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Page Turner “YA Lit Bitch”: An Interview with Novelist Sara Zarr

Welcome to "YA Lit Bitch," a new Page Turner book blog series about my ever-so-slight (or ever-so-obvious) obsession with young adult literature that's not only good, but represents a wide-open range of teenagers' lives with a feminist heroine (or 2, 3) thrown into the mix. (Can you say Weetzie Bat?) The series will feature interviews with many YA authors about their work as well as feminism, gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and other issues. (And if you have a YA lit love that you want Bitch readers to know about—or Page Turner to feature—please submit a comment about it!)

We kick off the series with Sara Zarr, who's 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

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Comments

16 comments have been made. Post a comment.

As a librarian, I recommend

As a librarian, I recommend Sara Zarr's books to teenagers constantly. She is a true standard-bearer!

I would love to see an interview with author E. Lockhart about her Ruby Oliver series (which has "traditional" romantic love-driven plots but a highly independent main character) and especially her Printz honor book The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, about a girl who takes on the literal boys club at her private school.

I <3 The Disreputable

I <3 The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks...I just finished it.
I also really liked Once Was Lost

young adult lit-- definitely not just for the young

as a 30-year-old avid reader of YA, i am super super excited to see this new column! and you guys couldn't have picked a better person to kick things off. i'm a huge fan of sara zarr; the quality of her writing style and the authentic voices of her characters represent the heights that YA lit can achieve.

i actually just started a site for adult readers of YA, cos i love introducing unbelievers to this incredibly rich (and underappreciated) genre. thanks to books like frankie banks (mentioned in the previous comment) and "the hunger games," i'm finding it easier and easier to convert people into YA fans.

i'd like to suggest that you interview/check out megan mccafferty-- the sloppy firsts series follows jessica darling, one of my favorite heroines in the YA world. the books are hilarious and touching and utterly compelling, but even more, they follow jessica's transformation from teen to adult, and mccafferty isn't afraid to tackle all of the crap (and, sometimes, awesomeness) that comes with adulthood and even post-college life.

suggestion

Perhaps you'd like to check out "What the Sea Wants" by Tracy Banghart - she's a budding YA novelist, and this is her first book, but it's pretty damn good. Strong young female lead character. Not explicitly feminist, and it doesn't push any envelopes in terms of gender politics, but perhaps you will find it interesting.

Great interview! I

Great interview! I absolutely second the recommendation for an interview with E. Lockhart. Her Ruby Oliver series is one of my favorites, and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is amazing.

Suggestion

I recommend Julie Anne Peters as a future subject for this column. Fantastic YA novelist. Often LGBT subjects. Her novel Luna was nominated for the National Book Award. She has a new book coming out this fall that I'm looking forward to.

Thank you!

Thank you for all of your comments and suggestions! We're actually running an interview with Julie Anne Peters in the next week or so, so please check back on that. And I am psyched to check out all of the above books and contact the YA authors, too. If you have any questions you'd like to ask, please submit those, too. Thanks again for reading and pledging your feminist allegiance to the YA nation ; )

woo!

I love this column so much I just subscribed!

I'd like to recommend Sara Ryan, authoress of kickass LGBT novels; Libba Bray, champion of indie booksellers; Suzanne Collins, craze-creator; and Elizabeth Scott, who ferrets out our deepest quirks and then writes them into her characters.

?

What became of the Julie Anne Peters interview? I've been reading a lot of her work lately and would love to see that.

Love that lesbian teen novel

I'm a big reader of certain areas of YA myself. I love the Fearless series (though the author, Francine Pascal, is obviously problematic) and have been working through the buzzed-over lesbian novels of the last decade. I found Lauren Myracle and Sara Ryan a bit disappointing and Julie Anne Peters very good, but I've yet to find anything that compares to Annie on My Mind, the groundbreaking early '80s novel by Nancy Garden. It's one of the most beautiful works I've ever read, and she went on to be quite prolific across genres, recently writing a history/fiction-melding book about queer rights (Hear Us Out) that is pretty moving as well.

YA YAY!

I've been waiting for a column like this to appear! I'm an adult reader of YA and a budding YA novelist myself. I'd love it if you could do an interview with Jacqueline Woodson, author of many a Newbery winner, and also a beautiful and complicated queer YA novel called, The House You Pass on the Way, which is told from the perspective of a bi-racial teenager.

Great interview, though it

Great interview, though it broke my heart to read Zarr's "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 agree with the suggestions to interview E. Lockhart, who wrote one of the best young adult feminist novels out there, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks , and Elizabeth Scott, who not only writes about teen girls and in truly interesting ways but for her searing take on victim blame in Living Dead Girl.

Great interview, although my

Great interview, although my heart broke a little when I read Zarr's "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 also agree with the suggestions to interview E. Lockhart, whose The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is probably the best feminist young adult novel out now, and Elizabeth Scott, who writes about teen girls in such interesting ways, and whose Living Dead Girl offers not just a portrait of a kidnapped girl but a searing look a victim blame.

kudos for starting this column! and a suggestion

1. Excellent interviews. I'm pleased that this column exists, as a woman going to librarian school who has been an avid reader since the age of 4 or so, and has a sister the "proper" age to be reading YA literature.
2. I would love to see an interview with Tamora Pierce. I read her "Song of the Lioness" series recently and wished that I'd known about them as a kid. As a teenager, reading books like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings that while brilliant, have little to nothing in the way of major female characters, especially ones that are going out and doing the adventuring themselves, I was really excited to see a story about a woman adventurer who has her fun, but would rather remain her own person and do important stuff like save the kingdom than settle down and become somebody's lady.

new ya interview column

Great interview, and I think this is a fantastic idea. Many adults read ya lit. I read it and write it, and it brings me back to a different time in my life. I look forward to more, and would also love to read an interview with E. Lockhart.

Thanks for the great

Thanks for the great interview with this amazing woman and author I always admired. If I make a list of top ten writers of realistic fiction for young adults Sara Zarr would definitely be on the first place. After reading this interview I'm even more impatient for my book order to arrive.
For those who haven't picked up yet at least one of her books I recommend to see these trailers:
youtube.com/watch?v=iOwZTxmjY2s&feature=player_embedded
youtube.com/watch?v=qz0DfFKSC8s&feature=player_embedded