SAINT ANYTHING author Sarah Dessen knows diversity is needed in books
During her recent book tour, I got the opportunity to sit down with Saint Anything author Sarah Dessen on her San Diego stop to talk about her books, the challenges she’s gone through with writing, her characters, and her childhood “carousel.”
This was your twelfth book. What was the challenge of writing this story after all of your previous books?
Well, all of them are challenging in their own way. This one was challenging because I had written a book before it that I set aside. I was trying to write a book about a girl who goes through a dark time in high school– I went through a dark time in high school– and every time I try to write about my personal experiences, it doesn’t work. It just kind of implodes. So this book was not going well. I just just set it aside and said, “Maybe this is it.” I have a lot of books. I have 11 books. Maybe I just did not want to write anymore. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t write a book until it was just so fully developed that it was like someone whispering in my ear.
So I kind of sat there for a month or two and drummed my fingers and freaked out, considered other career options. But then this story sort of bubbled up. It was scary. It was a leap of faith. After I finished this one, I cleaned out my attic and discovered I have thirteen unfinished manuscripts that I had set aside. They’re not all unfinished. Some of them were done, some of them I stopped in the middle, but for the most part they’re finished. Either I sent them to my agent and my agent said “These are not really good books” or either I decided before sending it to her that she was going to say that. So it was a big leap of faith. With this one, I just kind of threw my whole heart into it. Instead of racing ahead with books like I often do, I’m just kind of sticking with this one.
Which character do you connect with the most?
Well, I think it would have to be Sydney. Because I think if you don’t connect with your narrator… Yeahhh… That’s why most of my narrators tend to be girls similar to me who have more dynamic friends and are sort of more observers because that’s the way I was in high school. I had like five friends in high school who were all beautiful, dynamic, and smart that everyone noticed and I just kind of trailed along. I was the oracle. I remembered all the stories.
I had one book where I wrote from the perspective of that kind of girl and it was totally fun– that was THIS LULLABY– and it was great because I got to be someone totally different. But for the most part I like the narrator who’s just kinda standing and watching.
Like Sydney, I felt miserable a lot of the time in high school. I wanted to be invisible. It’s that mix of wanting to fly under the radar, but also wishing people would notice you. That was a lot of my adolescence.
The carousel scene is pretty significant. Did you have a secret place that compares to that?
Well, it’s funny. My daughter is seven and we live in the country. Right as I started writing this book, she and her little BFF from down the street would go out into the woods with their babysitter and his mom. And they found.. we call it “civilization”, but it’s really just a rusty old car, somebody’s old abandoned homestead with all these rusted cars. And I remember that when I was a child– walking into the woods and finding something that was just magical and yours. I remember in my neighborhood, it was a space under the bridge that we cleared out and made a little seating area for ourselves. So the inspiration for that was just setting out into the world and making your own secret place. And of course my daughter was like, “Oh gosh Momma, look!” Yeah, I just loved the idea of stumbling across something in the woods and having it being magical.
When they first brought me the cover of the book and said, “What do you think?” I was like, “But that’s not what the carousel looks like.” But now I think it’s even cooler that it’s like this beautiful, imagined carousel as opposed to a rusted broken down one in the middle of the woods.
I noticed that with your characters you tend to avoid too many details and don’t say how long their hair is or that they have glowing, beautiful eyes or something like that. Do you make a conscience effort to avoid that because it tends to be pretty typical in YA?
In some ways, I want people to be able to input themselves. I’ve definitely had characters with distinguishing characteristics. Ruby from LOCK AND KEY, my eighth book, has red hair. Colie from KEEPING THE MOON had a lip ring. But I always wanted to be able to put myself into the character. I have been more aware recently of trying to put more diversity into my books because I’ve realized that my first few books just didn’t have enough diversity and they didn’t really reflect the way the world was.
My daughter and I have just started reading chapter books together and I’ve noticed that sometimes that’s the only characterization– the hair and “her brown eyes flash”, “her hair curls flew in the wind.” So I think I was really aware while writing this book. Like “Oh God, don’t talk about the hair or the eyes! Or it may just be that I’m not good at that. *laughs* I just shy away from it. As a writer, you learn what your strengths are and you learn what your weaknesses are.
Each character in SAINT ANYTHING seems to have their own story. Have you ever considered writing a book that’s another character’s story?
It’s funny. Eric, who was kind of the blowhard boy from the book– he was in previous books that I had set aside. He was the boyfriend of one of my other main characters. So I sort of already had a story for him and when I started this book I said “You know what? He was such a good character. I should use him for something!” I think you can tell because you can take a chance with secondary characters. I could have written a whole book about Layla probably. But I think I could do more with her as a secondary character, because you always make your secondary characters a little quirkier, a little more off-center. You need your narrator to sort of hold the whole book together.
As far as Peyton, that was sort of the problem with me. I wasn’t like Peyton but I kind of ran with a bad crowd in high school and I knew a lot of guys like Peyton. And writing about it from that perspective didn’t work for me, but writing about it as the family looking in gave me the distance I needed to create that story.
Have you ever thought about writing outside the contemporary genre?
I just wouldn’t even know where to begin! People have said, “You need dystopian, you need vampires, you need this…” But i think you have to write to what your strength is. If I wrote a vampire, it would just be Mac, but a vampire. It would just be an offhand thing with the dark hair and the dark eyes and that would be about it. It’s just not my wheelhouse. And I think it’s obvious when you’re trying to stretch. I don’t want to be an author who went, “Oh gosh, that’s what’s popular so I’m just gonna…” You know. And I don’t think I could write mysteries because you need to know exactly where you end before you start. I think I’m exact where I need to be.
I admire people who can do that, though. I’m writing out a world that we all know. I’m assuming everyone knows what a tree looks like and what other stuff looks like. But in fantasy, like what Veronica [Roth] is doing and what other people are doing, first you have to create this whole world and then you have to create a story on top of the world. I feel like in some ways, it’s much harder. But in the years since I first came out– in Fall of 2016, it’ll be 20 years since my first book came out– It’s such a bigger market. There’s just so many more possibilities. There was no paranormal romance when I came out. There wasn’t a whole lot of anything. So it’s great to see all the different things come up.
Read my review of Saint Anything.