Sara Zarr: Finding the emotional truth in YA fiction

Published March 3, 2014 9:31 am
Books • Utah writer finds the beating hearts of her female characters as they break away from their family dramas.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Like most Salt Lakers, Sara Zarr was caught up in the news the summer Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped.

Searchers came to Zarr's house in the Avenues, rifling through garbage cans in the neighborhood.

She remembers the "KIDNAPPED" fliers — with that photograph of a ponytailed Elizabeth, looking impossibly innocent and impossibly young — that showed up on telephone poles all over town, along with all those pale blue ribbons.

As Zarr walked to work that summer, she thought about what it would be like to be a teenager who had known Elizabeth slightly, maybe someone in her youth group at church. That set Zarr to work inventing a story, envisioning her main character as a preacher's kid with her own religious doubts who is dealing with an overworked father and a struggling-to-keep-it-together alcoholic mother. The story of what happens to the character of Samara Taylor after an acquaintance from church is kidnapped sets into motion the plot of Zarr's 2009 novel "What Was Lost."

But news reports weren't the end of Smart's influences on Zarr's fictional story. One day, in the spring of 2003, Zarr was grocery shopping at a time when things weren't going particularly well in her life, and she almost ran into a cart piloted by Smart and her mother.

"It felt like the closest thing to a miracle I'd seen up close because very shortly after she disappeared I wrote her off for dead," Zarr says. "It made me think — even in the most hopeless situations, can you ever say something is dead? This is a question Sam has in the book. How do you know when to let go of hope? Seeing Smart in the flesh so soon after she was found, looking beautiful and healthy, made the idea of resurrection new and interesting and possible to me."

Zarr considers Smart's account of her abduction "a gift" to everyone who followed the story. Smart's book, "My Story," co-written by Chris Stewart and released in October, details the other side of the headlines. "Anyone who lived here has their own story of their experience of the kidnapping," Zarr says. "The story belongs to her, but at the same time, anyone who lived through it and lived here had their own experience."

Beyond the blue ribbons • "What We Lost" and "Roomies," Zarr's December's release, which she co-wrote with Tara Altebrando, are the subject of the next edition of Utah Lit, The Tribune's online book club moderated by Jennifer Napier-Pearce at 12:15 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 28.

The strength of Zarr's young-adult novels is in her characters, who seem to live on after the plot winds to an end, says Lauren Liang, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Utah.

In mainstream young-adult fiction, it's rare for religious faith to be a significant theme. Zarr handles the topic skillfully in "What We Lost," particularly in the beautiful, brief way Samara describes an answer she receives to prayer, and in keeping with her personality, quickly drops the subject after trying to discuss it with her preacher father, Liang says.

Zarr's books are interesting because the writer is interesting herself, says Altebrando, Zarr's co-writer and friend. "Anyone who reads Sara's blog or listens to her podcast knows that Sara is really good at just being Sara and that she operates from a position of great intelligence and genuine interest in people and life."

Writing like improv • Over the years, Zarr says it has become trickier to place young-adult characters outside the range of a cellphone and in jeopardy. "It's impossible to write a contemporary book that doesn't address what technology lets you do," she says. "It's a little harder to force teenage characters to rely on their own resourcefulness."

But technology also enriches friendships in teen novels, and for their writers, as well. In "Roomies," an email conversation across the country leads to a developing friendship between Elizabeth and Lauren, who are scheduled to be freshman roommates at the University of California-Berkeley in the fall.

Co-writers Zarr and Altebrando met via a website several years ago; both writers were fans of each other's novels. Exchanging writing drafts led to co-writing a book, which they did by exchanging chapters by email.

Zarr wrote the character of Lauren, who is the oldest of six children and lives in San Francisco, while Altebrando wrote Elizabeth (EB), who lives with her mom in a New Jersey beach town. Zarr is happy to hear from readers, like her mother, who can't tell which character was written by which writer.

"Writing together the specific way we did — without any planning, basically reacting to each other like improv performers — confirmed for me that Sara has a deeply intuitive sense of story," Altebrando says. "She is also funnier than people give her credit for."

In touch with her teenage brain • Born in Cleveland, Zarr, 43, grew up in San Francisco, the child of parents who met in musical school. She began writing after college, moving to Salt Lake City in 2000 with her schoolteacher husband. She wrote three novels before "Story of a Girl" found a publisher in 2007.

That her debut novel was named as a finalist for the National Book Award makes her publishing journey sound easy. It wasn't. "The book took me a couple of years to write it, and three more to sell it," Zarr writes on her website. "During that process I lost one agent and gained a new one, lost my day job, and endured rejection after rejection."

Part of why she was initially drawn to writing young-adult fiction, Zarr says, is that she was still processing events that occurred in her life between the ages of 13 and 25. "I am very much in touch with my own teenage brain," she says.

Her writing has gotten more complicated along the way, and she's given herself a higher-concept creative challenge for her current book, which is due to her publisher in April.

"It's 'A Simple Plan' meets 'Thelma and Louise.' There are no murders, but there is a bag full of cash," Zarr says with a laugh, adding that the story is still a family drama, narrated by an older sister who thinks her parents loved her younger sister more. "After writing 5 ½ books about some pretty internal stuff for these teenage girls, I've written a lot of scenes in living rooms and coffee shops and talking in cars. I just couldn't write that book again."

She describes herself as a "process nerd" but knows that no specific notebook, pen, time-management trick, typewriter or computer software will help when the writing isn't going well. "A perfect writing day would be all about focus and feeling present," she says. "The best writing days are when I forget about my deadlines, reviews, readers, inbox, Twitter, and am only thinking about the story and how to best translate it from my imagination into language."


facebook.com/UtahLit —

Utah Lit: Talking about the work of Sara Zarr

P Two of the Utah writer's novels — 2009's "What We Lost" and December's "Roomies" — will be the subject of Utah Lit's live chat on Friday at 12:15 p.m. at sltrib.com, moderated by Jennifer Napier-Pearce. Readers can join in the discussion by commenting or asking questions using a #TribTalk hashtag on Twitter or Google+. Also on http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment: our video interview with the writer.

Sara Zarr's bookshelf

2007 • "Story of a Girl," National Book Award finalist

2208 • "Sweethearts"

2009 • "Once Was Lost," renamed "What We Lost" in 2013, winner of the Utah Book Award

2011 • "How to Save a Life," winner of the Utah Book Award

2013 • "The Lucy Variations"

2013 • "Roomies," co-written with Tara Altebrando

More • sarazarr.com



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