An interview with NYT Bestselling YA Author, Sarah Dessen

“The Moon and More” is so different from your other work, what made you want to make this change of direction?

I didn’t set out for it to be that different, to be honest. I’d written before about a girl going to the beach for a summer and having her life change, and I was intrigued by writing about it from the inside. What is it like to be permanent in a place that to everyone else only exists in summer? And this is my eleventh book. I think I have to change things up now and then, or else I’ll just be repeating myself.

What was your inspiration for Emaline’s story?

I was on vacation in Emerald Isle, NC, the town that is basically my Colby, sitting by the pool. At the time I was super-burnt out on writing and really sick of myself, two things that often happen when I’m finished writing and promoting a novel. I wasn’t sure I’d ever write anything again. (That often happens, too.) But then this pool guy walked in. He was cute and shirtless, dragging a bunch of hoses, and a real talker. We said hello and the next thing I knew he was telling me his life story, all about being from the island and what it was like to live there as a local year round, his job, his family, everything. When he left fifteen minutes later, I was like, “Well, there’s the next book.” It was like he’d just handed it to me.

What differences do you notice between writing for Young Adult versus New Adult? Do you have a preference about writing one over the other? Do you have plans to do more New Adult in the near future?

The truth is, I’m not really even sure what New Adult is! I guess it’s post-high school? Post-college? I’ve never been one for labels when it comes to what I write. I had a teenage narrator in my first novel, THAT SUMMER, but never thought of it was YA at all. When my agent suggested it was, I was really worried about getting stuck in a genre and never getting out. Shows what I know: I couldn’t be in a better place. That said, I do think that eventually my narrators will grow up a bit more, maybe past adolescence and into their twenties. A lot has happened to me since high school. So we’ll see.

A lot of people may look at the YA genre and think that it’s an “easy” genre to write for, but actually, it’s pretty challenging–collecting all that angst and drama and putting it on the page in a believable manner for kids actually living that timeframe. How are you able to do that so well? Do you have specific memories you go back to from that time period in your life to recapture those feelings/experiences?

I was actually pretty miserable in high school. I couldn’t WAIT for it to be over. And when it finally was, I remember sitting at graduation with all these classmates getting nostalgic and emotional already and all I could think was, “Get me OUT of here. I never want to see you people again.” So it’s ironic that I now spend half my day putting myself back there by choice. I think the voice clicks with me, though, because I WAS so unhappy. Those feelings of inadequacy and confusion…they’re not so easily forgotten. It also helps I still live in my hometown. Most days I drive past my high school on the way to drop my kid at preschool. So it’s always there, whether I like it or not.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of writing for the YA audience? Any specific story you’ve received from a reader that’s really stuck with you that you’d like to share with us?

The best part of writing YA is the readers. No question. As adults, we get excited about books, but teenagers are often JUST having that experience where they connect fully with something on the page. The greatest compliment I get is, “This is just like my school! These are just like my friends! How did you KNOW?” I’m also incredibly flattered when people tell me that the books helped them through high school. Because of my own experience, the thought that something I wrote might help someone who felt the way I did when I was a teen…that’s huge. It awes me.

It’s probably pretty hard to do, but out of the several books you’ve written, do you have a favorite? And if so, which one and why?

It’s really hard to pick a favorite. I feel like it isn’t fair! And each book represents who I was at the time I wrote it. That said, as far as the writing experience, THIS LULLABY was the most fun. Usually writing is a grueling death march sort of thing for me, peppered with the occasional great day. But that one was like hanging out with friends. I never wanted to to end. When I brought Remy and Dexter back into JUST LISTEN, I was really struggling with it, and I just wanted to follow them back out the door. They were so easy to write in comparison!

What does your writing process look like?

I normally write in the afternoons, from about 3-5. It’s a holdover from when I first started doing it seriously, when I had a morning job as an assistant to a local writer and waited tables at night. It was the only time I had, and I got used to that being when I worked. Ideally, when I have a book in progress, I write every day, although it’s a bit more challenging now that I have my daughter. I’m very disciplined. It’s the one thing I have going for me. Finally, a use for all my guilt!

Now for the “fun” questions! What book did you just finish reading?

RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA, by Kimberly McCreight. It’s about a teen who dies mysteriously and how her mother tries to figure out what happened. I could NOT put it down. I see it being a huge book this summer, kind of like GONE GIRL was last year.

E-reader or old-fashioned book?

Both! I usually have one book in progress on my iPad and another by my bed. Plus another on audio in the car. I listen mostly to nonfiction, however. I love celebrity biographies while I’m running errands.

Editing on paper or screen?

My editor and I still exchange actual manscripts, with her edits and comments in the margins. Then I make all the changes on screen and send them back to her and we do it again, until it’s done. It’s how I’ve always done it. I think I might be too superstitious to ever get more modern about the process.

If you could co-author a book with any other author (alive or dead) who would it be and what would it be called?

Honestly, I think I’m way too much of a control freak to co-author anything with anyone. I have a hard enough time writing with myself! I admire people that can do it, but it’s not for me. Although it would be nice, during the harder stretches, to pass it off to someone else, saying, “Okay! Your turn!” I see the appeal in that.

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