Sarah Dessen’s new novel, The Moon and More (Viking, June), does not ship for several more months. But the lucky audience – largely teen girls and young women – who turned out on January 18 for her event in Pittsburgh was the first to hear Dessen give a sneak preview. “This is the first time I’ve read from this book out loud!” she exclaimed, to the obviously enthusiastic crowd.
Dessen appeared at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh as part of the Black, White and Read All Over series, a joint project between the library and Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures. Local author Siobhan Vivian (The List, Scholastic/Push, 2012), who teaches a Writing Youth Literature course at the University of Pittsburgh, touted Dessen as “the OG [original gangsta] of YA literature,” in a warm introduction. “Authors like John Green, Sara Zarr, and Jenny Han owe Sarah Dessen a huge thank you for paving the way in realistic teen fiction.”
Taking the stage in a crisp red dress and black sweater, Dessen waved to her appreciative fans before settling in at the podium. She commented on how 1996, the year her first book (That Summer) was published, seems like the Stone Age. “These days everyone asks me if I brought a PowerPoint or a jump drive,” she said. “As you can see, I’m not doing a multimedia thing up here. The only visual aid I’m packing is my new book.”
After sharing an excerpt, Dessen reflected on the inspiration for her latest work. “Each time, I think I’m never going to write another book. It never gets easier,” she said. “After What Happened to Goodbye [Viking, 2011], we went [on a vacation] to the beach and I was reading by the pool. This young, shirtless pool guy comes out and we have a big old conversation. He was so chatty and funny, and sweet and cute. I thought, there’s my next book: what is it like to be permanent in a town where everything is temporary?”
A lively Q&A session followed. “Teenagers are a great audience and they are fearless about asking what they want to know,” Dessen had said backstage before the event. While perched on a stool midstage, she deftly handled queries about favorite characters, advice for young writers, and how she uses social media. “I was very slow to add modern technology in my books,” she said. “You have to be careful about that kind of thing. I just started put texting and phones in my books. I want my books to be read 20 years from now; I don’t want them to be dated.” As an author, she says, “Social media can suck up a lot of my time,” and admits to a weakness for Pinterest and Twitter. “Twitter is kind of my watercooler,” Dessen said. “I just met Siobhan in person tonight, but we’ve been friends on Twitter for probably a couple of years.” She emphasized the importance of having a presence online – via blogging, social media, her Web site – for her readers. “If you’re writing for teens you have to meet them on their turf.”
When asked about the road to getting published, Dessen said, “You cannot underestimate the power of editing and revising. People throw things up on the Kindle store before they are ready to be seen.” Good editing,” she emphasized, “makes the difference between someone wanting to read your book and not.”
She has often said that her high school years were not the best of her life, a sentiment she reiterated during the Pittsburgh event. “I couldn’t wait to get out of high school,” Dessen told the crowd. “I thought, ‘I’m never going to think about these people again. I find it ironic that I now spend half my day with one foot back in high school. I drive by my high school every day when I take my daughter to preschool.”
Dessen told PW that speaking engagements like this one make her “a little nervous, but it’s like riding a bike.” A typical schedule, she explained, with a new book roughly every two years, includes doing local, comfortable events near her Chapel Hill, N.C., home as a “warm-up” for a larger tour. She’s due to tour for the paperback edition of Whatever Happened to Goodbye in April and then will head out again in June for the launch of The Moon and More.
The Pittsburgh event also provided Dessen with some fresh book-signing practice. After thanking her with rousing applause in the auditorium, audience members moved down the hall to the library where they could meet Dessen and have their books personalized. While waiting in line, a young fan named Sina told PW it was hard to pick her favorite Dessen book. “I pretty much love all her books because they have real-life situations and I can relate to them.” Izzy, another teen reader, said she likes Dessen because “She writes about real things, like addiction, and it’s very different from all the really girly stuff that’s out there.” Nan, from a northern suburb of Pittsburgh, was getting books signed for her daughter, who is away at college. “She’s 22 and still loves them.” Nan said. She also hoped to thank Dessen in person. “These books got my daughter through high school,” she said, “because they were so true and real for her.”
Dessen, who published her first novel, That Summer, in 1996, is well-positioned to take the long view of the challenges teens face. “I think, in a way, it is harder to be a teenager today,” Dessen mused to PW. “Everybody is so interconnected now. It used to be that whatever you might say to someone or even write on the bathroom wall, was much more contained. But certain things don’t change: teenagers’ relationships with friends, with parents, with the opposite sex.” And it’s clear Dessen has an eager readership that is grateful she helps them navigate it all.