Today, I’m pleased to be joined by my fellow 2017 Debut member, Sara Biren, whose book, The Last Thing You Said, is scheduled to come out April 4, from Abrams/Amulet Books
JR: Hi, Sara and thanks for joining us today.
SB: Thanks for having me!
JR: Before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about The Last Thing You Said and the impetus behind writing it?
SB: I started The Last Thing You Said the summer I followed the online journey of a local teen with a very aggressive form of cancer that would eventually take his life. I began to think about his friends and family, and then about the times I’ve experienced loss throughout my life. I wanted to write a book about grief, but it was a tough book to write, and it took several years. Throughout the writing and revising processes, I returned to my journals, especially from my sophomore year of high school, the year that my friend and classmate Nicole died. I realized that I was angry at the adults at school and church who’d said that it was okay to be sad, but that we needed to move on, get over it. I wanted to write a story to let people know that it’s okay to take your time.
JR: I read on your site, www.sarabiren.com that you wrote in your third grade autobiography that you wanted to be an author. Congrats on making your younger self look good! So, how many of the other things that you wrote then come to fruition?
SB: In that same autobiography, I wrote that I would attend the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and I did. I do not, however, have a lot of cats, because my husband is allergic.
JR: Spouse or pets? Tough choice. Could go either way.
JR: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey getting to this point?
SB: You know that Beatles song, The Long and Winding Road? That should sum it up. I studied the craft of writing in high school and college and earned an MFA in Creative Writing in 2003. I was writing literary short stories, a handful of which were published, but was drawn to young adult fiction. In 2006, I started my first YA novel, but it wasn’t until NaNoWriMo of 2009 that I completed one. I queried that thing for two and a half years, to its last breath, while writing The Last Thing You Said. I didn’t land an agent with that first book, but found one in six weeks with The Last Thing.
SB: Unfortunately, that agent left the industry three months later, and I had to start the process over. That’s when I signed with Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency, and I couldn’t be happier to have him in my corner. The Last Thing You Said was on submission for fifteen long months when Abrams – Amulet Books expressed interest, and I’ve loved working with my editor, Erica Finkel, and the staff at Amulet.
JR: What’s your writing process like?
SB: My process is not one that anyone should emulate. I’m a total pantser, but not only that, I don’t have a scheduled writing time or routine, and I don’t write in chronological order. That makes for a very messy, surgery-like revision process.
I can tell you that I usually write late into the night, whenever I can (NOT every day), sitting on my couch with a laptop, with coffee and music. I also like to fit in a few long writing days at a local coffee shop when I can (with coffee and music), and any time I need inspiration, I head to a lake. My favorite is Lake Superior, but any lake will do – and that’s pretty easy here in Minnesota.
JR: What’s your favorite book and who’s your favorite author?
SB: How can I possibly answer these questions? My all-time favorite book has been Gone with the Wind since I first read it in fifth grade. I used to read it every summer until I had kids. My favorite YA book is Anna and the French Kiss. I can’t even count how many times I’ve read it. Stephanie Perkins is one of my favorite authors, along with Jane Austen, Anne Tyler, Kate Morton, JoJo Moyes, Jessi Kirby, and Sarah Ockler.
JR: What’s your favorite movie?
SB: Another tough question! Gone with the Wind is my all-time favorite, but I have to mention That Thing You Do! – no movie makes me feel happier.
JR: Something people would be surprised to learn about you?
SB: I’m Minnesotan through and through, but I have never been a Vikings fan. My blood runs blue for the Buffalo Bills. I’ve been a fan since the mid-80s and the glory years of Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas. It’s not always easy, but #GoBills.
(That’s a very ugly side to you, Sara, but I’ll overlook it, since you’re a guest. Go Jets!)
JR: Do you do a lot of research when you write?
SB: Absolutely. Most of my books are set in the Brainerd Lakes area of the state or on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and I occasionally need to be reminded of details of a certain place. For The Last Thing, I researched a great deal of things, from weeds in central Minnesota lakes to heart conditions that often go undetected. I also lean on real life subject matter experts when necessary.
JR: Here at the Tuesdays, a big part of our success and the purpose of this site, has been being involved in a critique group. Are you involved in one and if so, how has it helped you?
SB: Until the last couple of years, I was part of a critique group in the Twin Cities called MNYA Writers. I had to leave the group when my schedule got too busy, but I loved the monthly meetings, camaraderie, and encouragement. Two of those authors are still my critique partners, along with a couple of others outside of Minnesota. I’d love to be in a group like that again.
JR: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and is there any advice you can give to writers looking to break in?
SB: The best piece of advice I received was that I should try writing YA, because I had the voice for it. This came from Terry Davis, author of Vision Quest and one of my instructors at Mankato State, where I earned my MFA. He was quite right. For writers looking to break in, keep moving forward. Do one thing every day that will keep you on the path to your goal, even if it’s just jotting down some story notes on a receipt from the gas station as you shuttle your kids from one activity to the next.
JR: What are you working on next?
SB: I’ve completed another contemporary YA novel, Cold Day in the Sun, and am working on a manuscript called If You Were Here. It’s another dual POV, this one about a rock star’s son and the girl who inspired the song that relaunched his father’s career.
(Not the actual Rock Star’s son)
JR: Is there anything that else you want to share with our readers or perhaps tell them how they can follow you on social media?
SB: I’d love to connect on social media! Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And add The Last Thing You Said on Goodreads.
JR: Before we go, I always like to ask, who’s your favorite member of The Tuesdays? Is it, let’s just say, someone like me, or someone like Faran, who as everyone knows, spends weekends holding magnifying glasses to ants, just so he can hear the sizzle?
SB: Duuude, it’s Faran, because I, too, can sing all the words to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” The Storm Front tour is still one of my top concert experiences. And, as a former Media Manager at Best Buy, I agree that Tuesday is the very best day of the week (that’s when all the new release music and movies dropped, and I got first crack at them).
JR: I guess frying ants has become socially acceptable now. Whatever. Anyway, thanks again to Sara Biren, and best of luck with The Last Thing You Said!