A Best-Selling YA Author and Her Editor Talk Shop

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2013 6:50 AM

Sarah Dessen and Regina Hayes

The Slate Book Review author-editor interview.

(Continued from Page 1)

Dessen: I had so many requests for sequels! In the YA market especially, where there are so many good series, readers have become accustomed to knowing what happens next. But once I am done writing, editing, and promoting a book, I'm ready to think about something else. My readers are so loyal, though, and their connection with the characters so strong, that I wanted to do something to acknowledge how thankful I was. So I brought Scarlett from Someone Like You back in a small role in This Lullaby. The stories may be standalone, but I love that certain places—the convenience store, the mall, the coffee shop—are the same. Although I know it can be headache in terms of editing. I know more than once you and I have found ourselves saying, "OK, what was the name of that laundromat/coffee shop again?" It's a lot to keep straight in your head. 

Hayes: I know! Keeping track of timelines, geography, etc. is neither of our strong points. Thank God for copy editors.

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Dessen: I'll agree with you that figuring out the timelines is my least favorite part of the copy-editing process. Even if I have my own calendar when I'm writing so I can keep track, the copy editor always proves me wrong somewhere. More than once I've gotten so frustrated, thinking, What reader is actually going to sit down and map all of this out on a calendar? But it has to be right, as frustrating as it seems. I know more than once in The Moon and More you wrote on the copy editor's queries things like, "SIGH" and "!!!!!" I could so relate.

Dessen: You really go to bat for me with everyone at Penguin if marketing or publicity suggests something I don't necessarily agree with. I think it must be a hard line for an editor, keeping both the creative and business sides happy, but you do it with grace. Is that difficult sometimes? 

Hayes: Yes, it is always walking a fine line in keeping as many people as possible happy. Sometimes it seems there are just too many cooks in the kitchen, but I have to remind myself that each person has an area of expertise that has to be respected. But it can drive you mad! I think the fights over jackets are the worst, especially because what we’re aiming for is so intangible and so subjective. What does it mean to have “a big book look”? And there have been the times when everyone in sales and marketing love a jacket, but you and I feel it doesn’t accurately represent the book. Do you remember the time we were all ready to send a jacket to the printer—I think it was This Lullaby—and I opened Publishers Weekly and saw the identical picture on another YA book? Argh.

Dessen: And what about everything we've been through with titles? I think it was you who suggested What Happened to Goodbye after it was pointed out that the first title, Cut and Run, might suggest another story altogether in an era of gritty YA about teens’ frightening problems.

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Hayes: And we change titles for more prosaic reasons, too. The Moon and More was going to be Someone Else’s Summer, but sales was worried (probably legitimately) that it wouldn’t be kept on bookstore shelves once summer was over.

Dessen: I think it's funny that we went through so much with The Moon and More. Considering how long we’ve worked together, you'd think it would be old hat by now. But certain parts just are hard with every book, regardless of our collective experience. I think with this one specifically, we had a lot of threads to keep track of: Emaline's romantic relationships, as well as the push and pull of what was happening with her family, specifically her birth father. With that aspect in particular, I also think we had to realize that maybe there wasn't going to be a classic happy ending, but rather a more realistic one. I'm such a romantic, I always want to tie everything up in a big pretty bow at the end. But as I get older, I'm realizing that there aren't happy or unhappy endings. There are only endings.

Hayes: One thing your readers appreciate is that you are pretty frank about use of alcohol and drugs at high school parties. You also make reference to sex, and allow your characters to have a past. Do you get criticism from the gatekeepers for that?

Dessen: It’s funny. I think back in the late ‘90s, when I was first publishing, my books were considered a bit scandalous. I had a teenage pregnancy, an abusive relationship, and drug use, among other things. But these days I think they are pretty tame compared to a lot of what is out there. I do remember in Lock and Key, I originally had Ruby walking in on her sort-of boyfriend and her best friend, catching them in the act. You pointed out that maybe there was another way to show the betrayal and I changed it to the friend feeding the guy chocolates, which actually felt more intimate to me. But if it hadn’t, I would have kept it as it was. What’s been new to me has been critics on the other side, who think I don’t have enough sex. I’ve had people tell me my books aren’t true to the realities of teenage life for that reason. Honestly.

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The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen. Viking.

Sarah Dessen is the author of 11 novels. She lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. with her husband and daughter.

Regina Hayes is an editor at Viking.