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Interview: January 2011

January 2011

Sara Zarr is the critically acclaimed author of three novels, including ONCE WAS LOST, the riveting tale of a girl whose world turns upside down when her mom lands in rehab and someone in her dad’s congregation disappears, creating a series of heartbreaking tragedies that threaten to unravel her faith forever.

In this interview with’s Chris Shanley-Dillman, Zarr sheds light on the real-life events that inspired her latest novel, which is now available in paperback. She also discusses how alcoholism and depression have affected her own life, gives tips on the best ways to follow your dreams, and offers advice to readers who might sometimes feel like they’re stuck in Samara Taylor’s shoes. ONCE WAS LOST is an amazing story filled with the raw emotions of struggling with faith, depression, alcoholism, infidelity, and the pressure of living up to a certain image. It takes quite a different direction from your first two books, SWEETHEARTS and STORY OF A GIRL, even including a bit of mystery. What was your inspiration for your third novel?

Sara Zarr: I first got the idea for the story when a girl in my neighborhood, Elizabeth Smart, went missing. It was such a strange and sad time for Salt Lake City, and I was going through a crisis of faith myself, and it all sort of converged in my imagination in a way that eventually resulted in the story of ONCE WAS LOST.

TRC: The story takes place in a very dry, hot climate, where Samara Taylor’s backyard is drying up and dying. Please explain the symbolism of this setting.

SZ: The summer that Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped felt oppressively hot to me. I don't know if it really was hotter than usual, or if my perception of it was different because of what I was going through. From the very first draft, the story started with a description of the heat, because I felt like that helped create that sense of desolation --- both in the natural world and in Sam's life. It also creates a sense of thirst, I think --- a longing for relief from all of the things that are going wrong.

TRC: Of Sam’s immediate role models --- her preacher father, her alcoholic mother, and the young and energetic youth group leader, Erin --- all have managed to fail her in some way. How has this shaped Sam’s character?

SZ: All of my books could be described as "coming-of-age" stories. And one common experience of growing up is the realization that the adults in your life don't exist only for you. That is, there comes a point you realize that your mother, for example, is not only your mother --- someone whose sole activity in life is and always has been taking care of your family. She's also a woman with her own history, problems, needs, desires, lost and found dreams, etc., which have nothing to do with you. The same goes for fathers too, of course, as well as teachers and other role models. It just happens in this story that those realizations come at a profoundly bad time for Sam, when she needs her parents most. So that contributes to her sense of hopelessness and confusion.

TRC: You delve into the subjects of alcoholism and depression with grace, understanding and realism. What is your experience, if any, with these illnesses?

SZ: There is alcoholism and depression on both sides of my family tree. They are related, of course --- addicts are generally self-medicating depression and/or anxiety. The biochemical effects of addiction make the depression and anxiety worse, and it becomes this terrible cycle that's hard to get out of. Low-grade depression is something that sort of comes and goes for me, too, so I have a lot of compassion for those who struggle with it.

TRC: Why did you choose to give the kidnapper such a small part in the novel?

SZ: I didn't want the story to be about the kidnapping. In earlier drafts, there was more about the mystery and the investigation. It was too much, and it took away from the time I wanted to spend getting into Sam's internal battle.

TRC: Some preachers’ kids act out and rebel to dispel the expected perfect image, but Sam internalizes this pressure. Why does she do this to herself?

SZ: It's just her personality, I think. She is a quiet person, used to keeping secrets. She doesn't want to bring any shame or embarrassment to her family. The ways that she does act out seem small, but for her, they are big.

TRC: Sam is having trouble with her faith and suffering from depression, yet can’t confide in her father, mother, or youth group leader. What advice can you offer to someone with similar problems?

SZ: I don't feel qualified to give advice, honestly, but I guess the most important thing is to know that it's okay. Whatever it is you’re dealing with --- doubt, depression, or disappointment --- it's normal, and it's not a sign that you're a bad person or permanently screwed up. You're not alone, and eventually you'll find people who understand what you're going through. Sometimes you have to wait awhile, but they will come.

TRC: You have quite a talent with words and creating characters with depth and realness. How did you hone these talents?

SZ: First, thank you. Second: practice, practice, practice! Through lots of trial and error; through failure, despair and rejection. And hard work. Writing is hard work, though it seems that some people expect to be able to sit down and write a great book at the first try, and they think that if they fail at that, they aren't meant to be writers. Maybe it comes easy for some people, but not for me. I practiced for about 10 years before I had my first book published. And it's still hard work for me to get that depth that I want out of what I'm doing.

TRC: Becoming a published writer is a lofty goal. What advice can you offer to readers in accomplishing their own goals?

SZ: I'm probably one of those people who believe that anything you want to do well is going to require the kind of hard work and perseverance I describe above. If you really want something, but find yourself faltering when it's time to do the work, sometimes you have to think of the big picture and ask yourself some hard questions. What am I willing to give up in order to accomplish this? How patient am I willing to be? How comfortable am I with risk, or with the idea of failure? I find that the path to success is at least partially paved by failure. So you sort of have to learn not to see failure along the way as a negative, or as a sign that you should stop. It's just part of the process, whatever you're doing.

The gym where I work out is the training center for several competitive figure skaters. I can see the ice rink from the treadmills and watch them practice their jumps. Guess what? They all fall. Every day, they fall. And they don't say, "Forget it, I'm not going to compete if I might fall in front of people."

TRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

SZ: I just started a new book on January 1st. That will be a long way off. In the meantime, readers can look for my fourth book, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE, which will be out in about a year. It's about two girls, Mandy and Jill, whose worlds collide when Jill's mom decides to adopt Mandy's baby.