The name Sarah Dessen has become synonymous with Young Adult contemporary fiction, and when you look back at her body of work—and the more than 9.8 million copies of her titles in print—it makes sense why.
Dessen is back again with her 12th (!) novel, Saint Anything (out now). The cover of Saint Anything is a departure from the typical Dessen fare, and not without reason. The latest novel tackles a slightly heavier subject matter: Protagonist Sydney is dealing with the fallout from her older brother Peyton’s imprisonment. But don’t let the darker material deter you. Saint Anything is still quintessential Sarah Dessen. While Sydney searches for her place in the midst of her family drama, she finds new some friends and a fresh romance. And readers find their next can’t-miss contemporary YA read. Here, Dessen talks about writing book 12 and her next project—which could be a ways away.
EW: Where did the idea for Saint Anything come from?
SARAH DESSEN: This book initially came out of a failed book, which is often what happens with me. I have a tendency to start books before I’m actually ready to write. I had a book that I was working on, and it just wasn’t working. I set it aside, and I was like, I’m just not going to start again until I feel really passionate about something. I write in the afternoons from 1 to 5, so when I’m not writing during that time, I’m very aware that I’m not writing. I had a lot of very long afternoons where I was just looking out the window and feeling incredibly depressed because I didn’t know if I was going to ever have another idea. Then I started to think about a girl who might have anxiety or be sad… That’s sort of where it came from—that feeling like you’re out of sync. With Sydney, it’s her brother being gone. With me, it was writing being gone.
Sydney’s relationship with Peyton’s friend, Ames, plays an important role in the story. Why was that important to you to include?
This book is really close to my heart because I was writing about this unwanted attention that I got as a teenager and how I struggled with it. I think it’s a very common thing with girls. You’re not really taught how to respond to it. So those scenes were the diciest and the trickiest for me, but also the closest to me. [Sydney and Ames have] this creepy relationship. I’d always wanted to write about that…. There’s this line in the book that says you always think you want to be noticed until you are. And so much of the book is about wanted attention and unwanted attention and what happens when you’re not being seen.
This book definitely has some heavier elements. Was that a conscious decision?
This is my 12th book published—it’s probably like my 20th book written—but when you get to number 12, you have to start going in different directions a little bit. I had seen my books be put into the romance category, even though they weren’t, to me, just romance books. And I have no beef with just romance books, but I felt like my books usually have a family aspect going on. But this one definitely is darker. I feel like it’s got a wider canvas. It’s got a lot more moving pieces… I felt like I was getting into a little bit of a rut. I wanted to do things differently. I think this break where I set a book aside and I just sat there thinking, “Oh my gosh. I may never write another book again because I have no ideas.” This little idea started to bubble up. It was different, and it was unique. I just seized on it. I don’t know how many more YA books I have in me. I just don’t know how much longer I can write about high school. I was just grateful that something came, but I think this is the book of my heart right now. I have a deeper connection to it for a lot of different reasons, and I think that that’s coming across to people who are reading it, and they’re feeling that it’s more personal to me.
Does the publishing process get any easier as you write more books?
The anxiety never goes away. That’s what people don’t realize. They think that by the 12th book you’re not nervous anymore. That you’re not worried about reviews, and you’re not worried about what people are saying on Twitter. But I think with every book it’s even more, because YA has changed so much since I published my first book in 1996. It was called YA, but it was mixed in with children’s books. I would go to bookstores and it would be my book and Paddington and Amelia Bedelia right next to each other.
At least those are classic books.
It’s great company! [Laughs] But this was before librarians and booksellers realized that teens don’t want to go to [the children’s section]. It was before John Green was John Green, so it was a whole different world. So I feel like I’ve kind of come up watching everything change. And it’s changing so quickly that you have to change a little but with it… I’ve been writing contemporary fiction the whole time. I just feel like it’s very fortunate for me as an author right now that the pendulum is swinging back toward realistic fiction. I feel like if there was ever a time that a book of mine could get some extra attention, it’s now. And that’s one reason I feel so passionate about it. Because it’s hard with 12 books. It’s hard not to feel like you’re repeating yourself.
I know Saint Anything just came out, but what’s next for you?
I’m trying not to start another book out of panic and fear. In the midst of all the revisions on Saint Anything, I cleaned out my attic. I found all these manuscripts that I had started and set aside. I think it was either 13 or 14 books piled in my driveway, each one with a sticky note on them with the narrator’s name. And I was like wow. That’s what made me change the way that I’m doing this. I have 12 books published and 13 that didn’t make it. There’s got to be a better way to do this. So I’m trying to hold off until I have a really great idea that I’m really inspired by. That’s the other nice thing about being at 12 books. You can slow down a little bit. I was always racing so hard. I wanted to stay ahead of the pack. I really like this book. So I feel like if this is the last book from me for a little while, then that’s a good place to be.