An Exclusive Interview with Sarah Dessen
The (unofficial) start of summer is just days away! What better way to kick off summer reading than with a chat with Sarah Dessen, the (unofficial) Queen of Summer Books? Dessen’s latest book tells the story of seventeen-year-old Emma Saylor, who unexpectedly finds herself in the place (and with the people) she can barely remember–the place that the mother she lost called home. Over the course of a magical summer on the water, Emma Saylor learns about the mother she wishes she knew, and the memories she didn’t know she had. Keep reading to hear what Sarah Dessen had to tell us about writing, love, and her own magical summers growing up. Enjoy!
From #1 New York Times bestselling author Sarah Dessen comes a big-hearted, sweeping novel about a girl who reconnects with a part of her family she hasn’t seen since she was a little girl–and falls in love, all over the course of a magical summer.
Many of your books are about young women finding themselves and finding love. Do you think falling in love should happen in that order? Are the best romances those that help you discover who you really are?
I think you can never control when you find yourself OR fall in love, much less what order it happens. When you find someone who gets you, though, you often have a chance to see yourself through their eyes. And that can effect change, all kinds.
You’ve said you love a book set in the summer because it’s a finite amount of time but feels endless and full of possibility. That feels like a good metaphor for writing a book. How do you go about crafting your stories to fit into a finite space and time?
I’ve always been drawn to writing about summer because the summers were SO formative when I was a teen. Away from school, the regular routine, often working your first job…there are so many ways to show a person growing and changing on the page when they are out of their element. When I write a book set in summer, I usually keep a calendar beside me so I can keep track of how the weeks are passing, when the Fourth is, etcetera. Although I still send up with timeline problems. I am very grateful for copyeditors!
How did you spend summers growing up? How do you spend your summers now?
When I was younger, I spent every summer in Cape Cod with my extended family. We all have houses on this one strip of land, and for us kids it was heaven, running around barefoot, sailing and swimming with a pack of cousins. Now I bring my own daughter there, which is pretty cool. We also go to the beach for a week every summer and take an annual trip to White Lake, NC, which inspired a lot of The Rest of the Story. I like the water!
Your books have tackled some difficult topics—domestic violence, addiction, loss, and sexual abuse to name a few. How do you strike the right balance between the dark and the light in your writing?
It’s challenging, for sure. As a reader, I know I can only take so much of heavy, hard topics before I need to come up for air. So I always try to balance the tougher issues with funny or sweet scenes so everyone reading can have a break. Dreamland, probably the darkest book I’ve written, has a pair of quirky neighbor characters, Boo and Stewart, who helped me through the hard part of the story. When they pop up on the page, it’s probably because I needed them.
The timeline in The Rest of the Story is not a straight line. We’ll hear what Saylor’s up to today, and then she’ll recount the events leading up to where we are now. It feels a lot like how Emma Saylor must have pieced together what she knows about her mom. Is that how you intended the timeline to play out from the beginning?
It’s rare for any story, especially the good ones, to follow a linear path. We’re always changing, moment to moment, breath to breath: our story has to, as well. But I was very aware that Saylor was getting information slowly, and often had to go back or jump ahead to figure out how it fit in with what she already knew. She has some facts. What’s missing is context, and that’s what she finds at the lake with her family.
As in many of your books (and in life!), many characters are not what they seem to be when we first meet them. How do you come up with a character’s back story?
The voice always comes first. Before the title, or plot, or anything else, it’s the narrator I focus on, trying to hear what it has to say. I’ll wait until I have a lot of notes, jottings and ideas before I start. By this point, fourteen (!) books in, I’m concerned with not repeating myself as well. There’s that great moment when you think of a characteristic you’ve never dealt with before on the page, and it’s SO exciting. I cling to those fun moments, because writing is usually really hard for me.
I love the image of the “big photo album in the sky.” Another great metaphor for a book! Do you think the current generation—in the age of digital photos—will miss out on the kind of tangible memories Saylor and Roo are able to bond over?
I think we’ll always have a love of pictures and sharing them. All you have to do is look at social media! However, it is a different experience. Pictures were more of a leap of faith when I was a kid. I mean, you didn’t even know what they’d look like until you took them to get developed. These days we delete all the bad pictures. But we need those, too. I can’t imagine a past where we’re all curated and manicured. We all need those bad haircut photos. They’re formative!
What are your five sentences? (If you don’t get this question, it’s from the new book!)
I’m a writer and a mom. Faculty brat, raised by professors. Real Housewives fan/addict from way back. I think entirely too much about Cheez-it Double Cheese Snack Mix. Someday, I want to have a house by the ocean.
With so many books under your belt, I have to ask: has writing gotten easier or harder? Do you have the same writing process for each book?
Harder. That’s the honest truth. I’ve been so fortunate to have great readers, but I am super hard on myself. Success comes lots of good things, but also pressure. I’m always thinking I can’t do this again, if not wondering how I ever did it at all. Writing can be really lonely and discouraging. But it’s the only way you learn the story. And I want to.
What are you reading now?
I just finished Jennifer E. Smith’s Field Notes On Love, which was just so sweet and charming. It made me want to take a train across country! (Someday.) Now I am deep into Educated by Tara Westover, which has really had an effect on me. I’m in awe of her grit and strength. On audio, I’m listening to My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, which was unlike anything I’ve ever read. I’m juggling a lot of books right now because I’m not writing. It’s a nice reward.