First Draft, Ep. 103: Sara Zarr- Transcript
Date: April 11, 2017
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Sara Zarr, the National Book Award nominated author of STORY OF A GIRL, SWEETHEARTS, and more, including her newest, GEM & DIXIE. Sara has been an important writer for me for quite some time. When I started devouring young adult novels, Sara’s were among the first. And when she started her podcast series, THIS CREATIVE LIFE, I turned to her interviews for inspiration and understanding. On her podcast, and elsewhere online, Sara has been open about her struggles. Grappling with faith, the feeling of home, and the lasting impact of a childhood impacted by alcoholism. Her empathy, her curiosity, and her constant search for grace, is present in all her books, and conversations. I had so many questions for her. And I was thrilled when Sara agreed to meet, in the tiny window of time I had, while recently visiting Salt Lake City. So, imagine snow is falling outside the window, pretend you’re wearing a zebra print hotel robe, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: How are you?
Sara ZARR: I’m good, other than getting over this mysterious, winter illness that I have, I’m fine.
ENNI: It’s a cold, sweeping the nation. Everyone’s coughing. It’s all good. Well, thank you for meeting up with me, I so appreciate it.
ZARR: I’m happy to be here. It’s so weird doing this face-to-face, cause I used to always do my podcast on the phone. And so now, I’m like: “Do I make eye contact? Or, should I just stare at the microphone?”
ENNI: [chuckling] It’s whatever you feel comfortable with. I like to start the interviews at the very beginning, which is, where were you born and raised?
ZARR: Oh, wow, that is at the very beginning! I was born in Cleveland. When I was two, my family moved to San Francisco. So, I was raised in San Francisco. The Inner Richmond district, 15th Avenue - by the park - in the seventies.
ENNI: Wow, a really vibrant time to be there.
ZARR: It was 1972 when my family moved there, and then it was 1981 when my parents got divorced, and my sister, my mom, and I moved to the suburbs with our stepdad.
ENNI: Where in the suburbs?
ZARR: Pacifica. Which is not far from San Francisco.
ENNI: But not the city.
ZARR: No, it was noticeably different.
ENNI: It sounds like you loved the city.
ZARR: I do. I’m definitely a city person. I’m much more comfortable in cities than anywhere else. It was weird because, in San Francisco - and in most bigger cities – you feel like you can walk down the street and be yourself, and no one cares, or notices. Even when you’re in junior high or something. But moving to a small suburb like Pacifica, where people didn’t really walk down the street. And, if you were at all different in any way, it felt [like you] were constantly being noticed and pointed out. I never heard ‘Smart’ as an insult until I moved to the suburbs. At my new junior high, kids would be like, “You’re smart, aren’t you?” in that [snide] tone of voice. I was like, “Yeah? Is that bad?” It was an adjustment.
ENNI: That’s really interesting, and a really interesting observation too. Hmm…
ZARR: Especially for a girl. I don’t know if they said it to boys that way. But, boys would say to me, “You’re smart.” [Again, with snide inflection].
ENNI: That’s so weird, to all of a sudden be like, “Oh. Should I be worried about that?”
ZARR: I know. So, I started doing that thing that girls do, where if I knew the answer to something, I wouldn’t necessarily… I would pace myself. Or, If I finished the test, where you’re supposed to walk up and put it on the teacher’s desk when you’re done, I wouldn’t want to be the first one, so I would wait until a couple of people had gone up. I didn’t want people to be like [makes a huffing sound]: “How can you be done already? Ew, you’re so smart!”
ENNI: Yeah… blah! I don’t even like hearing about that. That’s crazy!
ZARR: I know. I think that’s why I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s books. They were smart girls who got to hang out with a lot of adults and not deal with that whole thing.
ENNI: And really unique, smart girls, who were not interested in… I’m thinking about A WRINKLE IN TIME, and she does not give a shit.
ZARR: Well, except I did care. I wanted the boys to like me. I wanted the girls to like me. I don’t know if I wanted to be popular, but I wanted to not be unpopular. And, I did manage to not be unpopular. But, it always felt like something I was working at.
ENNI: That is a primary drive in school, more than to be popular is, “I just don’t want to be at the bottom.”
ZARR: [laughing] “Just don’t notice me. What I’m wearing, what I’m doing, what I’m saying. Just let me live my life.”
ENNI: Yes, fading into the background is almost the most ideal situation. I am constantly interviewing people who moved around that age. And I did as well. So, I’m always relating to that, but noticing that a lot of people who write young adult, have a huge transition at that time.
ZARR: Yeah, because it wasn’t just moving, it was moving because of my parents’ divorce, and my mom’s remarriage. Living in a new house, with a new dad, and you’re changing schools. Just everything. You’re going from a city to a suburb. It was major upheaval.
ENNI: Yeah, that’s like an earthquake in life. Well, the question, broadly, is how reading and writing factored into your childhood? But I can only imagine that, at that time, reading must have been important for you.
ZARR: Reading was always important. I moved the summer between sixth grade and seventh grade. And once [school] started, then there was more social things, and homework, keeping you busy. I did read a lot, but I read the most in fourth and fifth grade. That time when you become an independent reader, and you have nothing but time. I was a latchkey kid, and this was the seventies. It wasn’t like every day there’s soccer, and this and that, and the other thing. From between when school was over and sundown, you basically had nothing but free time.
So, I would play with my friends and go roller skating and stuff. But, I also read a ton. My sister and I would go to the library all the time. So, that was probably my most prolific reading time. But I did always love reading. I gravitated more towards realism. As I got older, I wanted to figure out what was going on in life. How teenagers were supposed to act. I think the books that made me want to be a writer were books like LORD OF THE FLIES, and THE CHOCOLATE WAR, and A SEPARATE PEACE. These dark stories. And, Judy Blume books. But then, I also loved just random… you know those spinning racks of paperbacks in the school library? It would be like, “A girl gets a makeover and goes on a prom date.” There was one I read three times, where, “A thirteen-year-old girl pretends she’s seventeen so she can date her twenty-year-old guitar teacher.” [laughing]
ENNI: Oh, my god!
ZARR: Stuff like that.
ZARR: I just enjoyed reading about teenagers doing all of the exciting teenage things because I was not doing [them].
ENNI: Do you feel like that was a guide book? Were you looking to them to learn how…?
ZARR: It’s funny, because in writing young adult fiction, there’s this line we always say. We’re like, “Kids reading about drugs and drinking doesn’t make them do it.” And sometimes, I’m like, “Well…” [chuckles]. I would read books - I can’t remember the book, I’m sure it was a cautionary tale against underage drinking - but, I remember a scene where this character was trying to get someone outside of a liquor store to buy her alcohol. And she’s like, “Can you get me a fifth of lime vodka?” And I was like: “Oh. Lime vodka. That sounds…” So, when I was in high school, and someone had fake ID, and was gonna do this liquor store shopping trip, I was like, “A fifth of lime vodka!” So, in that way, it was a guide book!
But, I think it was more the escape into other people’s lives that I really liked. Whether it was sad or scary or fun. Same reason I loved watching TV.
ENNI: I like that you’re talking about escaping into contemporary fiction.
ZARR: Because it’s not your life. I would also see familiar things. I liked reading stories about people who had kids whose parents were divorced, or had alcoholism in their families. I did look for that recognition. But it still always felt like a pleasurable escape. Even if it was a dark and sad story, it felt like, “I’m now checking out of Sara’s life, and I’m going into this character’s life.” I always loved books for that. Ultimately, my primary goal, when I’m writing, is I hope the reader has a great reading experience. There’s more to be found there for people that want to and can, and are ready to find different layers. But first and foremost, I just want them to forget they’re reading a book, and just be like: “I don’t want to put this down. These people are real, and I have to find out what happens to them.”
ENNI: Those moments are so wonderful. And writing? You mentioned a few books that made you want to be a writer. Were you thinking about it at an early age?
ZARR: It’s really hard for me to remember. I know a lot of writers who can really pinpoint when they had that feeling, or, all of the different stuff they wrote. I always enjoyed [writing]. If we had creative writing assignments in class, I enjoyed that. I liked making up stories more so than the act of writing them down. I was always making up stories. I always had a story going in my head, that either involved some version of me doing something much more interesting than whatever I was doing. Or, just imagining: “Oh. What if there was a story about this type of person? And what would happen?” Just the whole make believe thing, I always loved.
I had a very imaginative childhood. I think part of that was because of being somewhat impoverished, and not having a lot of toys and games. You made up your own games with whatever you had. And also, not really having very many books in the house, we just got things from the library. But in terms of buying books, we didn’t do a lot of that. So, you just used what you had. And also, it was such a different [time]. My mom would limit our TV watching, and there were no computers, and there were no cell phones, and we didn’t have video games. There just really was nothing else to do but make something up.
ENNI: Make up your own worlds. Was that taking the form of actually writing them down?
ZARR: Not until much later. But I think that that became an extension of making stuff up. I know that when I was in college, I started buying notebooks, and I had the beginnings of several novels. I would write the first chapter, and then be like, “I don’t really know what to do after this.” So, I know the idea was floating around in there. But it wasn’t until my mid-twenties, when the internet started. Getting Prodigy and AOL disks in the mail. So, I must have had an interest in writing, because the first thing I would look for in the Prodigy or CompuServe chatrooms was writing. This was twenty years ago, and I don’t know why I can’t remember it better. But that was the beginning of it. And just realizing: “Oh, authors are just people who want to write. And just work at it hard enough until they get good enough.” Whereas before, I think I just didn’t really make a connection between the little face on the back of the book, and a job that someone like me could have. I just thought, “Well, that’s just some special people born in New York.”
ENNI: I think the internet has become this huge leveling field, for that in particular. I think of before I was ever online, or doing any of that stuff, I was reading a ton. And then the ways in which you are exposed to an author are when they are interviewed in the New York Times Book Review. I remember reading Highlights Magazine, or Nick [Nickelodeon] as a kid, and it was like people who made those TV shows, or wrote those books… when it’s in a glossy magazine, it continues to feel like they’re very fancy, special people. And very separate from me and my life. But going online, and finding other writers, was so huge. Being like, “Oh, these are just other people who are doing this thing.”
ZARR: Yeah, and now with so many authors themselves being there, and being so accessible. It’s so interesting meeting fifteen-year-olds who are like, “You know, I’m working on my NaNoWrimo Novel [National Novel Writing Month].” Like: “You are? How did you even know about that?” It’s nice that it feels so possible for them.
ENNI: Let’s not skip over college, though. What did you study in school?
ZARR: I started as an English major because English was the class I got good grades in, in high school. But after about two years, I realized that I didn’t want to be a teacher. I didn’t like analyzing text. I didn’t like literary criticism. So, I switched and I majored in a thing called Organizational Communication, which was part of the Speech Department. It’s really applied common sense. And I think people who were in that department tended to be good at, and interested in, communication anyway. And the end game of that major would be jobs like working in Human Resources, or maybe doing some kind of mediation type work, [or] public relations. It could equip you for a lot of different things. But I wasn’t that good of a student, and I wasn’t that into school. And I was already married by the time I was nineteen. It took me six years to get my B.A., and I didn’t really care about it. By the end of that, I knew I wanted to be a writer, or work in some kind of creative field. So, I was not motivated. The idea of any other type of career did not excite me.
ENNI: Do you mind me asking about getting married so young?
ZARR: Sure! I’m still married, so it all worked out [laughing]. I met my husband when I was sixteen, and we got married when I was nineteen. And we’ve been married ever since.
ENNI: That’s amazing! That’s really beautiful. I love that. How did you guys meet? Was he at your school?
ZARR: No, he’s a little bit older than me. He’s nine years older than me. So, when I sixteen, it was a little… you know? I guess maybe reading that book about the girl who dated her guitar teacher… [both laughing].
ENNI: I was gonna say!
ZARR: We met doing community theater. He was really active in this community theater in Pacifica. And there was a girl in my drama class in high school, who was stage managing a play, and asked the class if anyone wanted to be on stage crew. And I was like, “That’d be fun.” Because I always did drama in high school, and school plays. So, we met doing that. His mom had some loose connections to my mom, so he wasn’t this unknown weirdo old man dating sixteen-year-olds.
ENNI: Yeah, not a total stranger. That’s also what I was going to ask about. What kind of other creative stuff you were doing? It’s interesting that you felt like you knew you wanted to be [a writer].
ZARR: I loved performing. Which is funny, because now when I think about doing what I used to do in both high school theater, and I took some theater classes in college. And then I did a bunch more community theater up until my writing took off, around age thirty. When I think now about being in a show, and memorizing lines, and going out on stage, it’s just horrifying. I think I’ve channeled that performance aspect of myself into being a writer, and the public aspects of being a writer. When I have to talk at a conference, or meet people, or talk to librarians, I don’t get nervous about that sort of thing. I’m very comfortable standing up in front of people. But, thinking about playing a part… I don’t know if I could do that now.
When I was eighteen and starting college, I didn’t have a lot of discussions with my family about, like, “What do you want to do with your life?” And, “What are your dreams?” And all that. I think, knowing myself now, if I could go back and be eighteen again, and sign up for college all over? I would be a film major, and do something in film studies. But that, or creative writing, just didn’t feel like options. I didn’t know anyone doing it.
ENNI: Well, what you ended up choosing was pretty practical.
ZARR: Yeah. There was that thing of growing up poor. You feel like you don’t dare have some crazy dream that might involve you staying poor the rest of your life. You kind of feel like, “How do I start making some money, so that this is not my life, for the rest of my life?” I think that I always tended toward security and having a sense that I could always be employed, over a creative dream.
ENNI: We see that all time, right? People from more affluent backgrounds have a safety net, [and] when you know that, it’s so much easier to go out on a whim, and give something a try at a very young age. I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to.
ZARR: And for those of us on the other side, who are watching that - when I watch people that do that, or have done that - it’s not something I like about my character, but I feel resentful. And I feel like, “You don’t know how lucky you are to not have to worry about actually providing for yourself.” And that’s another way that industries like that remain so homogenous. Because the same types of people, who tend to come from a background where there is a safety net - and that’s even on the radar - tend to be a homogenous group of people.
ENNI: This is part of the ongoing discussion about publishing, right? When you get started in publishing and you want to be an editor, maybe you have to take jobs that do not pay very well, and live in New York City.
ZARR: Those people, a lot of them, are being subsidized with family money. And if you don’t have family money, how are you gonna break in? Or get that internship? Which is why the We Need Diverse Booksinternship programs is key, I think.
ENNI: It’s so wonderful. So, that was your perspective. I love that writing was always around, though.
ZARR: Yeah, and clearly I don’t have anything to complain about, it’s worked out for me now. I’ve been writing full-time for almost ten years. But I do recognize it was a different path for me than it might have been otherwise. But at the same time, I think by the time I got published for the first time, I was thirty-six. I had lived a lot of life and I had worked tons of jobs, and was very resilient. I see younger writers getting anxiously bound up in how their careers are going. And I just didn’t worry about that too much. I just know that whatever I do in life, I always end up on my feet, and I can be resourceful.
ENNI: And now, that’s kind of a wonderful safety net that you’ve built for yourself.
ZARR: Exactly. That’s exactly it. You build that safety net for yourself by being willing to do whatever you need to do.
ENNI: So, talk to me about starting to write, and what kinds of stories you got started with.
ZARR: So, 1995 I’d say, is when I was like: “Oh, I think I want to try to do this. To be a writer and get a book published.” I never made a conscious decision like, “I’m going to write young adult fiction.” It was just a given, because whenever I thought of stories, they were high school characters.
ENNI: But it sounds like there was a moment that you said, “Okay, I want to write to get published.”
ZARR: Yes. So, I heard about this Delacorte Prize for a first young adult novel. I think I started subscribing to some YA or Kid Lit related magazine, I don’t know, I have a very hazy memory of that time. But I know that I heard about their prize for a first young adult novel. And that gave me a goal. There was a deadline for that, so I was going to finish a book by then. That was probably 1995 or 1996. And that was the first time I wrote a book from beginning to end. I just sat down and I started it, and then I’d be like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And then I’d get up and pull a book off the shelf, and be like, “Okay.” And I just worked that way from beginning to end. And just told a very linear story about a girl in high school, interestingly it did involve a guitar teacher. This book was never published! It was funny, when I submitted it to the contest, I had this mix of ego and insecurity, that I think I still have. Part of me was like, “This is terrible and I’m so embarrassed that anyone’s going to read it.” And part of me was like, “I’m definitely gonna win that prize!” [laughing]
ENNI: I love that! You kind of have to have both.
ZARR: Yeah, you do. You have to have a real foolish optimism and belief in yourself to start putting yourself out there. I did not win that prize, but I liked that book. And in a chatroom, I met a couple of people who weren’t famous writers by any means, at this point. But, they had books out. And I would go to the library and I could see that their books were in the catalog. And I sent my pages to a few people, and I just got encouragement that I should keep trying. And so, I started looking for an agent with that first book that I wrote for that prize. I did some editing on it, and started looking for an agent. In 1997, I did find an agent. It was really strange, this is the old-school [way]. I went to the library. I looked in the big literary marketplace book. I wrote down the names and addresses of every agent that said they would represent young adult fiction, followed their instructions, and one of them offered to represent me. And I thought that, now, everything was just gonna start happening.
And then nothing happened. And then I wrote another book. And I got so insecure that nothing was happening with the first book. I was kind of scared of my agent. I was twenty-six, or twenty-seven, and she was this lady in New York who wore fur coats. [Both laugh] The few times I called her, because she didn’t have email - this was, again, we’re starting out with the snail mail thing – I just felt like I was bothering her. It wasn’t a good [fit]. When you’re in a professional relationship, if you feel like an inferior life form, it’s just not gonna go well. It’s not pleasant for you, and it’s not pleasant for them. They don’t like to be treated like they’re superior, they really don’t. I mean, some people do, but most people don’t like that. So, I never sent her my second book. And then, I sent her my third book in 2000. It took her so long to get back to me, that I felt like, “I may as well not have an agent.” Cause I was checking in constantly, and eight month later, I was like, “You know?” I wrote a letter, and just said, “This isn’t working out.”
So, I lost my agent, and I got laid off of the job I’d been working. And I couldn’t find another job, because it was that post-9/11 economic downturn. And I just felt like: “I’m thirty-two. I’ve lost my agent. I’ve lost my job. All this stuff that seemed so promising in the last five years, just seems like it’s all dead now. Do I want to keep doing this?” And then, 2002 is when I started the first draft of STORY OF A GIRL, which became my first published book. So that was actually the fourth book that I wrote. And when I was writing that book, I felt like: “Okay, I know that something different is happening with this book. I’m in a place, with this voice, I’ve never been in before. I feel like I kind of know what I’m doing, finally. And this story matters to me where I’m gonna revise it ten times.”
I never felt that way with the first three. I never felt compelled to just keep at them until they were where I wanted them. And maybe that was because I didn’t care about the stories. I just knew that this was different.
ENNI: It’s interesting that you had a really low point, and then this story came to you. That’s kind of wonderful but also, must have been a product of [that].
ZARR: By this time, I was driven a lot by anger. When you have been doing something for so long, you’re either gonna give up – because just plodding along doesn’t feel good – so my drive came from a deeper place of just like, “I don’t know what else I’m gonna do with my life, if I can’t do this.” And I had to prove to someone, and to myself, that I could do it. I had gotten enough encouragement along the way, where I didn’t feel like I was totally delusional. But you don’t know. You wonder. So, it’s like, “I’ve been doing this for seven years. How much longer will I do this, before I give up?” And then I started writing that book. And several years went by and there was a process of finding a new agent, and all of that. In 2005, I signed with my new agent, and sold STORY OF A GIRL and it came out in 2007. And I’ve been writing ever since.
But, oh! I know what happened. [It] was when we moved from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, one of those people I had met on internet relate chat, had a writer’s group here. A legit writer’s group of people in it that were publishing. None of them were doing YA, but it was a lot of people doing essays and short stories. And I learned so much from being in that group. I think that is the period of time where my writing really accelerated. I was just like a sponge, I was just ready. And I think it was good that they weren’t doing YA. Because I was also trying really hard to prove to them that YA could be as good as what they were doing. I was really trying to make my writing craft really excellent, to impress them. And I would learn so much from reading their stuff, and commenting on it, and going, “Oh, this is something I do, and I see why that doesn’t work.”
ENNI: I’m really interested in the fact that you moved around the time of writing STORY OF A GIRL.
ZARR: We left San Francisco in August of 2000, and moved to Salt Lake City for a job opportunity. And we’ve been here, in Salt Lake, ever since.
ENNI: I’m always super, super interested in how place affects people’s creativity and all that. It’s amazing that you came here and felt like you had a supportive group right away.
ZARR: Yeah, that was great.
ENNI: But moving must have been difficult.
ZARR: It was. But another factor in there, was the job that I had when I moved here. The job opportunity we moved here for was for my husband. I kept my job, that I had in the Bay Area, and telecommuted… until I got laid off. The aforementioned lay-off. Working at home, telecommuting, not quite full-time, created a lot of time and opportunity for me to write.
ENNI: The STORY OF A GIRL comes out, and is very well received - National Book Award finalist – that’s amazing! It’s hard to talk to people who have had something like that because, it was the farthest thing from an overnight success [both chuckle]. But what was it like to have your debut book be so noticed?
ZARR: It was great! Because of my background [chuckling] and my family dynamics and stuff, I’m one of those people who’s always waiting for something horrible to happen. My whole experience of that first book was… well, it sold at auction. But, it was a really small auction. And I was afraid that everyone was just gonna get mad that it went to auction, and they were gonna punish me by not buying the book.
ENNI: Oh no! What?
ZARR: I understand that’s not rational. I just… you know? I’m always waiting for everything to fall apart. And then, when Little Brown acquired the book, until I actually had the contracts, I kept waiting for that call. It’s like, “We’ve changed our mind.” And I actually got the contract, and then I just did some revision with my editor, and we worked on the book. And I kept waiting for that to not work out. And then when the ARCs [Advanced Reader Copies] came out, I kept waiting for nothing to happen, or for people to write about how bad it was. I was so thinking about what’s the disastrous thing that’s gonna happen, that it never occurred to me that good things might happen.
The National Book Award came completely out of the blue. This is a great way to live, I’ll never be able to live this way again. But, I had no idea the National Book Awards existed. I knew in an abstract way that that was a thing that existed, but now everyone – with social media, and everything – everyone kind of knows when the announcements are gonna get made. Around what time of year they’d be getting that phone call. Or, like with the ALA Awards [American Library Association] you know. Like, “I wonder if I’ll get a phone call tomorrow morning?” But I didn’t know any of that stuff back then.
I remember when the Printz Awards were announced that year. Sherman Alexie, he won the National Book Award the year that my book was a finalist. We had the same editor, and the same publisher, so we had been in some communication. And I remember he sent me an email, like, “Sorry, we both got passed over.” And I was like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.” [Laughing] And then I was like, “Oh! Printz Awards.” It was just a great time where I had no expectations. My only expectations were of failure [laughs] and that things would go horribly awry.
So, every good review, every good piece of news, every nice email, it just felt like a great surprise and a gift. And I enjoyed it. It didn’t feel like pressure. Because I feel every book is hard for me to write. I didn’t feel a special pressure because of having a successful first book. Because I always want to be perfect, and live up to everyone’s expectations, and never be criticized. So, that pressure is just always there. Now that I’ve been doing this for ten years, and I can see at a practical level, what a good thing, what a lucky thing, it is for an author to have a strong debut and get on some lists. And get a thing like being a National Book Award finalist. I can see how that opened up a lot of doors and made people interested in what I was doing next.
ENNI: And continues to be something that you have.
ZARR: It’s something I’m always gonna have. It’s almost ten years now, since the National Book Award. I start feeling self-conscious. That was a long time ago. [Both laughing] It’s time for some kind of new accomplishment. No, it was great, it was great. I think, finally now, I’m starting to not expect terrible things to happen. But, when anything good happens, it just feels nice. I don’t feel like I’m entitled to have this good thing happen, and if it doesn’t, why is it not happening. I’ll get a little bit of the usual jealousies, and disappointments, and creative envy and career envy. All of that stuff we all get. I’ll have a day of that. If I have a book out and awards are announced, and I’m not getting one, I have one day of going, “Ooh” [sounding disappointed].
ENNI: I think this relates to what you were saying about having to be both insecure, in some way, but also foolishly optimistic.
ZARR: Yeah, every year I’m like - even years when I don’t even have a book out - when the awards [are announced], I’m like, “Maybe?”
ENNI: [laughing] That was gonna be my follow-up too, which is, as you mentioned, that was about ten years ago. And you’ve written several books since then. But I wonder what it’s like to write in the wake of something like that. To have a debut be so big… everybody has second-book things, and feelings, that are different. And that feels like a particular pressure that could have followed you.
ZARR: I shouldn’t say I didn’t feel any pressure, because writing my second book was definitely hell. And I didn’t think I was ever gonna finish it. I had this experience where I went to a conference. I was giving a little talk at a conference, where Chris Crutcher was also talking. And I always really liked his books, and knew he’d been around a long time. I also knew he was a psychologist [chuckles]. So, I saw him at one point in this lounge area at the conference, and I was like, “Hey.” He knew me, because he had actually blurbed STORY OF A GIRL, so he was familiar. But I told him a little bit. I just said: “Do you have any advice? I’m writing my second book. It’s so hard. I just feel like I’m not gonna be able to finish it. Do you have any advice?” And I think the phrase he used was, “Stay close to home.” Which, he didn’t mean literally stay close to your house. He meant with your second book, I think he was saying: “Stick to what you know, and do what you did with your first book. And just get it done.”
And he made a comment that more than one person he knew that had successfully published a first book, and then the writing of their second book… they never got it done. At least one person, he said, had been institutionalized for a short time. People would get into substance abuse. That it was so daunting, somehow, to do this thing, again, that a lot of people just don’t do it. So, he was like: “Just get it done. It’s just a hurdle you have to get over. Just get it done, and get it behind you.”
ENNI: Live through it.
ZARR: Yeah, just live through it, basically. So, that was my expectation of that experience, was just like: “I’m just getting through this. And maybe I’ll never publish again.” And also, the editorial process of that book, SWEETHEARTS, was so… I did so many drafts with my editor. I was like: “Do other writers…? Is there any other writer who does this many drafts?” And she’s like: “Oh yeah. Don’t worry. This is a lot, but I’ve done more.” I’m like, “Okay.” And I would have these anxiety attacks at night. I shouldn’t use the word anxiety attacks, they weren’t medical anxiety attacks. But I would just be paralyzed. I remember one time, just lying on the kitchen floor. I remember my husband would come home from work, and I’d be curled in a ball on the couch.
I remember one night, comforting myself by going on Amazon and reading the Amazon reviews for Laurie Halse Sanderson’s book after SPEAK, CATALYST. Because SPEAK was such a powerful book, I didn’t think anything would possibly live up to that for readers. And so, I was reading Amazon reviews of her second book, and a lot of people liked it, a lot of people didn’t like it. Some people liked it more than SPEAK. It was just like, “Okay.” You can go on from having a book that people… [and] I’m not comparing STORY OF A GIRL to SPEAK, because SPEAK is a one-of-a-kind, stands out in its own way, book. But it made me feel relieved. You can move on from that, and still have a career. And that’s what it turned out to be with SWEETHEART. There’s still people that tell me that’s their favorite of my books. And I’m like, “That’s just the one I had to live through.” It was done before STORY OF A GIRL came out.
ENNI: Oh! That’s huge, yeah.
ZARR: So, there was still revising, and stuff like that. All that hard stuff happened between the STORY OF A GIRL ARC, and publication. And then it was done.
ENNI: Wow, that’s a lot of hard stuff at once, because once the ARC is out, you’re also hearing feedback about your first book, while you’re writing the second.
ZARR: I may not totally be remembering all the timing perfectly, but it was definitely [pauses], I think it was also just hard, because I really, really wanted this career. And there was nothing to lose when I started. It was that stress of having your greatest hope realized. Sometimes, when a dream comes true, it’s the stress of, “What does it mean?” And, “What am I striving for?” And, “What if I lose it?” I think it was that, as much as anything having to do with STORY OF A GIRL. I think it was more like: “Am I going to be able to sustain this? Was that just a fluke that I was able to write that one book that sold?”
ENNI: Yeah, especially since it felt so different from what you’d written before.
ZARR: Yeah, and all of the imposter syndrome stuff, and, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” And, “I’m not cut out for this.” And, “This is too hard.” Because, usually with a first book, it’s something that’s been with the writer for a long time, in a special way. You know?
ZARR: And then, all of a sudden, you’re writing another book. And then further along, for some of us, you just get in a zone where you’re coming up with ideas out of thin [air]. Maybe it used to be, ideas would come to you, and you’d be like, “Oh… I want to write that!” And now, being in a position where you’re intentionally thinking up ideas. And then going: “Do I like that? Is that a book?” It really changes the whole process. I still have the experience of ideas coming, but I also have had the experience of that not happening. And then having to come up with [an idea] because you have a contract.
ENNI: I would love to hear you talk a little bit about now - you’ve established the career - keeping it, being in this world, getting familiar with all the pressures, everything changing. And, the podcast, and talking to people. The podcast felt… it’s such a wonderful podcast. I love it, THIS CREATIVE LIFE. Everyone should listen to the whole catalog, it’s really wonderful. And you’re so honest, and have such interesting conversations, But, it was a lot of grappling with like, “What does this mean that we do this for a living?” And, “How do we deal with the lows?” A creative life is a challenging one.
ZARR: One reason I did that podcast – which, I haven’t done new episodes, and right now, I’m not planning to - is because during that time I was doing that, I was having such a hard time with the writing. All of the things we would talk about on the podcast… it gave me something to do that was both a creative outlet, and a way of trying to figure out what was happening. I was having a mid-life crisis, and a personal crisis, and a health crisis. All this stuff was happening at once.
And I was writing. It wasn’t a writer’s block, or a totally dead time. Because I was getting stuff done, at a bare minimum, that I had to get done to keep going. But that’s why there’s this four-year gap between my last book, THE LUCY VARIATIONS, and my next one, GEM & DIXIE. It’s four years: May 2013 to April 2017. There was a collaborative novel in there, but that was something that was written before, and had felt pretty easy. So that gap was because, I really did have to figure out if I could – and did I want to - keep writing.
I didn’t ever want to say that to my publisher, or to the world. And just be like, “I’m thinking about quitting.” Because that seemed like a stupid career move. I can say it now, because I chose not to, and I’m happy now, and the writing is good again. But you don’t want to go around announcing all the struggles in that really blatant way of like, “I don’t know if I can ever write again.” I mean, that’s fine. Some people do talk about that. I didn’t want to be that vulnerable. I can be very vulnerable about a lot of things, but I didn’t want to ever have people get it in their heads that, “Oh. Didn’t Sara Zarr quit writing?” And then write me off, or forget about me.
ENNI: It seemed like you were able to exercise some of this through these conversations.
ZARR: Yeah, and help me still feel a part of something, even though I wasn’t putting out new work. It was good, actually, to do that. And I think it helped people know me in a different way. In the long run, though I didn’t do it for this reason, it turned out to be something good for my quote/unquote brand. Whatever that is. Or, just the goodwill that you want to accumulate in an industry. And I love podcasts. I love listening to podcasts. When I was a kid, I used to do fake radio shows on a cassette tape player. It all was in line with my whole performance thing.
That was another thing. I wasn’t writing, or, I didn’t have work coming out. But, I still had the performance need. I needed some attention for performing [chuckles] and so it scratched that itch and soothed that ego need. I loved talking about that stuff with people. I think, more so, because I was having such a hard time doing it. Now that I’m not having such a hard time doing it, I don’t particularly want to talk about it. Or, talk about the struggle of it, or anything. It’s good now.
ENNI: Do you think that, and part of me asking this is that my podcast started when I had just had a book barely not sell. It got close, but no cigar. And my day job was like, “Blugh!” It was at a low point, and that’s why I was starting to ask people… and some interviews I was like, “I’m basically asking you to tell me how to do this.” You know? “Whether this is still worth it for you?” There was a lot of me being like, “Can I ask you this insane question, because I’m having a hard time.” So, for me, I think the podcast did help me. It gave me access to a lot of people who were so smart, and really inspiring. It was a great creative thing for me. Do you feel it functioned that way for you?
ZARR: Oh, definitely. Similarly, I was being mentored by those conversations. It was stuff I needed to hear. I remember a few conversations, in particular I remember talking to Scott Derrickson, who’s not even a YA writer [ This Creative Life Podcast with Scott Derrickson]. He directed DR. Strange, [which] is his most recent [show] that people would know about. But, at the time, I had met him at a conference. And it was fun to talk to him. He told a story on that episode, about just the privilege of being able to work in the field. And how he had known someone in the screenwriting world who got really good at writing biopics. And people kept hiring this person to write biopics. He just didn’t wanna do it anymore, and started saying, “No.” And Scott was like, “After you go through a phase of not being able to get work, you’ll be begging to write a biopic.” Because that was part of it. I was just being like, “I don’t know if I wanna keep doing YA, and keep doing what I’m doing.”
Just that realization of recognizing there’s a space for you in this world, and that’s a privilege. You can complain about it, and see the problems in it. Try to don’t ever resent it, because if this is all the writing you could do for the rest of your life, and no one ever wanted you to do any other kind of writing… would you do it, versus not writing? And I was like, “Yeah, definitely.”
ENNI: Not taking it for granted.
ZARR: And the conversation with Gayle Forman [This Creative Life interview with Gayle Forman], I think we’re a similar age, and just talking about saying “screw it” to expectations and just doing what you need to do. And Sarah Dessen [This Creative Life interview with Sarah Dessen] who again, as I said, she’s been doing this for twenty years. And that’s what I want, to still be doing this in twenty years. And not just [to] be doing it for five years. So, I definitely felt inspired and mentored by all those conversations.
ENNI: It feels, sometimes, actively selfish [laughs]. I’m just reaching out to people that I admire.
ZARR: [continues thought] “And I really want to talk to you.” The other thing was, when I would read or listen to interviews with writers, I would rarely to never hear what I wanted to hear as a writer. I don’t care about, “What’s your next book about?” I don’t really care about that stuff. I want to know how they wrote it. Was it hard? How did they get through it? And all of that. So, I wanted to be the one asking the questions, so I could get my answers.
ENNI: [Laughing] Yeah, I like that! I was listening to a heap of interviews with comedians, basically. And I was like: “That’s so fun. They’re so entertaining.” But the best ones were comedians who were writing their own stuff, and who were screenwriters, or whatever. I was like, “Yeah, my writing friends are more interesting than most of these people.” And so, it was kind of like, “I want to hear about what someone wants to explore through their work.” Or, “What’s the ultimate meaning of what does make it worth it.” And all that stuff. It’s been cool to be able to steer people in that direction, and ask questions that don’t get asked all the time. Because everybody wants to know, “What’s your inspiration?”
ZARR: Or, “Where did that idea come from?”
ENNI: It’s like: “Boo, no! Let’s talk about anything else.” Recently, I feel like you’ve been a part of conversations that are happening online about living outside of just books.
ZARR: Hm, yeah.
ENNI: And I think podcasting was a way for me to be like, “Well, I have to look up specs for mics now.” Like, “That’s different.” It felt like a creative thing that was very separate.
ZARR: And it’s also something you control from start to finish. You’re not waiting on an editor, or marketing person. You’re not waiting for a book to come back from the printer 5,000 years from now… is what it feels like. It’s just instant gratification. And you do it exactly [as you want]. I had a couple people volunteer, along the way, to do the editing for me. And I thought: “No. I like being in complete control of this.” And, in fact, that’s another reason. As I was starting to wind it down, I was starting to get pitched a lot. And it was always something where it was like: “Mm, I feel like talking to this person. I’m gonna see if they’ll talk to me.” I didn’t want to be pitched, and then have to say ‘no’. Or, marketing people saying: “So-And-So has a new book coming out. We thought they might be great for your podcast.” I was like, “I don’t want to talk to that person.”
ENNI: I’m coming from a very similar place. I started this because I’m a control freak about things. And I wanted an avenue where it is literally just what I want it to be. And the same thing, I’m not taking ads, I don’t have sponsors. If I miss a week, I want it to matter to no one. That is just what it is.
ZARR: Exactly. People would ask me: “What about…? Oh, you should submit your podcast to this podcast network, or that podcast network.” And I was like, “No. I don’t want to have to cross advertise other podcasts.” And, “Haven’t we all heard enough ads for Square Space and Mail Chimp?”
ENNI: We get it. We get it. Yeah [laughing]. You’ve had very exciting things happen with movie and film. Can you share how it came about?
ZARR: It does feel recent, and the actual filming was recent. But the movie stuff for STORY OF A GIRL, went in motion the year the book came out. In 2007.
ZARR: So, this was a very long [process]. And this is pretty common for small, indie projects. Which the STORY OF A GIRL movie is. [It’s] a low-budget, type of a deal. In 2007, when the book came out, it was optioned by Kyra Sedgewick and Emily Lansbury, who had a production company together. It went through a lot of different stages of coming close. And then a lot of different things kept happening to thwart that, which happens a lot in the movie world. Most optioned deals don’t turn into actual movies. So, it’s like nothing. Which I got tired of explaining to people, outside of the business, who were like, “When’s your movie coming out?” I’m like: “No. It doesn’t work that way.”
ENNI: Yeah, that’s not how it goes.
ZARR: They’ve always really wanted to get this movie made. And they’ve always been dedicated, and they’ve never given up on it. There’s been times when they’ve had to put it aside, and focus on other stuff. And it just kept almost coming together, and then… financing would fall apart. Or, the cast they had attached would have to commit to other things, and all the stuff that happens. And just this past summer, out of the blue, my agent called me and was like: “Guess who I just talked to. Emily Lansbury. Do you know they think they have a deal with A&E? And this is really gonna happen.” And it really did happen. And I got to go visit the set, in Vancouver, back in September. It was a dream come true. Even if it wasn’t my book being made into a move, it would still be a dream come true, to just hang out on a movie set for a day. Because I love movies, and I’ve always been curious how it actually happens. And it was just awesome. It was just a very thrilling, memorable day. And hearing actors say my words… hearing Kevin Bacon say something I wrote, was like, “What?!”
ENNI: Since it did take a while, I’m sure it got to the point where it was a benefit if anything happened. It’s not assumed.
ZARR: Probably the theme of my different journeys… everything the way it’s unfolded - both with my publishing career, and also with the movie stuff - has unfolded in a way where I get to go through all the phases of excitement, and anxiety, and disappointment. And then waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. So that now, I’m pretty calm about everything. I’m like: “If this thing doesn’t happen, it’s fine. If it does, that’s great. I’m gonna hope for the best.” But, I don’t get wound up about it.
Whereas, if I had sold that first book. If the movie option happened, and it got [made] into a feature film that first year. I think I’d be like, “Ugh!” And I would have that expectation for that to happen to all of my books. There’s a kind of wisdom that comes through seeing how - I won’t say through things failing, because I don’t think anything actually failed - but not coming out according to my timeline or wishes. [It] helps me remain calm in the times where I see other people getting so excited, and then so disappointed. That roller coaster of chaotic emotions that I don’t enjoy having.
ENNI: Right, and so much of it - and I don’t want to keep coming back to it - but I do feel that the older I get, the more I am able to handle my shit. So, there is something to that. You know how to regulate yourself and your expectations.
ENNI: You know how to take care of yourself.
ZARR: And you know how to keep steadily working while all of this is happening. You’re not just bouncing off the walls for a month, in anticipation of getting to meet a movie star. Cause you start realizing that everyone’s just a person, and we all have our work to do. You learn to stay calm and steady, and get stuff done. Even when there’s a lot of background noise.
ENNI: Which is great and the thing that I like about aging. It just gets better every year. I learn how to make it better every year.
ZARR: Mm-hm. Me too.
ENNI: I called it shedding fucks the other day [chuckles], that’s my favorite part of getting older. Okay, let’s definitely talk about GEM & DIXIE. So, in this fallow period - the podcast, you figuring out your career – how did this idea come about?
ZARR: I was working on it the whole time. So, the whole time I was having a crisis, I was still trying to work on it. I had noticed a lot of my peers, who had started around the time I did, kind of stepping up their game in terms of higher concepts, and trying to write a quote/unquote bigger book. And I was like: “I wanna do that. I want to see if I can do something more commercial and step it up a bit.” I was having coffee with a friend, and I was like, “If I could write a book like…” Have you seen the movie “A Simple Plan”? It’s Billie Bob Thornton and the guy from Big Love? Whose name I can never remember.
ENNI: Bill Paxton?
ZARR: Bill Paxton. They play brothers, and they find a bag of money in a small plane crash, in the snow. And then, it ruins their lives. But I love that movie. It’s a great movie, and it’s a great book, too. I’m like, “If I could write a book like “A Simple Plan”, but it’s YA.” Initially, I was still thinking about brothers. And then I was like: “Well, maybe sisters. But somehow, there’s a bag of money involved. And what kind of a story would that be? And how would that come about?” So, that’s how the idea generated. In the course of working on that book, it became clear that I was not the writer that was gonna write “A Simple Plan” meets “Thelma & Louise” [both laughing].
It was turning into another Sara Zarr messed up family story. So, I’d been working with it all along, but it was hard. I’d say other than my second book experience – which I talked about being so hard - it was the hardest. Where again, I was like, “I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to do this.” It’s a weird thing. It’s always a risk you take when you’re a writer and you’re selling unfinished books. But, you’re a professional, and somehow it just magically gets done every time. But, with this one, I was like, “I don’t know if it’s gonna magically get done.” [Laughs] I really lost my way.
ENNI: Veronica and I have been talking a lot on this tour with each other, about the difference between the kind of writer that you maybe want to be, and the kind of writer that you just naturally are. It sounds like maybe that was part of the struggle that you were having with that.
ZARR: I think so. I think it was also that I didn’t want to write, let alone what kind of writer. Like, “Do I want to be a writer at all?” But I didn’t feel like there was anything else that I could do. So, in a way, I think I had forced the book before I was ready to write it. And that didn’t help it. I slowly regained my sense of confidence in my ability to feel like I could do it. And, it’s coming out. It’s coming out in April. So, it did get magically finished.
ENNI: This is not an easy book. Gem and Dixie have a really dysfunctional home life, and I know you’ve spoken about being the child of an alcoholic, and that struggle. And they’re dealing with similar issues. That must have been hard to get into and live with.
ZARR: It was, and I don’t think I realized that until I was halfway through the process, which happens a lot when I’m writing. Where I get [to] about the third draft, and I’m like, “Oh, this is about me.” I knew what I was drawing from in my own life, but in a deeper way. Gem and Dixie, I would say, are very, very, exaggerated versions of me and my sister. The family’s not so much an exaggerated version of my family. Their whole situation is totally different. But the dynamic of the consequences, and the effects of generational addiction and dysfunction, and generational parental abandonment, especially by fathers. How that all trickles down to this generation, Gem and Dixie. How they see the world, and their place in it.
And there’s still a bag of money. That became a thing that gave them room to think about what they could change, more so than being the plot. I mean, it is the plot, I guess. But…
ENNI: Actually, before we go too much farther, do you mind giving a little spiel, for the listener, about what the book is about?
ZARR: It’s about sisters, as you may have gathered. They do find a bag of money [both laughing], and they end up having a little adventure together, that’s short lived. I should say, they’re sisters who don’t get along. The older sister has always been the more anxious, responsible one, who always took care of her little sister. But now, her little sister is fourteen and feels like she can take care of herself, and is a little more of a bad girl. A little more popular at school. A little more defiant, and doesn’t want Gem taking care of her anymore. And doesn’t think she needs to be taken care of, though she’s only fourteen, and she’s still really immature in a lot of ways. She’s more world-wise, but she’s emotionally immature. And she still thinks their parents aren’t that bad. They’re basically forced to spend a few days together, just the two of them, going around. It’s set in Seattle and they go on the ferries…
ENNI: Sibling relationships are so challenging. I was struck by thinking about, particularly siblings who have dealt with the same traumatic types of events, the feeling of dysfunctional home life. It’s like that thing where siblings are raised in the same environment, but then it matters… older or younger. One taking care of the other, all those dynamics come into play.
ZARR: Yeah, there’s this theme of, no one knows what it’s like to be in your family except you and your siblings. Even then, you each have totally different experiences of your family, and different roles. And Gem is like the parent of the family who never got to be carefree, and never got to be a kid. And Dixie has benefited from that. [She] has gotten to be more carefree and irresponsible. But Gem is starting to see that she doesn’t want to be responsible for all these people anymore. And she wants to figure out how she’s gonna make a better life for herself, and not keep repeating these same family patterns, over and over again. And this might mean she has to give up her sense of having to be the one to take care of Dixie.
ENNI: Right, which in and of itself, is a little traumatic. The choice to take care of yourself, possibly at the expense of others, is a tough grownup thing to go through.
ZARR: I don’t know if you’ve ever read HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson?
ENNI: I have. It was many years ago, though.
ZARR: I thought about that book a bit, also. I would never compare my books to Marilynne Robinson [laughing], but in that book, there are two sisters who are raised by this crazy aunt. One of the sisters realizes she doesn’t want to be the crazy aunt family. She doesn’t want to be eccentric. She doesn’t wanna live in a weird house with a bunch of knickknacks. She wants to have a normal life, and a normal job. So, she goes forward, and the other sister stays behind. And I thought about that also.
ENNI: I think I’m right in this, that the point of view of the book is Gem, the older sister?
ENNI: And you’re the younger sister. How much of this was imagining your sister’s point of view?
ZARR: I should say [chuckles] this is not me and my sister, but it would have been more natural for me to take on the personality of Dixie. But I thought more about my sister who definitely, in our situation, carried more of the weight of awareness, for lack of a better word. First, she had four years with my mom and dad by herself. And she remembered more things about that time. She remembered specific things about [for instance] being left in her high chair when my dad was supposed to be taking care of her, and sitting in her high chair for hours. She had a memory of that, and seeing my dad’s back, and him not doing anything about it.
I just recently visited her and she still – if we’re in a parking lot, or a busy intersection – she’ll still stick her arm out before I cross the street. I’m like: “Liz. I’m forty-six.” She had the weight of the anxiety, and not ever getting to feel carefree. And part of it was me and my personality. I was more carefree. I had more interactions with my dad, during the time of our childhood in San Francisco. Because there was a time when my sister was in school, and my mom was working, and my dad was taking care of me before I was in kindergarten. We didn’t have a car, but I would ride around in a bus, in San Francisco, with him doing errands. We had a little period of bonding during that time, that I don’t think she’d ever really had with him. So, my sense of experiencing him as a father, I got a little more of that than she did. And that played into that whole dynamic too.
I think it’ similar where Dixie has an easier relationship with her father than Gem does, and that’s painful for Gem. And, it turns out, it’s painful for Dixie because she’s aware of it. It also gives Dixie a distorted idea of what her dad is actually capable of and how reliable he is. And Gem can see it, and be like: “Why do you trust him? Why are you talking to him?” All of that sort of thing. It was definitely imagining it more from a type that was more like my sister, than me.
ENNI: Right. It’s very interesting, and beautiful, to have a book that’s meditating on sisters. I think a lot of stories are sisters that are best friends, and they fight like friends do. Siblings where it’s like the tie is that we are inescapably family. The tie isn’t like we are instantly suited to be with each other.
ZARR: And being trapped in a family system that’s broken. And what does it mean if you want to leave? I know this is my first book where there’s no romantic interest. There’s no crush, there’s no relationship, it’s just about these sisters, and a friend they meet for a brief period of time. But there’s no swooning, no kissing, no crushing.
ENNI: Was it freeing?
ZARR: Yeah. Cause at one point I thought: “Oh, should they meet a boy on the road? Should Dixie have a boyfriend? … No, no.” I just wanted it to be about them. Normally, when I do write romantic, or crush relationships, it’s not so much for the sake of that relationship, as to reveal something about the main character and put them into different context. I know there’s a certain type of reader that will be looking for, “Where’s the love triangle?” Or, “Are they going to fight over a guy?” So much of our lives are not about any kind of romance, or crushing, that sometimes I wonder if it’s even dishonest to always include that in a book and make it sound like, “This is a part of life that’s happening all the time, to everybody.” It’s like, “No.” For a lot of people, it’s not, and it doesn’t need to be. And, it doesn’t mean there’s something missing.
ENNI: I like that, that’s really interesting. Are there other things about GEM & DIXIE you want to make sure that we talk about?
ZARR: I’m excited about it coming out. I’m just excited to have a book out after four years.
ENNI: I’m sure you’re working on other stuff now; do you feel that period, that little bit of a break, was like a fever breaking? That you’re back to a more consistent creative output?
ZARR: It’s actually better than it’s ever been. I think ‘fever breaking’ is a great way to put it [both laughing]. Last year, sometime around this past fall, I started looking into going back to school to be equipped to move into a different career in my fifties… I’m forty-six now. And I started talking about it with some friends, and saying, “If by fall 2017 I haven’t really gotten back into writing, I’m gonna go back to school.” As soon as I started saying that out loud, everything in me was like: “I don’t want to do that! I’m all in with writing.” It somehow freed me. It totally freed me. I think it’s really so trite that it somehow can be summed up by: “If you love something, let it free, and if it’s meant to be it will come back to you.” [Laughing]
But I think, honestly, the act of saying out loud that I might change to a different career loosened something in me that was like that feeling that you have when you start out. You really want it, but there’s nothing to lose. And then you get it, and then there is something to lose. Then it’s almost like you’re driven by the fear of losing it. And being driven by fear does not result in a great experience of life. And I think I just got through that fear. Instead of feeling like: “Oh my god, what if I lose it? Even if I hate it, I just don’t want to lose it.” But then, once I started being like, “Well, it’s okay if I lose it, I can do something else.” Then I’m not scared.
ENNI: It’s reminding me of what we were saying earlier, about creating your own safety net.
ZARR: Wow, yeah!
ENNI: Something about acknowledging that, and knowing that, “If everything fell out, I know I’d still get on my feet.” Saying it out loud is like a vision board, I feel like, “Okay.”
ZARR: Yeah, yeah. There’s a saying in the 12-Step world that’s like, “I’m not the worst person in the world, and I’m not the best person in the world.” And I like saying that with writing, “I’m not the worst writer in the world, and I’m not the best writer in the world.” I’m always going to be somewhere in between. And whether that’s getting awards and good reviews, or not getting awards and not getting good reviews. I’m not gonna be the best, and I’m not gonna be the worst. All I really have to do, is do it the best that I can.
And freeing also, from like: “But I’m Sara Zarr. I should be getting this kind of review, and this kind of award.” I don’t think that anymore. Part of that is also like you were talking about, the benefits of getting older. Part of that is just getting through my early forties and being forty-six and being, like you said: “I don’t give a fuck. Whatever happens. I don’t have anything to prove.” Like, “I’m just gonna do what I do, the best that I can.”
ENNI: That’s really so nice to hear that you came around and had the…
ZARR: Believe me… I am very relieved! Because, for three or four years, and especially in the last two years - up until about six months ago - almost every night, I’d be lying in bed and be like, “What am I gonna do with my life?” And then breaking through that. And now, just feeling fine.
ENNI: So, really quick, I’d love to hear advice. A quick thing of advice for other writers.
ZARR: Right now, in terms of the current climate of writing, and thinking about social media. I would just say, if you’re gonna have any hope of developing your own voice and process, and trust in your own voice, you need to step back a bit from that world. Because the problem is, that world – and I’m part of it. I enjoy it sometimes – is so much about acquiring approval. Writing fiction from a standpoint of trying to be approved of, is just not gonna result in good work. And it’s not gonna be enjoyable to write. It’s gonna be anxiety producing. So, I think getting out of the habit of approval seeking, would probably be my number one advice, right now, for people writing today, in 2017. In this environment, in this culture, and the technology and stuff that we have.
ENNI: I think that’s huge. That’s what a lot of my writing friends are all trying to remind each other all the time.
ZARR: Mm-hmm, me too.
ENNI: Like, “Let’s step outside for a while, and be in the real world.” Thank you, Sara, so much!
ZARR: Thank you, this was great! I really appreciate talking to you.
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Thank you so much to Sara. Find her on Twitter @sarazarrbooks and find the show @firstdraftpod and me @sarahenni. You can also find the show on Instagram and Facebook. But for show notes with links to everything that Sara and I talked about, as well as some of my favorite quotes from this and the one hundred plus episodes in the podcast archive, links to said archive, and a place to sign up for the First Draft newsletter, visit FirstDraftPod.com.
Don’t forget that if you are in, or near, the Los Angeles area this month, two amazing festivals are fast approaching. The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 22nd and 23rd. I will be moderating an incredible panel with Victoria Aveyard, Marie Lu, Kiersten White, and Laini Taylor on Sunday afternoon. The following weekend, April 29th, I will be at YALLWEST at Santa Monica High School on a panel discussing the short story I’m contributing to BECAUSE YOU LOVE TO HATE ME, which is coming out in July.
I’m also going to be in New York for BookCon which coincides with Book Expo America on June 3rd and 4th. I’ll be recording some episodes, and maybe a little more. Details to come.
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Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song. And to Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks to super intern, Sarah DuMont, and transcriptionist-at-large, Julie Anderson. And, as ever, thanks to all you searching, striving, creative livers for listening.