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January 23, 2008

Book Notes - Sara Zarr ("Sweethearts")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Sara Zarr is at the forefront of the renaissance in young adult fiction. Her first novel, Story of a Girl, was a finalist for a National Book Award last year. Zarr's sophomore book, the young adult novel Sweethearts just hit the bookstore shelves.

From child abuse to grade school bullies to high school cliques, Zarr paints a vivid and suspenseful portrait that centers on two friends. When Cameron disappears in second grade, Jennifer is told he died. Transforming herself from outcast Jennifer to popular Jenna, she is forced to confront her past when Cameron reappears during her senior year of high school. Tense, dark, and believable, Sweethearts is a wonderful book about being true to yourself and second chances.

In her own words, here is Sara Zarr's Book Notes essay for her young adult novel, Sweethearts:

Sweethearts is a novel about two teenagers---Jenna and Cameron---who are bonded in childhood by their mutual state of not belonging, and by a traumatic experience that they never tell anyone about. In fourth grade they lose touch. Years go by. Then Cameron shows up again during Jenna’s senior year high school, throwing her whole universe out of whack and forcing her to confront a past she’d prefer to not revisit. Meanwhile, their already intense connection is magnified by the fact that they’re nearly adults now…at least, no longer kids. Drama ensues.

The playlist I made during the writing of Sweethearts includes hundreds of songs that helped create the particular mood I wanted to get in whenever I sat down to work. Somewhere along the way, I realized my list was mostly love song. The book, however, is not a romance. During one of the last revisions I had an epiphany: that even though it was not a love story, it was a story about love. So it made sense that I was drawn to songs about love in various forms. The best ones have the common factor of being about something more complicated than romantic infatuation. Here are some of the favorites:

Aimee Mann – Invisible Ink

This is an all-time favorite song of mine, and really I could stick it in any of my book soundtracks and make it work---which is either a testament to the genius of her songwriting or a testament to how my same old personal issues turn up in every story I write. “I feel like a ghost who's trying to move your hands over some ouija board in the hopes I can spell out my name.” Who hasn’t felt like that? I just think the whole idea of invisible ink is the perfect metaphor for so much of interpersonal communication---how things get lost in translation, how when you think something is clear the other person might be completely missing it and there’s nothing you can do about that. And often it seems like the more you care about someone, the more difficult the communication can be. There are some scenes in the book with Jenna and Cameron trying to communicate important things, but their different perspectives and expectations and life circumstances make it a painful challenge.

(Actually, Aimee Mann’s whole Lost In Space album is a good exploration of “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”)

Guster - Satellite

This was coming up constantly on my Pandora station for awhile, almost to the point of annoyance, and one day I really listened to it and thought, yeah, that’s perfect. It describes so well the almost-romantic-but-not-really relationship between the two main characters and the connection they share. Musically, it has this circular feel that hints at the “this will never really be over” aspects to Jenna and Cameron’s story.

Brandi Carlile – Closer to You

The acoustic guitar riff/vamp of this song is kind of yearny and hopeful all at once, and there’s this great lyric: “Someday we might learn to tell the truth.” Going back to the communication thing, Jenna and Cameron talk around each other a lot in the book and don’t ever quite get to the point in a satisfying way. Also, Carlile’s voice in all its forceful confidence still manages to convey a sort of youthful insecurity that I like for the story.

Iron & Wine – Naked As We Came

Sure, the lyrics may be about a couple dying and ashes being spread around the yard, but there’s something about the chord progression and harmonies that resonate with any kind of love you’ve felt, whether it’s love for a lover or a friend or parent or sibling---anyone you would miss, including yourself. The missing of self, or a version of yourself, is an element to Jenna’s story in Sweethearts.

Sufjan Stevens – Casimir Pulaski Day

I think of this as the twin song of “Naked As We Came.” It tells a much more complicated story, but it’s got that same thing going on with simple progressions and harmonies that evoke the kind of emotional response you get when you are filled with such a mix of love and longing and regret and unfinished business that you don’t quite know what to do with it. Other than listen to this song. I first heard it when my favorite KRCL programmer played it during his show several years ago, and I haven’t gotten it out of my head since. It’s basically on every playlist of everything I write now. A number of other Sufjan songs figure largely in my writing process. He’s (usually) so restrained, musically, without sacrificing complexity---I aspire to write prose like that.

(KRCL is an amazing independent station here in Salt

Over the Rhine – Latter Days and Remind Us

From the opening lyric of Latter Days---“What a beautiful piece of heartache this has all turned out to be”---to that of Remind Us: “I don’t know where this is going. I’m taking a ride on a wing and a prayer. Follow me there. We’ll both be surprised,” Karin Bergquist’s vocals are soft and lovely and are perfectly complemented by Linford Detweiler’s piano. Both songs are just depressing enough and just hopeful enough to be satisfying, which is a balance I also look for (and try to give) in a reading experience.

Last but not least: Snow Patrol - Eyes Open album

Okay, I know that many people would probably be happy to never hear Chasing Cars on the radio again, but in context it still works for me. This album as a whole is sweepingly melodramatic, overwrought in the best way, and brimming with a story about two people who care for each other but won’t ever really work as a couple. In other words, perfect for this teenage love story that isn’t a romance.

Sara Zarr and Sweethearts links:

the author's website
the book's page at the publisher
the author's MySpace page

Cynsations interview with the author
Debbi Michiko Florence interview with the author
Debut Author Interviews interview with the author
Deseret Morning News profile of the author
The Eagle and Child interview with the author
The Edge of the Forest interview with the author
Growing Up Churched interview with the author
Hello Ma'am interview with the author
interactivereader interview with the author
The Motivated Writer interview with the author
Mr. Media interview with the author
National Book Foundation interview with the author
Not Your Mother's Bookclub interview with the author
School Library Journal interview with the author
Teens Read Too interview with the author
YA Fresh interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)