I imagine being a shepherdess on the hillside when Jesus went out looking for his one lost sheep. Robes blowing around my legs. A rough wooden staff in my hands. The way it might feel to see a grown man coming back over the hill, carrying a lamb like a baby. It would make me love him, I think. […] I mean, if it even really happened, which is the sentence I add now in my head whenever I think of any story in the Bible.
—ONCE WAS LOST, by Sara Zarr
ONCE WAS LOST draws readers into Samara Taylor’s world from the very first page, never allowing them to get too comfortable. It’s the kind of novel that lingers in your thoughts long after you’ve finished the final chapter. Kudos to Sara Zarr for writing an engaging story that asks courageous questions about the main character’s religious faith.
Want a sneak-peek before its October 1st release date? Step inside the Author’s Tent—let’s have a sit-down session with the author.
This interview is divided into three acts: ONCE WAS LOST, Writerly Stuff, and the Lightning Round. And lo, there’s an Encore Performance at the end!
ACT ONE: ONCE WAS LOST
Can you give us a Twitter-type pitch for the book for starters, using 140 characters or less?
Samara Taylor used to believe in miracles. She used to believe in a lot of things. But where there was once faith, there are now only questions.
I know that is not only four characters over, but also totally vague. That’s the character-driven pitch. The plot-driven pitch:
A local tragedy and personal tragedy overlap in the life of a pastor’s daughter, catalyzing a crisis of faith in everything she was once sure of.
Still kind of vague, I know. How about this:
Fourteen days of youth group, mini-trucks, record heat, local news, and crime in a small town!
When the novel begins, 15-year-old Samara’s entire world seems to be collapsing at her feet. It’s in the midst of all this turmoil that she begins questioning her religious beliefs. Is this a common experience among teenagers, do you think?
I think it’s a common experience for everyone. Traumatic events, personal or out in the world, tend to challenge our worldviews. They force us to examine what we believe or don’t believe about life, people, the universe and ask, How does this hold up when the rubber meets the road? Does it really give me anchor or is it just a bunch of nice ideas? Adolescence is naturally the time that process would start, and I think it continues throughout life.
As the pastor’s daughter, Sam has a unique vantage point from which to observe her father’s Christian ministry and to interact with members of his congregation. What perspectives did you hope to convey to your readers—through Sam’s eyes—about belonging to a church community?
I rarely think about conveying anything to my readers other than a good story. But, I did grow up in a church community and always wanted to write a character in that soil in a way that wasn’t an alarmist story about cults or clergy-abuse (though there have been some good ones dealing with those things), but just an everyday kind of life in which church is part of the tapestry along with school and home.
Sherman Alexie once defined fundamentalism as “the mistaken belief that one belongs to only one tribe.” How much of ONCE WAS LOST is about learning to fit in, about searching for yourself and also finding your tribe(s)?
You could say every YA novel is ultimately about that—identity. The work of adolescence, of making that transition from childhood into adulthood, involves a process (usually unconscious and organic) of analyzing and sorting. Holding the things of childhood and looking at them in a new light: Do I really believe this about myself/my family/the world/God/the universe/politics/religion? If so, how can I make it more mine? If not, what do I believe? Who are my people?
More directly to your question and to the book: Can I belong to the tribe of believers and to the tribe of doubters?
In what ways have your own experiences and tribal affiliations influenced the themes of this novel?
The “tribal affiliations” issue probably comes much more into play in terms of me feeling I could write this book than in what wound up in the final novel itself. And I’ll preface all this by saying I don’t want to worry any readers who are not interested in religion or think this topic is boring—the book doesn’t go into doctrine. You can replace Sam’s Christian faith with any religion or belief, any nonbelief, any tradition or “this is the way we’ve always done it and don’t ask why” way of thinking that you’re trying to figure out or break free from.
With that out of the way: I grew up in church, and I’m still a practicing Christian and fairly regular church goer. I’ve had a lot of good experiences, and some not so great ones. There are a lot of, shall we say, accoutrements to Christianity, especially American evangelical Christianity. (And probably all religions, though I can only speak from my experience.) There are a lot of unspoken and spoken rules about what you should and shouldn’t think/say/feel/want/reject. Of course I absorbed all of that, and when combined with my perfectionist personality and people-pleasing ways, I wound up being very hard on myself when judging whether or not I was doing my faith “right.”
Using Sherman’s definition, I was a fundamentalist. If I was Us I was not Them and if I was Them I was not Us. I didn’t want to be Them. No one wants to be Them when you are at the center of an Us culture. The older I got, the harder that became because certain things just didn’t sit right with me and the world seemed pretty darn sucky considering how great we were always saying everything was. But, I was always afraid of doubt, and of probing too deeply into myself and my fears. Doubting can be very scary if you’ve always gone along with whatever belief or nonbelief your family has traditionally held. You start to feel like the thing you’re standing on, that was once solid beneath you, is just a frail crust and if you make a wrong move you’ll fall through into the unknown. And, maybe even more frightening, that you’ll be cast out of your tribe, left with nowhere to call home. I didn’t know if I could be Christian and Writer and Faithful and Doubter and Wounded and Healed and Confused and Certain and feel at home anywhere.
I could never have written this book if I hadn’t already come to terms with my multiple tribal memberships. If I’d come to the story thinking that you can either be a believer or a doubter but not both, or thinking only one tribe knows the reason for suffering in the world, it would just be a didactic shell and not the kind of book I want to write.
What was the inspiration for Jody’s character? How different would the story be if it were written from her point of view?
Two real life girls inspired the Jody character: Polly Klaas and Elizabeth Smart. I lived in the Bay Area when Polly was kidnapped and murdered, and in Utah when Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped and later found alive. During both cases I thought a lot about a tight-knit community dealing with this kind of tragedy as a background for a novel.
I think one draft might have included one or two scenes from Jody’s point of view, but, honestly, I didn’t want to go there. What a young girl goes through in these situations is beyond the capacities of even my imagination. That just wasn’t the story I felt called to tell.
Sam says she doesn’t have a favorite hymn, although she wonders if maybe she should. Do you have a personal favorite? And a follow-up question, if I may: What songs would you include on a playlist for this novel?
I love hymns, and miss them as so many churches go modern with worship. One of my favorites is “O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus.” The tune is basically a dirge while the words are beautiful, which is a perfect musical picture of the sorrow/joy thing.
The playlist for this novel involved a lot of songs from the group Over the Rhine, who are among some of the best ever articulators of the faith/doubt/affliction/hope tension.
Your cover art illustrates so beautifully the primary theme of your novel. How did it come about, and what was your initial reaction?
I don’t see or know about the process of the book cover creation—usually by the time I see it, it’s almost final. Right away, I liked it a lot, and not too long after that I loved it. Alison Impey at Little, Brown, who also did the Sweethearts cover, designed it. She’s been brilliant for me.
ACT TWO: WRITERLY STUFF
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of writing a novel?
I love starting a new novel. I love it for about 50 pages. The first editorial letter is my least favorite part, though the work it inspires makes the pain useful.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself while writing for publication?
Though I’ve always known I had issues, I’m a lot more neurotic than I realized. I often want to curl into a ball of dread and anxiety when it comes time to launch a book, talk about it, do school visits, read reviews, tackle revisions. Facing the challenges of life as a writer like a sane adult is hard work for me!
Do you incorporate any meditations, talismans, or rituals into your writing routines?
I first read “meditations” as “medications.” Ha! I can’t think of any rituals, really. As for talismans, there are three pictures on my desk: one of me as a child sitting at a typewriter (to remind me that this has always been part of who I am), one of my husband and me at the 2007 National Book Awards when I was a finalist (to remind me I’m not a hack, even when I feel like one, and that my husband is always on my side if not at it), and a picture taken of one of the life-of-Jesus stained glass windows at the church where I used to work—it’s Jesus carrying his one little lost lamb (to remind me I’m not lost, even when I feel I am).
Tell us about the wildest book-related adventure you’ve ever embarked upon.
“Wild adventurer” isn’t what one generally thinks of when they think Sara Zarr. I certainly don’t think that of myself. I think the craziest I’ve ever gotten was when my first book, Story of a Girl, came out. When I heard it was turning up in stores, I grabbed my friend Sarah and we went into several book stores in town where I’d pick up a copy, hold it over my head, and, in a loud voice, say, “I WROTE THIS!”
What reading materials are stacked on your nightstand, and what pages have you bookmarked?
Right now: Melissa Gilbert’s memoir A Prairie Tale, Alice Munro’s collection Runaway, Scott Cairn’s The End of Suffering, Mary Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. I have the Norris book marked at the chapter “Detachment.” She talks about it in the sense of healthy detachment, like not trying to make things happen but being at peace with whatever is happening.
I understand you enjoy cooking, so let’s imagine you’ve invited your readers to enjoy a leisurely dinner with you. What foods will you serve, and what will you discuss?
Since we’re getting into fall, let’s say I’d make a variety of casseroles. Casseroles are so hospitable, and I like people to feel at ease around me. We’d talk about whatever they want to talk about, because I don’t like to Give Presentations. I’d rather listen.
ACT THREE: LIGHTNING ROUND!
These are easy-peasy questions. No need to elaborate unless you want to….
Palm trees or Ponderosa Pines?
Tim Gunn or Tyra?
Flip-flops or stilettos? Neither. I need arch support, people!
Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny?
Street Musicians or Concert Orchestras?
PC or Mac?
From phoebe-k: Do you have critique partners, and if so how did you know they’d be a good match for you?
I have a couple of people I share work with. Most important is I have to respect their writing. If I don’t think they are good writers, why would I listen to them? Second is that indefinable personality “click” so that you’re not always having to explain who you are to them.
From writerross: Communion wafers or matzoh?
Even though I’m a WASP, matzoh!
From sruble: Favorite school lunch?
I had an odd affinity for fishsticks and tater tots day.
From writerjenn: Favorite Guilty-pleasure reading genre?
From kbaccellia: Your character’s struggle with her church family is so real. Did you ever struggle with this in your own faith as a teen?
Yes! Not as deeply as Sam does—more in terms of how can I maintain this double life of being a good girl at home and church and a slightly less than good girl at school and with friends?
From jeannineatkins: When you wrote, at any point did you try to imagine an audience or ideal reader, and if so, what sort of relation to faith did this reader/readers have?
I didn’t think about this much. I think everyone has faith in something, whether it’s a religious faith or something else. Hopefully Sam’s struggles will be recognizable to anything, though I think church kids (any kind of church) will have that extra layer of resonance.
Thank you, Sara, for joining us In the Authors’ Tent!
Sara Zarr is the author of Story of a Girl (a National Book Award finalist), Sweethearts, and the forthcoming Once Was Lost (October 1, 2009). She’s also contributed to several anthologies, including Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?, Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, and Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd. You can read more about Sara on her website (http://www.sarazarr.com/) or connect with her on Twitter (http://twitter.com/Sarazarr).
Want to (re)visit earlier interviews in the Author’s Tent? Click here.