Telling Stories True: An Interview with Sara Zarr

By Julie Polter 5-17-2010

Kirkus Reviews calls Sara Zarr's third young adult novel, Once Was Lost, "riveting," praising its "rare combination of in-depth character study and gripping mystery." It is also notable for its sensitive handling of issues of faith and doubt. Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter spoke with Sara Zarr at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing in April. (You can find more recommended books for children and young people in the May issue of Sojourners.)

Julie Polter: What led you into writing for young adults?

Sara Zarr: I always loved young adult fiction. At some point I discovered Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. This boy, Jerry, is in Catholic school. There's this gang of boys who are always telling the younger students what to do-they give them jobs. Every year students sell chocolates as a fundraiser for the school. They tell Jerry that his job is to refuse to sell the chocolates for a certain number of days. Then, he's to agree to sell the chocolates. Because ultimately this gang wants to toy with the administration, to ultimately give them what they want, but to make it clear that they're the ones with the power. But Jerry decides he's going to continue to refuse to sell the chocolates. So now he's bucking the gang as well as the administration. It comes down to a fixed boxing match at the end.

Cormier's books were criticized, are still criticized, for being too dark, too bleak. But it was the first time that I read a book where I felt "this is really what it feels like to be in high school." Even without these dramatic experiences at my school, there was that oppressive sense that everyone wants you to be doing something you don't want to do, whether it's your peers or your parents, or your teachers. Meanwhile Jerry is depressed because his mother has died and his father is too deep into mourning to pay much attention to anything that's going on. So Jerry is dealing with all of this on his own; it's a mental battle that he's in.

Reading Cormier's book was the first time I thought, "I want to write and I want to write a book like this." I wanted to realistically write about what it felt like to be a teenager, and not skim over some of the harder things.

Once Was Lost has more overtly religious themes than your previous two novels. Did that present any unique difficulties in the writing?

Yes it did. My first two books don't have anything to do, explicitly, with faith. But in this one the character is a pastor's daughter and it's about something that happens in their church community. She's struggling to figure out what she still believes and the point of believing is if God can't or doesn't choose to fix things.

Ultimately I just wanted it to be a good story, with a compelling plot and the emotional journey. Many people read it and think it's about one girl's response to the fact that another girl in her community has been kidnapped. And that's what it is about. The fact that she has this crisis of faith can be seen as peripheral to the story or it you can see it as the central part of the story.

I also had to make sure I wasn't imposing what I wanted to happen on the story in a way that wouldn't make sense. When I started I thought, "No, she's not going to lose her faith." But then while writing I realized I had to give her the choice. I can't just make her keep her faith because that's what I did. I had to make sure as I was writing that I was letting the character's journey unfold for her, and not just for me.

Do you have spiritual disciplines, and if so, how do they intersect with your writing disciplines?

Since Advent last year, I've been reading the Book of Common Prayer in the morning and responding in my journal. I do the "morning pages" exercise from The Artist's Way [by Julia Cameron] but combine it with the daily readings. If I have no response, I write about something else.

It's funny--I first read The Artist's Way 10 or 15 years ago when I started getting into writing. I thought it was all this crazy, New Age baloney. I rolled my eyes a lot. I think that was from growing up in the evangelical church. I was 23 or 24 and still pretty close to that experience. Just honing in on what they disagree with and everything is a red flag. I didn't notice all this other great stuff in there. Some of the exercises still don't fit me. But it is so insightful about the life of the mind for a writer, what disciplines you need to have, what creativity is and isn't, how to separate it from career, how to deal with success.

I also love Paula Huston's The Holy Way. She writes about trying to bring some of the monastic practices of solitude and contemplation into everyday living. When I get really distracted by all the non-writing things that come with being a writer-social networking, reading blogs, trying to do five things at once, or the promotion you're supposed to do, I try to remind myself that living like a monk is still the best way to live. Still living in the world, but having that mindset-they have several times a day of praying, reading, studying, thinking. Things go better if you're quiet, you have solitude, you're giving yourself unstructured time to think, even if it doesn't seem to be productive. I think the way for me to be happiest as a writer is to see it almost as a spiritual discipline.

Julie Polter is an associate editor at Sojourners.

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