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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Sarah Pekkanen, pt 1

 Sarah Pekkanen seems to have begun her career as a novelist under a charmed star.  Her debut novel THE OPPOSITE OF ME [1], recieved praise from heavy hitters such as Jennifer Weiner, and landed on many Must-Buy lists.  Sometimes it’s hard to live up to a big debut, but Pekkanen did so with her followup novel.  SKIPPING A BEAT [2] garnered praise from mainstream tastemakers like People Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar hot list.  O, the Oprah Magazine, selected it a “Pick It Up Now” book for April. 

But Pekkanen’s successes are built on a solid foundation based on years in the publishing industry.  Her writing chops were honed as a journalist working for Gannett News Service/USA Today on beats covering Capitol Hill, and writing feature articles for the Baltimore Sun.

Somewhere in there she found the time to start a family.  Now Pekkanen juggles two active boys and a writing career on the ascent, all with a hefty dose of good humor and plenty of chocolate.

We’re so pleased to bring you part one of our two-part interview with women’s fiction author Sarah Pekkanen.

Q: Your novels are receiving praise and becoming bestsellers. Did you even envision this type of success when you decided to become a novelist?

SP: Wow, thank you so much! I think most of us authors dream big, yet we’re still astonished by and grateful for every small nugget of success – be it a kind review, a heartfelt letter from a reader, or a nice turnout at a booksigning. So much of this business hinges on good luck and good timing.

Q: You worked as a journalist inside the Beltline and covered politics for a variety of news organizations. Do you think that career helped prepare you for the publishing industry? In what ways?

SP: Most definitely. It helped on a variety of levels: First, I welcome constructive criticism; I love getting feedback from my editor, Greer Hendricks, on ways she thinks my books can be improved. I don’t take it personally when she recommends I cut scenes or tells me I’m using too many cliches. My journalism background also taught me to write quickly and consistently; writer’s block isn’t tolerated in newsrooms (I’m imagining the face of my tough old city editor if I told him my muse was taking the day off) . And I can write anywhere: in noisy rooms – a helpful skill since I have three young boys – in quiet coffeshops, even in a moving car. I’ve trained myself to be able to type on a laptop while my husband is at the wheel, steering us down the highway. Right now we’re on our way to an amusement park with our boys, and I’m typing this from the passenger’s seat of our minivan.

Q: What is your writing process? Has your process changed with subsequent books?

SP: I’ve become a big fan of outlining. I had a very vague outline for my first book, THE OPPOSITE OF ME, and a tighter one for SKIPPING A BEAT. My upcoming third book, THESE GIRLS, is the first book I’ve written on deadline. I knew I couldn’t afford to make mistakes or get off track, so I thought through the plot very carefully and used index cards, color coded to represent different characters, and outlined scenes. I deviated from the outline, and wrote scenes that came as a surprise even to me, but it was great to have the basic structure in place before I typed a single word. The two books I’ve found most helpful for outlining and plotting are PLOT & STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell and WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maas. They’re my writing bibles.

Q: As a mother of young children, how do you juggle the writing with the insanity that comes with raising kids?

SP: I once had this conversation with Jodi Picoult, who also has three kids. We both think that it’s easier to be productive as a writer with young kids, because your time is so limited that you’re forced to actually write when you sit down at the keyboard. You know someone is going to interrupt you soon, so you don’t waste time agonizing over fonts or sneaking onto PerezHilton.com (fine, so I check it out occasionally). For Opposite, I had lovely stretches of time to write while my two oldest boys were in school. We sold Opposite when I was six months pregnant, and I quickly began writing Skipping on the advice of my editor, who told me it would be smart to get in a draft before my first book hit the shelves. My baby, Dylan, often napped on my chest while we lay on the couch together and I wrote scenes. Now that Dylan is the world’s most active 2-year-old who seems to have taken on dismantling the house as a part-time job, I have a babysitter to help watch him while I get in writing time. I try to prioritize this way: Family first, writing second, and friends a very close third. I don’t have many hobbies other than reading, and I don’t do much cooking or cleaning (luckily my husband is a very hands-on parent, too, and he has a higher standard of cleanliness than me, so when the house gets too messy he caves first and tackles it.)

Q: SKIPPING A BEAT [2] tells the story about a marriage in crisis. What inspiration behind the premise. Did you run into any unexpected outcomes in the writing of this story?

SP: My books are different, but they’re all related in that they examine the different, vital relationships in a woman’s life. My first book was about sisters, the second about a marriage, and the third about friends. I also love playing with the idea of giving women a chance to step into completely new lives. For Skipping, I started with a question: What would it be like to wake up one morning and discover your husband had turned into a different person? I knew how the story would end before I wrote it – in fact, I wrote some of the final scenes early on – but some elements of the book changed along the way. I originally thought about having my main character’s husband be an Internet guru, because he needed to be someone who came from a poor background and made a ton of money very fast. Then I read a newspaper article about the guy who started up the Honest Tea company and later sold it for something like $60 million, and I decided to give my character a new occupation. That’s one way I blend my journalism background into my books. I interviewed the Honest Tea founder twice at his headquarters so I could blend realistic details about forming a start-up beverage company into Skipping. I just got a note from him, by the way, saying he enjoyed the book!

In part two of our interview [3], Sarah talks more about her writing process and discusses the current trends in the publishing industry and her best advice for staying nimble in today’s changing climate.  Don’t miss it!  SKIPPING A BEAT [2] is now available at all booksellers.

About Kathleen Bolton [4]

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton [5]. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway [6]: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber [7].