Author Jenny Han recently sat down with Sara Zarr to discuss her latest novel, How to Save a Life.
Jenny Han: In my humble opinion, this is the best book you’ve written thus far. I loved it. I know we authors don’t like to play favorites with our book babies, but do you feel that way, too?
Sara Zarr: Thanks, Jenny! I have to admit‚ I do have extra-warm feelings for this book. Some of that is because the writing of it felt so good, relative to the experience of writing my other books. Still hard work, certainly, but enjoyable hard work. I don’t have to tell you that not every book feels that way. Also, I had a very definite sense while writing it that I was undergoing some kind of change and growth as a writer, and that felt good. I’m proud of it as a work, and it will also always symbolize, to me, that period of exciting change and growth.
Han: Did you do any kind of research on adoption?
Zarr: I did. I poked around adoption websites and message boards, and I had to look up some information on laws in the states where the story takes place. The specific circumstances under which Jill’s mom and Mandy find each other has a whiff of “gray market” about it, which didn’t lend itself to research. So I had to imagine and assume it would be entirely possible, as I know people will go to great lengths and push boundaries in the process of creating a family.
Han: Did you plan all along to tell the story from both Mandy’s and Jill’s perspectives?
Zarr: When I first started the book, it was Jill’s story. But as soon as I finished Jill’s first chapter, in which she and her mother are waiting for the train that’s bringing Mandy to them, I knew that I wanted to be on that train, too. I wanted to know what brought Mandy to that moment of leaving home, and what she’d think of her new life in Denver and of Jill.
Han: Mandy moved me very much. There is an innocence to her, but also a sharpness, a manipulativeness. She reminded me of an unwanted puppy that’s thrown into a lake but claws its way back to the surface. Where did you get your inspiration for Mandy?
Zarr: That’s a great description and metaphor for Mandy. She came to me slowly. I know this sounds like one of those weirdo writer things—I just sort of got on the train with her and watched. It took me quite a bit longer to figure her out than it took me to know Jill. At first Mandy was more manipulative, less innocent. I saw her as a type, or as a character. Which, as you know, is not the best way to approach the people we’re creating, but sometimes that’s where you have to start. As her story came to me in pieces, I could see how her experience had made her both strong and vulnerable, and that anything she did that seemed manipulative was simply out of this will to survive that she’d been honing since birth.
Han: Is there one character you related to most deeply?
Zarr: I think anyone who knows me well will recognize where a lot of Jill’s personality comes from. Jill is a lot like me when—well, I hate to say “when I’m at my worst,” because I don’t think that’s fair to Jill. Let’s just say that I understand Jill and why she sometimes treats people who care about her in the shabby way that she does. That said, I also deeply felt Mandy’s longing for safety, for home, for some kind of faith that things are going to be okay. Both Mandy and Jill want those things. Probably everyone does.
Han: What's next for you after this?
Zarr: I’m working on a new novel right now. All I can say is that it’s my usual—contemporary realism—and that the process is challenging me in every possible way. I hope in a year to be able to say that I met those challenges successfully!
* "Woven together from two simple threads, the resulting tapestry is as beautiful as it is real. A story that will resonate beyond its final page."―Kirkus Reviews, starred review
* " Zarr crafts intimate and authentic portraits of two vulnerable teens struggling to cope with uncertain futures...their slow, cautious efforts to build trust and better understand the meaning of family are expressed with the deepest compassion and kindness."―Publishers Weekly, starred review
* "The imperfection of the characters and the uniqueness of their situations come together in a compulsively readable novel. Zarr has established herself as an author who must not be missed."―VOYA, starred review
* "Another heavy-hitting page-turner from Zarr....A must read."―School Library Journal, starred review