Sarah Dessen has been writing YA novels for more than 20 years. In her new novel, Once and for All, Louna is working for her mother’s wedding planning business for the summer, and is struggling with the cynicism about love around her after witnessing so many marriages not work out. Louna is also grieving a love, lost through tragedy, and trying to work her way through to the other side. Dessen spoke with PW about Louna’s story, the way YA has changed over the last two decades, and what inspires her to keep writing for teens after so many years.
All of your books have centered around your characters finding love, among other topics like family and friendships. But your newest book, Once and for All, is about grieving the loss of love after tragedy. Can you talk about why you chose this theme?
I started with the idea of wanting to write about a wedding planner or about working for one. I had two babysitters who were planning a wedding at the same time and they had a lot in common in terms of what they were worried about with regard to their weddings. Then I started to think about what would happen if you were around weddings all the time, if it would make you more cynical. Then I wondered about writing about a girl who has had this storybook romance and how she would move on from that storybook romance. How would she recover from it and move into the real world?
Life isn’t a fairytale, even if you are lucky enough to have that fairytale for a while—the only reason Louna’s experience with love was like a fairytale was because it was so brief. Long-term love has its ups and downs. Life is the light and the dark. Louna is not just grappling with feeling cynical about love itself, but also with her own heart.
You published your first YA novel, That Summer, in 1996, more than 20 years ago. What do you think of the way that the world of YA has changed during these last two decades?
YA has totally changed! In 1996 there wasn’t even a teen section! Usually the bookstores just shelved the teen books with the picture books. My book was in the same section as Corduroy and Strawberry Shortcake. Today, people have realized that the last thing a teen wants to do is to go through all the picture books to get to the books for them.
There is also a greater acceptance now of the stories that we are telling about teens. Books like Twilight and Harry Potter and The Fault in Our Stars helped to break through a lot of barriers. YA novels are not just for teenagers anymore.
I also think that the greatest change is that there are so many more voices. The diversity of voices in YA was just not there 20 years ago. You didn’t have a lot of LGBT voices and voices of color, so today it is much more true to the actual teen experience because it isn’t about any one kind of person.
What is the most difficult part about working on a new novel, and how do you get through it?
I think, at this point, it’s keeping things fresh and not repeating myself. That’s my greatest fear at 13 books. I know I have repeated sentences—I’m sure I have. So it is keeping things fresh and keeping things exciting so people don’t feel like they are reading the same book again. I can usually tell if this is the case if I’m excited about the book and it feels new to me.
What inspires you to continue writing YA?
I fell into YA backwards. I did not start out thinking of myself as a YA writer. I came out of an undergraduate creative writing program [at UNC Chapel Hill] with a focus in Southern literature. I just happened to write a book with a 15-year-old narrator. My agent said to me, “This is YA,” and I said I didn’t know if it was. Then she said, “Just trust me.” And suddenly I was in the YA market!
So, at first I kind of resisted YA. But once I sold the first book I realized what a great place this is for me. I would like to write about some of the things that have happened since high school, but every time I’ve tried, it’s just not as good. And also, once you figure out your lane, it’s scary to move out of it.
If anyone pushes me out of YA, it’s going to be my nine-year-old daughter! When my daughter is a teenager, she might want me out of her world. But I have a few years yet before that.
Once and for All by Sarah Dessen. Viking, $19.99 June ISBN 978-0-425-29033-0