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Interview with Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen, bestselling author of six novels for young adults, talks about what inspires her and how she approaches creative writing.

Q: What was the inspiration for your latest novel, The Truth About Forever?

A: Before I started writing The Truth About Forever, I'd been thinking a lot about the idea of being "perfect," and how hard it is to live up to that standard, whether it be your own or someone else's. Also, I'm a bit of a perfectionist myself—sometimes to my detriment—so working on this book helped me to deal with a lot of my own preconceptions about what "perfect" means and whether it's even possible, not to mention desirable. The end result for Macy, and for me, is that a little chaos is good and necessary in the world, wherever you can find it. I like order as much as the next person, but it's the messy stuff that makes life interesting. And, a lot of times, fun.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

A: As far back as I can remember, I've been writing. I've always had this wild imagination, and I love to embellish stories to make them more interesting. When I was a kid I had all these intricate histories for all my stuffed animals and dollhouse families, which I would type out on this old manual typewriter my parents set up for me in the corner of our TV room. I kept writing all through middle school, and in high school I got diverted a bit, but I picked it up again in college. I really didn't think I'd actually be a writer until I graduated and found that I just couldn't stop and go get a real job. Every time I finished something, another idea would follow right behind. So I went into waitressing and just wrote like crazy. At times it seemed really stupid, since I was totally broke and there was no kind of guarantee that I'd ever see anything come of it. Luckily, it did. But even if I hadn't sold a book by now I'd still be writing. It becomes a part of you, just something you do.

Q: What was your favourite subject in school?

A: English. Anything having to do with writing and reading. I'd been writing for as long as I could remember, but I got frustrated in school because there were always rules about what you were supposed to write: about your summer vacation, about Shakespeare. I wanted to be able to make everything up, even then.

Q: Who were your favourite authors as a child, and who are your favorite authors now?

A: I really liked Judy Blume and Lois Lowry, then, and their work is so inspirational because it still holds up when I read it now. Currently I'm really into Anne Tyler, who wrote The Accidental Tourist, as well as Suzanne Finnamore, whose style I really admire. John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany is probably my favourite book right now.

Q: Where and when do you write?

A: I have an office upstairs here in my house. When we first moved I was sure I couldn't work here, because it had a window: I was used to facing the wall, and thought it made me work more because I wasn't distracted. It helps the view from here is just our road, and the occasional deer or dog running by (we live in the country). I do my best writing in the afternoons, between about three and five, but I can do little spurts just about anytime. I've learned to take writing time when I can get it, but the afternoons are ideal.

Q: Of all your books, which is your favourite?

A: It's really hard to pick: I imagine it would be like picking which child you like best (or in my case, which dog). Truthfully, I like them all for different reasons, as well as because each represents wherever I was at that time in my life. I often say that my favourite book is the one I haven't started yet, or the one I've just begun, because it's like this big wonderful secret and there's so much potential there. But I think Keeping the Moon holds a special place with me, if only because a lot of the lessons in it about self-confidence are ones I'm still trying to learn myself.

Q: Where do you get your ideas?

A: This is such a hard question, and there's no real concise answer. What usually happens is that I start with something that did happen to me, or to someone I know, and then build on it from there. For instance, That Summer came out of my cousin getting married; we are really close, and it was emotional for me, the first time a wedding had affected me that way. Someone Like You was partially based on the fact that in my ninth grade year the most popular boy in my school was killed in a motorcycle accident. I find with my writing that the beginnings are usually from real life, but you have to veer off into fiction pretty quickly or the story doesn't work. I think also that part of being a writer is just being tuned in to the world. My friend, the author Lee Smith, once said that she considered sitting at the mall watching people go by as research, and I agree. There are so many stories out there waiting to be told. You just have to keep your eyes open!