Summer of Sarah Dessen: Interview

Not only did I get the chance to meet one of my favorite young adult authors of all time, but Sarah Dessen is one of the reasons I started studying Children’s Literature.  Her novels are personal favorites and they are the books I revisit often when I need a comfortable story to reset my reading gauge.  My copies of her books are worn out from reading and re-reading; so much so that one has been replaced about 3 times now, one has been missing a slip cover since it came out in 2004, a few have wrinkled pages from various things being spilt on them over the years, and more than one have soft edges from being carried around in my purse for whenever the opportunity to read arose.

Before Dessen’s tour stop at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC (the inspiration for Lakeview, people!) I was able to sit down with her (and her beautiful daughter, Sasha) to ask a few questions.

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Selfie with Sarah!

Midsummer Reads (MR): The first thing I wanted to say is thanks for talking to me before your event!

Sarah Dessen (SD): Of course!

MR: And congrats on 12 books!

SD: I know, right? It’s so exciting. Every book is a surprise and an accomplishment. You’d think that by number 12 that I’d know what I was doing and I would feel secure but I don’t. I think it almost makes it worse because of the pressure to sort of keep the quality up and to keep the readers interested.

MR: Well there are those of us who have been reading them, you know, since we could.

SD: Yeah! I mean more and more on this tour in particular there are a lot of people that have come through and said they’ve been reading my books since they were in middle school and now they are in their twenties.

MR: Yeah.

SD: And I’m so grateful that they are still reading and that they want to keep reading YA. I’ve had a lot of people ask, “I wish you would write about people in their twenties,” “I wish you would write about people of different ages older ages.” But I just haven’t had that idea yet so I’m just waiting to see, you know?

MR: Well, it’s interesting because one of my friends from high school, well, when I got my Masters in Children’s Lit, you know, people were like that’s exciting you get to go to BEA and stuff, but you know I told them I get to interview you, this one girl got really excited, she’s an elementary school teacher, and said, “Tell her she’s got to write some stuff for elementary school kids. And I’ll share it with everybody!” And I said, “Okay, I’ll ask!”

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Sarah and a Shy Sasha

SD: I mean we (looking at Sasha) read a lot, we read amazing picture books together. and right now we are reading chapter books like Amelia Bedelia and the Amazing Princesses and stuff, but I feel like it is so much harder! Picture books are like poetry to me, people say like, “You should write a picture book,” like it is easy and I don’t even know how you do that. But I am getting to discover a lot more books through her (Sasha), which is awesome.

MR: Well that’s good.  This is kind of a personal question that I have from it: all of your books kind of have their own special little world, and there’s no real pop culture references, which I love because it doesn’t date the text. Was that intentional?

SD: Right.

MR: or was that accidental that you did?

SD: I think a lot of it is intentional. I think we’ve done some music that we’ve used but it’s always been older more classic music.  But I remember with Someone Like You, which was my second book back in 1998, and I remember there was a scene where Haley and Scarlet were in the doctor’s office and originally I had Haley reading a magazine, like People magazine, that had Brad Pitt on the cover. and my editor was like, “Brad Pitt?” You have to put someone else. So I thought, “Elvis! Elvis is forever,” and she was like, “No, these teens won’t know who that is.”  So I made it Frank Sinatra and she said, “Sinatra will be dead by the time this book comes out!” Which is funny because he died like 2 days before the book came out.

MR: Oh God, it is like she cursed him!

SD: But it’s tricky. You know I’ve been very hesitant about using technology and hesitant about doing text.

MR: I noticed that in Saint Anything.

SD: and you know the iPOD in Just Listen, you know, I think I called it something else. Because you want them to be timeless.  And I’ve gone back and read some books from my teen years and thought like these are really dated. And now some go back and update them, like Lauren Myracle did with her TTYL or whatever. But I feel like I want them to be timeless so you can go back and read them.

MR: And I honestly love that because it does make it so much fun to read and you know you connect it to your other books.

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Sarah taking questions

SD: The issues are timeless in some ways. I graduated high school a billion million years ago, but a lot of the same issues persist like the ones you have with your mom, issues with your friends, with your significant other, whoever that may be, your after school job. I mean a lot of that stuff doesn’t change and I think that is why YA is still appealing across the board to so many kinds of people. Whether you are in high school now or you were ever in high school you can relate to it.

MR: Right. I agree. Okay, if you had to pick one of your books for new readers to start with, which one would it be and why?

SD: I don’t know! I would pick either The Truth About Forever or Saint Anything. I’ve seen, this trip in particular, so many people coming through the line with The Truth About Forever dog-eared, coffee stained, wrinkled from the pool, pages highlighted, but I feel like Saint Anything is as good place to start to because it’s kind of a return to form.

(Sasha got a stool to sit on at this point.  Up until now she had been adorably sitting on her mom’s lap)

SD: But yeah it’s a return to form. Not that the last few books haven’t been complicated, but I feel like this book is a bit more like The Truth About Forever and Just Listen in that it has a wider canvas and moving pieces. So it would be my dream that people would you know, pick up Saint Anything because they’ve heard buzz about it or they are excited about it and they read it and they’re like, “Oh there’s all these other books!,” because I love that.  Like Jodi Picoult, I had read some of her books, then I read Leaving Time, and I loved it and now I’m working my way through her back-list, which I think is the best thing in the world when you discover an author and realize that there are so many other books.

MR: Yeah.  Moving on to Saint Anything, specifically.  Music is very important in the text. It has been a theme in some of your other novels, so is that something that–music is so important to your writing process, creatively? Or is that something that you feel connected to, music?

SD: I think it’s kind of waxed and waned with me. I mean I was very into music when I was younger and now I listen to more– Sasha and I are really into Taylor Swift these days.

MR: Hey, her new album is awesome.

SD: Yeah, yeah I think music can take you to a place. Like I wrote Just Listen which was so much based on music and how music can kind of define a moment more than anything else. and in this book (Saint Anything) I felt that it really showed the difference between the two worlds. Like with Sydney, Layla and the bluegrass. Like, I don’t write southern novels, I think, for the most part, but I do love putting Southern touches in my novels.  Like just putting bluegrass in there. You know, growing up here, it was always on in the background. But you know I do think music is important.  I don’t listen to music when I’m writing, like I can’t have anything–I have to have that silence, you know, unless I’m in a coffee shop and then I tune everything out. But I do have playlists for all of my books–not that I listened to while I was writing–but when I was driving around.

MR: What song would you listen to a lot when you were doing this book?

SD: Well, with this one it was Brave, which is our Sara Bareilles song. Because I had a book I started before this book, which failed, and I set it aside. And I wasn’t sure if another idea was going to bubble up so it was the idea of I just have to sit here and see if another story is going to come to me, and it may not and maybe, you know, I’ve been in this a long time.  It is going to be 20 years in the Fall of 2016 so maybe you know, there are all these young people coming up behind me and maybe I need to like, rest on my laurels for a while, and if another story doesn’t come then you know. It was a really big, scary  moment to set that book aside.  But I’m so glad I did because this book is so much better.

MR: So do you think you’d ever go back to that one, though?

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Sarah surprising long time fan, Kayla, with a gift

SD: No. And the thing is that, after I finished Saint Anything, I did a big clean out of my closet because my writing is so out of my control that I like to  organize everything, I’m always organizing all of her (Sasha) toys.  But up in my attic I found these thirteen manuscripts, counting the one I had set aside, and I set them out in my driveway and took a picture of them. And they each had a sticky note with the narrator’s name on it, and I was like I’ve published 12 books and I have 13 failed novels. Like, something isn’t working here, this can’t be part of my process.  But it may be that it’s what you need like a palate cleansing in between because in YA you are expected to publish so frequently. And you know if you are in adult contemporary you can take you know 5- 10 years in between books and no one gives you a hard time. But I’m considered slow with every two years. Which is just insane to me!

MR: I think it’s maybe because of the attention span of a lot of YA readers

SD: And because people are used to series and with series there is that pressure.  And I’ve just always been writing at the speed I’m going to write and that is just how it is, but I don’t think I’ll go back to it. I have cherry picked things from previous books, like my book Dreamland, that whole story was out of another book that didn’t work, that was my adult novel that didn’t work. Because I save everything. I don’t really print them all out anymore, but you know I save them to discs, I keep them on file because you never know.  But I purposefully haven’t started anything yet after this book, so right now I don’t really have anything else to bank on, this is all I’ve got.  And if this is the last book that I do for a little while, if this is the one I stick with, then it’s a good one to stick with.  That’s how I feel.

MR: Well, if there is one thing that you want readers to take away from Saint Anything what would it be?

SD: I would think that, you know, the quote at the beginning, “to all the invisible girls, you don’t have to be invisible.” You know, high school is so hard and just because you are invisible to somebody doesn’t mean you’re invisible to everybody. And the key to life is finding the people that see you and I think that’s– whether it be your friends or your family or somebody else or a mentor–but that somebody sees you.

MR: I know we need to wrap up, but I have another personal question–my personal favorite has always been This Lullaby, I’ve worn out like 3 or 4 different copies of it. I actually ordered a hardcover copy of it because I wanted to have a copy signed.

SD: Oh, nice!

MR: But where would you say Remy and Dexter are now?

SD: Oh, in my mind they are still together, of course.  I actually started to write a sequel. It was the only time I’ve thought about a sequel, after I finished Saint Anything, and I thought I’d have a great idea and it was like 3 years after Remy–who was you know going into her senior year in college and was doing really well.  And I had this whole thing, it was all organized, and I had a first chapter. But it was so perfect as it is, well not perfect because no book is, but it was so–I love them. And I think bringing them back in Just Listen was really good, because everything was good.  I just don’t think I’m a sequel person.

MR: Yeah.

SD: and I wrote that book when I was, it came out in 2002, so I was 31. You know? And it was so great and I loved it so much that I’d be afraid if anything I did would, you know.  But I manage to work Truth Squad into everything, and you know “Hate Spinnerbait,” I will always–and when Dexter– when they came in in Just Listen, I just wanted to go out the door with them, because it was just such a hard book to write. In my mind they are still together, in my mind everyone is still together.  I married someone I met in high school, and we are still together so.

MR: Well, thank you so much for talking to me. I was super nervous coming into this because I was like, “I’ve been reading her since I was twelve!”

SD: You don’t need to be nervous for me!

DessenSigningTable

Thanks for coming by!

Thank you so much to Sarah Dessen, Rachel from Penguin Random House, Johanna and the team at Flyleaf books for helping make this event and interview happen!

You can check out my review of Sarah’s novel, Saint Anything, just click on the title.

Be sure to read along with the Penguin SUMMER OF SARAH DESSEN Schedule to see more reviews, exclusive content, and have the chance to win copies of ALL 12 of Sarah Dessen’s novels.

SummerwithSarahDessen

 

I’ll be posting reviews for each week, hope to see you!

Author Spotlight: Ken Baker

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Ken Baker is the E! News/E! Online Senior Coorespondent and Breaking New Editor, an acclaimed author, producer, public speaker, and former pro-hockey player.

Ken reports breaking news, conducts celebrity interviews, delivers investigative reports and hosts a range of news segments for E! News, E! Online, E! International, E! News specials, and the network’s live events.

Baker has published six books.  His newest work is a novel due out in April 2014 titled “How I got Skinny, Famous, and Fell Madly in Love,” a story about an obese teen who is pressured by her family to go on a reality show to lose weight and, in so doing, learns the real meaning of freedom.

His debut novel, “Fangirl” (Running Press, 2012), told the story of a pop star who falls in love with a fan amid a sensational tabloid drama.  Ken is adapting “Fangirl” into a movie in collaboration with Converge Media.

Ken is currently at work on a series of Hollywood-themed thrillers set for release in 2015.

Be sure to check out my review of Baker’s newest novel, How I Got Skinny, Famous, and Fell Madly in Love.

As part of the blog tour, I had the opportunity to send Ken Baker a few questions concerning his newest novel!  Not going to lie, it was a bit intimidating considering how successful Baker is as a journalist/tv personality.

Here is the interview!

1. As a former sufferer of an eating disorder, it was both liberating and extremely hard to read about the struggles that Emery had with her weight. What inspired you to write about such a controversial topic?

I’m sorry to hear of your struggle. But you are definitely not alone. My guess is that the percentage of people who suffer from eating disorders is much higher than scientifically reported – especially amongst teenage girls and young women. There is just so much damn pressure to have the perfect “bikini body” or to look like that model in the magazine or your favorite celebrity. It really takes a toll on a person’s body, mind and spirit. It’s damaging.

The reason I chose this topic to explore in my novel is because an issue that impacts so many of us is one worth examining in a deeper way that only a novel truly can. It’s an issue that is one people’s minds, that they can relate to, and I want to write stories that connect and ring true for the audience.

2. Did you look to any non-fictional reality shows when you were constructing this story? If so, which ones and why?

The show in the book is called “Fifty Pounds to Freedom,” and it honestly is a fictional show. But, if there is any reference point to existing reality shows, it would a little bit of The Biggest Loser, mixed with some Keeping up with the Kardashians, with a dash of The Amazing Race and Survivor thrown in as well. In other words, the show is something of a melting pot of the hugely popular reality TV programs out there now. A funny story is that last year I told a friend of mine about the book I was writing. She is a reality TV executive, and when I told her about the outrageous reality challenge show I created in my novel she goes, “Oh, that would be a great show!” I love my friend to death, but I think she might conclude differently after reading about Emery’s experience on it!

3. I love Emery’s sarcastic cadence and innate wittiness. Did you always picture her as headstrong and intelligent over the lazy standard obese teenager stereotype? How did her character blossom from conception to completion? 

Thanks! In part, Emery is based on some young women I have known who have struggled with their weight. I actually interviewed several while I was outlining and researching the novel. I wanted Emery to feel real and, as a journalist, the best way I know how to do this is to interview actual human beings who are similar to the character I am writing. There was one anonymous young woman who was obese during high school, who generously opened up to me in my researching process, and I am forever grateful to her. So, yeah, that is the “secret” behind how a grown man could depict the inner workings of a teenage girl. Research!

4. Since I did struggle with eating issues, I have to ask, do you think that Emery would have continued on a healthy diet with no harmful cheats, or do you think that old habits might die hard?

When the story ends, Emery is in a transformative place in her life. She has gained valuable insights and drawn conclusions about herself and how she wants to live and treat her body moving forward. I don’t know what happens to her, but she probably is just like the rest of us – perfectly imperfect – and faces her daily battle with heart and humanity.

 5. The novel really focuses on self love and focusing on a healthy sense of self.  Can you give readers one tip to help them achieve this?

My novel is far from a self-help book, or a weight-loss manual. It is a fun story written about a serious topic. But I am not Dr. Oz or Dr. Drew. However, my favorite quote from Emery, and there are many zingers in the novel, is this one: “The difference between being ugly and beautiful has zero to do with your appearance.” And I think that is a valuable nugget of take-away wisdom.

 

Connect to Ken!

Twitter: @KenBakerNow

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KenBakerNow

Buy Ken’s Book!

    
WIN Ken’s Book!

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Thank you so much to Ken Baker for stopping by A Midsummer Night’s Read and we hope you will go and pick up a copy of his novel!

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