QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Interview with YA Author Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr is the author of the award-winning YA novel Story of a Girl, the upcoming Once Was Lost scheduled for release this October by Little Brown, and Sweethearts, which is featured on the Oprah Book Club Kids Reading List. Sara is a champion of aspiring authors and an absolute delight to speak with. (Click on the books for more info about them!)

Is there a particular event that helped you become an author?

There was a long culmination of little things, but there was a time when I'd been writing and submitting for about seven years and nothing was happening. I lost my job, I fired my agent, and I was ready to give up on writing and make a new plan for what to do with my life. Then I went to a weeklong workshop where I took a fiction class and met and mingled with a lot of other people who wanted to do what I wanted to do. The response to my work in the class was so strongly positive, that I came away with new enthusiasm and determination.

Tell us about the journey that led you to your agent, Michael Bourret of Dystel Goderich Literary Management.

Oh, it was long! I'd parted ways with my first agent and was looking for another. This time, I had a much better idea of how I wanted the agent/author relationship to work for me. I spent about three years cold querying and submitting to agents before I found Michael. There was no insider info or friend-of-a-friend scenario. I just researched, queried, and submitted the old-fashioned way! Michael was looking at my work when I happened to be in NY for a SCBWI conference, so we arranged for me to come by his office to meet. We had a great talk and hit it off, and he offered me representation. Oh happy day! It was February 4, I think, 2005.

Can you tell us about Once Was Lost and your inspiration to write it?

Shortly after I moved to Salt Lake City, Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped. I was working at a church at the time, and somehow the events of the kidnapping and the way things felt around town that summer and the fact that I worked in a church all coalesced into the story that became Once Was Lost. It's about a pastor's daughter who lives in a small town where a girl who attends her church goes missing. She's already sort of in the midst of a crisis of faith when the book starts, and the tragedy of the missing girl pushes her over the edge. Meanwhile, her father fails to grasp (or notice) what his daughter is going through since his life is absorbed with supporting the family of the missing girl. Drama ensues! (As it tends to do in my books...)

Do you have an outline or write from the hip?

Generally I just start writing, with a clear idea of the beginning and often the ending, too. At some point (usually about a third of the way in) I have to stop and sketch out, at least loosely, what's going to happen in the middle. My "outline" is really just a bunch of notes and Post-Its and index cards.

Do you have to travel much to promote your books?

I get to travel a bit here and there. Not as much as some authors, and more than others. I have friends who travel half the year or more in a publication year and honestly cannot imagine doing that. This fall I get to do a number of book festivals (in UT, TX, TN) and other fun stuff, and am looking forward to that. It's always great to connect with readers and other writers (published and pre-published) in person!

Can you tell us about your next project?

No. :) It's still in beginning stages. My editor doesn't even know yet what it is.

Story of a Girl, which is a 2007 National Book Award finalist, is considered by some to be on the edgier side of YA. How do you feel this has helped or hurt your career?

It's hard to say. I don't get the sense that it's hurt. Though there are a few people or organizations who don't choose it for their lists or collections because of content, I'd say it has found its audience. It has been named to lists and received some awards, and really I can't complain. I think it was well-received not because of its edginess or non-edginess, but because something about the character's emotional journey resonated with readers in a way that feels true to them.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Oh, a lot! I love talking to aspiring authors and sharing my story, and my trials, and reassuring them that what they are going through is a normal part of the process. I guess that's what I'd say though it's more encouragement than advice: If you're struggling with writing or with wanting to write, if the words on the page make you scared or nauseous or convinced you should give up, if it feels like you've been writing forever with no tangible results other than more words, if you feel like a fraud, if you worry someone will arrest you for impersonating a writer...you are TOTALLY NORMAL. Virtually every successfully published writer I know still feels at least one of these things at least once a day.

Is there a downside to being a published author?

Absolutely. There's a down side to everything. Once expectation enters the picture---from readers, from your publisher, from your family or yourself---writing is never quite the same. Once you're in the publishing game, the insecurities don't stop. There's always someone with better reviews, more money, bigger tours, more fans, more sales, a cooler persona. There's always someone whose writing is so good it makes you want to crawl in a hole and die. Basically, being published accomplishes one thing and one thing only: getting your book to readers in the marketplace (and that in turn might earn you some money, maybe a living, possibly a nice living). And getting to readers, of course, is so important! I might venture to say it's the most important part. But it doesn't solve all of the other problems of your life, or with your writing.

Do you have a quote that motivates you?

I'm sort of paraphrasing here, but I think I've got it right: "Talent is as common as house dust and useless as tits on a boar. What counts is hard work, perseverance, determination." I once heard Barry Moser say that (or something close to it) at a conference. I love it, because it eliminates the excuse of sitting around worried that you're not gifted enough to write. There are lots of very talented people who never publish a word because they don't have the hard work and perseverance part down. I'm not saying that talent plays no part in making good writing, but it certainly isn't that important when it comes to having a career. Some of the worst books in the world are best sellers! I'm not saying go out and write a bad book. The point is: we all feel insecure about our talent or giftedness, and might waste years of our lives trying to ascertain whether or not we have the gene or the aura or the magic muse or whatever it is we think we have to have to give ourselves permission to write. There's really no way to know what resources of talent lie within until you get to work and keep at it, always striving to improve and challenge yourself.

Thank you, Sara, for answering my questions! I loved every word of Story of a Girl - it made days spent at my kids' swim lessons enjoyable! I'm looking forward to reading Sweethearts next. It has such an interesting premise, I'd like to share a blurb with our readers:

As children, Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick were both social outcasts. They were also one another's only friend. So when Cameron disappears without warning, Jennifer thinks she's lost the only person who will ever understand her. Now in high school, Jennifer has been transformed. Known as Jenna, she's popular, happy, and dating, everything "Jennifer" couldn't be---but she still can't shake the memory of her long-lost friend. When Cameron suddenly reappears, they are both confronted with memories of their shared past and the drastically different paths their lives have taken.

Sara's bio:
I had an interesting childhood in San Francisco involving spies, orphanages, wagon trains, tornadoes, kidnappings, evil school marms, and re-enactments of popular Broadway shows and the movie "Grease." You could say I had an imagination. Now I make stuff up for a living. I've got two novels out right now, Story of a Girl (a 2007 National Book Awards finalist) and Sweethearts. My third novel, Once Was Lost, will be out in fall 2009.

To find out more about Sara, check out her website.

I hope you all are having a fantastic summer!

Suzette Saxton's idea of a perfect day includes a picnic lunch, laughing children, and her laptop. When she's not writing books for kids, Suzette can be found gardening, doing finish carpentry in her home, or walking in the canyon in which she lives.


Casey Something said...

Sara, this interview was very encouraging and inspiring for me. Thanks so much.

Angie said...

What a great interview. Such wonderful advice. It is nice to know that all those feelings are normal and part of the process. I have that way so many times. Thank you, Sara, and thanks Suzette!

Elana Johnson said...

Thanks Sara and Suzy for this great interview! I love hearing that people can make it through the "old fashioned way" of sending a query and landing an agent.

Linda Godfrey said...

I was both so horrified and fascinated with the Elizabeth Smart case I can see how it would make the underpinnings for a great book idea. Thanks for reiterating the fact that it often takes years to find an agent...that kind of frankness is what keeps us all trucking on.

ali cross said...

What a great interview! Thanks Suzy for the excellent questions.

And thank you Sara for your honest answers. I especially appreciated how you answered the 'downside' question.

Time to go check out your books!

Stina said...

Great intervew and perfect timing! I'm in the process of switching genre from YA paranormal to YA contemporary (despite what I claimed many many posts ago), so now Sara is on my reading list for next week.

Thanks Sara and Suzy.

Unknown said...

As so many things you read today focus on the gloom and doom of the industry, it was refreshing to read something so encouraging for aspiring writers everywhere.
Thank you!

Kim Baccellia said...

Love this interview. Sara's words are very encouraging.

Suzette Saxton said...

Awwww... thanks you guys. :)

Barrie said...

What a great interview! I stayed up late at night to finish Story of a Girl. Couldn't put it down!

Cynde L. Hammond said...

Dear Suzette and Sara--

That was an excellent interview!

After reading it, I feel much better about my own writing. It's almost as if Sara knew just what I was going through (because she had experienced the same feelings herself) and that encourages me. I also enjoyed her great advice and tips, plus the honest answers to the questions will be helpful in my quest for an agent of my own someday. (Thanks a lot, Sara!)

Sara's book, "Story of a Girl", sounds awesome and I can't wait to read it.

Thanks for doing another fine interview, Suzette!

Cynde's Got The Write Stuff

Suzette Saxton said...

You are so welcome! I enjoyed interviewing Sara. She's so approachable... a feature I think carries over into her books. They draw you in and make you feel right at home.