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October 8, 2009

Book Notes - Sara Zarr ("Once Was Lost")

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

Once Was Lost focuses on Samara, whose crisis of faith is enhanced by her alcoholic mother, aloof pastor father and the disappearance of another local teenage girl. Sara Zarr has a gift for building tension through her narrative, and this talent shines though in Once Was Lost.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Beyond delivering a gripping story, Zarr has a knack for exposing human weakness in the ordinary."

In her own words, here is Sara Zarr's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Once Was Lost:

I started writing Once Was Lost back in 2002, when a teen named Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped, more or less from my neighborhood. (I'm sure most adults will remember this story, which is in the news again lately as the kidnapper's trial drags on.) At first, it was an adult book written from multiple points of view, kind of a Tom Perrotta-life-in-the-neighborhood plus a crime novel. All of the narrators had some connection, direct or peripheral, to a missing girl. When my career writing young adult fiction took off, I knew I'd be reshaping what I had into that format and went to a single narrator---Samara, the daughter of the pastor of the church that the missing girl's family attends. (By the way, later, Stuart O'Nan did a fine job with exactly the kind of book I initially wanted to write--Songs for the Missing. Another favorite adult novel with a missing child as part of the backdrop is Frederick Busch's Girls.)

Some people hear the title Once Was Lost and immediately make the connection to the Christian hymn "Amazing Grace," from which that line is taken. Others don't have any background in church and therefore may worry that this book isn't for them. I'll just say that though the particular details involve church and religious faith, that crisis-of-faith aspect could just as easily be (and is, really) a crisis of faith in family, self, and basic beliefs about the safety of the world and essential goodness of people. YA fiction is so much about firsts--first car, first crush, first love, first loss. This is about one girl's first dark night of the soul.

And so, selections from the writing/reading playlist for Once Was Lost:

Hurry Home Dark Cloud - Pinetop Seven

I listened to a lot of Pinetop Seven last summer while trying to get together a draft I could turn in to my editor. Their style is distinctly haunting, and there's a kind of big-sky largeness to the music that seemed right for the setting of the book---a fictional, rural western town. This one was always the first song on the playlist when I'd sit down to write. I was in Santa Fe at the time, while my husband worked on his graduate degree. Hearing this song now brings back all those days at the St. John's College library where I'd work while he was in class.

I Know There's a Word - Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann makes great music for depressives. For me, this is ultimate anthem of malaise, if that's not a contradiction in terms. I can imagine both Sam and her mom laying in separate rooms, as this plays in the foreground a la that scene in the movie Magnolia when the characters sing Mann's "Wise Up" in tandem.

Oh God, Where Are You Now? - Sufjan Stevens

A beautiful, sad song of lament that goes on for nine minutes. This could be the title of the book, too, as it's the essential question for Sam.

Imperfect World - Peter Himmelman

A friend, another writer, sent me this CD about a year ago and this, the title track, immediately broke my heart. It's just a gorgeous piece about the beauty and order of the created world alongside the disorder, the things that are broken. "Imperfect world / with every stone in its place." After falling in love with this album, I ran out and bought pretty much the rest of Himmelman's catalog, which is absolutely rich with that tension I try to capture in my book--the coexistence of affliction and hope.

Faith Enough - Jars of Clay

For the longest time, I tried to get a book title out of this song. We tried Home Enough, from the lyric, "I'm home enough to know I'm lost," a line I adore, but couldn't make it work. The song is about contradictions, kind of a litany of things that don't make sense: "The ice is thin enough for walking / the rope is worn enough to climb...the bridge is weak enough to cross / I'm home enough to know I'm lost." Faith, by its nature, doesn't make sense, yet somehow thrives or survives in a sea of contradictions. Musically, I like the steady bass and drumbeat of this one.

I Need Love - Sam Phillips

Oh, Sam Phillips. She's someone who has struggled with religion, embraced doubt, and invited the world into that experience through her songs. It's hard to pick just one ("Five Colors" would also go here). The line in this one, "Peace comes to my rescue / I don't know what it means" touches right on something mysterious Samara experiences in the midst of her doubt.

Long Lost Brother / Idea #21 (Not Too Late) - Over the Rhine

So many of Over the Rhine's songs are the musical version of the themes and questions of this novel. Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler have a knack for writing about how we fumble around for faith, misunderstand God and each other, and go looking for love in all the wrong places. Here are a couple of the songs I think specifically belong on the book's soundtrack:

Long Lost Brother: The book has an epigraph taken from this song: "Trouble is I'm so exhausted, the plot, you see, I think I've lost it. I need the grace to find what can't be found." I just love that line. I think we all feel like we lose the plot now and then, and Sam is in that place of exhaustion already when the book begins, even before the girl in her church is kidnapped.

Idea #21 (Not Too Late): I just love, love, love this song. It's got a classic gospel feel and the lyrics are so goose-bumpy for me, completely articulating "I'm tired of this shit" along with "There just might be hope yet." It goes, also, with a little Lazarus/resurrection thread running through the story and questions Sam asks herself---When do you decide to stop having hope for a particular situation/relationship/longing? Can you ever really say, "Well, that's that"? I'll end the playlist with this lyric: "How does it end? How does it end? We're all riding on the last train trying to find our way home again."

Sara Zarr and Once Was Lost links:

the author's website
the author's book tour video diary
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's video trailer

AyeCaptain review
Bloody Bookaholic review
The Book Reader review
BookEnvy review
BookPage review
The Compulsive Reader review
Dog Ear review
Everyday I Write the Book review
Everyday Reading review
Lauren's Crammed Bookshelf review
Literary Girls Writing Group review
A Patchwork of Books review
Penultimate Page review
Publishers Weekly review
Read Into This! review
Sarah's Random Musings review
Simply Books review
Steph Sue Reads review
Zoe's Book Reviews review

Arts & Faith essay by the author about the book
Bitch Magazine interview with the author
BlogTalkRadio interview with the author
Every Girl Blog interview with the author
Front Pages interview with the author
Hunger Mountain essay by the author about writing the book
Life, Words, & Rock 'n' Roll interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for her novel, Sweethearts
readergirlz essay by the author about the book's cover guest essay by the author
Wrapped Up in Books interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks