A Conversation with Sarah Pekkanen
Sarah Pekkanen is the author of seven bestselling novels, which have been translated into five languages and sold in nine different countries. Her most recent work, The Perfect Neighbors, was published in July 2016. Pekkanen’s first career was as a journalist covering Capitol Hill. She went on to work for Gannett News Service/USAToday and, subsequently, wrote features for the Baltimore Sun. After the birth of her three sons, she returned to her childhood desire to write literary works. In a conversation with writer Jude Walsh, Sarah talks about her change from journalist to novelist, her reliance on research, her current writing practices, and why she starts with the character.
Jude Walsh: Your latest novel, The Perfect Neighbors, describes a town where anyone would want to live. It’s safe and has good schools, happy families, and friendly neighbors. Then you slowly peel back the curtain on each woman’s life while still making it easy for the reader to empathize with and understand her. The seriousness is often offset by some humor. Where did the idea of using the Newport Cove Listserv Digest originate? The dog poop exchanges are a book in themselves!
Sarah Pekkanen: I knew I wanted the neighborhood itself to feel like a character—beyond the lives of these women, I wanted to give readers a vivid sense of their surroundings. I couldn’t figure out how to do it for weeks. Then suddenly it came to me—a Listserv filled with comments, complaints, and other interactions between neighbors might work. I didn’t tell my editor I was including the Listserv until I turned in the book, because she knew I’d been struggling with how to make the neighborhood feel three-dimensional, and I wanted to surprise her with how I’d solved the problem. I was thrilled when she told me she loved the idea.
JW: So many women struggle with perfectionism. In your novel, Tessa tries to do everything right for her children, but when she suspects a threat to one of them, she begins to question herself, worrying that she has become overly cautious. Without divulging the story line, can you share more about Tessa and her quest to be perfect?
SP: Tessa’s perfectionism isn’t sourced in competition; she doesn’t try to show up other moms. It actually stems from fear and from her own low self-esteem. She worries that she is doing everything wrong, that other parents seem to have this kid-rearing business down pat. Because Tessa has suffered losses in the past, she feels on edge and constantly worried. I felt so sorry for poor Tessa, whose husband traveled and whose children never slept. Like so many other mothers, she is a quiet heroine, working non-stop and putting herself last. She deserved a break, but because she felt she couldn’t ask for one, her fears began to spiral and they affected the way she viewed the world.
JW: Another of your characters, Kellie, has an emotional affair with a co-worker. How did you decide on an emotional as opposed to a physical affair? Is betrayal a question of degree?
SP: Both are huge betrayals. As a stay-at-home mother, Kellie often felt invisible, and when she reentered the workforce after years of caring for her children, she reveled in the attention she received from a male colleague. It all felt thrilling and new; it was as if she became young and desirable again after years of straining vegetables and changing diapers. Because she had a pretty great husband, even though things between them had become stale, Kellie really wanted to be “seen.” For her, a flirtation that teetered across the line into an emotional affair was enough—even though it was no less dangerous or devastating than a physical affair.
JW: In your second novel, Skipping a Beat, the main character, Julia, states, “Four minutes and eight seconds. That’s how long my husband…was dead.” It is a precise detail that encapsulates how quickly our lives can change. It was a great craft move and completely engaging. I noticed details like that in all your books. Do you start with general research or with a question posed by a specific situation?
SP: I love to do background research for my novels. I’m a former reporter, so it feels natural to interview people and gather facts in advance of writing. For Skipping a Beat, for example, I knew I wanted to incorporate opera into my main character’s storyline, simply because opera intrigues me and I had the sense it would somehow fit into my book. So I went to the Kennedy Center and attended a behind-the-scenes opera workshop and read the autobiographies of Renee Fleming and Beverly Sills and listened to opera constantly as I wrote. I ended up creating a character named Julia who adores opera, and who begins to see scenes from her own life reflecting the stories told in the world’s great operas.
JW: Each of your novels revolves around an issue that resonates with readers: a health crisis, a marriage crisis, infertility, secrets, shame, or the challenges to friendships as life evolves. Do you begin with an issue or does a character come to mind with a story to tell?
SP: It’s always the character. Once I can see the character in my mind—once I know how she sounds and looks and I get a sense of her—then I create the complications in her life. One thing I’ve learned is that I have to connect with my main characters, similar to how an actress has to find a piece of herself that conjures the emotions she needs to express for the character she is portraying. I’m not saying I’ve dealt with the same issues as my characters, but I need to feel what they are feeling, whether it’s betrayal or loneliness or joy. So I do cry when I write sad scenes and feel buoyed when my characters make it through a crisis.
JW: If I didn’t already love you for your books, the “About” page on your website would have reeled me in. There, you provide an image of the “sternly-worded” letter (on Raggedy Ann stationery) you wrote as a child when publishers didn’t respond to a manuscript submission. Please share with us the story of your first foray into publication.
SP: I always knew I wanted to write. In elementary school, I used to pen novels on three-ring binder paper, tie the pages together with yarn (probably because I was too disorganized to find a stapler), and send them to top New York publishers. I remember one time, an editor sent me a hand-written reply telling me to keep at it, because she was sure I’d be published one day (I’d sent her the underrated masterpiece The Lost Gold). Another time, a neighborhood friend came over to my house, and in the course of a single afternoon, we created a compilation we creatively titled Miscellaneous Tales and Poems. It may even have included original illustrations as a bonus. Off it went to a publisher, and when we didn’t hear back quickly enough for our liking, I sent them a highly professional letter, demanding to know the status of our book.
JW: The Perfect Neighbors is your seventh book since the 2010 publication of your debut novel, The Opposite of Me. That’s quite a pace! How much writing do you manage in a day, and is there a specific word count you aim for?
SP: When I’m in the thick of a book, I write every single day, usually for a long stretch in the morning and often for a shorter one in the evening. A soft goal is 2,000 words—about eight pages—a day, though, often, I’ll go a bit over or under that amount. The trick is getting started; sitting down to a blank page can be daunting, but I’ve learned to continue typing even when my words seem clunky and my sentences strained. All of that can be fixed during the rewriting phase.
JW: You began your career as a journalist. Now, as a mom to three boys, you are having a stellar career as a novelist. Do you find being a writer of fiction a better match for your lifestyle needs as a mother? How do the two writing paths compare?
SP: Writing novels gives me a much more flexible lifestyle. As a journalist, I had no control over my schedule. I traveled a fair bit, sometimes with no more than a few hours notice, and deadlines ruled my days. Now that I write fiction, I can bring my laptop anywhere. I actually wrote part of my first book at Chuck E. Cheese’s. My two oldest boys were pretty young, and they never seemed to sleep, so I had no free time. I devised a plan in which I brought my laptop to Chuck E.’s and bought a pile of tokens. I put them down on a table in the middle of the chaos and told my kids they had to come back to the table each time they wanted a token. I would type a line, glance up and get a visual on my kids as they returned to grab a token, type another line, get a visual… And at the time, Chuck E. Cheese’s served beer. A cold beer somehow seemed to help my creative process. The shrieks and screams and giant dancing mouse didn’t bother me—remember, I worked in a crowded newsroom where reporter and editors were always shouting across the room.
JW: The publishing world is changing fast and finding and keeping an audience can be difficult. In 2016, you still made a few appearances for The Perfect Neighbors, but some authors are offering Skype sessions with book clubs or book blog tours. How do you stay in touch with your fan base?
SP: I’m lucky that Atria Books sends me on traditional book tours around the country. It’s a great way to meet readers and booksellers face-to-face. I also take part in a lot of online social media—whether it’s those Skype sessions or chatting with readers on Facebook. I actually love Facebook. My readers have even helped me come up with names for characters and suggested book titles when I’ve posted a message asking them for suggestions.
JW: What is in the works for 2017 and beyond?
SP: More books! I will continue writing for as long as I’m able. I can’t imagine doing anything else.