This will make me sound a little mercenary,” confesses Sara Zarr, when asked where she got the idea for her sixth novel, Gem & Dixie (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Apr.). Some years back, she was in a coffee shop in her adopted hometown of Salt Lake City, talking with a friend about the economic realities of writing young adult fiction: even if your publisher is eager for your next novel, even if all five of the novels you’ve published so far have been well received, even if your current editor believes you are one of the top writers in your field, you may not make a comfortable living or feel like you’ve yet succeeded at what you set out to do.
“I really wanted to step up my career, and I thought to do that I would have to come up with something really high-concept,” Zarr recalls. She had an idea inspired by the 1998 film A Simple Plan, about three men, two of them brothers, who stumble across a plane that crashed in a snowy nature preserve with a cargo onboard of $4 million.
“What about a story for teens about sisters who find a big bag of money?” Zarr remembers asking aloud. She had a sister. They had grown up poor in San Francisco. She knew firsthand about the indelible mark left by poverty, and the irrational hopes it can inspire about winning the lottery, or inheriting a fortune from an unknown relative. “We all know it isn’t true, but it’s so easy to slip into the idea that if I just had a certain amount of money, everything would be okay.”
High-concept, however, is not what Zarr does. Her first novel, Story of a Girl (Little, Brown, 2007), was a finalist for the National Book Award; it won praise for its fully realized portrait of a teen struggling to escape the reputation she earned by committing a single indiscretion with an older teenage boy. Each of her books since has earned multiple starred reviews, with critics praising her “knack for exposing human weakness,” and pointing out her ability to create authentic characters and convey emotion so honestly.
“Sara has such skill in capturing every nuance of a teen’s voice, relationships, anxiety, and desires, treating them all with sensitivity, sophistication, and respect,” says her new editor Jordan Brown, executive editor at Balzer + Bray. “This sort of attention to rendering the real experiences of teens in ways they can identify with, draw understanding or strength from—that’s everything you’re looking for as an editor of YA lit.”
Zarr knew high-concept would challenge her. She was struggling with the plot at a time when she herself was attending a support group for adult children of alcoholics, a process that made her look squarely at the ripple effects of addiction. Her own father left the family when Zarr was 10.
“One of the first exercises they have you do is to fill out a family tree and record everything you know about your relatives, and what I realized is there had been a lot of abandonment by fathers,” Zarr says. “It was always women taking care of things.”
Zarr’s characters, Gem and Dixie, do not even have a woman to take care of them; they have to take care of themselves. Both of the novel’s parents are substance abusers. Dad is an irresponsible charmer, but is largely absent. Mom uses the scant money she has to buy drugs for herself rather than food for her teenage daughters. “They’re the worst parents I’ve ever written,” Zarr admits. “I just let them be abject failures and set out to see how that would affect the relationship between the sisters.”
Gem, at 17 the older sister, steps into the role of parent, which starts to irritate Dixie, a beauty with easy confidence, by the time she reaches high school herself.
“In real life I’m the younger sister but I wanted to write it from the older sister’s perspective,” Zarr says. “Gem carries the anxiety for both herself and Dixie, and Dixie carries the optimism because that’s the way she survives.”
When the girls’ father resurfaces after years away, it’s to secretly stash a backpack full of cash in their apartment, which Gem discovers while looking for something underneath her bed. Gem decides the money is her ticket to independence, but she refuses to leave Dixie behind.
Except for the bag of money, Zarr says it’s an “extremely exaggerated version” of her own childhood in San Francisco, where her older sister still lives, and still exhibits the parental behavior she had to take on when she and Sara were just children. “My older sister is 50 and I’m 46, but she still puts her hand out to keep me from crossing the street. I have to ask her, ‘How do I manage to not get hit by a car when I’m not visiting you?’ ”
Zarr knew early on that she wanted to write, and enrolled at San Francisco State as an English major before switching to earn a degree in organizational communication, a field of study that would make her employable in office administration. “I was only an English major because that was the class I got As in in high school,” Zarr says. “But I hated the close analysis of texts. That was not for me.” She lived in California until she was 30, working various office jobs that allowed her to save her energy for writing. She and her husband moved to Salt Lake City for his job in 2001. Story of a Girl, her first novel, was published in 2007.
It was a splashy debut, and in the decade since its publication it has continued to sell well, fueled by its continual appearance on many high school reading lists. That is likely to continue now that a television movie based on the book, directed by Kyra Sedgwick and starring her husband, Kevin Bacon, is scheduled to debut on Lifetime later this year.
A Struggle Against Expectations
Zarr is grateful for having had success out of the gate but says she struggled to balance writing with the business aspects of it: maintaining a social media presence, touring, self-promotion, and, most of all, meeting expectations, especially her own.
“I always worry about expectations—what if this book isn’t as good as the last?—but I think I would have struggled just as hard even if my first book had done nothing. I would have found some way to make it hard,” she says. “Everything about Story of a Girl has been a positive. It’s kept going. Teachers and librarians keep getting it into the hands of readers.”
After what she felt was too much time between books, she feels like she has gotten herself back on track. “The main thing for me is it’s all about momentum. It’s just too easy when you’re in the middle of a draft to go a few days without working on it, until it feels impossible to start again,” Zarr says. Now she tricks herself into getting the work done by keeping the document open and reaching a certain word count each day. She also uses the writing almost as therapy. “It’s more like I come up with a story and use my interest in my own self-help to deepen and fill in and give dimension to what’s happening in the book.”
By the time she finished Gem & Dixie, the high-concept “bag of money” book she had first pitched to Little, Brown had turned into something far deeper and more devastating. Zarr’s agent, Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, instead sold it to Brown at Balzer + Bray in a two-book deal. Brown, who edited Laura Ruby’s Printz Award-winning Bone Gap, was only too happy to take it on.
“I have to admit that my initial excitement over simply getting to read the new novel from Sara Zarr was every bit a match for my professional excitement at the possibility of getting to work with someone whom I believe has compiled one of the most enduring bodies of work of all time for the YA audience,” Brown says.
In April, Zarr will tour with fellow Balzer + Bray authors Becky Albertalli and Katie Cotugno. She does not mind at all not having star billing. “The glamour of solo author events is greatly exaggerated,” she says.
Zarr’s sixth novel may not be the high-concept book she envisioned, but she’s okay with that. There is at least one moment that will make in-the-know readers chuckle: watch for the reference to fellow YA writer A.S. King.
“I really did intend to make it more of a romp,” Zarr said. “But I guess I just couldn’t escape the writer that I am.”