Sarah Dessen’s girls are smart, funny and independent — and most importantly, not sure what’s next.
Take Mclean, the heroine of “What Happened to Goodbye.” After her parents’ marriage dissolves, she travels with her father on his restaurant-consultant job, hopping from town to town. In each new school, she adopts a new persona — uber-popular Eliza; Lizbet, the boho drama muse; Beth, the student-council secretary and yearbook contributor.
At their latest stop, Mclean dips a toe into yet another incarnation, Liz, to finish out her senior year. But for reasons she can’t quite explain, she soon reverts to herself — simply Mclean. That’s how Dave, the brainy, sensitive boy next door, gets to know her.
“There are very few times in your life when everything’s changing,” says Dessen by phone from her North Carolina home. “That’s a theme with most of my books — a girl shifting from a world she’s known and outgrown. … With Mclean it’s very much that her family has imploded. She has created this fantasy life for herself because her own life is too much to take.”
There are certainly plenty of readers who connect with such stories. Dessen — who comes to BookPeople Tuesday in tandem with the paperback release of “Goodbye” — has written 11 books for young adults, including five New York Times best-sellers, and collected multiple American Library Association best young-adult book honors. Austin aficionados wrote poems, drew pictures and created videos to vie for the title of “Biggest Sarah Dessen Fan” and a chance to win signed copies of all her books at Tuesday night’s event.
A huge part of Dessen’s appeal is her ability to create likable, down-to-earth characters, girls with deep inner lives yet universal problems — parent struggles, fitting in, boyfriend trouble. Mclean, for example, is trying to navigate her relationship with Dave, who’s beyond book smart but values experiences more than test scores. Her relationship with her mother — who left her father for a high-ranking university basketball coach — is strained, to say the least. After days of dodging calls, Mclean finally squeezes in a phone conversation en route to class.
“ ‘It’s been two weeks!’ (Mom) protested. ‘How long are you planning to stay upset with me?’
“ ‘I’m not planning anything. I just …’ I sighed, so sick of trying to explain why I needed space from her. It was constantly under negotiation, her trying to yank me closer, me straining to pull back.”
It’s not all angst, though. Dessen has a knack for wry observations about everything from the distinctive pantsuits favored by high school administrators to the unique look of restaurant hotspots: “It was called Boeuf, and was a big, incredibly dark place with heavy velvet drapes and a roaring, stone fireplace. The walls were lined with various implements of destruction: shiny scythes, swords of varying sizes, even what looked like a small battering ram. It made me uneasy, as if we might find ourselves under attack at any moment and have to seize the décor to defend ourselves.”
In short, her books are about real life, which is not that easy to find in young-adult fiction these days.
“I can’t tell you how many times on my last book tour someone said, ‘Oh, you just need to put a vampire in your book!’ I just don’t do that,” Dessen laughs. “It’s like saying, ‘You need to put a walrus in your book.’ It’s not what I know.
“I would have loved to have had superpowers in high school, been a witch or something. But I want to write stories about regular girls like me — I’m kinda old-school that way. … I want readers to say, ‘This is my school, this is just what my friend is like.’”
Dessen’s in town to promote “Goodbye,” but fans won’t have long to wait before her next book: “The Moon and More” is due out in June. It’s the story of Emaline, who lives in the beach town of Colby — a familiar setting for Dessen devotees — and is facing a summer of decisions. She has just broken up with her longtime boyfriend Luke and struck up a budding romance with Theo, a New Yorker in town as part of a documentary team trailing a reclusive artist. The push-pull between the locals and the out-of-towners is a constant thread, and it mirrors the fondness Emaline feels for her hometown and also her wish to escape it.
“This is really the first time I’ve talked about the college issue and being from a small town and the divisions in a small town, like the Ain’t Going Nowheres,” says Dessen, referring to the shorthand Emaline and her best friend Daisy use to refer to Colby lifers. (Emaline and Daisy, on the other hand, are destined for GTBC: Great Things Beyond Colby.)
Austin fans will be happy to see that our fair city makes a cameo appearance in both books. In “Goodbye,” Dave and some of his friends are planning a post-graduation road trip to Austin; in “Moon,” Austin is one of the cities marked on the “where are you from?” map for the tourists in the beach-house rental company Emaline’s family owns. It’s no coincidence — Austin’s a favorite destination for Dessen, who sees parallels to her hometown of Chapel Hill, N.C.
“I feel like the world is enamored of Austin right now,” she quips.
We could say the same for her.
Sharyn Vane’s column on children’s books appears regularly in the Statesman; firstname.lastname@example.org
“What Happened to Goodbye”
Who: Sarah Dessen reading and book-signing
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: Free, but you must buy “Goodbye” at BookPeople in order to get books signed
Information: www.bookpeople.com; 472-5050
What Happened to Goodbye
The Moon and More