Over 23 years, Chapel Hill author Sarah Dessen has published 14 novels for young adults.
As her books have become best-sellers, she has become a teen icon in the literary world, as well as online, where her 265,000-plus Twitter followers read her musings on writing, politics and pop culture (especially “Gilmore Girls”).
Dessen, who will turn 49 next month, has racked up plenty of awards, too. Among them is the prestigious Margaret A. Edwards Award, an honor she received in 2017. The award recognizes an author’s contributions to young adult literature, according to the Young Adult Library Services Association.
Dessen is back with a new book — her 14th — “The Rest of the Story,” and it’s generating buzz among those who look forward to Dessen’s summer-friendly fare. The book will be released June 4, and she’ll embark on a national book tour that brings her home to Chapel Hill’s Flyleaf Books June 9 and then Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on June 26.
To top it off, Netflix announced Thursday that it will turn three of her books into films, starting with 2009’s “Along for the Ride,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. “This Lullaby” (2002) and “Once and For All” (2017) are the other titles optioned by the online streaming service.
We caught up with Dessen, a graduate of UNC, to ask about her two decades as an author, her book and why it’s important for her to engage with her fans on social media.
“I waited tables and then I taught at UNC so I was used to having a social network,” she said in a phone interview with The News & Observer. “With writing you’re all by yourself and isolated. You can go crazy as a writer being alone.”
As Dessen has recently encountered major changes, so has her writing. She announced on her blog in November that she would switch to Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, after 20 years with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books for Young Readers. Along with the move to a new publishing house came a new editor, a situation she compares to living in the same hometown as your parents, though not in the same house.
“It’s hard to be a grown-up when your parents are around all the time,” Dessen said. “Sometimes you just need to get away from the place you’ve come from. When I started with Penguin, I was a 26-year-old waitress at the Flying Burrito restaurant. Now I’m 48-year-old mom with 14 books under my belt and an 11 year-old-child. It was hard for me to see myself as the writer I was when I started and the writer I am now.”
Having a new editor is like working with a new trainer, Dessen said, adding that she “put me through my paces and kind of kicked my butt a little bit so I feel like I’m in better writing shape.”
In “The Rest of the Story,” the heroine, Emma Saylor, is in a new setting and facing new territory. So is Dessen.
“At the age I am now, I’m ready to tackle some stuff that maybe I wasn’t ready to tackle before,” she said.
While many of her previous titles dealt with mother-daughter relationships, “The Rest of the Story” focuses only on the daughter.
“When you’re a teen or even a young adult, your story is hinged on your parents’ story and how they shape and are a part of your story,” Dessen said. “But the rest of the story is your story. There can be echoes of your parents, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be their story. This is more Saylor’s story than her mom’s.”
In the novel, Emma Saylor’s mother was a drug addict who died when Emma was 12. But they had been estranged long before that. At 17, there’s a sudden twist in Emma’s life, and she is stuck in a situation where she has no place to go.
A sense of place
Emma Saylor’s father decides to take her to North Lake, her mother’s childhood home. North Lake has a strong sense of place — the element that launched the book.
Dessen was traveling to Europe for the first time since she was 12 and realized she was homesick for “these little North Carolina things that I didn’t expect to make me homesick.”
“I was thinking about driving to the beach in the summer, the cotton fields in the fall, and these little Eastern North Carolina towns,” she said.
She realized how these small things added up to “become a big part of me.”
The North Lake community also was inspired by a recent trip to White Lake, which Dessen declares is an “undiscovered treasure of North Carolina.” The “topography of the people“ in White Lake is being changed by gentrification. Like the locale in her book, these changes have “sparked cultures and classes colliding,” Dessen said.
Dessen sees a connection between a place and its people. Like Emma Saylor, Dessen has a daily practice of reading the obituaries. In part, she feels like she owes it to “the people of my state.” She said she also feels reassured when she reads about “Miss Ellie May, who died at 97 surrounded by her family.”
“I feel the world is good if someone lives that long in that way,” Dessen said.
When it comes to family, Emma is unlike Dessen. The character has grown up knowing only her father and grandmother. In North Lake, Emma Saylor discovers a family much like Dessen’s. Dessen has hundreds of cousins, another theme that was incorporated into “The Rest of the Story.” The YA author wondered what her life would have been like if she hadn’t been raised in what she calls a “tribe.”
Even though much of the story is about finding family love, Dessen’s fans count on her for romance. “The Rest of the Story” won’t let them down. Emma Saylor finds a loving and lovely first relationship at North Lake with a boy she’s all but forgotten, but who was her best friend when they were young.
YA genre grows
Dessen has watched the field of Young Adult literature change since her first novel, “That Summer,” was published in 1996. For one thing, there weren’t YA sections in bookstores, and if they were there, they didn’t carry the breadth of young adult books that have populated the literary world.
“There was my book and then Strawberry Shortcake books and ‘Goodnight Moon,’” Dessen said. ”Now we have a specific paranormal teen romance section.”
The diversity of voices in those books has increased, Dessen said, including many more books with LGBTQ characters and people of color. Dessen said young adults need to read about as many experiences as possible. For Dessen, reading saved her life in high school, she said.
“And I was not even struggling the way many young people are,” Dessen said.
Dessen wants to show the world as it really is, but is conscientious about the characters she develops. In today’s YA world, she faces a common struggle of balancing her own identity while seeking to incorporate other perspectives.
In “The Rest of the Story,” she writes a small scene about a gay relationship involving Emma Saylor’s best friend. While the scene is short, Dessen and her editor worked hard to hit the right note. Dessen describes this as “finding your lane,” a way to represent other people without overstepping.
Dessen has adapted to her readers as the years have passed. She started incorporating texting in her novels because that’s how teens communicate. She said she can’t fathom what it would have been like for her in high school — she attended Chapel Hill High School — if social media existed.
“I was in so much trouble and would have been in so much more if things were documented,” she said. “It was all happening off screen.”
Sarah Dessen’s Favorite Places
A sense of place is important to Sarah Dessen, particularly in “The Rest of the Story,” and is connected to the people who live there. Dessen lives in Chapel Hill with her family, and we asked her about some of her favorite places.
For books: Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh
For a coffee shop experience: Panera on Franklin Street. “There’s a whole class of senior citizens every morning who know my mother and always ask, ‘How’s the writing going?’” Dessen says.
To eat: Lantern and Al’s Burger Shack, both ends of the spectrum in Chapel Hill
For eating with the family: Elmo’s Diner
For barbecue: Bullock’s BBQ. “They catered my wedding,” Dessen said. “I had to explain to northerners that barbecue was a noun.”
For cupcakes: Cafe Carolina. “They have cupcake where the cake and icing are equally good. Usually it’s one or the other with a cupcake.”
For falling in love: Franklin Street. “I fell in love there many times when I was a teenager,” she said.
For a travel destination: Emerald Isle
For finding community: A UNC basketball game. “You can hate those who root for the other team for the basketball season and then love them the other seven months of the year,” she said.
She will talk about her book at the following events:
▪ June 9, 3 p.m.: Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill
▪ June 26, 7 p.m. Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh, in North Hills