco, she currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband. She can be found online at www.sarazarr.com.

Thanks so much for being a part of our Interview Series! I’ve wanted to connect with you again ever since we met at a book signing. You’ve been described as a “writer’s writer,” and the more I’ve learned about you, that seems very fitting. You are a wealth of knowledge!

Brooke: Tell us about how you became an author. Did you always know you wanted to write or did it come later?

Sara: I always knew I had a vivid imagination and enjoyed making up stories in my head, but I never grasped there was such a thing as “being a writer” as a legitimate career goal until I was in my mid-twenties. That’s when I started writing a novel and made it my goal to finish it. I wrote three of those “practice novels” before I sold my first book.

Brooke: It’s always interesting to hear about how authors connected with their agents. You’re represented by Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Tell us how you came together and a little about your working relationship.

Sara: I’d had an agent before Michael–she’d signed me based on one of the aforementioned practice novels–but we never sold anything together and didn’t turn out to be a great fit. When she and I parted ways, I just started doing my research and cold-querying agents that I felt might like my work. It took about three years of that before Michael and I sealed the deal. Our working relationship is great. Selling a novel is only part of an agent’s job. A lot of our conversations are about long-term planning and goals, thinking strategically about where I am in the market and if I’m satisfied with that or want to try to move the needle in some way. Looking back at projects that might have disappointing results and trying to do some post mortem on how things could have been different, and what was just out of our control, etc.

Brooke: What’s your creative process like? Are you an outliner or more of a “pantser?” What program do you write in? Do you have a set writing schedule or a word count per day? Any personal writing habits that kick you into creative-mode?

Sara: I’m definitely a pantser and have never successfully outlined a book. I don’t like this, mind you, I’d rather feel more like I have some control over the process but it just doesn’t work that way for me. I use Scrivener a lot. I also use some simple text compositions apps like iA Writer, Ulysses, and Highland. If there’s an app that looks cool I can basically convince myself it will make my writing easier and I’ll buy it. In the end you still have to come up with the words yourself, apparently. My schedule and goals are usually structured around if I have a book under contract and when that is supposed to be done, and it varies a lot. I also do some teaching and I have a podcast, so that goes into my working day, too. I try to plan my week on Sundays to get at least a vague idea of what I’m trying to accomplish. Reading a great story or book, or seeing an affecting movie are the kinds of things that most work for making me want to create.

Brooke: Your most recent book, Roomies, is co-written with Tara Altebrando. How did you decide to write a book together? Tell us about the process of writing a cohesive storyline with more than one author. Is it something you’d consider doing again?

Sara: I’d definitely consider doing it again! It’s wonderful to not shoulder the entire burden of getting something daunting like a book done. Tara and I have been friends a long time, and when we noticed a bunch of authors we sort of knew collaborating–like David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, and E. Lockhart, Lauren Myracle, and Sarah Mlynowski–we thought, hey, that could be fun. We just bounced chapters back and forth without much discussion of what was going to happen. It was more like improv that way, one of us putting something out there and there other person responding and adding to it.

Brooke: Let’s talk about your podcasts, This Creative Life. You have forty-one interviews with various writers, artists and filmmakers. How did you come up with the idea for these podcasts and how do you choose whom to feature? Off the top of your head, what’s one of the most memorable episodes?

Sara: In early 2011, I gave a talk at the SCBWI national conference in New York called “Crafting a Creative Life,” which was sort of about the mental game of being in a creative profession. I didn’t talk about craft or business very much but focused more on the psychological hurdles we face every day at every stage of a career. I got such an overwhelmingly positive response to that, and it seemed like it was a conversation that could literally go on forever. Also, while I loved being able to talk about my books in interviews, what I craved the most were conversations with other people like me facing the same hurdles of time management, depression, envy, career ups and downs, fear, and basic issues of sustainability when it comes to doing this job in a committed way. YouTube was a big thing, but I wasn’t into that. I liked podcasts because you could listen while you were doing other stuff–dishes, walking, driving. And there’s something really intimate about voices in your ear. Once I knew that was my medium, it took awhile to figure out the technology. I’m still not sure how I managed to successfully feed it to iTunes! I hit on it by accident and could never explain it or recreate it. It’s been fun, and from the responses I get other artists crave these conversations, too.

Brooke: Many of our members are gearing up for the Storymakers Conference this week. I understand you’re teaching an intensive about creating believable and complex antagonists. Can you give us a sneak peek of a nugget from your class?

Sara: It’s really more about the forces of antagonism than antaonists–the external forces, which might be your more traditional “bad guy” or a situation and the internal forces driving a protagonist, and how those collide to create drama. The Seven Deadly Sins are involved.

Brooke: Who is your favorite character you’ve written and why?

Sara: I love them all equally!

Brooke: If there’s one piece of advice you can give aspiring writers, what would it be? Is there anything you wish you would have known sooner in your writing career?

Sara: People told me this when I was starting out but I scoffed at it: enjoy yourself more. We get so bound up in the angst of trying to get published, not getting published, wondering how long it’s going to take and when it will be our turn and if we’re going to miss the boat if we don’t do all the right things in the right order and meet the right people and have the right platform… Well, unfortunately none of the angst goes away when you’re on the other side. It only takes different forms. Enjoy yourself now while you’ve got nothing to lose, and then when you do have something to lose, still enjoy yourself because this is not life and death stuff, and whatever you might lose isn’t going to rob you of your joy or identity if you’ve practiced grounding those in what matters.

Brooke: You’re great at leading interviews, as showcased in your podcasts. What question would you ask you that will elicit the most interesting response? And. . . what’s your response?

Sara: Unfortunately I’m terrible at turning the tables on myself, so someone else will have to come up with that one someday!

Brooke: Your website says your next book is scheduled for release in 2016. Can you give us a little teaser?

Sara: It will actually be more like early 2017, as there’ve been some logistical and creative curve balls with this one. But, it’s about sisters and family, and abandonment, and anger, and how sometimes you have to be your own rescuer.

Brooke: I ask everyone the same wrap-up questions to get a glimpse of their personality aside from writing…

The Nitty-Gritty Six

Something about you that will surprise us: There are probably no surprises left about me because I tell everything to twitter.

Guilty Pleasure: Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups. Though I’m afraid if I say that people will try to give them to me. Don’t. Don’t bring me peanut butter cups.

Favorite Movie or TV Show: Right now, as it finishes up, Mad Men.

Item you couldn’t live without: A good notebook and pen.

Favorite book you’ve read this year: Disgruntled by Asali Solomon

Three things you love to do besides write: Watch documentaries, take walks, iMessage with friends

Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights with us Sara!

If you missed any of the previous Interviews you can get caught up here:

Interview with Author Mette Ivie Harrison

Interview with Author Teri Harman

Interview with Editor Lisa Mangum

Interview with Author Jo Noelle

See ya next time!

Brooke

BrookeH

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