On the eve of the release of Sarah Dessen's seventh book (in only 10 years!), Just Listen, she spoke about writing and the things that keep her away from writing—mostly TV and her two dogs, followed by writing about TV and her dogs on her enormously popular blog.
I think you were one of the first authors to blog. What made you decide to keep an online journal?
I started it because I had four cousins in college at the time and they all had live journals, so it was the way I kept up with their lives. I really thought, "No one's going to read this." So initially it was a lot of stupid stuff about my day-to-day pop culture existence, but now I feel pressure to update it every day.
For a writer, you watch quite a bit of TV.
TV is my weakness. The other day I got a comment on the journal, "You watch too much television and shop too much. Maybe if you did this less, you could write more books."
Right. But, so, now I feel like I have to explain. What I write about there is not my whole life. Yes, I like television, so I write about that because it's something I think my readers will relate to. It's a whole new world for authors who have Web sites. With a book, you are really in control; you weigh and re-weigh every word. But the Web is so immediate. It's a way to keep in touch with your readers when you're between books, and a way to connect with them when you have a new book. Some YA authors are so prolific, and I'm not so....
Um, isn't this your seventh book in 10 years?
Yes, but look at Meg Cabot! She has a new book all the time. It's mind-boggling. It makes me want to crawl under the bed.
Seven books in 10 years is not exactly slacking off.
I know. It's dangerous to judge myself against what anybody else does but... isn't it Stephen King who says a novel should never take longer than three months to write? I think I used to be faster than I am now.
Maybe it's all that time writing the blog.
Actually, that only takes me like 10 minutes in the morning but it's very addicting. I can't give it up. And with the books, I usually have a couple of false starts. I have several books that I got all the way to the end before I realized it didn't work. I'm not exactly batting a thousand.
Have you shown these false starts to your editor? Maybe they're not false starts at all.
I show everything to my agent [Leigh Feldman] and she is very honest with me, which I appreciate.
Have you had the same agent all along?
Yes. I was taken by her agency based on an adult book. Leigh read it and asked me what else I had and I sent her That Summer and she was the one who said it was YA. Initially, I didn't know if I wanted to be a YA writer. I came at this completely backwards. If you read the how-to books, they tell you, "If you want to write for teens, you have to research the market and hang around with teenagers." I didn't do any of that, and it's turned out to be the best possible place for me. The readers are so enthusiastic. I remember that feeling, reading a book that I would swoon over, or one where you'd read something and it's like a light bulb going off. But when you're on the receiving end of that, when you have girls tell you "your books are the reason I love reading," it's so great.
I think of your books almost like they are cultural studies. We could use them 100 years from now to find out what life was like for the suburban American teen at this moment.
What I've found is that there's a wider appeal for these stories than among people who are teenagers right now because the high school experience is pretty universal. You remember that time of your life so vividly because there are so many firsts. You're learning your way. Some of the highest praise I get is from readers who tell me, "This is just like my life. These are just like my friends." While so many things have changed since I was in high school—the violence, drugs—so many things are exactly the same. There's still the guy you're madly in love with who doesn't even know your name, and the friend who is intensely appealing even though she treats you like garbage. High school was like that before I was there and will be ages from now.
You must have had a lot of fun making up names for pop stars and bands in Just Listen.
Well, the tricky thing with the music is that people have very strong opinions. A person can be really relating to the story and if you mention some band they don't like, it's over. So it was much better to just make it up. Ten years from now the bands that are popular now will likely be long gone anyway. At UNC [University of North Carolina] when I was a student, we had a class where there was an assignment just to make up the names of bands. So I've had a lot of practice.
Is it true that you're taking a year off from teaching?
Yeah, I'm not going to be there next year either. I'm going to take another year. I went from being a student and waiting tables to teaching and writing. I have never been just a writer and it's been wonderful. I do miss my students, though.
Where did you get the idea for your latest book?
I was speaking at a private school and I was in the lobby waiting to begin, so I picked up a yearbook and was looking through the senior pages. There was this one picture of three girls, all blue-eyed blondes, on a diving board. They were gorgeous. My immediate reaction was those girls have it made but then, of course, I immediately realized what an assumption I was making. That planted the seed in my head. What would it be like on the surface to have this idealized life but, in fact, it be very different than it appears? And I wanted to address the issue of confrontation. I, personally, in high school and even now, have had trouble sticking up for myself. I think girls are taught to be nice, and it's hard to be nice and assert yourself.
Did you take a class in anger management to learn how to describe what your male character, Owen, is going through?
Oh, no. I made all that up, too.
But all these terms Owen uses—'rephrase and redirect,' 'i-lang" (for 'inflammatory language')—are those from some real anger management program?
No, I didn't even want to read a book about a particular theory because then if I didn't follow it precisely, I could be held accountable for not having presented it correctly. I mean, when I was in school, I'd be writing these short stories set in Chapel Hill and other writers in my workshop would have comments like, "It would take longer to get from the hospital and the airport than that," or "That place isn't open on Sunday." There's a lot more freedom when you make things up.
So is Lakeview entirely made up?
It's definitely based on this town [Dessen is a longtime resident of Chapel Hill]. I moved here when I was three so I'm constantly crossing and re-crossing my previous self. There are certain places which crop up in several of the books—the Lakeview Mall, Milton's Market. Annabel lives in The Arbors because there's a real neighborhood here called The Oaks. I put things in every book, these little overlaps of places and people thinking no reader will ever find them, and they're on the Internet immediately after the book is published.
So your readers let you know they're paying attention.
Before the Web site I didn't hear from anyone. But, especially since the movie (Dessen's books That Summer and Someone Like You were the basis of the 2003 film How to Deal), I hear from girls from all over the country.
Do you answer that mail? Maybe that's why you've "only" written seven books in 10 years!
I used to, but now they get an auto-response, and, that's been real hard for me. I mean, I am the first person to RSVP. I write thank-you notes the minute I throw the wrapping paper away. So initially I felt so guilty that my brother (who designed the Web site) created the auto-response. He told me I couldn't be trusted. But I do read every single thing anyone sends me.