Sara Zarr is the acclaimed author of
threenovels for young adults: Story of a Girl (National Book Award Finalist), Sweethearts (Cybil Award Finalist), andOnce Was Lost (a Kirkus Best Book of 2009).Her short fiction and essays have also appeared in Image, Hunger Mountain, and several anthologies. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, and online at www.sarazarr.com
I grew up in San Francisco in the seventies and early eighties, in a family of creative people. My parents met in music school, and my maternal grandfather made a living as a journalist. There are a bunch of writers among his progeny. Growing up, I was surrounded by stories—many of them in the form of music, ranging from Handel to the Beatles to Christian folk music and Broadway soundtracks. I would sit on the living room floor listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and poring over the lyrics, trying to figure out what was really going on in songs like “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day in the Life,” making up my own stories about the characters.
Not being rich in money, we didn’t have many toys but imagination and a library card are free. So was TV, back then, and on the weekends there were the Dial for Dollars movies and Abbott & Costello and late night horror and also, on PBS, the classics. My mother read to my sister and me almost every night: novels, memoirs, the Bible.
Life was all about stories. Stories in church, stories in music, stories on TV, stories in movies, stories in books, stories the Russian immigrants that my mom tutored would tell us around the table, and the stories I made up with my best friend, Christine, and my sister: Tornado, Orphanage, Schoolhouse, Covered Wagon, Discotheque, Fishing, Princess, Kidnapping, Bar, Store. Plus, reenactments of Grease, A Chorus Line, and Little House on the Prairie.
Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer
If you’ve read much about writers, you know that many of us grew up with an alcoholic parent or in some otherwise dysfunctional home. Me, too. Kids who are raised in households where feelings of safety and predictability are up for grabs might be more likely to turn into storytellers. We spend a lot of emotional energy trying to guess what might happen next, and mentally drawing up different contingency plans. It puts us in the “what if” habit early.
I was often described as “imaginative,” or, less flatteringly, “dramatic.” I always enjoyed creative writing assignments in school and of course loved books and reading, but there wasn’t any single moment that I knew I wanted to be, or decided to be, a writer. Eventually the “what if” habit led to increasingly serious attempts at writing a whole story. For years, I was totally in the closet with it. Saying I wanted to be a writer was like saying I wanted to be an astronaut, or the President. I knew people were those things, but not regular people, not poor unglamorous chubby people. (The irony is I now know that poor, unglamorous, and chubby pretty much describes most writers…) I was a Speech major in college, with a side of Theater Arts, and knew some people who were in the Creative Writing program and I’d think, wow, they are brave. You can just…sign up for that? And no one says, “No, you can’t”? I wasn’t that brave.
When I was twenty-five, the Internet was just becoming a household item, and in an old IRC chat room I met some writers—real writers with books and contracts and agents. They were just regular people, like me. If them, why not me? I decided I would start and finish a YA novel. (I don’t feel like I ever chose YA. It chose me.) My goal was to be published before I turned thirty. Three other novels, two agents, and ten years later (about six years behind schedule), I sold Story of a Girl. During those ten years, I wrote a lot, made friends with writers, learned everything I could about the business and the craft and my voice, and worked on patience and thick skin and self-editing. About six months after selling Story of a Girl, I quit my day job. A year after that I ran out of money and went back to work for a couple of months, and that was not the end of the world, at all. Right now I’m able to make my living writing, but there’s no guarantee that will always be the case, so I’m grateful.
Sometimes I think I could have just as easily not been a writer. For example, by not writing, because of fear or self-doubt or not feeling entitled to give it a try. Or by watching more TV instead. Or giving up when I couldn’t figure out what happened next in a story, or after the first five years of rejection, or after I lost my first agent, or after the second five years of rejection. Et cetera. I’m still aware, every day, that this career is mine to keep or lose. There lots of things from the business side of things I can’t control, but if I don’t keep writing I definitely will not be a writer.
As Of Now
I live in Salt Lake City, UT, with my husband, and a parakeet named Peanut. We came here from San Francisco in 2000, thinking we’d give it a couple of years and predicting we’d be high-tailing it back to CA soon after. The place kind of grew on us, and it’s home. For now.
My life is pretty unexciting, in a good way, full of normal things like cooking and cleaning and movie-going and reading and procrastination and lunch dates and good days and bad days and stupid days and boring days. I say this because before I was published I had this idea of what a published author’s life was like, and it’s not. At least, mine isn’t. But, I’ve got great friends and amazing colleagues and a close family. I’m blessed with a good, full life, and am pretty happy with my job.