With summer’s arrival, it seemed like a good time to catch up with Sarah Dessen, a perennial summer favorite among teenage readers. Dessen, a resident of Chapel Hill, N.C., will publish her newest book, The Rest of the Story, on June 4. Like her other 13 books, this one does not shy away from tough subjects. This time, she tackles divisions in a family, including economic status.
In 2008, Dessen’s work was the topic of several news stories here in Tampa Bay when some Hillsborough County parents pushed to ban her book Just Listen, because of an explicit passage on rape. Just Listen stayed on the shelves, however, and even gained a following, including a group of actors who held dramatic readings from the novel.
Dessen’s work has also been seen on the big screen. Her early novels That Summer and Someone Like You were adapted into the teen movie How to Deal, starring Mandy Moore, and several of Dessen’s other books consistently rank on NPR’s list of the 100 best-ever teen novels.
What’s on your nightstand?
I’m always juggling a few things. On my nightstand is Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. I’d give it to anyone interested in novels about families with a touch of magical realism. I’m also reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Shout, the sequel to her groundbreaking YA novel Speak. I’ll be passing it on to teens and young adults in my life. And finally, on audio, I’m loving Andrew Rannells’ Too Much Is Not Enough, narrated by the author. It’s about acting, Broadway and a million other things, but honestly, I’d listen to him read my junk mail. He’s hilarious.
You have an uncanny way of getting inside a girl’s head. Is there a process?
I wish it was a set process. I think instead it’s a combination of factors. First, I wasn’t very happy in high school. I was anxious and sad, and the feeling was at one point so familiar it’s not that hard to put myself back there. Also, I still live in my hometown. It’s a lot easier to remember details about your teen years when you drive by your high school on a weekly basis. Finally, I don’t try to write the world I don’t know. Slang, pop culture, technology, all of those things are different now than when I was a teen. So I try to stick to the things that haven’t changed, like relationships with friends, parents and romantic partners.
Is there a particular author or publication from the Chapel Hill area you recommend others check out for a better understanding of the region?
I feel so lucky to have grown up in a town full of writers. It made the idea of writing a book myself seem less impossible. Authors weren’t just dead people on the backs of books. They were at the grocery store, buying bananas. It gave me hope. I will take any chance to sing the praises of my mentor, Lee Smith, whose novels I consider a master class in voice. Start with Fair and Tender Ladies or one of the short story collections, like Me and My Baby View the Eclipse. Jill McCorkle was also my teacher and huge inspiration. Check out her novel Ferris Beach. Finally, I really love the work of Wells Tower, whose book of stories Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned I am still thinking about.