In a time when the hotter-than-ever young adult genre is increasingly dominated by paranormal and dystopian stories, this is also a big year for Sarah Dessen—and that’s saying something. Teen readers flock to Dessen’s heartfelt stories of friendship, love and coming-of-age in much the way many adult women once hinged their own dreams on Judy Blume’s every word. And in an era where writers eying the market are wondering where they might fit in, Dessen—who earned a degree in creative writing and set out to pen adult fiction, before an agent saw a younger appeal in the protagonist of what would become her 1996 debut—is excelling in an arena she never consciously targeted. “I did just stumble into [YA] backwards,” she says, “but I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
It’s easy to see why. The No. 1 New York Times bestseller builds connections with her readers that don’t stop at the page, extending to her blog, social media and even an online community, Sarah-land, just for fans of her work.
This spring marked the hardcover launch of Dessen’s 10th novel, What Happened to Goodbye, the paperback release of Along for the Ride, and the start of her first big publicity tour since the birth of her 3-year-old daughter, including such high-profile stops as a featured spot on Book Expo America’s children’s authors panel, hosted by Julianne Moore. Yet Dessen remains refreshingly honest about the struggles of the writing life—and how they’re far from over after your first success.
In the complete WD Interview featured in the July/August 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest, Dessen shared some of her most powerful lessons learned along the way. Here, the discussion continues with even more of her insights on what it takes to be successful writing for young readers.
You’re very active online interfacing with your readers. Is that something you’ve always done on your own, or something your publishers pushed you to do?
It was really something I did on my own. My publisher was a little slower, actually, to come [around to the idea]. I started my blog almost 10 years ago, and I really started it because I had some younger cousins that were on LiveJournal, and I thought it would be fun for me to have a blog. So I just put it up and started writing it, and I think initially my publisher was like, “OK, well, whatever. That’s fine.” I think the big publishing houses were a little bit slower to come to it because they were so used to their marketing model. And I don’t think that’s their fault: I think everybody was slow to come to it, because who knew that the Internet was going to be such a huge part of our lives—especially the social networking? I have these same young cousins of mine to thank or to blame for the amount of time that I’m online. [They] did it for their own personal use, and I’d say, “Oh that’s cool, this Facebook thing—maybe I’ll try that to put the books up and see what happens.” They’ve been a great asset to me in that way.
There’s an entire online community just for your fans. What does it mean to you, to see thousands of people connecting simply because you do what you do?
It’s so amazingly flattering. My publisher set that site up, Sarah-land [sarah-land.ning.com], when Along for the Ride was coming out, about two years ago. They were like, “This will just be a fun thing, let’s see what happens.” And immediately all these people joined, and what’s awesome is it’s sort of taken on this life of its own. They still talk about my books, but there are also a lot of aspiring writers on there, comparing stories and talking about writing. So it’s very cool that girls who are not just interested in reading YA but in writing their own stories are finding people of like minds on Sarah-land. I can’t imagine how great that would’ve been for me when I was younger, you know?
The teens in your books face real-life situations involving things like drinking and sex, but you’ve also got a segment of readers who are younger than your characters. How much do you agonize over what’s appropriate to include?
I don’t want it to be gratuitous—you know, it needs to serve the purpose. But I always say that teenagers are the first to know if you’re pandering to them. The truth of the matter is, when I was in high school, there was drinking at parties, and I think that to paint it otherwise, in my experience anyway, wouldn’t be true. I have a very good editor who helps me with that kind of thing.
There’s a great quote from Stephen King in On Writing that you write with the door shut and you edit with the door open. And so I usually just write the story that I want to write, and then I have this amazing editor who says, “Hmm—I’m not sure we need this!” She’s got the better eye as to what might set off alarms or bother people.
But I think in that initial draft process, you can’t think too much about what other people are going to think. You just have to get it out, and write it down. And I do so much revising and we go back and forth, and there’s a lot of time to edit, so I always know that things can be fixed.
I’ll give you an example. There was a scene in Lock and Key where in the initial draft, [the main character, Ruby] walked in on her boyfriend having sex with one of her friends. And my editor said, “I just don’t know if your readers really need that. I’m not sure it’s necessary—I wonder if we could take a different tract?” So I thought it over, and I changed it so that she walks in and this girl is feeding the boy chocolates—and it was almost more intimate, because that is so not the kind of relationship that she had with him—the one that Ruby had with this boy was kind of just gratuitous. It was a much more intimate moment—and it actually worked much better.
But on the reverse, I sometimes catch flack on some websites and blogs because people think my characters are too pristine and too chaste, and I’m not dipping deep enough into sex and all that kind of thing. Whatever you do, someone’s probably going to have a problem with it, so it’s hard to walk that line, for sure.
Especially when you are spanning an age group where people change a lot in just a few years.
Oh yeah. I mean, people always say, “What ages are your books for?” And I say, “Oh, 12 and up,” which is like, I mean, at 12—have you met a 12-year-old lately? They’re completely, vastly different. You can have a 12-year-old that is still very young, and you can have a 12-year-old that is basically like 40 years old, but 12. And I think teachers and librarians and especially parents have the exact same problem. When parents come up to me and they say, “Which of your books should my daughter read? She’s 12,” it’s so hard for me to say. And I understand that parents don’t have time to read every book that their kid reads, especially if you have a kid who’s a voracious reader.
But I do know which books of mine are tamer than others. I tend to recommend That Summer, Keeping the Moon, even Someone Like You (even though it has a pregnancy in it)—they’re sort of on the lighter side, and I think they’re more appropriate for younger readers. And then a book like Dreamland, This Lullaby, Lock and Key, is more for an older reader. So I sort of know what the span is in my own head. But again, everybody’s different.
Do you imagine a day that your daughter is in middle school or high school, and what she and her friends might think of your work?
Oh my God. I just can’t even—I can’t even. She’s three and a half, and once in a while we’ll be in the bookstore and there’ll be one of my books, and I’ll say, “Look, what’s that?” and she’ll say, “Mama’s book.” But she just knows that because my face is on the back of it. We were reading a book one time, and I said, “You know, I write books,” and she said, “Mama, you don’t write books!” [Laughs.] Like it was so beyond her, you know. So, I can’t even imagine. I was so thrilled that I was having a girl, because I just am so girly myself, but I think the teenage years are going to be very interesting. I think she probably is going to end up hating me, I don’t know [Laughs]—for assuming that I would understand anything that she is going through. So, we’ll see.
While I bet a lot of your readers think their moms could never understand their lives the way you do!
Right! I know! Which is crazy. It’s such a mom thing, it really is. And what’s funny about becoming a mom—I got a lot of questions after my daughter was born, like, “How has it changed your writing?” And I said that before I had her, the mom character was always, you know, The Mom. And I had my character, and I was all about her, and the mom was the foil often, and the conflict and everything. I have so much more sympathy for the mothers now than I did. I think my mother characters have changed a lot since Sasha was born, just because I understand what a hard job it is now, and I’m coming at it from another angle—like you just love and care about this person so much, and just want to protect them from everything. And I understand why my own mother was so protective and everything—I get it now. So it’s definitely added another layer, I think, to my writing, which is a good thing.