Chapel Hill Author Writes Books That Speak to Teens, Parents

Sarah Dessen speaks in many voices, but the language is the same.

She is Colie, who doesn’t know what it is to have BFFs until her mother sends her to live with an eccentric aunt in a North Carolina beach town for the summer. She is Olivia, struggling to fit in at a private school where her race and circumstances make her stand out. She is Dexter, a peripatetic rocker living out his dream, but disappointing his parents, with a band called Truth Squad. She is Monica, almost mute among a group of talkers, until someone needs to give voice to the absolute truth. Most recently, she is Auden, struggling to make peace with herself, her divorced parents and her newborn half-sister.

Through all of these voices, The New York Times best-selling author is a teenager, dealing with issues adolescents face every day. Meeting the real Dessen over coffee, she is also a hometown girl, graduate of Chapel Hill High and UNC-Chapel Hill, Orange County resident, mother of a toddler, and crafter of characters who resonate particularly with teenage girls and their mothers.

“I think I’m just writing what I want to read. I want to read about someone who is compelling and has something to say,” she explains.

Writer and character development

Growing up, Dessen loved reading and had a portable typewriter in a corner at home. Her parents encouraged her to write, as did her teachers at UNC where she was in the creative writing program and studied with several well-known authors.

“They took my writing more seriously than I did,” she says. “I thought I’d go into advertising. I never thought it would be a career.”

Dessen wrote her first book in college. “It’s a doorstop. No one will ever see it,” she laughs. But ideas kept bubbling up.

Nine novels later, Dessen creates characters with authenticity and respect regardless of their name, gender or race. Instead of limited caricatures, she has created individuals who must face the consequences when they make mistakes but who also grow, learn and occasionally rescue the adults in their lives.

Grounded in experience

Dessen says she avoids flat stereotypes in part by pulling on her own experiences growing up in Chapel Hill. Several locations that occur repeatedly in her books are thinly veiled spots in the college town. Fans have been known to visit to try to identify stand-ins for places like the Quik Zip, where conversation and soul-searching take place over an extra-large Zip soda, which is about the size of a wading pool, based on the description.

For the record, the Quik Zip is “all the convenience stores in towns where you go for gas and snacks,” Dessen says. Her books could take place in any town, but she acknowledges there are places that locals may recognize. “If you’re from Chapel Hill, you’re in on my joke,” she says.

The author takes her portrayal of teens seriously, however, recalling her own high school days. “At the time, inside that point of view, it was all very important,” Dessen says. “If you respect your characters, you’re going to do right by them.”

That includes the adults she writes about, showing the caring side of most parents and guardians, even if they stumble along the way. Dessen has an aptitude for dialogue and the ability to make adults reading her books squirm as they recognize their own loving, but inflexible, voices in the moms and dads she depicts.

“I never saw my mom as a cardboard cutout,” she says. ‘When you’re a teenager, your parents are the nexus. Since I became a mother, I have a lot of sympathy for the mom characters.”

Real-life themes

Dessen also doesn’t shy away from tough topics. Her books cover drug abuse, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, anorexia and other serious issues, which she manages to depict without preaching, glamorizing or trivializing. Dessen says she doesn’t sit down to write “issue” books, but “to be true to the teenage experience, you have to write about these things. It’s always the character who comes first, then the plot.”

Some themes reappear from book to book that particularly reflect the lives of girls, including the downside of the quest for perfection. “Imperfections are good. It’s OK for things to be difficult. You don’t have to have a façade,” Dessen says. “It’s important to put that message out to girls at this age.”

In Along for the Ride, to be released in June, she pairs Auden, who has escaped her brilliant and demanding mother for the summer, with Eli, who is trying to escape a tragedy from his past. Although the pair’s coming to terms with others, with each other and with themselves center the story, some of the secondary characters reinforce the most prevalent subtext across her books: the importance of friendships and family.

“That’s what life is,” she says. “Life gets so busy and crazy and full of technology and other things. Life is about your relationships with family, friends, strangers and other people around you, your relationships with other beings. I think every story comes back to that.”

Aleta Payne is the associate editor of Carolina Parent.

Upcoming Author Visits

With the release of her ninth novel, Along for the Ride, in June, Sarah Dessen will make the following appearances:

June 16, 2009 7 p.m.
The Regulator Bookshop
720 Ninth St., Durham
919-286-2700 •

June 18, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Quail Ridge Books and Music
3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh
919-828-1588 •

July 25, 2009 11 a.m.
McIntyre’s Fine Books
2000 Fearrington Village, Pittsboro
919-542-3030 •

Categories: Activities, Development, Health and Development, Things To Do, Tweens and Teens