Monday, December 7, 2009

Once Was Lost (an Interview with Sara Zarr)

"Samara Taylor used to believe in miracles.

She used to believe in a lot of things.

But where there was once faith...
there are now only questions."

Sara Zarr's "Once Was Lost" (Published by Little, Brown in October 2009) is the entwining of a personal crisis of faith and a community's shared crisis - a missing teenage girl. Sam, the main character, feels abandoned - left behind by her mom, who is doing a stint in a rehab unit, and emotionally abandoned by her pastor father. And the faith that used to come so easily? It seems to be lost, too.

Sara recently agreed to answer a few questions for me (even though she's officially on a blog-vacation), so you could all see a little behind the scenes of her book and her world. Awesome, right?

Here goes:
Becca: I want to be really nosy and ask you how this book reflects some of your personal faith. How do you tap into your faith to carry you through your own struggles? Are you a reader? A pray-er? A counselor?

Sara: I don't have a ritual or routine related my faith or religious practice. Generally, the way my faith carries me through goes something like this: I go through an independent, self-sufficient stage, mostly ignoring my spiritual practices; life gets harder to manage; I hit a wall/have a crisis/sink into despair; I return to my spiritual practices, find a state of relative peace and think, "Oh yeah, why did I neglect this for so long?". I stick with it awhile, feel better, and go back to stage one. Et cetera. My goal for growth is to learn to not wait for despair before returning to my faith, but I seem to have not figured that out yet.

Becca: That sounds incredibly familiar. I think that sort of cycle is universal, until we may someday achieve that sort of mental/spiritual/emotional growth that we all strive for. So now, I want to know which of the characters you identify with most. I have an assumption, having followed your blog for quite a while - but do you appear anywhere in this book?

Sara: Not to be cryptic, but I appear everywhere in all my books. For me, it's necessary to identify with every character in some way. Otherwise, I can't do them justice and make them live on the page. So of course I identify very much with the narrator, Sam---especially her frustration with and anger at God or at what she's grown up believing about God. I also identify with Erin, the youth group leader, though maybe that's more about her backstory that's not part of this novel. Sam's dad, too, is someone I understand. There is a lot of pressure on him to be all things to all people, and in trying to juggle that he's bound to drop something. As a classic people-pleaser, I get that.

Becca: (Is anyone surprised that I connect with this woman? I've already embroidered that last couple sentences on a pillow and printed in in vinyl letters for my bathroom wall. Okay. That was a lie, but you know what I mean.) Sam's view of the world (and of God) shifts in this book. Do you think she's settled? Or will her views continue to change? (Not to sound like I think your characters are alive in a weird, creepy way...)

Sara: Ha - I understand. They are alive to me and, I hope, to the reader. I do picture the characters moving forward in their lives without my help. Sam's view changes, but subtly, and I don't think she's settled. I don't think any of us are ever settled, and definitely not at age fifteen. Young adult fiction is so much about firsts. This is about another first---a first crisis of faith, a first dark night of the soul. I'm sure there are more ahead. In my books, change tends to come in tiny but significant movements rather than in big dramatic epiphanies. I think life is made up of those tiny changes by degree.

Becca: (Because I can't help it, this has to be a little about me...) I grew up as a non-Catholic kid in a very Catholic town, and I understand what it means to be "other". You have written about being an "other" in a fairly Mormon city. Does that distinction affect your worship? Your writing? Your politics? Your passions?

Sara: Where you live affects everything. Moving to Utah from San Francisco was definitely a big change, but it's been good in that it makes me think more specifically about what I believe, and I'm constantly being confronted by some of the assumptions and I make about others and the stereotypes I buy into. I have a lot of LDS friends now and know you can never say, "Mormons think X, Mormons believe Y." My politics are the same but the context puts me on different places on the spectrum. In San Francisco my politics seemed a little more conservative, but put the exact same politics in Utah and suddenly I'm aware that many here would describe me as a liberal. Labels are popular here, and I resist them more than ever.

Becca: I understand. Labels are dangerous - once I said on your blog something like a label is never enough, and sometimes too much. But I feel inclined to label myself sometimes. Maybe it's a way to ground (attach) myself to something. But, you know, back to you... Now that the book is finished and out there in the hands of readers, what are you working on? Do you take a break when a book is finished, or do you work every day?

Sara: I'm working on another YA novel for Little, Brown. If I feel like I need a break, I take one, but generally the break I need isn't from writing itself, more from the career end of being published...the being "on," being public, reading reviews, the editorial process. Writing a new book and being in that stage when I'm the only one who knows what it is, the only one who sees it, is enough of a break. And right now I'm on hiatus from social networking, blog reading, industry news, and all of that, and enjoying it immensely. I've been traveling a lot since September and didn't get much work done other than promoting Once Was Lost, so now that I'm home I try to work every weekday.

Becca: (Isn't she an inspiration?) Thanks a ton for taking time to answer these questions, for being approachable. I appreciate the beautiful thing you've created. Thanks for sharing it with us!

Sara: Thanks for having me!

(Applause, Applause)

And when you're ready to get to know Sara, be sure to read this post. When I did, I loved her even more.


  1. Fun! Yet another place from whence to draw inspiration...

  2. This interview has me deeply intrigued about the book. Perhaps because faith is something so universal, and the struggle with faith, I'm that much more curious. Thanks for the excellent interview Becca and Sara!


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