Leaving Home: Talking with Sarah Dessen

These days, it’s pretty hard to imagine the YA landscape without Sarah Dessen. With a body of work that has earned her a Margaret A. Edwards award for her contributions to children’s literature and a thoughtful, accessible writing style that has ensnared a loyal legion of fans, Dessen is a staple in the field.

Her latest, The Rest of the Story, is the first of her 14 novels not to be published by Penguin; instead, it’s being handled by the HarperCollins imprint of Balzer & Bray. It’s somewhat appropriate, then, that the heroine of the book, Emma Saylor Payne, is also someone who has to step away from the home she’s always known in order to find her feet. Here, Dessen discusses her new book, her own transitions, and the things that change (or don’t) over a long career.

REAGAN: Your regular readers have gotten pretty familiar with the beach town of Colby; in The Rest of the Story, you take us to a new lakeside town. What prompted the change of scenery?

DESSEN: I think it was two things. First, I was ready for a different setting. I mean, after 13 books, you can’t help but wonder what other places are out there. Also, my family began taking yearly trips to White Lake, in North Carolina, with good friends. It opened up a world I’d never known before, and I knew I wanted to write about it. This story was my chance.

Like the town—called North Lake on its working-class side and Lake North where it houses an upscale resort—protagonist Emma Saylor has two names and two histories. Can you tell us a little about how she came to be, and about your decision to tie her personal journey so closely to this place?  

I’ve written so much about mothers and daughters, but those relationships have always been in flux, changing, as my narrator does. In this book, the relationship is already set: the mom has died. While I was writing, I was thinking a lot about how the stories of our parents affect us as kids and, later, adults. Emma Saylor has always known a lot of her parents’ past. But it isn’t until she gets to the lake where that all began that she realizes she might be ready to start telling her own story. 

You recently made a big publishing house move—this will be your first book with HarperCollins. Has this changed or broadened the audience you’re hoping to appeal to? 

It’s definitely a big change. When I started with my last publisher, Penguin, I was a 25-year-old waitress. I’m coming to HarperCollins as an author with 13 books and a long career. I’ll always be glad for all that I learned in those years. But sometimes you have to leave home to grow up. (I say this as someone who still lives in their hometown. Baby steps, I guess?)

The Rest of the Story is your fourteenth novel (!). How do you find that your process has changed, or not changed, throughout the years? Is there anything you wish you could tell the Sarah who was writing That Summer (1996)?

Oh, everything is different! But then, each book is its own experience. I think I was so young when I started, with no idea what I was doing. But now I’m older, and I still find myself struggling on the page, every single day. It doesn’t get easier. It just changes. If I could talk to the 1996 waitress at the Flying Burrito self, I’d say “When you don’t know what to do, trust your gut. And keep writing, no matter what.” I have a lot of struggles, like everyone. But writing is a specific one. You just have to keep going. 

You’re known for weaving in little references to previous characters in your books (Hate Spinnerbait!). How do you keep up with them all?

The proper answer would be that I have a comprehensive spreadsheet with every single one. But in TRUTH, I just keep it all in my head. With mixed results. I am lucky I have dedicated readers I can turn to if I get stuck. It all started because in YA people are so used to these amazing series: we’re accustomed to being able to find out what happens next. I am not a sequel girl. When I finish a book, I’m pretty sick of my characters and they feel the same way about me. But people kept asking about Remy from This Lullaby and Scarlett from Someone Like You. It began as a way of thanking the fans. 

What are you reading this summer? 

I’m not writing currently, so I am reading EVERYTHING. (I tend to avoid YA when I’m working on a book, as I don’t want to know what everyone else is doing.) I loved Jennifer E. Smith’s Field Notes on Love (which made me want to take a cross country train trip!). Educated by Tara Westover I read because of the hype, and it totally deserved it. Amazing. Right now I am reading Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. And on audio I am loving Andrew Rannells’ memoir Too Much Is Not Enough

This was a question that was floating around on Twitter for a bit (but it’s fun!). What are three signs that you’re actually in a Sarah Dessen novel?

DESSEN: Well, let’s see! It’s summer. There’s a song on the radio you can’t get out of your head. And sometimes, your friends are the family you need.  

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About the Author:

Maggie Reagan works for Booklist as an associate editor in the Books for Youth department. In addition to the required love of reading, she is also an adventure junkie, animal hugger, and stringed-instrument enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @MagdalenaRayGun.

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