Sara Zarr is the author of six novels and one collaborative novel, for young adults. I first encountered her work in the anthology Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, in which I found so many kindred spirits. Over the last several years, I’ve had the honor of hearing Sara speak several times, and having some time to chat one on one with her, too. I wanted to share the encouragement and the wonder about art and faith, and a little about her new book Gem & Dixie, so that you could listen along. (You can also read the transcript below.
Cara: Hi Sara, it's so good to talk with you today.
Sara: Thanks for having me.
Cara: Absolutely. Let's go ahead and get started. I'd love for you to tell me a little bit about Gem and Dixie.
Sara: So, Gem and Dixie is—I guess it's my sixth novel or sixth and a half. I've written one collaboratively, so I think of that as my half novel, but it's my sixth novel and I write young adult fiction. So that really doesn't mean anything other than it is about teenagers and published in a certain publishing category, but tons of adults—I’m sure lots of people listening—read young adult fiction. I think of it more as being about teens than for teens because I think the age of the readership just falls everywhere on the spectrum. Gem and Dixie is a story about sisters. They are in a very dysfunctional family. All of my books I should say are kind of family stories, family dramas, small stories. They're not about apocalypses or werewolves or anything like that. They're just about things that could happen on the time-space continuum usually in a family or a friend group. And all my stories I would say, the families have some level of "dysfunction" because I think all families and people do. But Gem and Dixie is like, there's no question. I mean the parents are abjectly failing at their job of raising their daughters with a sense of security and identity or any kind of a compass at all, and it's told from the point of view of Gem, who's the older sister, and there comes an opportunity for her to make a change and make a choice, and the story is kind of about that journey and their relationship and the loyalty you may or may not feel toward family and particularly siblings. And it's also a lot about just: your sibling is the only person who exists on the planet in the past, present, or future who knows what it's like to grow up in your family, and even if two siblings or more have a really different experience of growing up in a particular family, there's still a common language that only you and your siblings know and that's something I've thought a lot about over the years when I think about me and my sister and growing up in our family and that was something I wanted to explore, too.
Cara: You've touched on this a little bit, but I'm going to ask you to go a little deeper. Gem and Dixie, like your other books, is about people who are in messy, real life situations. What draws you into these scenarios and introduces you to the characters in your books?
Sara: I'm not sure exactly. It's just I know I've always wanted to read about real people living lives that felt real to me. It probably started when I was in junior high—I mean like every kid, I enjoyed—in middle school or elementary school—fantasy type stories and Narnia and Joan Aiken books and just things that were more fantastical, and somewhere in adolescence I was just like why is life so hard? I want to read about people having these hard, difficult lives and messy situations, and I think that's just what interests me in stories, whether it's TV or movies or books or talking to friends, like what really sparks me is where human relationships have that friction of trying to give and receive love and friendship and forgiveness and understanding and how hard that is, even with people you love, that that's just a challenge and that's how I experience being a human, which is feeling challenged in relationships and finding that friction and going through phases where I just don't want to have any relationships because it just brings up too many issues. Once you get past a certain point, I just don't want to have meaningful connections, but at the same time recognizing meaningful connection is where I experience the most growth and grace and understanding and knowledge of myself and the world.
Cara: What was it that drew you to write fiction?
Sara: That's another one that's hard to answer because I don't know. It wasn't a conscious choice. I just always loved reading, always loved television. I don't separate so much like books and television and movies. It's all part of a similar experience to me. I mean printed word is unique. It's still private in a way. But I just always would have stories in my head. I remember when I was in my early 20s one of my real jobs—I was living in San Francisco and I would take the light rail from my neighborhood to downtown. This was before phones and, at most, you might have like a Walkman or maybe an early MP3 player to listen to music, but you really didn’t have anything to do on a commute but stare into space or read or listen to music. I listened to music a lot and I would just stare out the window because I couldn't read on trains because I would get motion sickness, so I just had a lot of staring into space, and my imagination would just—I don't know why it was doing that, but I would think about stories and they usually involved teenage characters and it would just be like a really big, interesting world in my head imagining people in these dramatic relational situations with like The Cure playing in the background because that's what I was listening to on the train. You know, just like very influenced by music, definitely, how listening to a song that you love would just make an emotional connection and then that emotional connection would start generating ‘oh what would a story be where someone would be feeling this emotion and need to listen to this song?’ So I think it just comes from being a lifelong reader and growing up in a time when there was a lot of free time and boredom. I guess when I was around age 25 or so, I started to realized it was a job I could have, and that's when I got serious and I was like I'm going to finish a book and try and get an agent. That was also when the internet first—it was like mid 90s and I had my like AOL CD that came in the mail. Once there was that access of realizing, like you could actually find other writers and realize there's people behind those books and they're not all famous people and they don't all live in New York and they're still writing books and getting books published, and that means I could do it. A realization that writers weren't like these special, privileged people. They were just people who wanted to write and worked at it hard enough to get good enough to try and get published.
Cara: When you're writing a book, who is it that you're writing for?
Sara: I think in the first few drafts, I'm writing for myself and I'm writing for the characters I guess, just to give them a good story and honor whatever it is that they're going through. Which sounds strange because it sounds like they're real people and not people that I made up, but I think that it kind of starts with an idea and then I'm writing for what kind of a book would I want to read, or just writing for myself for the process of writing it. And then as it gets into later drafts with my editor and you start thinking about a readership and making sure that the story is as compelling and as accessible and clear as it can be so that you're not putting up obstacles between the story and the reader. It kind of starts for me and by the end there's a lot more consciousness of: people are going to read this. I need to make sure they understand what's happening and they're feeling the things that I'm hoping that they feel and that it's just a satisfying reading experience and they can forget that they're in a book, but they can think they're reading about real people.
Cara: How would you say your faith informs your writing?
Sara: It's hard necessarily to draw direct lines. I do know that from the very beginning when I started out, even though I grew up in the church, I never read a lot of "Christian fiction" like I just went to the library and read like regular books, for lack of a better word. Secular. Secular books. And I read some Christian fiction I guess, like occasionally on a holiday someone would give me a gift like the Jeanette Oke books or something, and I liked those. But I knew that I wanted to write about things that felt real to me in terms of what day-to-day life feels like, without being constrained to have to deliver a certain message. So I always knew I wanted to write in the mainstream arena, and have that freedom to write in a way that I felt was honest while at the same time—I mean everyone has a worldview and you can't not write from your worldview, I don't think. I mean it's like the Flannery O'Connor quote, "Your faith is not what you see, and it's not a substitute for seeing, but it's the light by which you see everything." So, I know that my worldview comes through in my books in different ways in different ways with different books, but always I guess my kind of manifesto is just that regular, everyday life matters and you don't have to have an epic story to matter and that working-class stories matter and teenagers matter. Their experiences are valid. And that it's hard to love people, but it's worth it. That's another thing I guess that is part of my worldview that is influenced by my faith, that reconciliation is something I always want for myself in my life, and it's something my characters always want, whether it's reconciliation with family, reconciliation with self, or with an experience. I'd say that's a thread that runs through all of my books, and there's only one—my third book in particular was much more directly about faith. It was still published in the mainstream world, Once Was Lost, but it's about a pastor's daughter and a crisis of faith and just the scrutiny of being in the pastoral family when you're struggling. I’ve gotten to a point in my faith and life— it took a while—I’m in my 40s now, but I think like a lot of people who grew up in an evangelical setting, I absorbed the message that there's the worldly things and then there's the sacred things and they're two totally different things and they should never touch, and over the last 20 years, I've really come to believe that everything is sacred and you can't extract human experience from the world or from the temporal or the visceral or the physical, that it's the categories that we make and feel like, ‘Oh maybe if I stick to this category, I could sooth my anxiety and feel like I'm a good person, make sure I'm not going to get judged and go to hell.’ That's one way to live, but I didn’t want to live that way, so I've really come to embrace a view of the sacred being found in nearly everything and in unexpected corners and just honoring that idea that we're all created in the image of God and we all experience life in basically the same way, whether or not we are going to church every week or having beliefs we don't understand, or agnostic. We all experience loss, we experience joy, anger, difficult relationships, great relationships. That messiness—I like the word messy that you used at the beginning—of just things will not be neatly categorized, and I think that's something that informs my writing.
Cara: Besides fiction, you also write essays and creative nonfiction. What are the gifts of each genre for you?
Sara: Yeah, I used to write a little more nonfiction than I do now, but I got to a point where I felt like I hate nonfiction—I should say: I love reading nonfiction. I hate writing creative nonfiction because I feel like at the end of it, I'm supposed to come to some kind of a conclusion. Like if you're sort of posing a question or exploring a question, I feel like, to make it satisfying for the reader, I'm supposed to have somehow reconciled that question by the end of the piece, and I never have, and when I do I feel like well now I'm just being false because I'm trying to give this piece a satisfying ending, but I don't know if it’s really what I think or what I feel, but I don't know. Maybe it is, or maybe it's what I think today but if this gets published and three weeks from now someone is like: ‘you said this in this essay.’ It just opened up a whole bunch of stuff that makes me anxious, and I really love fiction for the space it provides to explore, and the time that you have in a novel to go on a journey and the way you can leave things unanswered. You can resolve plot points so that they're not just hanging there, but it's not like you're coming to some big answer. So I love reading great nonfiction and I feel like writing it is too hard. Because I think a really good essay or really good creative nonfiction: it’s really specific, but it makes a lot of connections and it just makes you think about things in a new or different way and then it kind of winds down and comes to like a gut punch at the end and maybe not everything is answered, but like you go: ‘oh.’ I think that's what a great essay is, and I do not have that skillset.
Cara: Which is so funny to me that you would say that because what you just said about a great essay is probably how I would describe your work. Thinking about one of your novels, so it just goes to show you that each genre really does have their people who are better suited to write in certain genres and to have that kind of power.
Sara: I think part of it, too is: maybe someday I won't have the anxiety that I have now. I think part of it is I'm very driven by—or I can be driven by a fear of disapproval or fear of being wrong or being open to criticism, and writing fiction kind of creates a little cushion around that. I mean you still—people review your books on Amazon or Goodreads or whatever, but I don't read those. I feel like it's not me, it's the characters, and I think if I could really free myself. I think about Anne Lamott, who when she writes, she's so honest that sometimes I'm reading and you're like, "Oh my God, what is this person that she's writing about think about this?’ or ‘How does she say that not and feel so exposed?’ I just don't have that. I'm a little too fearful to be that honest, but I feel like if I wanted to spend my time writing that kind of work, it would have to be that honest.
Cara: As you send Gem and Dixie into the world, what are your hopes for your readers for this and for your other books as well?
Sara: I always try—I think people who have read my books know I'm not a big ‘wrap it all up in a happy ending’ kind of writer. I tried to leave the characters where their trajectory is towards something better or more hopeful than where it started. So, we may not get to see them reach the ultimate resolution of their issues, but by the time we leave the books, we see that they've turned in some kind of a new direction, even if it's really small, and you go ‘Oh I see, if they keep following this new path that they're on, they're going to wind up in a better place than where I felt they were headed when the book started.’ My primary goal, when I'm writing, is to give people just a great reading experience, and like I said, to me that is forgetting that you're reading a novel and like not really thinking too much about the writing and you're just on this journey with characters that begin to seem real to you. So that's my primary goal and then there's other layers of stuff for readers to get if they're looking for other layers. I do like to see my characters turned—it’s very rarely a 180 degree turn. It might just be like a 10 degree turn, but if they follow that 10 degrees for the next 100 miles, they're going to be on a totally different course than where they began.
Cara Strickland is a writer and former restaurant critic focused mainly on food and drink, singleness, mental health, and faith. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, JSTOR Daily, Tales of the Cocktail, and others. She is a member of The James Beard Foundation, the Association of Food Journalists, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and the Author's Guild. You can find her at carastrickland.com.