Sarah Dessen’s seventh novel, Just Listen, will be my fifth focus novel for The Sarah Dessen Diarist.
Last year, Annabel was “the girl who has everything“—at least that’s the part she played in the television commercial for Kopf’s Department Store.This year, she’s the girl who has nothing: no best friend because mean-but-exciting Sophie dropped her, no peace at home since her older sister became anorexic, and no one to sit with at lunch. Until she meets Owen Armstrong. Tall, dark, and music-obsessed, Owen is a reformed bad boy with a commitment to truth-telling. With Owen’s help,maybe Annabel can face what happened the night she and Sophie stopped being friends.
People are always interested to learn where a story comes from, and I’m often asked where I get the ideas for my books. The truth is, sometimes I don’t even know: rather than just one big moment, it’s often a lot of little random thoughts, scribbled notes on scraps of paper and backs of receipts, that make up a novel. Other times, though, you can trace a story’s beginning back to a specific moment. That’s what happened with Just Listen.
It was the fall of 2004, and I was about to start a new book. I had a couple of ideas kicking around in my head, some things I knew I wanted to do, but nothing concrete just yet. One day, I was sitting in the lobby of a private school, waiting to do a talk, when I saw a yearbook on the table beside me. I picked it open and started to flip through it, looking at the sports shots, different classes, and finally the senior pages, which were filled with personal photos from each of the graduates. One in particular jumped out at me. It was a shot of three beautiful girls, obviously sisters, all blonde, posing together by a pool, and even at first glance all I could think was that they looked like the kind of girls who had everything. A great family, fabulous social life, palpable confidence, all the stuff I wished I had in high school, and beyond. Then someone called my name: it was time to give my talk. So I shut the book, and left it behind.
Later though, when I was driving home, I kept thinking about that picture, and how quickly I’d made assumptions about it. After all, nobody’s life is perfect, and you can’t tell anything from just one shot, one day. I started to wonder what it would be like to be one of those girls, with everyone so quick to judge, and just how wrong they might be. And just like that, Annabel’s story, which had been hovering in my head in bits and pieces, began to come together.
It is always my intention to write a simple, streamlined novel, short and sweet. But that never happens. Instead, I begin with one idea, which morphs into another, and then another, like a picture that grows past its frame to show everything else that’s happening you can’t see at first. So like The Truth About Forever, my last book, Just Listen has a lot going on. There’s modeling, music, family dynamics, and even bacon. It also brings back a few people those of you who have read my other books might recognize, and I hope will be happy to see again.
No writing process is ever easy, and this book took a lot out of me. Looking back, I think that like Annabel, I had a hard story to tell, and sometimes it was tough to work up to getting it out. I kept going back, rewriting, not trusting that I was doing it justice. It was only once it was finished that I was able to see that all along, I should have been taking my own advice. Not over thinking, backtracking, or obsessing, but instead simply letting Annabel have her say. I just needed to listen. I hope you will, too.
Chapter Response Links:
Just Listen Playlist