Because I've interviewed Sara twice before--once here and once at The Edge of the Forest (on occasion of her first novel, Story of a Girl, being shortlisted for the National Book Award), this interview concerns Sweethearts almost exclusively.
Kelly: Jennifer Harris was the exiled child in elementary school—the chubby grade-schooler some children shunned and others tormented. By high school she acquires a step father, a new svelte figure, and a crowd of friends at an entirely new school. What I really appreciated about Sweethearts was how you showed how difficult this transformation was for Jennifer (now Jenna) not in a physical sense, but emotionally. Jenna still struggles with her inner Jennifer. Her transformation was not an easy fix. Did you have a model when constructing Jenna's story? Or, an anti-model?
Sara: Years ago I worked part-time for a friend who had a flower shop in San Francisco. I remember one day we were chatting and I remarked on how good he was at what he did, and how much I loved his store, and he said that he still had this feeling that he was going to be arrested for impersonating a florist. I feel that way about my writing career sometimes---that this is all a fluke and someone is going to come along and say, "Ha ha, just fooling, this isn't for you, go back to wherever it is you came from." All this is just to say that I think it's a very human thing, that many of us---especially if we come from backgrounds that felt uncertain or unsafe---are suspicious of good circumstances or positive feelings or others' offerings of friendship or love. I didn't think consciously about that while I wrote, but in retrospect maybe it's so ingrained that I didn't have to. Real transformation is never easy.
Kelly: In addition to having a complex heroine, Sweethearts features a complex set of friends. Sure, Jenna's part of the cool crowd now, but your cool crowd is not homogeneous. Even the self-centered boyfriend is basically a good kid who needs to grow up a little. Were you consciously working against clichés when writing Sweethearts?
Sara: For me the de-cliche-ification is usually something that happens in later drafts. Of course I try to avoid them in every draft, but they do tend to sneak in under the radar sometimes. I still wonder if I should have made Cameron's dad more complex and human, but I couldn't because the story is from Jenna's point of view and she only had that one experience with him so in the end he's the most completel villainous villain I've written.
Kelly: Speaking of working against clichés, can I just butt in here and mention that Alan is quite possibly the best stepfather character I've run across in any children's book. He's wonderfully real and kind.
Sara: Oh, thank you. I wanted to write a great stepfather because I had one. Step-parents aren't traditionally the most beloved characters in teen fiction, but there are lots of them out there who have basically rescued the families they married into by providing love and support and stability...a real home. Second marriages can be very redeeming. Also, since Deanna's dad in Story of a Girl was so tough on her, and Cameron's dad in Sweethearts is an abuser, it was important to me to give props to the many good fathers and father figures in the world and not be "that writer who hates men." I love men! Yay, men!
Kelly: Sweethearts is the tale of Jenna and her reunion with the one child who was kind to her in elementary school—Cameron Quick. When Jenna is nine, Cameron leaves without saying goodbye. In fact, Jenna hears at school that Cameron died. So, when Cameron shows up again when Jenna is in high school, her whole world turns upside down. What inspired you to imagine this dramatic scenario?
Sara: I had a little sweetheart in grade school who moved away in third grade. I never forgot him or his name or what he looked like, or how it felt to know someone liked me. We got back in touch in adulthood and I started to wonder what it would have been like if we'd been reunited in high school when drama and hormones and angst ran high. The story unfolded from there (over the course of a lot of drafts!).
Kelly: Cameron Quick's home was and is not a happy one. His father is abusive and, in fact, Cameron and Jenna share one encounter with Cameron's dad that stays with them forever. This event is psychological abuse at its most horrifying. But, while the event itself is terrible, ultimately Jenna and Cameron deal with the past and this event in healthy, mature ways. Did you do a lot of research into psychological abuse when writing Sweethearts?
Sara: Not really. I might have Googled a few things to make sure I wasn't portraying anything patently false, but honestly I think every child at some point or another has had an encounter with an adult that is traumatizing or at least frightening in some way. Even seeing your kindergarten teacher lose her temper can be truly frightening for a five-year-old! I just sort imagined that fear compounded day after day for Cameron, or in a single intense event for Jenna, and thought about the aftereffects. I had enough of those types experiences myself to know what it feels like, and how just a couple of those can put you on guard the rest of your life.
Kelly: Do you think Jenna will grow up to be an English teacher, as she tells Cameron she may when they discuss their futures?
Sara: Ha! Good question. I think that's the safe and predictable career choice she has mapped out for herself, but by the end of the book she is breaking away from safe and predictable and opening herself up a bit more. Maybe she'll take a little detour and try some other things before ending up in her classroom full of eager learners.
Kelly: Okay, Sara. You've done it. As you know, I loved Story of a Girl. But, I have to say that I liked Sweethearts even more. It's a fantastic novel, populated by complex characters with complex decisions to make. I'll admit it. I'm impressed. So, tell me: What do we have to look forward to next?
Sara: Thank you! Next up is another YA novel with Little, Brown. At this point, there's a pastor's daughter, a missing girl, and a small town. As for the rest of the details, I'm still in discovery.