Interview with Sarah Ockler

Posted by Goodreads on June 9, 2015
The wise and generous Sarah Ockler answers one of your most pressing questions: What are your tips for young writers? Her suggestions should have you geared up to put words on the page!

But before we get to that, find out more about the critically acclaimed author's latest book, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids, which tells the story of a young singer from Tobago who has lost her voice. With a dreamy seaside setting, a heartfelt story, and, of course, the romance that readers loved in books like Twenty Boy Summer, it's the perfect pick for your summer reading list!

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Nicole: How is this new book different from your other works? The aspect that most differentiates The Summer of Chasing Mermaids from my other books is that the main character, Elyse d'Abreau, can't speak. She was once a soca artist on the road to stardom but suffered a tragic accident a few months before the novel opens that left her with permanent, irreversible vocal loss.

Writing the story from her point of view was the biggest challenge of my career so far! It's really difficult to move a story forward when the narrator can't speak but still must communicate—especially when it's a love story. I mean, people have to connect and communicate if they have any chance at falling in love, right? :-) Without her voice, Elyse has to find other ways to get her feelings across. She carries a notebook and pen, she writes on her hands a lot, and sometimes she tries to mouth words, often repeating herself—superfrustrating for her.

The Summer of Chasing Mermaids is also the first novel I've written featuring a main character from a country outside the United States. In The Book of Broken Hearts, Jude Hernandez is of Argentine descent, but she was born and raised in America. Elyse, on the other hand, is from Tobago, visiting family friends in Oregon. While the story unfolds in Oregon, it was important for me to bring Elyse's cultural heritage to life through her inner thoughts, her memories of home and family, her unique worldview, and the contrast of her experiences and relationships in the United States to those she'd grown up with at home.

And this is the first time I've written a story inspired by a fairy tale! The Little Mermaid has always been one of my favorites, so I was thrilled to be able to reimagine it for this book.

Despite these differences, readers who enjoyed my other novels will find plenty of familiar things about The Summer of Chasing Mermaids—like summer love, complex family dynamics, friendships, and lots of emotion!

Marissa: Will there be actual mermaids in the book? Sort of. ;-) While The Summer of Chasing Mermaids is not a paranormal story, there is a bit of magic realism, and it's infused with mermaid lore. The town of Atargatis Cove is named for the mythical first mermaid, Atargatis, and Elyse has an almost spiritual connection to her for reasons that unfold in the story. You'll have to read it to discover how that connection comes to life!

Ashley: What made you choose a Caribbean girl as the main character [in The Summer of Chasing Mermaids]? As one myself, I am thrilled to be represented in one of your books. I'm so glad to hear that, Ashley! The inspiration for Elyse d'Abreau actually came from a YouTube video, of all places—and I didn't really choose her. She chose me. :-)

My story ideas usually come from several different inspirations crossing my path at the same time and then mixing into a big daydreamy soup pot, from which I eventually craft a novel. In this case I knew that I wanted to write a summer story set on the Pacific Northwest coast featuring mermaid lore. I also wanted to explore the important issue of denial of voice—something so many girls and women face every day. But I didn't have my characters yet or the meat of my story! Enter YouTube.

One night I was randomly clicking through YouTube and came across an accent tag meme. I’ve always been fascinated by regional accents, slang, and language development, so I got totally sucked in to watching this meme about how differently English-speaking people say the same words and phrases, all depending on their accents. I ended up in the Trini accent tag collection, and one of the videos featured two sisters from Trinidad and Tobago who’d also posted other videos of themselves singing. When I saw these girls singing together, it just hit me so hard: Hey! There she is! That’s my character, and she has a twin sister, and they're singers who live in T&T! From there my imagination took over, flooding my brain with questions: What's her name? What is her family like? Where does she live? How did she grow up? What does she do for fun? Why is she in the United States this summer? How can I explore denial of voice issues through this character?

From there I immediately dove into research mode, learning as much as I could about Trinidad and Tobago, the culture, the food, the music, the history, the people—it was such a rewarding process; I didn’t know much about the country at all when I started. So thanks in large part to random strangers on YouTube, Elyse was born, one of six sisters (like in The Little Mermaid), a girl who grew up singing with her twin, both of them en route to stardom. But then she loses her voice, and everything changes. She can’t sing. She can’t even speak, and never will again. So who does she become? What happens to her sister? What about the rest of her family back on the island? Where does she belong? Who is she, if not the girl from Tobago with the beautiful voice?

I wrote the book to answer those questions.

Alanie: When writing, do you tend to think of how you were as a young adult and put some of those characteristics into your characters? I do! I can't help it. However, I was a huge pain in the butt as a teenager, and I try to make my characters slightly less so. :-) While every person's teen years are different, there are some universal emotional experiences that many of us go through, no matter what generation or country we're from—like testing the boundaries adults have set up for us, trying to find our place in the world, forming friendships and emotional bonds with people, struggling with loss and heartache, stepping into adulthood, taking risks, falling in love. All of these experiences have left emotional footprints on me, and I try to infuse my novels with the same kind of emotional resonance for the characters and—hopefully—the readers.

Laine asks, “How much do personal experiences impact your writing?” And Hannah wonders in particular, “How did you get your information about ice skating in Bittersweet? From experience?” While I don't wholly re-create my own experiences in my novels, certain things definitely find their way onto the page. Sometimes it's a favorite vacation spot fictionalized as a new setting in the book. Sometimes it's a quote or an old family story or characteristics borrowed from a person I know.

Other times it's less direct. Certain personal experiences have left such huge emotional impacts on me (positive and negative) that they color all of my creative work. For example, I write a lot about changing and ending friendships in my novels, largely because I'm struggling with those kinds of personal losses in my own life. On the positive side, it's very easy for me to write about falling in love, because I'm married to my best friend and favorite person in the whole world. :-)

For Bittersweet, yes! I was a figure skater once…for about 15 minutes. :-) My competitive-skating career went something like this: My father took me for lessons when I was five years old. The instructors recommended that I get hockey skates because they believed they were stronger and easier to learn on. My best friend and next-door neighbor also came with us to the rink, but he got to take actual hockey lessons. So there I was with my black hockey skates and a best friend playing hockey&hellipI just assumed my place was with the boys, not doing twirls and jumps with the girls! The instructors ultimately let me skate with the hockey boys, but I never really got to play any ACTUAL hockey, and so my skating dreams came to a sad and unfulfilled end later that season.

As a result, I had to do quite a bit of research for Bittersweet! Fortunately I connected with a figure-skating librarian online, and she was a huge help.

Kaitlynn: Your books usually take place during summer. Any reason why that is? It's funny, because autumn is actually my favorite season! But for me there's nothing quite like a summer love story. As a teen, I looked forward to summer all year long, because no matter where I was, it always felt like I could reinvent myself, escaping from the realities of high school and everyone in it. When I write about teens now, I'm usually remembering those endless summers in my own life. I enjoyed the challenge of setting Bittersweet in the dead of winter, but my heart always comes back to those blissful summer days and sizzling summer nights.

Right now, though, I'm working on a fall book. It's a spooky one, so the season fits!

Sarah: What is the hardest thing when writing romance books for teens? The hardest thing for me about writing romance for teens is the same challenge I have when writing romance for any age, and that's keeping it authentic on the page while still feeling organic to the story. In reality falling in love is crazy, messy, and rarely logical. It's confusing and scary, too, especially if there are feelings for more than just one person involved! Lots of readers hate love triangles, but in real life teenagers often have crushes or even deep feelings for more than one person at a time, or have more than one person crushing on them. It's such an intense time, filled with new and often first-time experiences, emotions, highs and lows. So while falling in love can be pure chaos in real life, a story usually demands some kind of logical flow. It's always a tricky balance to show the realities of love—good, bad, and ugly!—and still move the story forward to a satisfying conclusion.

But I LOVE writing about love, so I try to meet these challenges head-on. Crazy intensity! Chaos! Tears! Kissing! Bring it! ;-)

Leslie: Have you ever lost someone you were close with like Anna did Matt in Twenty Boy Summer? Yes, but not in exactly the same way.

I mentioned earlier that I don't wholly fictionalize my experiences, but I am inspired or impacted by those experiences, and as a result, bring them with me to every book. Loss is one of those universal emotions we've all felt (or will feel) in our lifetimes—whether that loss be from death, divorce, the ending of a relationship, even moving to a new school or state. So it wasn't difficult for me to connect with that feeling and bring it to life through Anna's story.

It's been a similar process with all of my novels, sometimes not even consciously. For example, did I ever meet boys on summer vacation? Yes. But not exactly like Anna and Frankie in Twenty Boy Summer. Did I ever lose someone I loved? Yes. But not a sibling or boyfriend like they did. Did I ever feel trapped in a small town, eager for escape? Yes, but not for the same reasons that Hudson did in Bittersweet. Have I helplessly watched a loved one deteriorate, like Jude in The Book of Broken Hearts? Yes. Do I ever feel like no one is listening, like Elyse in The Summer of Chasing Mermaids? Absolutely—but not because I literally can't speak.

That’s one of the great things about good stories—not that we relive an author’s life exactly as it happened but we connect with the essence, that one bit of emotion or memory that we can all relate to or imagine. In that way, it’s not about my life but about many of our lives and the universal human emotions that connect us all. This is something I like to remind aspiring writers about, because so often people will say things like, "I really want to write, but my life is so boring. I don't know how to tell a good story or come up with any good ideas." If you can find a way to infuse your fiction with the emotional ESSENCE of your own experiences rather than the literal play-by-play, you might surprise yourself!

Trudy: Which part of the writing process do you find the hardest? I find that the beginnings are the worst part for me because I always want them to be perfect. How do you overcome those situations? I'm the opposite! I love coming up with new ideas and getting those first thoughts and scenes on the page. I struggle more with the end, because that's when my perfectionist tendencies rear their ugly head. It's like I don't want to let it go before I've made just ONE MORE CHANGE. Which always turns into a hundred more changes. Thank goodness for deadlines, because left to my own devices, I'd never get anything done!

If you're having a hard time starting because you're too focused on making it perfect, keep this in mind: the "real" writing happens during revision—that's when the story comes to life. It's like sculpting something out of clay, where you have to mold it with your hands, chop off pieces, add new pieces, scrape and twist and file. But if you don't even have any clay to start with, you can't do anything. Your first draft is just that: clay. Get those words on the page, and then you can go back and sculpt and polish them. But you have to start somewhere! Give yourself permission to write a horrible first draft. Just tell yourself it's going to be that: horrible. Laugh at yourself. Roll your eyes. The main thing is to just START. Anything can be revised except for a blank page! If you need a little more inspiration on that front, check out Bird by Bird and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones—great books for writers.

You can also try writing in bullet points or summaries, just jotting down what you want to happen in the scene, who's in it, what it smells/feels/looks/sounds like, maybe a few bits of dialogue. Then go back and flesh it out. Another tip? Take five or ten minutes before you write, close your eyes, and visualize a scene playing out like a movie. Really concentrate on it, let it flow. Then open your eyes and type (or write). Get it down, however it wants to come out. You can fix it later.

Sabrina: What advice do you have for young writers starting out? Whether you're just starting out or you've been writing for decades, I'll offer the same advice:

1. Don't give up. This is probably the most obvious bit of writing advice out there but also one of the most difficult to follow. Writing is hard. It can be very lonely. It can be frustrating and frightening, and it can put you on an emotional roller coaster with no clear way off. But if you've got a story in your heart begging to be told, trust me when I say that it will never let you rest until you find a way to get it on the page. So keep writing, no matter what. Write for publication or write for your friends or write totally for yourself or some combination…just don't stop.

2. Find a cheerleader. A lot of people misunderstand writers or view writing or any creative endeavor as a waste of time and energy. This kind of negativity might even come from your own friends and family, often because they think they're looking out for you or protecting you from future disappointments. It's important that you find even just one person to support and encourage your writing, to talk you through a tough spot, to cheer you on from the sidelines, to share in your triumphant moments. And you know what? If you don't have that one person in your life, you can totally be your OWN cheerleader. I'm serious! Be kind to yourself and encouraging and motivate yourself to keep putting those words on the page above all else. Look in the mirror and say, "Yep, I'm a writer. I write. I rock. Haters to the left!" And do a little dance, too, if you're so inspired. Little dances help. ;-)

3. Read. Read everything you can get your hands on, in your favorite genres and outside of them. You can learn just as much from a great book as you can from a book that you hate, so don't be afraid to dive in. Read for fun, and then read to analyze what worked, what didn't, what made you FEEL something. Think about how you can evoke those kinds of emotional reactions through your own work.

4. Write. I'm serious! If you're doing more thinking, talking, and reading ABOUT writing than you're doing ACTUAL writing, it's time to get on it! Write as often as you can, even if you're stuck on one particular story. Do writing prompts, try something new, switch it up. Pick a random story from the newspaper and fictionalize it. Observe someone in a coffee shop or classroom and invent a story about her. Ask yourself random questions, and then answer them from different characters' perspectives. Rewrite the endings of your favorite stories (just for practice, of course). Why not? Just keep writing!

5. Don't give up. This one bears repeating. :-)

If this hasn't scared you away yet, I've got some other writing tips and tricks on my website here.

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Akshita (new)

Akshita I was so influenced by the 'Twenty Boys Summer', the writing style, the trauma and the positive approach for the same. The various quotes still adorn my wall in bedroom and surely give me an optimistic outlook for small push-backs, now and then. I have never been inflicted by the emotional injuries (as intense) in real life like Anna did but it felt like I could simply relate. As if Matt was no one but my own friend. Such vivid, realistic, touching book, I look forward to reading 'The Summer of Chasing Mermaid'. I am so excited. And this interview surely lightened up my mood. Sarah Ockler seems like a fun person, very sweet and bubbly.

message 2: by Helga (new)

Helga Maria Who can you turn to, when you have written for years and want to make a book ????? Reading it all over again by yourself is no possible...I tried...I get so,involve that I have to,that what you would call someone editing your manuscript ?????
I really need help, because I don't want to give up !!!!!!

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