"Our family went through times of needing food stamps, other kinds of assistance, I was on a school lunch program," Zarr says. "My mom was college-educated, had a master's degree, she was hard-working, she didn't have any addictions, she did the best she could. … We still needed help."
"Gem & Dixie," due out Tuesday, is also a return to her early themes. Her most recent solo book, 2013's "The Lucy Variations" focused on a former piano prodigy struggling with expectations placed on her by her wealthy family. But the titular sisters in "Gem & Dixie" have more in common with the struggling small-town characters in her award-winning debut 2007 "Story of a Girl."
"Over the years, as I've become more successful, my characters have gotten more well-off, and come from more middle-class and upper-middle-class families, so making a return to something that's closer to my own experience has been good," Zarr says.
Gem and Dixie have grown up impoverished in Seattle with a mother who's fallen in and out of addiction and a mostly absent father. The one constant has been each other.
Older sister Gem feels this most strongly, most of her own childhood revolving around preserving Dixie's — distracting her with imagination games, making sure she got up and ready for school each morning, and shielding her from the darker elements of their lives. But as they've become teenagers, their bond has started showing cracks — and it threatens to break entirely when their father re-enters the frame.
Dixie, who's 14, is eager to believe his big promises, but 17-year-old Gem is skeptical — until a backpack full of cash that he's stashed in their apartment gives her a different kind of hope. It could be the key to escaping her claustrophobic life. But can she do that with Dixie — or, more difficult to contemplate, can she do it without her?
Zarr says she originally set out to write a straightforward adventure revolving around a stolen bag of money, with bad guys chasing a pair of sisters. But as she started writing, she realized that story wasn't enough for her.
"I want to know what is making the money so compelling," she says, "what kind of situation are they in where it would feel like this big window of opportunity," rather than a simple greedy temptation.
While Gem resents their mother for not being more of an adult, Dixie is content in a role that's more friend than daughter. She also has a natural ability to relate to people and figure out what she needs to do to survive, which allows her to run with the popular crowd at school and acquire money for food, clothes, even a cellphone.
Gem, meanwhile, goes hungry or scrounges for quarters because their mother has never filled out the paperwork that would qualify them for free school lunch. The new, aloof teenage Dixie — who used to need Gem and now just seems embarrassed by her — compounds Gem's sense of abandonment.
Zarr's own experience was more like Dixie's than like Gem's — she channeled her older sister, Liz, for aspects of Gem's character.
To this day, Zarr says, Liz puts her hand out to keep Zarr from walking into the road when they approach an intersection. The book is dedicated to her.
"She was taking care of me … where there was no one really to do that for her," Zarr says.
Their mom was "a good mom — not like the mom in the book," she says, and did her best to make up for the absence of their father, who they lost to addiction and then divorce.
But when one parent is "trying to provide all the money, and all the parenting, they're not as available emotionally," Zarr says.
She remembers a constant worry about where food and clothing would be coming from, and the suffocating feeling of always having to say no to things because of money. Zarr was raised in San Francisco, but her interaction with the city itself was, like Gem and Dixie's in Seattle, restricted by her family's circumstances.
Zarr, who's lived in Salt Lake City for close to 17 years, says she and her sister both "broke the patterns" of their family, which — like Gem and Dixie's — involves generations of "addiction, and depression, and parental abandonment, mostly by fathers."
She realized this while filling out a family tree during therapy — an experience she eventually gave to Gem, who begins to open up to a school counselor.
With that school-counselor character, Zarr says she feels like she violated a rule of the YA genre — no adults stepping in to help the teenagers. But she knows that reality is often different.
She had her own "guardian angels" when she was younger — when she was in fourth grade, a friend's mother bought her an entirely new wardrobe for the school year. Other friends and members of their church community bought groceries for her family or gave them money.
But not everyone can rely on that kind of support, says Zarr, who worries about politicians' increasingly dismissive or hostile views of federal initiatives that provide food assistance and arts programming.
Gem and Dixie's world isn't one readers will want to escape into, but Zarr sees the window her book provides as vital.
"Maybe kids who read it will grow up to become people with influence," she says. "It will be one more drop in the ocean of things they have been exposed to and can develop empathy for."