There were several reasons I wanted an excuse to talk to Sara. I first met her several years ago at a Kidlitcon and heard her speak from the heart about her first foray into blogging. I immediately liked her and immediately devoured STORY OF A GIRL, her debut novel and a National Book Award Finalist.
A couple years later she stopped here in the Nati on a book tour and I attended both her events, one at a Barnes & Noble and one at Joseph-Beth. The B&N event, for some reason, was not well attended. (It was pretty much just me, the store events person, and a teen and her father who stopped by.) Still Sara spoke to us as if it was a packed house, and I was moved by the story behind her writing SWEETHEARTS, her second YA novel (a Cybil Award Finalist). I bought a copy, read it on a plane a few weeks later, and wept.
And in 2009 I got to edit Sara Zarr (!) when she wrote a piece for me for CWIM. Her topic was revising books. "Not the craft of that, the technique," she explained, "but the emotional complications of engaging deeply with your work and accepting, even embracing, failure and humility as part of the process." (See the 2010 CWIM, page 52.)
Sara is a deep thinker, a terrific and interesting human being, and an amazing writer. Her third book, ONCE WAS LOST was a Kirkus Best Book of 2009. She's a three-time finalist for the Utah Book Award. She's had short fiction and essays published in print and online and is working on a fourth novel. And she's a keynote speaker at the SCBWI Annual Winter Conference!
Click here to register for the event and hear Sara Zarr--and the rest of the terrific faculty--offer insights and advice in person.
And in the meantime, enjoy my interview with Sara, in which we talk about writing, public speaking and attending conferences.
You recently served as a judge for the National Book Awards (for which you were once a finalist). What was it like being on the other side? How did it feel attending the event as a judge?
The judging process was challenging and sort of took over my life for six months of 2010, but ultimately I found the experience extremely rewarding. It gave me the chance to read widely and deeply, and consider what a book really is and what we are trying to do as writers.
I also enjoyed working with the other four judges on the Young People's Literature panel, finding common ground as well as passionate disagreements, and coming away with a ton of respect for each other. Attending as a judge was way more fun than attending as a finalist! I could actually relax and enjoy the whole night without it feeling surreal or panic-inducing.
You're delivering a keynote at the SCBWI Annual Winter Conference. What's the theme? Can you give us a teaser?
I'm going to talk about crafting a satisfying writing life. I think it's easy--especially when you're starting out--to get caught up in and stressed out by the business end of things. It is important to understand that part of the job, and of course it's something you must navigate to become a traditionally published author.
But I see so many people forgetting the joy that first led them to write, neglecting the care and feeding of their creative selves, getting anxious and burned out before they even get out of the gate. (And I'm talking about myself here, too.)
I want to talk about habits of thought and action that help sustain a writing life at all phases of one's career--how to persevere in looking for that balance between smart career management and care of the creative self.
Your bio on your sarazarr.com says you majored in Speech in college. (For me, that would be right up there with swimming in shark-infested waters or contracting Ebola.) Lots of newer authors suddenly find themselves having to give speeches and presentations. Could you offer a few pieces of advice to the nervous ones?
Well, my emphasis in the Speech & Communications major was Organizational Communication, so it wasn't so much about public speaking. That said, I've always been comfortable talking in front of people. And when I say "comfortable," I don't mean I don't get nervous or scared. But I usually come out of it feeling energized and glad I did it, especially if I feel like I made a real connection with the audience. That doesn't always happen, and it's definitely a sinking feeling when you realize you've failed to get the audience on board with you.
As for advice: When I first started talking in front of audiences as an author, I would get very stressed out and spend weeks taking notes and organizing thoughts and writing stuff on index cards. Then I realized: I'm an expert on me and my books. That freed me up to take a more extemporaneous approach with my talks. So if at all possible, only agree to speak about things that fall in your area of expertise, then remind yourself that you are an expert. You talk about this stuff with friends and family and colleagues all the time in casual conversation, and there's no reason to think talking in front of an audience needs to be that different or super formal.
An off-the-cuff approach also tends to lead to better connection with the audience. I try to see every talk as a conversation, even if the audience may not be talking back. (But I am nervous about my SCBWI talk. It will be by far my largest audience ever. So I will have notes!)
Can you tell us anything about your next novel?
I'm excited about it! There are two narrators with very different lives, whose worlds collide around an open adoption by one of the narrator's mothers. The title hasn't been finalized yet, but it should be out sometime in fall 2011.
Had you attended any SCBWI events before you found your agent and got published? Why would you recommend writers working toward publication attend conferences?
I came to SCBWI NY twice before I was published. I believe the years were 2001 and 2005. For me, conferences during that time were all about inspiration and feeling like a writer. It can be hard for non-writer friends and family to understand what it is we're doing, and why, and being around other people pursuing the same goal and talking about that goal is a relief from the isolation (and, possibly, frustration) of working toward publication. "Finally, people talking my language!"
I was never great at the networking part of conferences--small talk and cocktail parties scare me--but I listened and observed well, and all of that information helped me out in some way down the line. Also, investing the time and the money in coming to a conference demonstrates to yourself and to others that you take writing seriously, and there is a lot of value in that.