Eugenia sat down to chat with YA author Sarah Dessen on the release day of her 14th novel, The Rest of the Story. Dessen kicked off her tour at BookPeople to a packed house of adoring fans. We have a limited number of signed copies left, so get yours while you can!
Eugenia Vela: Congratulations on the release of The Rest of the Story. This is your 14th book, which is amazing! If you were able to talk to Past Sarah on the cusp of her first published novel, what would you say to her?
Sarah Dessen: Oh my gosh. I would say, “Stand up for yourself, but also be nice.” Coming into publishing as a 24-year-old– I sold my book when I was 24, it came out when I was 26– I was a waitress, and I knew nothing about publishing. But I followed the lead of a lot of other authors that I knew, like my friend Lee Smith who was always very kind– almost to her detriment. I would also say to her, “Keep writing.” Because that’s been the most important thing. It’s so easy to get caught up in stuff, to lose track of the fact that the writing is the most important thing. It’s a skill, almost like a muscle, and you have to keep doing it.
EV: Can you tell us a little bit about your inspiration behind The Rest of the Story?
SD: I had started another book in January of 2018 and it was going well, but then it totally imploded. I was in a panic, because I didn’t know what else I was going to write about. But I had an idea of a girl and her mom and her sister going to this lake community. We had just started going to the lake with some friends every summer, and it was such an interesting community and a real contrast between the people who vacation there and the people who live there. So after my book imploded, I was feeling hopeless, and I remembered that little nugget of the beginning of a story. So I went back to that, and it started from there. I was just ready for something different. Another thing about this book that is different is that I tend focus so much on the mother-daughter relationship, and I think that’s why the last book didn’t work– because I just didn’t have another mother-daughter book in me at that moment, you know? So I thought, what about a mom that isn’t in the picture anymore? That might be good!
EV: Emma Saylor struggles with her identity throughout her story and she also has a lot of anxiety. We see this with her struggle to embrace her two names, to her fear of driving and her constant cleaning. Can you talk about your choices for this character’s traits and her development?
SD: I wanted to be careful with it because there are a lot of good books out there about people with severe anxiety. I have had a lot of anxiety in my life. Not to the point that it has taken things over, but it definitely affected me in high school and college. I didn’t travel, I was afraid of flying, I was afraid of a little bit of everything. And when I get anxious, like right now before my book came out, I organize things madly around my house. So I really wanted to write something about that because I think there are many different levels, and we’re living in an anxious world. So that was important to me. And then, I was interested in the idea that her parents had this big love story that was very unusual. Her dad came from the rich side of town and her mom didn’t, and then the mom passed away, and it’s this whole thing. So that’s been Emma’s story up until when this summer starts. I always feel like our stories begin with our parents. These people met, they fell in love, they had me. But then “the rest of the story” is your story. So this story, even though the mother is sort of around in pictures and in memories, is more Emma Saylor’s story than her mom’s.
EV: OK, Rest of the Story-inspired lightning round:
Toast or biscuit? Biscuit!
Road trip or flying? If it’s to the beach, road trip.
Ocean beach or lake beach? Oh, do I have to pick? Probably ocean beach.
Ice-cream or sno-cone? Ice-cream.
Book or magazine? Book.
Paperback or hardcover? At the pool, a paperback is always better.
EV: One of my favorite things about your writing– and I’m sure other readers will agree– is your tendency to give characters these little quirks or habits, or litter these “inside jokes” and connections that keep coming back in your books. Some of them become emblematic of the Dessen universe, like “Hate Spinnerbait”. Others are specific to a single character or story, like morning toast. How do you even come up with these?! Where do these come from?
SD: It’s often that as an author you know you have a scene where you have to relay information or introduce new characters. And I was always taught that when you’re having a conversation, you’re very rarely just looking at the person and nothing else is happening. So, I love when people are doing things. One of my favorite assignments when I taught creative writing was: have 2-3 people sit down and do something together. They can be not talking about what they’re doing, but they have to do it. I did this exercise about these two girls who had a really uptight roommate and they had broken something of hers and they were trying to glue it back together before she got home, and having a conversation about it. So, that’s where the toast comes from. That’s what makes people who they are, what makes people memorable.
EV: I just love that they always feel very lived in. You really believe this is a character trait and not something the author just slapped on there. Do you have a “Dessen connection” that is closest to your heart?
SD: I loved when I brought back Dexter and Remy in Just Listen. Because Just Listen was a really hard book to write, so at that point I just needed them. This Lullaby was really fun to write, and not all of my books have been fun to write. That point was intense and I needed a break, so I decided to bring them in. But it really just started because I live in my hometown, so I still see all these people. I feel like there’s been these different phases in my life in Chapel Hill, like there’s me as a high school student, there’s me when I was a waitress at The Flying Burrito, me when I was teaching at Carolina, now there’s me doing whatever this is, now. And I still get recognized more from the restaurant that I used to work at, which has been closed for years now. People will see me and say, “I know you, I know you!” And I’ll be like, “Oh, I write books” and they say, “Nope, that’s not it.” And then I’ll say I worked at the Burrito, and they’ll go, “Oh, the Burrito! That’s right!” But I’m pleased because I loved that job and the people that ran the restaurant. And it was a great job for a writer.
EV: I am SO EXCITED about your big Netflix news! I know the first one to be adapted will be Along for the Ride, which I am thrilled about, but speaking as a fan, I’ve been wanting to see This Lullaby on the big screen for as long as I can remember. It is one of my all-time favorite books. If you could pick your dream cast for Remy and Dexter, who would they be?
SD: I wouldn’t even know at this point because when the book was written it was like Adam Brody.
EV: Yes! I am so glad to hear you say that because that’s who I always pictured in my head.
SD: Adam Brody now is probably playing a dad somewhere! But he was always The One in my mind, ‘cause The O.C. was really popular when I was writing it. That’s the thing for me, my characters are my characters. They seem very real to me; I have to think of them as real people who are with me. Like, I think of me and Emma Saylor against the world in this book. And it’s even harder with the girls to think of the casting. The best thing for me with this Netflix deal is that the woman that spearheaded it was a fan and a reader. I’ve been doing this long enough that now my readers are aging into the point where they can make these things happen, which is impressive and crazy. So she’s really enthusiastic, she loves the books, and she cares about portraying them. We’ll just have to see. But I’m with you. When I found out that This Lullaby was one of them, I thought, oh God. They’re going to have to tread really carefully with that one because people have STRONG opinions.
EV: I have strong feelings.
SD: Very strong feelings.
EV: This is super cheesy, but Remy Starr played a huge part in my moving to the U.S. When I read This Lullaby I really related to her feelings of wanting to move out of her hometown and just being ready for college, for change. Has there ever been a book or literary character that changed your life?
SD: When I was in high school I went through this really bad breakup at the beginning of the year. I was really sad. And books always saved me. I was reading a lot of Stephen King at the time, and I think IT had just come out. My mom was always encouraging me to read, she wanted me to read the classics but all I wanted to read was Stephen King and Jackie Collins. So I carried this copy of IT around with me everywhere for months at school. Everybody associated IT with me, they’d be like, “Hey! Still reading IT? Ha-ha!” And it became this journey and a place that I could fall into. I’m rereading it now because I got this letter from a girl who read something I wrote about on my blog like 10 years ago. She said something like, “You always wrote about IT so I read it and I felt the same way, it was like this huge journey and I just loved it” so I thought I have to reread it. And now I’m realizing it’s this giant thing about trying to survive your childhood, and I was just trying to survive my senior year.
EV: What are you currently reading?
SD: Well I’m reading IT, which is like 1450 pages and I’m on page 75. But I’m currently recommending Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I was given an early copy of it by my local indie, Flyleaf. Because they know me and they were like, “You will love this.” And after I finished I immediately went to find her first one, Everything I Never Told You. She is just so good!
EV: Are you excited about the TV adaptation?
SD: I am! And it’s in good hands. Celeste does teenagers really well. If you read Everything I Never Told You and then Little Fires Everywhere, some of the most compelling narrative focuses on the daughter. And I’m finishing Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. As someone who’s been in therapy their whole life, I’m enjoying it but I think it would be a really good book for people who maybe would like to go to therapy but are curious of what it’s all about. And an audiobook I’m listening to and it’s just the best is Andrew Rannells’ Too Much Is Not Enough. He reads it and he is HILARIOUS! It’s so, so good.
EV: What are you currently excited about?
SD: I’m excited about my new book coming out. I’m excited about going to the lake, which I am doing after this book tour is over. Literally two days later I am going to throw nothing but bathing suits and shorts and flip flops into a bag and go to the lake! And I’m excited about the Netflix stuff, but I know to be cautious because who knows what’s gonna happen with that. And, you know, good summer TV. It’s coming. Lots of good stuff on Bravo!
Eugenia Vela is the BookKids Events & Marketing Director and a lifelong Sarah Dessen super-fan. She may have been silently freaking out during this interview.