Sarah Dessen chats with Hypable about her latest novel Once and For All and what it’s like to write 13 YA novels.
If you scan the shelves at your local bookstore, chances are that Sarah Dessen’s collection of YA novels takes up a good portion of the shelf. She’s written 13 novels, including her latest Once and For All, out June 6. Summer romance reigns supreme in many of her books, with her protagonists discovering new facets of themselves through the freedom that the season offers.
Hypable spoke with Dessen about her latest novel that centers on Louna Barrett, a high school senior who works at her mother’s wedding planning business. One rogue son-of-the-bride soon turns into her coworker for her final summer arranging other people’s happy beginnings.
This interview contains mild spoilers from ‘Once and For All.’
Sarah Dessen Interview: ‘Once and For All’
I’ve been reading your books for over a decade, and I was curious to know what is your process as you begin to pick out which themes you want to incorporate in each novel?
Every time I finish a book I think I’m never going to want to write another book ever. And then I take a couple of months off and I watch a lot of Bravo and eat popcorn and stuff and then I start to get bored. Another idea will usually start to bubble up.
The problem with 13 books now is that I worry that I’m repeating myself. I think that is the biggest challenge at this point is trying to write something new and something different that I haven’t already done.
One thing I picked up on in Once and For All, and I’m not sure if it didn’t phase me before, but the genre is changing in the way young adults communicate. I was wondering if you could speak some of the challenges or changes you’ve seen in the genre as the use of technology grows in these characters’ lives.
I think it’s challenging. I err on the side of trying not to have too much technology because I think it will date the books down the road. I worry about that. You’ll notice with my books it was only in the last couple of books that I even had people texting. Because I was like, “I don’t if this is here to stay.”
I think for me, that’s why I’ve made up some of the technology — I have sort of a Facebook-like thing called UMe.com. But because it’s not a real thing, then nobody really knows what it is and it’s not dated.
Everything has changed so much since I was in high school. Social media, in terms of Instagram, you’re seeing everything you’re missing out on. I haven’t started to address that yet, although I’m interested in it. I talk to my younger cousins about it — this idea that there are things that you’re not included in, that are going on. We didn’t have that when I was in high school.
There was one relationship that we didn’t see a whole lot of, but it really existed because technology is what is kept it going. But before that Louna and Ethan share a magical night at the beach. What is it about the beach?
I’ve always been fascinated with summer. When I was in high school there was so much potential in summer time. People would go away, school would end in June and we’d come back in August and people would have totally changed. There was this whole opportunity for transformation, which I think as an adult doesn’t happen that way anymore. Time is sped up. You have this period where anything can happen and you are off your regular schedule.
First of all, I just love the beach. Second of all, I think that setting lends itself so well to transformation and change, especially in a vacation town. You can travel somewhere, to a place like Colby, and you’re not bringing all of your past with you, what everybody knows about you. You are able to maybe reinvent yourself. That’s fascinating to me as well.
There are two driving forces of this book — wedding planning and a school shooting. How did you pick those two things to focus on?
Well, the wedding plan part was because I had two baby sitters who were planning weddings at the same time. I saw them every week and I was getting the play-by-play of everything that was going on. And they were two very different weddings.
One was a big, traditional Southern wedding. The other babysitter is Hmong, which is a very specific culture and a very traditional kind of wedding with a lot of rituals and things that had to be performed. They could not have been more different.
But I was struck by how similar the girls were in terms of things they were worried about — wanting everything to be perfect and trying to please the families. I remember planning my wedding and I was so obsessed with it. It took a whole year and now it’s sort of this happy blur in my brain.
But what would it be like if you were constantly in that world? That intrigued me and made me think about Louna maybe working for her mom and what would that be like? Would it make you more hopeful about love or less to be privy to all of that?
And then as far as the shooting, I knew that [Louna] was going to have this great loss and it just seemed very topical at the time. I have relatives who live in Newton and it was so prevalent in my head. They knew people who lost children. It all sort of came together organically that way.
You have this great skill of crafting these male characters to be both charming and insufferable. Yet somehow you want them to end up with your heroine. What is it like writing so many different types of teens and young adults?
I worried about Ambrose. He’s a little bit like Dexter from my book This Lullaby. But where as Dexter in This Lullaby really does believe in love and is a romantic, when we first meet Ambrose he is not. He is very much like, “who wants to be tied down?”
I write the kind of boys I was attracted to in high school. I was never into the captain of the football team or the debate chairperson or whatever. It was always the quirky, weird guy who never had gas money and that kind of thing. The people who were funnier and off the beaten path.
In order for the narrator to fall in love with somebody — and also for the reader to fall in love — then I also have to, too. I’m happily married, but I get to crush on somebody for a whole book. I know I’m doing my job well if I have a crush on them a little bit.
And I think Ethan and Ambrose are very different, but you can see there are a few similarities there as well.
It could just be me getting older, but I was drawn to the adult characters so much in Once and For All. Do you have any desire to write for older characters?
When I first started writing books, I was writing a regular fiction that was contemporary and I was writing the YA. But my agent never liked my adult stuff as much as she liked my YA. So gradually I think you choose your lane, you know what your strengths are. I started an adult book before this book, but then I set it aside and I wrote this book. But then I went back and I finished the adult book. So, I have this finished book, but I’m not sure if it’s good.
It was really fun even if nobody ever reads it — to write about something that wasn’t just high school. A lot has happened to me since high school– I got married, I have a daughter. I think as I get older, the older characters in my books are probably going to have even more of a plot line. I feel like Natalie and William are more my people. It’s a way of working in some of my experience without having to switch genres.
I liked that even though they’re the adults, they felt like they are on a level playing field with Louna this summer. William’s trying to not flirt too much with the meat and cheese guy, and Natalie has a life changing experience on the island — it’s very much playing with the same themes.
It’s funny, I don’t always do this, but I like a happy ending. I like tying everything up at the end because we have enough darkness in the world. My dad is a Shakespeare professor so I grew up seeing a lot of Shakespeare. With this book I was thinking about plays like, As You Like It, where it ends and everyone is paired off.
It’s this big happy moment where everyone has found their person. I think that’s okay every once in a while. We don’t always have to end on a low note.
I want to touch on one more character, Jilly, and the importance of strong friendships in your novels. The romances sweep you away, but these stories are also very grounded in the friendships as conflict arises and they undergo change. What is the experience like writing the friend-portion of your novels?
It’s one of the things I enjoy the most. I have a group of girlfriends from high school, and today’s my birthday and I’ve already gotten texts from three of them and it’s not even 9:00 a.m. They got me through high school.
I’m known for saying I was pretty miserable when I was in high school. Which is why I think I write the books I write. I’m trying to constantly rewrite my own past with a happier ending. I’m a happy person now, it just wasn’t a great time for me.
But I love [writing] that because my friends are so important to me. I think there’s this natural thing that happens when you sort of pull away from your parents. I know with my mom I had to kind of break away from her for a little bit in order to come back. And my friends sort of were my family for a little while there.
I love writing those relationships because I think it’s such a comfort and it’s my way of acknowledging the big role that my friends had in my life.
And I couldn’t write a whole book about a girl like Jilly. Because I don’t think I know that kind of confidence. But it’s so fun because you can do stuff with your secondary characters that you can’t do with your narrator. That’s why I have so much fun with the secondary characters. They can be a little crazier and you can do stuff. With the narrator you need them to be grounded for the reader to be able to be in their head.
It seems like if you walk into any bookstore now the YA section is slowly taking over. Do you have any advice for any aspiring writers who may want to write for YA, but now feel overwhelmed?
I think it’s interesting because when I started out — we’re talking over 20 years ago — there wasn’t even a teen section in the bookstore. My books were shelved with Corduroy and Good Night Moon. They hadn’t realized it yet. Now there is a whole section just for paranormal romance. It’s so specific.
I think this is the best time to try to be writing YA. Publishers and readers are interested in so many different voices. There is so much more diversity. And there’s a lot more opportunity than when I started out. First of all the readership is huge because we are attracting readers from all different genres. And then also I think everyone’s voice is wanting to be heard right now.
The best writing advice I give is — sit down everyday and write. Don’t worry about getting published until you have something finished. Sometimes I think people worry more about getting published than actually finishing the book they are working on.
There are so many more resources. When I was starting out, there wasn’t even Internet. I was sending out letters to publishers and agents and stuff. There’s a lot more opportunity — there’s Wattpad and Amazon. There’s so many different ways to get your work out there. It’s a really exciting time.
Once and For All is available in stores now.