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Interview: June 2009

June 2009

In this interview with's Sarah A. Wood, Sarah Ockler discusses the true stories behind both the title and plot of her debut novel, TWENTY BOY SUMMER, and elaborates on some of its major themes, like friendship, honesty, peer pressure and keeping secrets. She also muses on why it's sometimes easier to trust strangers more than best friends, provides information on an organization near and dear to her heart, and shares details about her upcoming book, FIXING DELILAH HANNAFORD, which is due out next summer. TWENTY BOY SUMMER is an intensely personal novel. To what extent is it based on your own experiences? What inspired you to write this book?
Sarah Ockler: The title itself is the only thing based on personal experiences. :-) When I was 15, my best friend and I decided to hold a contest to see who could kiss the most boys that summer. When we tallied it all up, I was ahead, 20 to 17. That summer was forever known as my summer of twenty boys! However, my summer wasn't nearly as intense as Anna and Frankie's.

On a much more serious note, the story for TWENTY BOY SUMMER was inspired by my previous work with the National Donor Family Council, an organization that supports families whose loved ones died and donated organ or tissues. I met many grieving teens through the Council's programs and events, and I was always so awed and inspired by them. I never forgot them. When I set out to write my first novel, I knew that I wanted to share a small piece of their stories, their courage, and ultimately, their hope.

TRC: This is a novel about keeping secrets. The book begins with two of the characters hiding their relationship from a third. Are they protecting the third character, or are they protecting themselves? When should secrets be kept? When should secrets be told? Did you know you were writing a book about secrets from the beginning?
SO: Anna didn't want to keep her relationship with Matt secret, but Matt wanted to be the one to tell his sister. He thought he was protecting Frankie that way, and eventually, Anna agreed. But after he died, Anna was left without any guidance or instruction on his final wishes. She could only hold on to her last promise to Matt, which was to keep their brief but intense relationship secret. Ultimately, she was protecting herself, but that wasn't her intent. She believed she was doing the right thing; that knowing the secret would hurt and alienate Frankie at a time when Matt's death had already left her so battered and lost. If I were in Anna's position, I might have kept the same secret.

When I first began work on TWENTY BOY SUMMER, I didn't know that I was writing about secrets, but those layers developed organically as the characters started to interact, almost on their own. I let the story unfold, and those secrets wanted to be there.

TRC: Anna and her best friend Frankie are fixated on finding a summer romance. Frankie comes up with the idea of meeting 20 boys on their vacation. Do you have any advice for readers who might be looking for their own summer romance?
SO: My only advice for anyone looking for a summer romance is to follow your heart first, but don't ignore your head. :-) Summer romances can be fun and lighthearted, or they might become more intense and serious. Either way, it's important to know what you're getting into, and to be smart and safe.
TRC: Frankie is always pressuring Anna about what to wear and how to behave. Anna feels like Frankie’s behavior is a little out of control, but lets Frankie call the shots. At the end of the book, we discover that Frankie hasn’t been entirely forthright about her experiences. What would you tell readers who might be struggling with similar kinds of peer pressure?
SO: Ultimately, we have to be true to ourselves. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. While some kinds of pressure may be harmless, such as Frankie helping Anna pick out her outfits and accessories, if it makes us feel uncomfortable or judged or looked down upon, it's not healthy, and that person is probably not a good friend. When I'm feeling this sort of pressure from a friend or family member, I try to tell them how I feel and figure out where the pressure is coming from or why they feel the need to exert it. If I can't speak my mind in this kind of situation, than the person is probably not my friend. It's hard to come to terms with that sometimes, and it takes a lot of courage to walk away from a negative or even abusive situation, but again, we have to be true and good to ourselves. It takes Anna and Frankie both the entire summer to just start to figure this out.
TRC: Anna uses her journal as a place to keep her secrets. She carries it with her everywhere. Her journal also exposes her to the risk of discovery. Do you keep a journal? Did anyone discover your secrets by reading it? What would you recommend to readers who might keep sensitive information in journals of their own?
SO: I started keeping journals in high school, but someone read one of them my senior year and it really devastated me. Soon after, I let someone else convince me to throw them all away. I still kick myself for that one! It took a long time for me to be able to journal again, and now I do keep one, though not as regularly as I'd like. I had to struggle with the fear that someone would read it again and judge me. So for anyone who keeps a journal, my advice is to keep it in a very safe, secure place, even if you totally trust the people who might have access to it. If you keep an online or computer journal that you don't want to share, password protect it! And remember, if a loved one thinks you are in danger, he or she might read your journal out of love and concern. It doesn't make it any easier, but it's something to keep in mind.
TRC: TWENTY BOY SUMMER is also about the different ways people deal with death and grieving. Anna clams up about it and writes in her journal. Frankie becomes very flamboyant and spends a lot of time acting out. Her mother becomes obsessed with redecorating the house. None of them really seem to be able to communicate with each other about a loss they all share. Anna is always commenting on how grief has made her an outsider, that people back away when they hear about her loss, and that everyone treats her like her mourning has gone on too long. What advice would you give to someone who is dealing with a significant loss? Is there any right or wrong way to deal with grief?
SO: I don't feel like I can well advise anyone dealing with a loss as deep and tragic as the death of a loved one or close friend, because everyone's grief is so different and personal. But I do think it's important to know that you're not alone and that it's okay to talk about and remember the person you've lost for... well, for always. There are no time limits on grief and the "appropriate" time for moving on simply doesn't exist.
TRC: Anna and Frankie spend a big portion of the novel lying to Frankie’s parents and sneaking around. They never get caught, though I suspect that Frankie’s parents might know more than they are letting on. Do you have any stories from your past about lying to your parents or sneaking out? Did you get caught?
SO: Let's just say that I gave my parents a run for their money, and they can't wait for me to have children to see if it's true that what goes around comes around.
TRC: One of the major themes of TWENTY BOY SUMMER is honesty. Characters in the book have a lot they aren’t telling each other. Is there a difference between keeping a secret and lying?
SO: I think the line between keeping a secret and telling a lie is a fine one, but it's still there. Like Anna in TWENTY BOY SUMMER, lots of secrets are kept out of the desire to protect someone we love. Lying is more intentional and active, because we have to actually work to invent that lie. Ultimately, Anna and Frankie both keep lots of secrets and tell lots of lies to themselves and each other. Figuring out that line between secrets and lies, and harming and protecting is something both girls struggle with in the aftermath of Matt's death and throughout their summer vacation.
TRC: One of the things I really love about TWENTY BOY SUMMER is the friendship between Frankie and Anna. You go a great job portraying the lifelong bond they have, in addition to the ways in which they’ve grown apart. Could you tell us about an influential friendship in your life? Do you have any advice on building stronger friendships?
SO: My absolute best friend in the whole universe is my husband, Alex. Our friendship is the foundation of our relationship and is always there no matter what else is going on. He's my friend because he knows me, flaws and all, and he doesn't judge me. At the same time, he doesn't let me get away with negative behavior or self-destruction, either. He is the gold standard to which I hold all other friends in my life, and not everyone measures up. Sometimes people feel like friends on the surface because they're great commiserators, or because they agree with everything we say, or because they're always ready for a good time to help us forget a tough situation. But a true friend is someone we might really butt heads with! Someone who might be ready to *stop* the good time if it's harmful or tell us when we're being ridiculous or destructive. These people are hard to find. Friendships, like any relationships, take work, and you have to be willing to put in the effort and grow together if you want those friendships to strengthen and last.
TRC: I also really liked Sam and Jake, the boys the girls end up meeting. Sam turns out to be a really healing relationship for Anna. He also provides a kind of safe harbor for Anna and her secrets. Why is it that strangers can be easier to trust than people we already know?
SO: I think we can approach strangers with a clean slate. They don't know our history, our past mistakes, our flaws. Our potential in their eyes is infinite, and theirs in ours. Like Anna and Frankie experience in California, in a new place, we can be anyone we want. For the girls in TWENTY BOY SUMMER, that meant people could see them as two teen girls on a fun vacation rather than "the girl with the dead brother and their best friend."
TRC: Toward the end of TWENTY BOY SUMMER Anna realizes she’s not the only person who has secrets. To what extent is this realization a part of growing up?
SO: It's always tough to realize that we don't know everything we think we know, especially when it comes to friends and family. Anna thought she had Frankie all figured out, and it was hard for her to discover just how much she *didn't* know about her best friend. I think that's a huge part of growing up --- figuring out that we don't always have the answers --- that there's always something more to learn or explore about others and about ourselves.   
TRC: In your acknowledgements you thank “donor families” and mention that they are the inspiration for your book. I’m assuming this refers to organ donors. The donation of Matt's organs is mentioned just briefly in the book. Is there anything you would like to say about this issue or resources toward which you would like to point readers?
SO: Organ and tissue donation is an important cause in my life, as my 25-year-old brother Scott received a liver transplant when he was just four years old. Readers might recognize Scott as "Scotty O," the drummer for the band Helicopter Pilot featured throughout TWENTY BOY SUMMER. Scott really is a drummer, and HP was his Buffalo-area band.

If not for the generosity of my brother's donor family, he wouldn't be alive today. My work with the National Donor Family Council was my way of thanking that anonymous family, and I hope that TWENTY BOY SUMMER honors all donor families and their donor loved ones through Anna, Frankie, and Matt's story.  

Readers who want to learn more about donation can check out my recent blog post on this issue, including donation and transplant resources, here:

TRC: This is the first novel you’ve had published. Is it also the first book you’ve written? Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
SO: Technically, I wrote my very first book in 1st grade after seeing the movie E.T. It was kind of like the condensed version of Spielberg’s creation! But TWENTY BOY SUMMER is the first book I've written as a person capable of writing complete sentences and overcoming grammatical challenges. Currently, I'm working on revisions for my second novel, FIXING DELILAH HANNAFORD (Summer 2010 - Little, Brown), and developing a third. FIXING DELILAH HANNAFORD is about a girl coming to terms with three generations of family secrets and how those secrets have affected the women in her family and her own sense of belonging.