Writing through Faith and Doubt An Interview with Sara Zarr By Stephanie H. Kim I picked up my first Sara Zarr novel during the summer of 2008, when I was looking for a quick, fun read and heard some buzz about the National Book Award Finalist Story of a Girl. Young adult (YA) fiction is kind of my go-to for guilty pleasure reading, so I was eager to figure out what all the hype was about as I dove into the first few pages. And yes, okay, that Third Eye Blind song immediately started ringing in my ears as I cracked open the paperback spine. You know—“This is the story of a girl / Who cried a river and drowned the whole world.” Accordingly, I was half-expecting some melodramatic fluff with a lot of angst and a lot of tears. To my pleasant surprise, this particular story of a girl hit every note completely right. I read it one sitting, turning the pages in the dim light of my bedroom late into the night, and by the time I reached the final sentence, I was an official Sara Zarr fan. I read Sweethearts shortly after that, and I pre-ordered Once Was Lost in anticipation of its release in the fall of 2009. This last tale takes up the story of Samara Taylor, a small-town pastor’s kid whose wavering faith is pushed to the edge when a local girl is abducted and Sam’s life seems to fall crumbling around her. Her journey of faith and doubt struck an authentic chord with me, both as a pastor’s kid myself and as a person of faith. Something I find compelling in all three of Zarr’s novels is that none of the stories end in perfect resolution; instead, they’re left open-ended. Conceptually, this resonates not only with the genre of YA literature (because adolescence is nothing if not a journey), but also with the aspirations of faith as well. Once Was Lost, to me, seemed like the perfect intersection of both journeys. I had the privilege of interviewing Sara about her thoughts on this intersection as well as the relationship between faith
and art, and her answers can be found below. ______________________ While you don’t tackle religious faith as explicitly in your first two books as you do in OWL, related themes do show up. You deal with forgiveness and redemption in Story of a Girl and love and sacrifice in Sweethearts, but did you intentionally approach these themes from the perspective of faith? I didn’t, but my faith is so ingrained---it really is the filter through which I experience the world, and it can’t help but also be the filter through which I write. All writers have a worldview, whether that’s framed in religious faith or politics or a certain belief about human nature. I think that always comes through.
“I never wanted to wind up in a position where I was being asked to softpedal the adolescent experience, or feel like I had to clumsily bolt on some Christian message or moment of conversion if it wasn’t organic to the story.” Spring 2010
novel. There are so many expectations, and potential conflicts and misunderstandings, and meanwhile [there’s] this fairly big issue of God looming in the background or foreground. In the book, Sam struggles with a lot of questions that I have had or continue to have. All the basic stuff anyone from a Christian tradition deals with eventually---why is there suffering, why doesn’t God just come down and fix things, why don’t I feel God’s presence right now, are miracles real.
OWL is a complicated book, part coming-of-age, part suspenseful mystery, part family drama, and part faith journey. Did you plan to address faith/doubt from the outset, or did that grow out of the story itself? It grew out of the story itself. I started it while Elizabeth Smart was missing here in Salt Lake, and originally it was an adult novel told from multiple points of view. Once I decided to make it YA and settled on the pastor’s daughter as the narrator, it became more explicitly faith-oriented. Starting with a theme is rarely a good idea, in my opinion, because if you’re sure what you want to say you’re not as open to where the story might more naturally go in the process of writing. It becomes a struggle between what you wanted out of the story and what it wants to be. You don’t find many pastor’s kids as protagonists in mainstream young adult literature, let alone multi-dimensional, sympathetic pastor’s kids. Where did the idea to make Sam one come from? And is Sam’s faith journey at all reflective of your own? It’s been so long since I first started the book---I don’t remember how or why exactly Sam was a pastor’s kid. I was probably very influenced by the fact that I was working at a church at the time (as an administrative assistant), and thinking a lot about how the behind-the-scenes of church life (or “underbelly,” to put a darker spin on it) was a rich setting for a
The Williams Telos
Were you nervous at all about addressing the topic of religious faith in a book intended for general audiences, especially since it doesn’t fall into obvious patterns of wholly accepting or rejecting faith? A little. I knew I had an understanding editor who would help make sure I was hitting the right balance. Responses have been great, and it’s been my best-reviewed book so far, but I do think it can be a harder sell to readers. Unless you are looking for a book about a crisis of faith, it’s not the kind of plot that jumps out at you and sells itself, and I’m sure potential readers make assumptions about where the character will end up. But, I’ve never seriously considered writing for the Christian market so it was never a question of, “Will this be a ‘Christian book’ or a mainstream book dealing with faith issues?” I always knew it would be the latter. Speaking of which, the evangelical Christian subculture has produced its own version of the music, film, and book industries that come with their own expectations, requirements, and goals. When you started writing, did you make a conscious decision to write for general audiences rather than explicitly Christian ones? Yes. I’ve rarely encountered books, movies, or music created within the Christian subculture that meet the highest standards of craft (there are exceptions, of course). My feeling is, if you’re going to be a writer, be the best writer you can, and unfortunately it seems like there’s not the freedom to do that in Christian publishing the way there is in the general marketplace. I never wanted to wind up in a position where I was being asked to soft-pedal the adolescent experience, or feel like I had to clumsily bolt on some Christian message or moment of conversion if it wasn’t organic to the story. You also contributed a personal essay about community and your religious upbringing in a collection called Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical. What led you to contribute,
“... honoring your responsibility to the vocation...means doing it to the highest level of craft you possibly can, thoughtfully and intentionally, and telling the whole story, not just the pretty or uplifting parts.” and why do you think the book is an important one? When the editor of that collection, Hannah Notess, contacted me about the concept and about contributing, I jumped at it. My experiences growing up in the church were so formative in both positive and less positive ways. It was great to get the opportunity to explore that specifically with the editorial guidance of someone who understood. It’s a very good collection, and though the writers have lots of different perspectives, I feel like anyone who grew up in church can relate to all of them in some way.
the whole story, not just the pretty or uplifting parts. Everything sort of clicked into place for me then, as far as the relationship between my faith and my work. I’ve gone to the Glen Workshop just about every year since and have found a real community there who deal with all of these questions. Do you envision more openness in the future about depicting faith in young adult literature without dealing in caricature or pat answers? Why or why not? I’m hopeful for the future. The cultural landscape is always shifting, and though in some ways it’s more polarized now than it was twenty years ago, there is also this movement through Christendom of people like me who are seeking and finding a more integrated life. That is, wanting to bring all aspects of who they are and what they experience under God’s grace, instead of compartmentalizing and labeling. This movement is already trickling out into the arts, and I think it will continue to move into the YA world, too.
References Photo courtesy of Michael Schoenfeld.
Sara Zarr is the acclaimed author of three novels for young adults: Story of a Girl (National Book Award Finalist), Sweethearts (Cybil Award Finalist), and Once Was Lost Do you consider art to be vocational in any way—to use the fa- (a Kirkus Best Book of 2009). Her short fiction and essays miliar evangelical terminology, do you believe artists, or Christian have also appeared in Image, Hunger Mountain, and several artists, are “called” to something, anything? And/or do you feel you anthologies. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, and online at www.sarazarr.com. have any particular responsibility to your audience, your faith tradition, or God in your creative process? A turning point in my career was attending an arts and faith conference in 2002 (The Glen Workshop). I’d been writing about seven years with no tangible results, had just lost my agent and my job, and wondered if I was on the wrong path. The theme of that year’s conference was “Art as Vocation: The Voice of This Calling.” It was the right time for me to be hearing that yes, creative careers are a valid way to spend one’s life, that honoring your responsibility to the vocation (and to audiences, and to God) means doing it to the highest level of craft you possibly can, thoughtfully and intentionally, and telling
Stephanie H. Kim ’10 is an English major and Jewish Studies concentrator from Rockville, Md. She has just written a thesis about children’s literature.
Interview of YA author Sara Zarr