EXCLUSIVE – Sarah Dessen took the time this week to answer quite a number of my questions regarding her writing process, the novel Lock and Key and other random areas. She was lovely about it, responding within a couple of days which was both amazing and flattering.
Included are some answers to questions about sequels, who Sarah Dessen was like the most as a teen, the inspiration for Roscoe and his anxiety and her pick for my next read.
Thank you again to Sarah for making this possible. I do ask that should you use any of the material from this interview, could you please reference and link to the site as a common courtesy.
The Writing Process-
What is your planning and outling process?
I don’t do an actual outline, as much as what I call a “skeleton.” I never start a book until I have the first scene, last scene, climactic scene and first line all in my head. Often they end up changing as I go, but I like to have a sense of where the story is headed. The planning of the novels always begins with the narrator, though. I am usually thinking of her, and her voice, for months before I put down anything on the page.
Can you give any sneak peeks about your newest writing project?
I can’t! I’m so sorry, it’s not personal. I’m just famously private about my books until they are finished. I think it comes from writing workshops in college, where I had to hand in things chapter by chapter. I like to keep a book like a big secret, all mine until I am ready to tell it.
Of all the characters you have created, which one do you feel you relate to the most? Which one is most representative of Sarah Dessen as a teen?
I think that Halley from Someone Like You is the most like I was in high school. Sort of a quieter type, with a dynamic friend. Remy from This Lullaby is how I WISH I was. In high school, and now, actually. I envy her confidence and how she can handle just about everything.
What kind of research do you undertake for your work, specifically Lock and Key?
I didn’t have to do too much for Lock and Key, as I was writing about things that were pretty familiar for me. For Just Listen, though, I had to consult a lawyer friend of mine about some legal issues, and I sat in at a local radio station to learn how they put on a show. Honestly, though, I’m a pretty lazy writer. I tend to stick to what I know!
How difficult is it to avoiding writing clichés?
I’m lucky that I have a REALLY good editor who calls me on them. I think my biggest problem, though, at least in drafts, is not repeating myself. After eight books I get worried that a character or piece of dialog might be too much like something I’ve already done. So it’s a challenge to keep it fresh.
The novel, Lock and Key -
Abuse and neglect are heavy themes, what motivated you to tackle them in Lock and Key?
I was really interested in taking on a different type of narrator. Most of my girls are from upper middle class families, living in pretty solid environments. I was intrigued by taking a girl who WASN’T like that at all and dropping her into this whole new world. I liked the idea that you’d think it would solve all her problems—having a roof over her head, money, a family—but that it actually brought up a whole other set to deal with. Also, I liked the idea of my narrator having to sort of “save” someone else in order to save herself.
There are a diverse range of characters in this novel (e.g. Marshall, Gervais, Jamie, Olivia, Harriet) are they all imagined or were they inspired by people you know?
I rarely base any characters on real people. It’s much more fun to make stuff up. Plus I feel like I get to know the person that much better if I am creating them from the ground up. That said, I have been known to put names of my friends in my books, as a little wink to them. In Lock and Key, a few of Ruby’s teachers were named after people I’m close with.
Where did the idea of the English project spring from?
I knew I wanted to focus on the idea of family, and I thought it would be an interesting way to get Ruby thinking about it without it seeming too forced. Plus I really liked the idea of how everyone would have different definitions for the word, and in giving them, they’d be sort of defining themselves, as well.
Is there any personal significance with the song Angel from Montgomery?
It just really helped me get down the character of Ruby’s mom. There’s a certain sadness, and tiredness, in that song, and the woman speaking in it, and it really reminded me of what I was trying to get to with Ruby’s mom. I often will have a song that brings to mind a character, or helps fill them out a bit.
I love the ‘meet cute’ story of Cora and Jamie, what inspired that?
I just really wanted to show that Cora is a caretaker, and that she was not all cold, hard edges, even if she seemed that way on the surface. With Ruby gone, she clearly still had a loving, almost maternal instinct. Plus I felt it was important to see WHY Jamie and Cora were together, as they were so different: he’s so likeable, and she’s harder to know. So it was good to show how he’d first fallen in love with her, so the readers could see that part of her as well.
What motivated the choice that Cora and Jamie would be struggling with fertility?
I was trying to get pregnant right before I started the book, so it was on my mind. But also, it ties back to the idea of family. I liked the idea that Cora needed to mend her relationship with Ruby—her first maternal one—before she was able to become a mom to her own child. It just worked well on the page.
What was the CD making scene between Jamie and Owen like in your mind?
I imagine that Owen was incredibly opinionated, and probably suggested three times as many songs as Jamie actually ended up with. I have a feeling that asking him for music advice means getting an earful, literally.
Are your dogs as neurotic as Roscoe?
Roscoe was actually based on my dog Coco, who is also a Boston Terrier who used to be pathologically afraid of our smoke detector. We eventually had to move it out of the kitchen when she began to then fear the toaster oven, the oven, pretty much any appliance. She is housebroken, though! And incredibly loveable, if a little crazy.
Random Questions -
How did your blog begin? What do you find you get out of writing it?
I actually found LiveJournal because I had some younger cousins who were on it, and I liked being able to follow them and see what they were up to. My blog really started as just a way to be in touch with them, but then I attached it to my website and it just kind of evolved into what it is now. I actually really like having an outlet for all my pop culture stuff. Since I work at home, alone, it’s the equivalent of water cooler discussion at an office, for me.
What were you like as a teacher? What is the most important thing you imparted to your students?
Oh, God. I shudder to think how they would answer this question! I feel like I was so young when I began at UNC in 1998, so green….I had no idea what I was doing. I’d like to think that I really pushed my students to write, though, and to take their writing seriously. And I was really enthusiastic about pushing them through revisions, and helping them brainstorm how to fix things in drafts. I often got more excited than they did, I think, when a story came together. Really, though, I bet I will be more remembered for the kickball games I organized on the last day of classes. Those were fun too, though.
How do you decide on the names of your characters?
They really come from everywhere. Both Haven and Colie were people I’d met, whose names I liked. Halley was easy, because I knew I wanted to so something with the comet. Remy was a name I heard on the radio and liked, and I’d always loved the name Ruby. The names are so personal and important to me: they are really where each novel begins. So I take my time, really think on them before I pick one.
Do you ever intend to write a sequel for any of your books or are the character crossovers your way of revisiting them?
The crossovers I hope will let people know how their favorite characters are doing without me having to do an entirely new story. My experience is that sequels are rarely as good as the originals, and it’s my hope that I’ve left my characters exactly where they need to be, in a good place. That said, if I ever DO write a sequel, it will be to This Lullaby. It’s the only one where I’ve actually thought out what I would do, if I decided to go back to Remy.
You are left alone in the house of the guy you are interested in, do you snoop?
I would probably REALLY want to, but would not. I am a serious rule-follower, sometimes to my detriment.
I saw on your official website’s bio that you quoted Led Zepplin in your yearbook. Which is your favourite song of theirs?
I actually quoted Pink Floyd in my year book (ed. oops), but I LOVE Led Zeppelin as well. I listened to a lot of classic rock in high school. I think my favorite Led Zeppelin song is “Thank You,” although “Misty Mountain Hop” is a close second.
What are the characteristics of a Sarah Dessen reader?
It’s really hard for me to say. I think that’s a great thing, though, that so many people of so many diftferent ages and interests all seem to be equally enthusiastic about the books. I feel so lucky that there are people out there who really get what I am trying to do.
Do you check out the livejournal blogs, fanfic stories and blogs that are in honour of you?
I do on occasion, although that’s a slippery slope. For all the good stuff, there is usually some bad, which can kind of ruin your day. The fanfic is really interesting, but for me, a bit unsettling: it’s hard for me to see my characters walking and talking without me. But I am incredibly flattered by the time my readers have put into all the things. (Like your site!) It’s a great compliment.
Which book would you like to see me cover next?
Ooh, good question. It’s hard to say…but if you haven’t read This Lullaby, I’d go for that one. I’m kind of partial to it, if I’m to be totally honest.
Thank you so much to Sarah Dessen for taking the time to answer all my questions. Hopefully I haven’t disappointed you, the readers, too much with the questions I posed. Sarah does drop by this site so make sure you leave your thanks and other comments about the content of this interview.
Note – My header function turns captial letters into lowercase, I wasn’t THAT lazy.