Acclaimed YA author Sara Zarr, nominated for the National Book Award for her debut novel, Story of a Girl, in 2007, spoke with PW about the effects of the pandemic on her writing career, her devotion to realism, and the inspiration for her first middle grade novel. In A Song Called Home, she shows how fifth-grader Lou copes with having an alcoholic father and broken family and unwanted change after her mother decides to remarry.

How has the coronavirus affected the writing and publication of your book?

I sold the book right as the pandemic was beginning. I did live in fear for that first month that I was going to get an email saying the publication was canceled. When the book went through, I felt lucky that I had a contract and knew what I’d be doing for the next year. Back then, we all thought the pandemic would be over soon, but when things got worse, suddenly everything stopped. Already, the publication of A Song Called Home has been delayed one week because of supply chain issues. I’m bracing myself for another delay.

What made you decide to write a novel geared toward a middle school audience?

It was a combination of factors. Part of it was necessity. The market for young adult novels has changed a lot in the last 10 years. Now publishers are looking for more heightened kinds of stories for their readers, who perhaps have been influenced by all of the superhero movies and movies like Twilight.

The stories I like telling and am capable of telling are smaller and more introspective. Both my editor and agent suggested I try playing with a middle-school aged novel because that market is more hospitable to the type of book I like to write. At first, I didn’t think I could do it. I’ve always had great respect for middle grade writers, picture book writers, and chapter book writers because I’ve felt that the younger the audience, the more difficult it is to write a good version of a story. You have more limitations on the ways you can put forth complicated ideas. It involves working with a different vocabulary and a different style.

I wasn’t sure what I should write, so I began thinking about myself in middle school and what was going on in my life. I found I was able to access my inner 10-year-old and used some details from my own life to build a basic premise.

What idea prompted you to write A Song Called Home?

The basic premise of the book is taken directly from my life. My parents divorced when I was 10 and my mother remarried when I was 11. There was a lot of change in my life in a short amount of time. We moved from the city to a suburb. I had to change schools at a vulnerable time. That part of the book is autobiographical, but I added a lot of made-up stuff to make the novel about Lou and not about me.

Some parts of the book are loosely based on my experiences. For instance, when I was young, my mother played cello. We didn’t have much money because of my father’s inability to work due to his drinking, so my parents sold almost everything we owned including my mother’s cello. Then, one day there was a knock on the door. My mom went downstairs from our apartment in San Francisco and there was a cello. The magical feeling of someone just leaving a musical instrument at your doorstep stuck with me, and that’s how the part of the book when Lou found her guitar came to be.

In the book, the members of Lou’s family are regular churchgoers and devoted Christians, despite the fact Lou questions why God doesn’t make her father stop drinking. Why did you decide to incorporate religion into A Song Called Home?

I grew up in a church. That was totally comfortable for me and it was a big part of my life. My parents had moved to California from various states out east. They didn’t really know anyone when they got there. My mom had become a born-again Christian during the ’70’s, so it was automatic for her to find a church right away.

We were struggling due to my father’s drinking, and the church became both family and support system for us. There’s a lot to criticize about church and the whole religion system but I think it does provide social support for people. It was definitely like that for me. I had a very positive experience with church, and I, like Lou, did wonder why if God was good and capable of everything, he couldn’t make my father stop drinking. I wasn’t contriving to put religion in the novel, but it became an integral part of the story.

All of your characters, even the minor ones, come across as being very real and complex. What process do you go through to develop them?

Making characters real is the most important part of writing to me. I don’t know where that comes from exactly, but I work really hard to do it. I write many drafts of my novels. In early drafts, characters might be more one-dimensional. Then it’s just a process of cutting away the parts that seem made up and bringing out what feels honest. I think that process is connected to my way of thinking while recovering from trauma from my childhood, going through a period of self-examination and self-awareness and trying to figure out my parents, feeling empathy for why they were the way they were.

During my writing process, I focus on self-honesty. Honesty is what I look for in my own reading. I want to forget that I’m reading a novel and really get absorbed and feel that the characters could keep living after the last page is turned. That’s when readers have realizations about the way the world works and how we wish it worked.

With middle-schoolers, I needed to make the audience feel like they’re exploring the world from a smaller, safer place. In A Song Called Home, I tried to make it safe, maybe less harsh than I would while writing for young adults.

What draws you to writing to teens and preteens rather than to adults?

When I started writing in the late ’90s, I think I was still writing for my younger inner person and processing what I went through as a child and adolescent. Now that I’m older, I am drawn to writing for adults and processing experiences from my adulthood. But for now, since I’ve become established in the younger reader realm, that’s where my books will most likely be read.

I’m trying to keep up my career, but I do think I will try to write for other audiences as my interests change. I also think that middle-school age is when you can read so much. You don’t have as much homework. You’re stuck at home in a lot of ways. Your imagination is still firing and you haven’t yet become jaded. In some ways I think it would be the most amazing thing to have a series of middle-school novels because the readers are so great. But like I said, it’s not easy for me to write for that age group. It takes me longer to tap into that younger voice.

Lou’s alcoholic father has caused much havoc and stress in the family, yet Lou is very troubled when he leaves. You often focus on conflicts and dynamics within families. What pulls you to this?

When you’re a young person, you’re living in this occupied territory. The people occupying it are your family. You’re confined by the rules of your household and the realities and the culture of your family for better or worse. It’s the primary influence early in life.

I’m not a romantic person. I don’t enjoy books in which characters find their one true love at age 15. For me, it’s not plausible, and that goes back to my devotion to realism. For me, relationships to parents and family are more lasting than outside relationships. During adolescence, it’s like you’re in the Garden of Eden and eat from the tree of knowledge, and you think, “Oh, gosh!” and everything changes. Coming into knowledge, you’re seeing your home environment and your family in a whole new way. Your mind is opened to how complex things are. That’s so fascinating to me. Adolescence is such a complicated time and it’s all connected to views of home and family.

What are you working on now?

I just turned in a first draft of a second middle-grade age novel. I don’t want to say much about it, but it’s sort of in the same world as A Song Called Home.

And what do you hope readers will take away from A Song Called Home?

What I always feel about my books is that primarily I want them to be good reading experiences. I want readers to be interested in the story. I want them to care about the characters and to want to finish the book. There are also bonus features to be taken away from the A Song Called Home about family and friendship. I also think there’s something there for kids who have gone through the breakup of a family or are becoming a part of a blended family or are feeling helpless over unwanted change. I hope readers can see that over time, you can adjust to change by meeting new people, making new friends, and giving people second chances.

A Song Called Home by Sara Zarr. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $16.99 Mar. 15 ISBN 978-0-06-304492-0