When Sarah Dessen finished her 12th book, the critically acclaimed author of young adult fiction didn’t know if she had another novel in her. But while watching her two babysitters plan weddings, Dessen began to think about the different ways people come together in the world, and what it would be like, as she says, to see the process again and again, from a wedding planner’s perspective. That lead to her new novel, Once and for All (Viking Books for Young Readers, June 2017), a bubbly story about Louna, the cynical daughter of a wedding planner, and what happens when she meets a charming, serial dater who decides she’s the girl he wants. Baker & Taylor spoke with Dessen.
Baker & Taylor: You’ve said you had difficulties when thinking about writing this novel. Why?
Sarah Dessen: To be honest, I want every novel to be praised and popular, so I increase the pressure on myself to do that each time. You would think it would get easier with experience and a large backlist, but I find the opposite to be true. I am more nervous than ever! Also, after my last book I really wasn’t sure I had another book in me: Saint Anything was so emotional, every time I tried to follow it up I just kind of crashed and burned. So I wasn’t feeling very confident. When this story did show up, it didn’t come easily. But I am so glad I stuck with it, because I’m really happy with the final result.
B&T: How was writing this book different?
SD: Usually, the books I’ve done with heavier themes—death of a parent in The Truth About Forever, sexual assault in Just Listen, incarceration in Saint Anything—are a lot harder to write. But the ones set in the summer can be lighter and more fun. Once and for All is a summer book, but there’s a thread of sadness in it, with Louna’s first love, that wrecked me. Writing that part of the story, even in flashback (no spoilers!) was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done on the page. I had days I was just exhausted, like I was reliving that loss myself. That balance of light and dark runs through the whole book.
B&T: How do you create relatable characters?
SD: I find that to really connect with a character it’s necessary to dig deep into your own experience and find common ground. That’s what you want the reader to feel, that empathy. So it starts, I think, with me putting MYSELF in the character’s shoes and seeing what I recognize. Over the years, if anything, I’ve just realized how crucial this really is. If I’m not feeling a character, no one else will. And feeling is everything.
B&T: What do you like best about the book?
SD: I’m really happy that it is a love story, but not only in just one sense. There’s Louna’s first love, and heartbreak. The love she has for her mother and William and the family they’ve created. And, of course, falling in love over the course of story with the last person she expects. Plus all these different couples with so many personalities, each one hoping for their own happy ending. I like to be hopeful when I finish a book, especially lately. I like that there’s hope there.
— Interviewed by Kerry Singe.
This interview originally appeared in the May issue of Forecast. To view the issue, click here. Sign up to receive Forecast and other essential digital catalogs offered through Baker & Taylor by visiting our subscription center here.