Sarah Dessen grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, graduating with highest honors in creative writing. She is the author of several novels, including "Someone Like You," "Just Listen" and "Along for the Ride." A motion picture based on her first two books, called "How to Deal," was released in 2003. She says, "I've been writing, in one way or another, for as long as I can remember." Her 10th and latest novel is "What Happened to Goodbye" (Viking).
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
What sparked your imagination for your book –What Happened to Goodbye?
My initial inspiration for the book was remembering how, in high school, what I always really thought I wanted was to be someone else. To be able to change overnight, get rid of all the things I didn’t like about myself, and become a whole other person. Of course this was impossible, mostly because I lived in a small town where I’d been in school with the same people since second grade. But I never forgot that feeling, how it seemed like a solution to what was troubling me: just shed that persona and move on. I started thinking about what it would be like if you were in a situation where you could do that, and what the repercussions might be when you had to stop. Mclean’s story came from there.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
I think you just have to do it. My books tend to be really messy in progress: it takes me awhile to figure out exactly what I want to say, and then how to say it. It's often the third or fourth time I'm going over a scene that I get it right. I've also found, after ten books, that the more I obsess/worry/think about my writing before I sit down and do it, the worse of a time I have. It's like I psych myself out or something. Ideally my subconscious brain is figuring things out while I'm grocery shopping or trying to get my kid to eat her vegetables. Then, when I sit down to work, it just comes together. That’s a GOOD day, though. There are plenty of bad ones!
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
My first piece of advice, always, is to read as much as you possibly can. Classes and teachers are great, but experiencing good writing is the best way to learn. I also tell people that if you get stuck, or blocked, that’s where the work comes in. You have to keep showing up and push through, somehow. The first seventy-five pages are usually fun for me…the next three hundred are work. You have to buckle down and not quit.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
I found, when I taught writing, that one exercise my students really liked was to write letters. From anyone, to anyone, about anything. Imagine you’re a son dropping out of college writing his parents, a girl writing a boy to admit she has a crush, someone apologizing to someone else. Tell as much of their story as you can. Then, write a response to the letter from the recipient. It sounds strange, but you can tell an entire story that way, and it’s in a form most people feel comfortable with already. Email works too.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
I grew up reading and loving Judy Blume and Lois Lowry. A Summer to Die is a book that still resonates with me. I also loved To Kill A Mockingbird. There wasn’t as much YA out there when I was a teen. Now, there are so many choices! I’m a big fan of Laurie Halse Anderson and John Green’s work.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I’ve found that when I sit down and try to think of a theme, it usually feels forced. I begin with the narrator, her voice and what’s going on with her life. Within those details, and the writing itself, a theme usually comes, and it feels more organic.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
I’m sort of a lazy writer, in all honesty. I don’t do that much research except on specifics that I literally don’t know anything about. For Just Listen, I sat in with a local DJ to see how radio shows get put together. For Along for the Ride, I pumped my husband for info on bike jumping. Overall, though, I tend to stick to what I know.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
I think it begins with reading to your kids as much as you can, showing them how great books really are. Also it’s great if they see YOU reading and making that activity part of your day and life. My parents were, and are, huge readers. It was one thing we all had in common.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
I’m in the very early stages of my next novel, but I’m famously secretive about books until they are done. I think it comes from writing my first (unpublished and mostly awful) novel in a year-long college creative writing seminar. I had to hand in each chapter as I wrote it, and of course they got picked over and critiqued to death. It just didn’t work for me. So now, each book is like a big secret I get to keep all to myself until it’s finished.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
I hope I’d still be writing. I wrote for a long time before anyone was interested in publishing my work. I’m not sure what I’d be doing for money. Maybe still waitressing? Although man, my feet would be tired by now.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?