Sara Zarr is part of a new generation of YA novelists considered the so-called heirs to grand dame Judy Blume. She is the author of Story of a Girl (that is, a girl labeled the high school “slut”), which was a 2007 National Book Award finalist; Sweethearts, about the divergent paths taken by two social-outcast friends; and the forthcoming Once Was Lost, which chronicles a pastor’s daughter’s struggle with faith. Page Turner talked with Zarr about teen sexuality, feminism, double standards in the YA world, and her own YA lit loves back in the day as a “smart-girl” teen.
Page Turner: Who was your young adult lit crush? What YA novel did you absolutely adore as a teen, and what about it moved you so strongly? Sara Zarr: There were so many great YA novels that stirred me up when I was a teen. I’m really bad at picking just one. The one I always cite, because what I felt as I read it is so clear in my memory, and the one that made me want to write is The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier. But thinking more broadly over all of my reading between, say, ages 11 and 18, I’d have to say that Madeleine L’Engle most consistently spoke to me. By the time I came to her House Like a Lotus, at age 16, I’d been reading about the O’Keefe family since A Wrinkle in Time and had watched Polly come of age. PT: What was happening in your life at the time you encountered her work, and did it shift your ideas about your life in any way? SZ: I was involved with a community theater group and, like Polly, had a lot of adult friends and felt more myself with them than with my high school peers. Also, like Polly, I got romantically involved with an older man, a 25-year-old college student who later became my husband. I was 16 and felt like I was stepping into the adult world, my future, maybe a little sooner than is ideal for most teens, but I felt ready. It was an exciting time, but also confusing, and it meant saying goodbye to my childhood, basically. After reading House Like a Lotus, I felt older, wiser, maybe a little sadder, but also that what I was going through wasn’t totally unheard of. Her books helped me in the same way so many YA novels helped be back then—by showing me I wasn’t alone. I was a bright, observant, and intuitive teen who always felt older than I was. All of the teens in L’Engle’s books are unusually intelligent or gifted in some way, and face challenges that go so far beyond the Big Dance. I liked her worlds, where life was more than the social drama of high school. Among other things, her books made me feel like it was okay to be a smart girl—not a message I got from my peers. On the contrary, most of the smart girls I knew went out of their way to hide their intelligence. PT: In a recent essay for Powells.com, you said that a reoccurring theme in your YA work is “families and their failing, inadequate ways”—themes you said that are often characterized as “domestic fiction.” You wrote: “I wonder why when a woman writes about families, her books are ‘domestic fiction,’ and when men do, the work is ‘literary.’” Why do you think that is, and as a woman writing within the YA genre in particular, what changes would you like to see about how women’s writing on these issues is perceived? SZ: I can’t explain it except to draw the conclusion that, as a culture, we still think men’s lives are more interesting or important, or if the man is writing about women that their voices have more authority. Unfortunately, it does seem like this attitude exists in YA, too. There are a lot more women than men writing YA, and when a man does write a good book—even if it’s not necessarily qualitatively better than his female peers’ books—he tends to get more attention. If he’s young, straight, and attractive, all the more so. But when it comes down to money, sales, etc., women in YA are doing pretty well—many of them doing it while also having babies and managing households. I don’t know if there’s a way to change the perception of “domestic” issues other than to continue to write as honestly as possible, with good attention to craft, which is, of course, every writer’s job, male or female. PT: Are you a feminist? Would you say your work has feminist themes? SZ: I don’t think I’ve ever said, “I’m a feminist,” because I don’t have a very good understanding of what that means. I grew up in an evangelical Christian home, so there was a certain amount of suspicion about what were called back then “women’s libbers.” At the same time, my mother’s side of the family teems with fiercely intelligent, strong Southern women and the men and women who love them, so though there were never any talks about girl power or rights, I never got the message from within my close circle of friends and family and church that women were less than. Which probably means I take it all for granted and that may have made me intellectually lazy about the issue. Or at least, I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve felt the need to identify myself as a feminist—though I am, because I’m more or less a Christian humanist, which means I believe that human freedom and rights are intrinsic to Christianity. Believing that, feminism would already be included. I always say that every writer writes from his or her worldview, intentionally or not. So, feminism definitely shows up, though I don’t set out to insert those themes. The mail I get from teen girls about my second book, Sweethearts, has probably made me think about this issue more than anything else. Most younger teen girls are upset about the ending, which I won’t give away. Suffice it to say that so many of them have already, at age 12 or 13, bought into the idea that romance is the ultimate expression of love, and couplehood is the ideal state, which is not something I believe. I think that’s a feminist and a humanist issue. PT: Story of a Girl is the story of Deanna, who’s been labeled the “school slut” at her high school after a sexual relationship with an older teen boy, Tommy. How did you want to portray Deanna’s own sexuality and sexual agency as you explored what happens to a teen girl who’s labeled “slut”? SZ: For me, the main conflict in that story is between Deanna and herself, and then between Deanna and her father. The sex incident was really just one way to help that happen. I never set out to write a book about sexuality or double standards or all the other things that it wound up being about. … But as I wrote about this distance between Deanna and her father, I had to ask myself why things were so difficult in their relationship, and thought, “What are some of the major issues that come between fathers and daughters? Why is he so hard on her?” That’s when the image of him catching her with a boy came to mind, and the story coalesced around that. As I got into it, different things about sexuality came to mind: the way we can use it to get affection when we don’t know how else to, and where that might lead us; when we buy into the idea that romantic/sexual interest is the ultimate expression of acceptance, and the falsehood of that; and that sex really does matter. It’s not just a physical act. PT: Do you think there are enough realistic portrayals of teen sexuality in YA novels? SZ: There are probably a lot more realistic portrayals of teen sexuality out there than adults realize or are comfortable realizing. Just as there’s no one single experience of sex for adults, there is no single experience for teens, so any honestly written portrayal could be realistic. Sex is actually pretty well covered in YA fiction these days! PT: You’ve said that you’ve “long wanted to write a YA novel that involved a character with a sincere but conflicted religious faith. That’s how I usually feel: sincere but conflicted.” What are some of the “sincere but conflicted” feelings you’ve experienced that you wanted the characters in your upcoming novel Once Was Lost to play out? And how does it feel to finally publish a YA novel with religious themes? SZ: I can best describe “sincere but conflicted” this way: I believe in God, a divine creator, whole-heartedly. I can no more not believe in God than I can believe the world is flat. I have tried, trust me! I believe in the basic tenets of Christian Orthodoxy. But if the Christian God is a god of relationship—as believers of my generation say—our relationship is fraught. I get angry at God—confused, frustrated. I look around at things going on in the world and say, “This is broken. Shouldn’t it be fixed by now? What the hell?” Those are the kinds of frustrations my character in Once Was Lost has: desperately needing some evidence of this so-called loving God she’s been hearing about her whole life from her pastor father. As for how I feel about the book coming out: I feel curious about how it will go over. I think some readers will be thrilled to meet this character and have this story, while I’m sure it won’t be quite the cup of tea for others. Which is true of every book—that’s part of the deal. Next up in “YA Lit Bitch” are interviews with Laurie Halse Anderson, Julie Anne Peters, Francesca Lia Block, and Justine Larbalestier. For more on Sara Zarr, check out her website. Related: Stories for Girls: An Interview with Lizzie Skurnick