When you get the opportunity to interview an author like Sarah Dessen, you seize it, even if it means driving miles out of the city in heavy traffic on a rainy day.
Saint Anything is Sarah’s twelfth (yes, 12th!) book, and to say that’s a huge accomplishment in the ever-changing and growing Young Adult industry is an understatement. In the first week of Saint Anything’s release, it landed on the New York Times Bestsellers list, meaning that Sarah’s stories are just as valued today as they were back when I was in high school in the early aughts.
It was a pleasure speaking with Sarah about an array of topics at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL. A transcript of our conversation can be read below.
Gabrielle Bondi: Congratulations on your twelfth book, the New York Times, and all that!
Sarah Dessen: It has been an exciting week!
How does it feel?
It’s great. I’m happy to still be relevant. I think after 12 books you don’t know where you’re going to be, and YA has changed so much since my first book came out, and I’m really happy. I’m thrilled the book hit as high as it did on the list yesterday. And I’m just hoping that it kind of keeps going.
That was actually one of my questions. How has YA changed since you’ve began writing? Because your books started coming out with I was actually a teenager, and you were one of the few—I mean the YA section is HUGE now, but back then, it was only one shelf long.
It was totally different. There wasn’t a teen section; there wasn’t even a YA section. There was a children’s section, and the YA books were sort of shelved in their section. So it was my book, then Goodnight Moon. It was really Harry Potter who changed that. Harry Potter, then Twilight, and people started to realize, like booksellers and librarians, that teenagers didn’t want to go the board book section to get their books.
It has been a total shift. It was such a small market. There weren’t that many people, and it was very much more driven by the librarians and the educators. Now it’s equal librarians, educators, and booksellers, fans and stuff. It was a very narrow world, and now with so many people coming in, there is such a wealth of voices that the diversity has exploded. We still have a long way to go, but it definitely has made it so that there are a lot more voices, a lot more representations of different kinds of people in YA.
Did that kind of affect the way you wrote your next books as you saw YA changing?
I think so. I’ve been aware that my books are not as diverse as I would like them to be. It’s something that I keep in the back of my mind. It’s that balance between writing the story you want to write and the one you’re inspired to write, but also fit in the things you want to fit in. It’s a constant balance, but I’ve been thrilled with the changes in YA. Teenagers need all kinds of voices, especially when you’re a teenager and you’re going through a hard time, looking for something that speaks to you. The more voices we have, the better.
With Saint Anything, you tackle darker territory. I’ve read most of your books, and I really loved this one.
Oh, thank you!
What made you decide to go a little darker with this book? Was it something that naturally came to you?
Well, I kind of went through a dark period—not as dark as Peyton obviously—but I went through a dark period in high school. I’ve tried to write about it before, but I did not have a lot of luck. It had been a little too close to me. I decided to maybe write about someone who was going through a dark period and kind of going off the beaten path in a bad way from the point of view of the family.
I knew guys like Peyton. I hung out with guys like Peyton, who came from really good families, had every opportunity, and still were drawn to trouble, still were drawn to breaking into the guard house at school or breaking into a house in a neighborhood, just to do it. I always wanted to address that part of my past, but I realized that doing it from a narrator’s point of view wasn’t working. I started a book, and it didn’t work, so I set it aside.
But adolescence can be dark, but it can also be not dark. I think it depends on the teenager; it depends on who you are at that age. Your biggest problem can be some conflict with your friend or your biggest problem could be that you have a drug problem or it could be that you are in a relationship that’s not healthy. The darkness is sort of inevitable, but I feel like this book is not—like the cover is literally dark—but the story is wider. It reminds me of The Truth about Forever or Just Listen more than the last few books.
It’s not my real personality!
To see you tell a story like that, it was a way to kind of relate to you on a new level. Actually, my best friend, who is also a big fan of yours, came up with this question, and I’m going to say it how she did since she worded it really well: With this article in mind, what advice would you give girls and women alike about safety and combating misogynistic views? Because your characters are always lost or trying to find themselves, but they’re never helpless or weak.
I think it’s sort of the same idea in the article, which is trust your gut. It has taken me a long time to get to that point. I grew up in the South, and with southern girls, it’s always be sweet, be kind, don’t ruffle feathers, don’t hurt people’s feelings. And your friend network is important in high school, at least it was to me because I had issues with my mom, and my friends were like my family. Any disruption in that family of friends can sort of throw things off. So with this person, who I was friendly with and he wanted to be more than friends, it made it complicated if I didn’t want to be with him. I sort of disrupted the universe of our entire extended friend family.
I think for girls it’s just that you have to trust yourself. As an adult, now when I meet someone, if they give me the creeps, I’m just going to keep my distance. But that was a really hard thing for me to come around to. Trust your gut. It’s hard to do as a teen because you haven’t had that many experiences where you’ve just been by yourself and have to learn to trust your own instincts. Thankfully, you had adults; you’ve had your parents or guardian there to say this is what you should do or to guide you. As a parent myself now, I can’t imagine when my daughter starts dating and stuff. I don’t know what I’m going to do! I’m going to lock her in a room and make sure she doesn’t do anything. (laughs)
But I would say to trust your instincts, your opinion counts and your feelings count.