Interview: Sara Zarr on YA Fiction and adolescence as a crisis of faith

Sara Zarr

We're very pleased to present an interview with YA Novelist Sara Zarr. From her website:

Sara Zarr is the acclaimed author of five novels for young adults, including The Lucy Variations, published in May 2013. She’s a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner. Her books have been variously named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, the Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library and Los Angeles Public Library, and have been translated into many languages. In 2010, she served as a judge for the National Book Award. She has written essays and creative nonfiction for ImageHunger Mountain online, and Response as well as for several anthologies, and has been a regular contributor to Image‘s daily Good Letters blog on faith, life, and culture. As of summer 2013, she’s a member of the faculty of Lesley University’s Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Born in Cleveland and raised in San Francisco, she currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, and online at

First of all, tell us a little bit about writing for Young Adults. Did you decide to write for this audience, or did the stories find you first and seem to fit best under that general designation?

I always say that I didn’t choose YA so much as YA chose me. When I first started writing (in my twenties), the story ideas all featured teenagers in the leading roles, and YA was sort of my natural writing voice. Now I’m in my forties and have more ideas that involve adult characters, though I’m still very in touch with my YA voice.

What do you like about writing Young Adult fiction?

Aside from the fact that it’s just “who I am” as a writer: I like that you have characters experiencing things for the first time, which allows you to approach life and emotional experiences without the layers of cynicism and weariness we accumulate in adulthood. I like the immediacy of it. I like that you’re allowed to be sincere in telling these stories in a way that you don’t see nearly as much in adult fiction.

We’ve learned the basics of your biography from your website, but tell us a little bit about your faith background. Where did you start, and where are you now? And can you tell us how you got from point A to point B?

I started in the San Francisco Jesus Movement of the 1970s during my childhood, a fascinating combination of end-times theology and hippies with guitars.

Where I am now? I’m not quite sure. I belong to a small Presbyterian church where I feel like people are encouraged to ask and explore difficult questions rather than arrive at the comfort of answers.

Sometimes my worldview is as simple as “there is a divine creative force and there is meaning in life.” Sometimes it’s that plus the central tenets of the gospel. Sometimes I can be very engaged and excited by the more complicated particularities of orthodox theology; Paul’s letters are sort of endless fodder for deep thought. Sometimes I read the bible—especially the Old Testament—and feel filled with a kind of rage and want to dash it all against the wall and run away. Sometimes I feel deeply spiritually connected and sometimes I go weeks without a thought deeper than what I’m going to get done in a day.

So “where I am” varies, obviously! I expect it will continue to do so throughout my life. I’ve never been one to arrive at a conclusion and stay there for long.

I heard an interview with you when What We Lost first came out (and was still titled Once Was Lost) in which you said “All YA novels are about a crisis of faith.” Can you say a bit more about that?

It’s been awhile, but I probably meant that the transition from childhood to adulthood that is adolescence is itself a crisis of faith. In childhood, ideally and hopefully you have faith in your parents, in the safety of home, the basic goodness of people, of love and security. If not those things, at least in a somewhat simple version of what you observe and experience. In adolescence you start generally start to understand the world as a little more complicated than you thought. You are exposed to other people’s beliefs or disbeliefs and suffering. You often have a change or several changes of identities. Sometimes this change is profound, sometimes it’s subtle. In any case, all of those various faiths are challenged, whatever they are, and that’s as it should be. That’s part of the job of being a teenager. Breaking away from the dependent identity of childhood to the independent or interdependent state of entering adulthood.

There’s a devastating description in What We Lost about a poster in the Youth Group room:

The poster – now kind of curling and dusty – shows a bunch of multicultural-looking teens in fashions from five years ago, falling all over each other on comfy couches, big smiles on their fresh faces, surrounded by pillows. One of them holds a Bible and a notebook in his lap. On the bottom of the poster are big yellow capital letters:


Don’t forget the exclamation point. Everything for The Youth has exclamation points.

At CnC, we call this “Cap’n Billy’s School of Christian Goodness” (a phrase you are welcome to use any time). My question is this, though: Have you heard from any church leaders who have seen themselves in this description? How did they respond? And have you donated all your old furniture to The Youth?

Ha! I don’t think I’ve ever donated anything to The Youth, except maybe books. I’ve heard from a few pastors and people in church ministry who confess to seeing themselves in Sam’s dad, Charlie, especially in terms of how their families kept winding up at the bottom of the priority list no matter how hard they tried to not let that happen. It’s hard. It can be a strange job without clear boundaries.

One of the things I loved about your most recent book The Lucy Variations is that Lucy needs to figure out whether or not she is going to play piano for herself and her own reasons: neither in reaction to the pressure from her family, nor to please someone she likes. And it’s not easy. Did you know while you were writing what Lucy’s decision was going to be? And what insights do you have for parents or other adults who worry about whether or not youth are going to make the right (or “right”) decision?

Lucy’s struggle with the piano was mostly a metaphor for my own relationship with writing at the time I was working on that book. I didn’t consciously know what Lucy was going to decide, but since I was working out my own issues with writing by writing, maybe it should have been obvious what she would choose!

As far as insight, all I can say is that I think Christian people can get very tangled up in this idea of choosing paths. In college, I remember friends really agonizing over this decision vs. that decision and the fear of winding up “outside of God’s will.” I mean, you can paralyze yourself all day every day by worrying over whether or not you took a wrong turn back in 1998 or whatever and wondering if that’s the source of all your current drama. But the more life experience I’ve gained, the more I think things just tend to work out if you’ve got a strong sense of yourself and have developed inner resources and resiliency. I think those things come when we learn how to think, we learn how to listen, we learn compassion for ourselves and others, we understand boundaries, and we believe in and assume the worth we have as human beings created in God’s image (and also understand that applies to everyone around us, not just ourselves, and not just the people who believe the way we do). If we practice that stuff, I really believe that the details tend to work out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seemed to take a “wrong” turn! And in nearly every case, I can look back and see how that went into the soil where something necessary has grown.

What do you hear from youth themselves? How does what you say about youth group and making choices resonate? Can you give us a report from the field? What are they saying about us well-meaning mentor types?

I’ve gotten some very heartfelt responses to What We Lost as well as the others books, and no one has sounded bitter even if they have their complaints. I think teens understand that the mentor-types are generally doing their best, and frustration just comes when there’s a sense of questions or fears or confusion being dismissed, or a sense of being told what to think rather than asked, “What do you think?”

Finally, what YA novels do you think youth ministers and other people who work with youth should read, and why?

Hm, great question! Rather than name specific titles, I think I’d just say – notice what the teens in your life are reading and connecting with and ask why? Ask “the youth” for book recommendations, then actually read one of those books with an open mind and talk about it without an agenda of “Here’s why you’re wrong!, without freaking out, without going on a crusade to remove that book from the school library. I’m sure many of your readers already do this, but if not, maybe just try to see the books and other art the kids are connecting to as a way to get to know them and their experiences better, rather than evidence of cultural moral decline.

It’s sort of the job and destiny of youth culture to be misunderstood by adults—but maybe in some mysterious way that could be a connecting point rather than a dividing one.