Sara Zarr’s novels introduce characters poised at critical points in their lives. However, rather than centering on single, defining moments, her work acknowledges the inward explorations, hesitancies, and quiet encounters that often lead to significant transformations. Her first novel, Story of a Girl, about a teenager navigating the aftermath of a sexual indiscretion, was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. In The Lucy Variations, her newly published fifth novel, 16-year-old Lucy Beck-Moreau has stepped away from her blossoming career as a concert pianist, and is struggling to redefine what role music will play in her life. Zarr spoke to Bookshelf from her Utah home about writing, music, and continuing to find joy in one’s art despite the stresses of career expectations.
Did the concept or the characters in The Lucy Variations come to you first?
I knew that I wanted to [write about] a complicated but not sordid relationship with an older man and I could picture a girl with a talented younger brother. Most of my characters are from working or middle-class backgrounds, so I thought it would be interesting to put Lucy in a position of privilege and to make her problems more existential, more about self-actualization.
Why did you decide to make Lucy a musician?
It’s always very mysterious and hard to pinpoint [where an idea first comes from]. This character has been in my head for a long time, though at first she was an athlete in a family of musicians. My parents met in music school and my father was a music professor and conductor. Growing up, we always had classical and contemporary music playing. There was a lot of Mozart and the Beatles. I played the clarinet and my sister played the violin.… If we’d had the discipline and the passion, maybe we could have been good. So I decided that making Lucy a musician herself was a better corollary for me.
Outside of your personal experience, what sort of research did you do for the book?
I attended an open master class for young musicians working with established musicians. I researched more concrete details about piano competitions. I don’t like to do too much psychological research because it might turn a character into a patchwork.
Lucy has very specific tastes in music – Vivaldi’s Winter, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Ryan Adams’s Everybody Knows. How did you decide on the particular pieces that she plays and listens to throughout the book?
I remember being in high school and listening to Vivaldi’s Winter and being so overwhelmed with emotion. One of the first images I had was of Lucy listening to Winter in her room. All the pieces on [Lucy’s] “love list” are ones that I especially like.
Lucy loses the love that she feels for playing music because of outside pressures, and maybe some self-imposed ones as well. Have you ever felt similarly about writing?
Yes. This book is really so much about my own struggle with writing after my first few books. I definitely gave Lucy that same conflicted relationship [with music that I have with writing]. I suspect my conflicted relationship with writing is common to anyone who has been published and has some difficulty balancing the idea of a “career” and everything that comes with it – reader expectations, publisher expectations, sales figures, royalty statements, the persona of the self as some kind of celebrity in a small world that most people don’t care about – with the very private and personal passion of the creative act itself. This is part of Lucy’s trouble. Music is something she deeply loves. And the expression of that love – playing piano – has become, also, the source of all her stress. How do those things negotiate some kind of cohabitation?
Lucy’s evolution as a character is complex, outwardly subtle, and yet it’s significant. Did you always have a clear sense of where you wanted Lucy to be, psychologically, by the end of the novel?
I think about this T.S. Eliot quote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” My books usually end where they began. I try to bring characters back to a point that is familiar but different because of the growth that they have gone through.
The adult characters in the novel – Lucy’s mother, grandfather, and Will – are quite fully developed, which is not always the case in YA novels. Can you talk a little bit about the adults in the book and the considerations that went into creating them?
I knew from the beginning that the adults were going to be on stage a lot. That’s not often something that makes it through the editorial process. I always write about adults but they end up on the cutting room floor. Here, it was something I really wanted. I felt more comfortable with adults than with peers [when I was Lucy’s age]. And Lucy’s is a rarified world, where everything is run by adults.
Lucy is very mature in some ways. You approach the idea of her having an age-inappropriate relationship with Will, but you pull back. Was it ever a possibility that the relationship between them would go further than it does?
In earlier drafts I debated taking it further but I didn’t want that to be the discussion. I didn’t want to leave room for gatekeepers to read it as ‘here is another man taking advantage of a young girl.’ I didn’t want to be having that debate.
Do you find yourself thinking a lot about a character once you have finished writing a particular book?
I do think about my characters after finishing a book, but not as much as one might think. Probably the person who still lives most vividly with me is Deanna Lambert, the protagonist of Story of a Girl. She’s out there living her life, I’m convinced.
What is next for you?
I’m working on a few things, including a collaborative novel with Tara Altebrando that comes out in December with Little, Brown. The book is called Roomies – it’s about two girls and the summer between high school graduation and college. They’re going to be roommates in the fall and strike up an e-mail correspondence in the meantime. But I’m also wanting to clear my head and schedule. I’m exploring.
The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr. Little, Brown, $18 May ISBN 978-0-316-20501-6
To read PW's review, click here.