Author Interview: Sarah Dessen on her new novel, Saint Anything

author interview
               sarah dessen

C.J. hanging out with Sarah and some dum dums

Sarcasm & Lemons is happy to welcome Sarah Dessen to the blog today!  The following is the transcript of the interview I did with her yesterday, plus some tidbits from the talk she gave at her signing.  Thanks to Rachel Lodi and Schuler Books for setting this up!  

WARNING:  The inteview does contain some mild spoilers!  
If you haven't yet read Saint Anything, check out my review!  

the interview


First of all, I absolutely loved the book.  

Oh, thank you so much!  

And I was reading online that it had come out of, you said, a failed book that came before.  So, how did you get from there to here?  

Basically what happened was, I was trying to write a book from the point of view of someone who was going through kind of a dark period in high school, which, I went through a dark period in high school, but every time I've tried to write about that experience, it just hasn't worked. It's like it's too close to me.  So the book wasn't working and I just got really frustrated and I set it aside and I thought, gosh, maybe I just have kind of done everything I can do, and then as the time passed I started to think about it and I wondered, you know, what if I write about the point of view of someone who's going through this dark time but it's not from the point of view of that person, but the family watching the person go through that.  

So that sort of opened it up a little bit, that I could write it from the point of a sibling watching someone go through it, and it sort of gave me the perspective and the little bit of distance I needed.  And then the story just kind of came from there.  I mean, I knew a lot of guys like Peyton when I was in high school.  I was friends with a lot of them, like, people who had every opportunity and went to good schools and had wealthy families and still were just drawn to trouble, you know, and who would end up breaking into the guardhouse at school or breaking into a house in the neighborhood just for the rush of it or whatever.  And some of them ended up doing really well, and sort of pulling out of it and going to college and getting it together, and some of them didn't.  That was all really interesting to me, so I think as soon as I came at it from that direction, it kind of came together.  

I actually really like that you did it that way, because I feel like the families in these situations, you know, you don't see their perspectives a lot, so it was very cool to get that.  

Right?  And I think to sort of feel like you're helpless, and especially, I've had so much blowback from the mom, from Julie, people saying, Oh!, she's such a terrible mom, I hated her, I'm so--but it's like, as a mom I can relate to her. She was so focused on trying to fix him and trying to do everything that she could to make it better, and in her mind Sydney was okay, so she didn't have to worry about Sydney, because Sydney was like her kid who was alright.  I don't know, I have more sympathy for the mom since I've become a mom.  

Yeah, I can imagine that!  She was definitely a hard character for me too, but I could understand where she was coming from.  So, I'd say my favorite character to read was probably Eric.  Who was your favorite to write?  

Oh gosh, that's hard to say.  I love Layla.  You know, I mean, I think Layla was kind of the character that I needed I think starting a book after a failed book, which I've done many times before, actually, but you just want someone, like I just was sort of writing the best friend that I wanted at that moment, like somebody who was just very supportive and who was just gonna show up and immediately be loyal.  Eric was actually in the previous book he was the boyfriend of my narrator, and he was just so obnoxious.  I was like, God, you know, I was like, he was just fun to write. 

Sometimes you can do stuff with those secondary that you can't do with primary characters.  You couldn't write a whole book from Eric's point of view because it would just be so annoying.  but it's so fun with the secondary characters, you can kind of make them more flagrant, a little more flamboyant, and you can kind of give them these annoying characteristics.  So I was like, you know it'd be fun to kind of bring him in, and I think he kind of redeems himself in the end.  I mean, I think if Layla decides that she's with him, then, you know, he's gotta have something good going for him.  

Yeah, she's got pretty good judgment.  So, you know, one kind of conscious choice that you made there was to have David Ibarra sort of in the background and to leave out that potential confrontation between him and Sydney.  What made you make that choice?  

Cause I don't know how it would go, you know?  I mean I think that her just getting to that doorway is such a big part of the story, and I think, you know, when she, you know Layla says, Oh and you guys would end up being friends, and it would be this great Lifetime movie ending where they would end up doing something amazing together, but we don't know if that's what's gonna happen.  I think for Sydney just going to the door and saying what she needs to say and even if she leaves and it doesn't feel like everything's resolved, it's something.  I think it was a great place to leave it.  We started the book with a question, "Will the defendant please rise?", and then we end the book with, "I'm Sydney Stanford, can I come in."  I think, two questions, and not really knowing what the answer is to the second one--I don't know, it just worked for me.  Because there was the tendency for it to veer into cheesiness.  

I think that really worked for me as a reader, because there's that temptation to get into that Lifetime sort of cycle.  

Yeah, I just didn't really want to let people know what was going to happen. 

Yeah, and I kind of liked that. 

I do too.  And I think, I didn't want him to be that much of a character.  I think he was enough of a character just in his existence, and what Sydney kind of put onto him from a distance, and his involvement with Peyton and everything, but I think we don't really need to know too much about him.  I think he has to be sort of this template against what Sydney is putting against him and sort of imagining what he was thinking and everything.  So I think he was involved just enough.  Any more, it would have veered into this sort of saccharine thing.  I worried that that was the case.  

I was really happy to see when I was reading to see that it didn't go that direction.  


So, another thing I was wondering, you know, what was for you the hardest scene to write?  Not necessarily, maybe because it was emotionally difficult or maybe because it was one of those frustrating scenes that makes sense in your head but you just can't get it out.  

I think actually the most uncomfortable scene for me, I don't know if you read in the piece I wrote for Seventeen magazine, so, the hardest scene for me was when Ames was staying over with Sydney and that sort of awkward--cause when I was in high school, I was friends with somebody who I saw as totally an older brother kind of situation and he wanted something else from me, and there was a couple of instances where all of the sudden it became very clear that, Oh wow, we're not on the same page of what we're expecting from this relationship!  So that to me was very, it kicked up some dust for sure.  Like she comes in and it's this romantic scenario and this pressure of not wanting to hurt somebody's feelings but at the same time wanting to protect yourself and be honest and trust your gut and not do something you don't want to do.  Definitely the creepy Ames scenes were tough for me. 

You definitely feel it as a reader.  I think my heart dropped into my stomach when she walked into that house.  

Yeah, and you just sort of are like, ugh this is, everything is wrong.  She says at one point, "Everything was wrong here," and that's sort of how I felt writing it.  I thought I just had to push through it, because I think, everybody's been, I mean I didn't realize before that Seventeen article how may people had been in that situation.  When I started to get all of these retweets and comments, and I was like oh my god, all this time I thought it was just me, and I had done something stupid.   

Yeah, I mean, I've definitely known guys like that, and I've seen my friends hang out with guys like that.  

I think it's really normal, and I think it's, I don't know, I grew up in the south and I think especially with southern girls it's like, be sweet, you're taught to be sweet, don't hurt people's feelings, don't ruffle people's feathers.  SO it's very hard following your gut ad feeling like you're in an uncomfortable situation, it sometimes takes into your 20s or even your 30s to be like, you know what, this person makes me uncomfortable so I'm uncomfortable and that's it, end of story, there doesn't have to be any explanation.  You give me the creeps, so I don't want to be around you.  But that's a lot harder to do when you're 14, 15.   

I mean for some people, like Sydney, they never end up learning to speak up like she does, and they end up in these relationships that last forever, that are just wrong. 

Yeah, not good.  And initially, not to give away a lot, but the big cumulative scene between Sydney and Ames, wasn't there.  But my editor kind of said I think we need some, we need this to come to a climax, we need some big moment here.  And I sort of felt like, ugh I don't know, you know, but I think it pays off well in the end. I think it's what everything is leading to, but I was probably was kind of afraid to write that scene.  

Those scenes can be very tricky.  

And I think it just, again, it kicks up some dust and it's emotional.  And I don't like conflict in my regular life so writing about conflict on the page is just kind of like, oh god, this is stressful!  But at the same time I think it's necessary, because it's what makes people like the books and it's what makes people relate to the books.  

So, I guess on the other hand, what was the scene you had the most fun writing?  

I love any of the scenes where I have a big bunch of people sitting around talking.  So like the scenes where Layla is talking about being a connoisseur of all these different things, of her romance and that.  

I loved that. 

Any scene where I have a whole bunch of people sitting in a circle and it’s like Fast and Furious, the scene at the Chathams' house when she and Irv are doing the frosted pop tarts and everything and Rosie and her friends are there and Mac with his Kwackers, whatever they were--that's my favorite kind of scene to write.  When you just have a lot happening and a lot of people and a lot of dialogue.  The harder scenes for me are the more, kind of, a lot of narrative and sort of pulling everything together.  The dialogue is just really fun when you can just let people talk and it's like I'm just hearing it in my ear and I'm just writing it down.  

I think those were some of the most fun as a reader too, especially when they were arguing over the band name, and all the existential meaning.  

Exactly!  Eric was just so fun to write in that way, like, he was just such a blowhard that it was just enjoyable.  

And I love how everyone sort of tolerated him.  

And I think the friendships are very clear.  That's the way I was in high school with all of my friends.  Everybody sort of filled a particular need.  It was like, everybody had their place in the group, like there was the person who was kind of like the mother of the group, and there was the person who was the counselor, and I think that's the way it works for them too.  It's like, you put up with a lot from your friends, because they sort of become your second family.  Sometimes when your family's a little fraught, your friends become your family, in high school, and in college too I think in some ways.  

I definitely had that experience.  And I do love how the friendships here don't get lost amidst the romance, which is so common nowadays.  

Yeah!  I think the friendship, my high school experience was never about one thing.  It was never like it was just a love story or just me and my mom butting heads or just me and my friends.  Every day it was a little bit of everything, and that's the story I wanted to write.  

Alright, last question!  What is your favorite flavor of sucker.  

I'm not a big sucker person, but I'm partial to the bubblegum because that's what my daughter likes.  Bubblegum and cotton candy.  When I go to the bank, and my bank always has all of the dum dums there, I get the pink flavor for her.  

tidbits from the signing

A huge crowd eagerly awaits Sarah's introduction 

"Jenny Han would say I should show off my dress.  She's my style guru."  

On the book that was Saint Anything:  The original draft was about a girl named Isley who was going through hard times.  Sarah said that she would dread working on the book.  The boy in it was just a cardboard cut-out.  She doesn't even remember his name.  But she saved it.  "We Dessens save our documents."  And finally, one day...
"I told my husband, I think I just abandoned my book.  And he said, Good, you were miserable."  

"If I'm not writing, I don't know who I am."  

On Broadchurch:  "I thought I had discovered David Tennant all by myself.  And then my friends who watch Doctor Who were like, you're a moron."  

On her favorite narrator:  "I have two dogs and I could never pick one dog."  She did admit that she has an affinity for This Lullaby, however.  

On becoming a YA author:  Sarah started in a very literary MFA program.  She initially pitched two books to a publisher.  Her agent convinced her to pitch the third, which would become This Summer.  When asked if she was a young adult writer, she thought, "No, I'm not YA.  I'm a serious literary writer."  It was in the days when young adult wasn't so acceptable, before John Green and Sarah Maas.  When Sarah was trying to write books "about people smoking cigarettes, staring out the window, being serious."  

On high school graduation:  "Everyone was like, Oh, I'm gonna miss this and was so nostalgic.  I'm like, I hate everybody.  I had like four friends."  

On children:  "I wasn't used to someone else having a say in names.  I was like, the baby's called whatever.  And my husband was like, nope."  

Signing books like a pro! 

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