Author Sara Zarr on Future of Realism in YA Novels

In Children's by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

Sara Zarr is author of Once Was Lost, Sweethearts, and was a National Book Award Finalist for Story of a Girl. Her fourth YA novel, How To Save a Life — just published by Little, Brown in the United States — has been called her finest work to date. A realistic look at death and pregnancy; it is told though the alternating perspectives of two very different teenage girls: Jill, from a privileged family coping with the death of her beloved father, and Mandy, abused and pregnant, desperate to escape her life who moves in with Jill’s family in order to give up her baby for adoption to Jill’s mother. It is the evolving relationship between Jill and Mandy, one bitter over her father’s death and the possibility of having a new sister is unable to move on to begin a new chapter in her life; the other, lonely and desperate to connect and to find love of any kind that is at the heart of the story.

We spoke with Ms. Zarr by email about her book, multiculturalism, and the future of realism in YA fiction.

Publishing Perspectives: I’m not generally a big fan of moving back and forth between two narrative voices but in this case I thought it worked extremely well. Was that a difficult narrative choice for you to make?

Sara Zarr: I don’t recall the exact decision-making process around it, but I think it was an easy choice. I’d written an opening scene – Jill and her mother waiting for the train [the train carrying the pregnant Mandy] – then knew I desperately wanted to be on that train with Mandy and find out what she thought and felt as her life chugged closer to Jill’s.

Throughout much of the book, Jill is downright angry, nasty, and anxious to push everyone who was trying to help her – friends, family, her boyfriend — away. Were you concerned that Jill was coming off as too unsympathetic?

I never had those concerns, though my editor did, and I did some revision around that. If you think she’s sometimes unsympathetic now, you should see her in the first draft! The thing is: we are meeting her at basically the lowest point in her life. She’s lost and angry and trapped in being her worst self; I think we’ve all been there. I know I have, and afterwards I’m always grateful for the people that waited patiently for me to come back.

How To Save a Life seemed to me to be casually multicultural: Mandy’s “boyfriend” is Native American, Jill is interested in Ravi who is Indian, Alex on the train is Mexican, Jill’s mother takes Mandy to a Chinese doctor among other examples – was that a conscious decision or a natural evolution?

Around the time I was writing the first draft, there was a lot of discussion about race in YA. Another author, Mitali Perkins, sort of put forth a challenge on her blog to Caucasian writers to at least be aware of those kinds of choices in our work. So it was somewhat conscious. I knew there was this character of Ravi (before he was named Ravi), and I began to picture him as a 2nd-generation Bengali guy. Then, as I wrote Mandy’s backstory, I realized adding a question of the race of her unborn baby could heighten the tension in a way that helped give the plot more shape. I’m grateful to Mitali for the challenge, and ended up naming a character after her!

It seems to me that in some ways YA realistic fiction is getting sandwiched in and lost between the novels of the supernatural and fantasy such as Twilight and Hunger Games on the one hand, and “reality” TV shows such as “Teen Mom” on the other – how do quiet, well-written books like yours compete?

You know, I try to stick to my job as a writer and I don’t do much industry analysis or speculation. But I think there is always going to be a place for realism, and I think it will always be a smaller place than whatever else is occupying the shelves. It’s the same way in the broader publishing world. Typically, genre fiction outsells ‘literary’ fiction. (I put that in quotes, because I don’t like that distinction much and I think there’s plenty of genre fiction that has literary qualities.) Action movies make more money than family drama. Pop music dominates media while quiet singer-songwriters go mostly unnoticed. It’s just sort of the way it is, and will probably always be. And I enjoy genre fictions, action movies, and pop music, and am glad those things are there! But I think there will always be a steady if smaller audience for work that is a bit more reflective of the everyday human experience.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.