“I feel like I always have one foot back in high school,” says Sarah Dessen, who at 37 could almost pass for a recent graduate. Chapel Hill, her home since her parents took jobs at the University of North Carolina in 1973, is her town, and she relishes in disguising its landmarks in the fictional Lakeview, where her stories are set. But her real terrain is girlhood in all its angst-ridden, hormone-fueled permutations—the clashes with authority, the insecurity about looks, the pining for independence, romance, cash, identity.
“Sarah puts the teenage voice on paper better than most writers,” says Carol Moyer of Quail Ridge Books in nearby Raleigh. “I think teens recognize themselves in her books, which don’t talk to them or about them, but reflect them.”
In seven novels over a dozen years, Dessen has slowly built a loyal following. Her first two books—That Summer (Orchard, 1996) and Someone Like You(Viking, 1998)—written while she was still a full-time waitress, were combined into the 2003 Mandy Moore film How to Deal. This Lullaby(Viking, 2002) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her last release, Just Listen (Viking, 2006) became her bestselling novel to date, spending 18 weeks on the New York Times list.
“You want to know how she’s grown? I think for the first book of hers we published—Someone Like You—the print run was under 10,000,” said Regina Hayes, Dessen’s editor and Viking’s publisher. “This next one, the print run is 200,000. She’s grown as a writer, and her audience has grown. I see women on the beach reading her books.”
This next one, Lock and Key, inverts a familiar fairy tale—what if Cinderella got the prince, the castle and all its elegant accoutrements—and decided, in contrarian fashion typical of teens, that she didn’t want any of it? Turns out, adolescent rebellion is territory Dessen knows well, too. Though nowadays she’s as conscientious as writers come—two hours a day, seven days a week and plenty of guilt if a holiday forces her to skip—she disappointed as a student: “I broke curfew regularly, I dated guys with shaved heads and tattoos.” Not exactly the type of child two academics might expect to produce.
In retrospect, she credits her parents with extraordinary patience. She laughs, explaining that her father, Alan, whose area of expertise is English Renaissance drama, finds a parallel for her wayward teen years in the life of Shakespeare. “There’s a period known as the 'lost years,’ during which scholars can’t account for what Shakespeare was doing. That’s how my father refers to my time in high school—'Sarah’s lost years.’ ”
College didn’t take immediately either. After dropping out of UNC-Greensboro, Dessen enrolled at UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, where she took a writing class with the novelist Doris Betts. That was the turning point. “She is just an amazing presence. By the end of the first class, I knew, 'This is what I want to do.’ ”
Throughout her 20s, Dessen supported herself by working at the Flying Burrito (showcasing her restaurant know-how in Keeping the Moon) and writing before her shift. “All my college friends were getting jobs that came with health insurance and company cars. I was waiting on them.”
During this period, she and her husband, Jay, a building contractor, lived in a little yellow farmhouse on what was then the outskirts of Chapel Hill. Two years ago, Dessen saw that the farmhouse had been flattened, replaced by a compound of McMansions.
“I imagined a teen girl who would move from the little yellow farmhouse, with mushrooms sprouting in the bathroom, to these insane houses they were building in its place,” Dessen said. “I thought, 'How weird it would be for someone to have to make that transition.’ ” From that thought sprang the plot for Lock and Key.
She had also been making a transition herself. Having spent her entire adulthood writing about the interior lives of girls, Dessen is now mother to a five-month-old girl, Sasha. Dessen still tries to write every afternoon—“the babysitter comes and I go upstairs, and I know I’ve got an hour.” She not only writes fiction every day, but updates her blog and maintains pages on MySpace and Facebook. “It’s almost a full-time job to keep up with all the technology. But for the teen market, that’s how readers find you.”
One day her daughter will undoubtedly find out more about her mother by reading her books, but for now the author says she’s learning a thing or two from baby. “It’s good—I can’t obsess as much,” she says. “Sasha has taught me I can take a day off and the world doesn’t end.”
|Corbett is the author of Free Baseball (Puffin) and the children’s book reviewer for the Miami Herald.|