Sarah Dessen is “missing North Carolina, desperately” while on the phone from New York, where she’s promoting the launch of her fourteenth published novel, Once and for All, at BookCon, BookExpo, and a series of signings. “I live out in the country, so this many days in Midtown Manhattan, I’m getting nostalgic for the grass and the trees,” Dessen says.
The UNC graduate and former professor will be back in the area soon enough, with signings at Quail Ridge Books on June 10 and Flyleaf Books on June 17 for Once, the tale of a wedding planner’s daughter who gets a second chance at romance after her first love ends in tragedy. Dessen, whose young adult novels have sold millions of copies internationally, says she drew from both her own wedding and the experiences of people around her for the novel’s premise—including the traditions of the “classic” Southern wedding.
“I had two babysitters that were planning weddings at the same time, and one was doing the larger, more traditional wedding with all these cultural rituals, while the other was doing one that was a more Pinterest, more modernized wedding—instead of lighting a unity candle, they poured a Mimosa and drank it together,” Dessen says.
“But what was interesting to me was that the weddings could not have been more different, but what the girls were going through was very similar—that pressure to have the perfect day, for everything to go well. And that made me think back to my own wedding, which was almost seventeen years ago, and I obsessed for a whole year about all these details, wanting everything to be perfect. But now, when I look back on it, it’s just this sort of happy blur, and I can’t remember all these specifics that were so important at the time.”
For the story, Dessen also wanted to explore the idea of “what if you were constantly being involved with other people’s weddings, instead of doing it yourself—what’s supposed to be the best day of someone else’s life,” she says.
“It deals with the pressure to have everything be perfect, and realizing that it can’t, and that’s a theme that runs through most of my books. Nothing’s going to be perfect forever, but you can have these nice moments, and I think that’s an important thing to realize.”
Dessen’s been chronicling the imperfect lives of imperfect teens since before some of her readers were born, starting with 1996’s That Summer, which was later adapted with her next novel, Someone Like You, into the Mandy Moore film How to Deal. Even though it’s been a few decades since she graduated high school, she’s found the confusion of adolescence has proven a relatable topic for multiple generations of readers.
“I was not very happy in high school,” Dessen says. “I always tell people, ‘If you don’t know everything, that’s okay!’ No one has it figured out by age eighteen. I just turned forty-seven yesterday, and there are still plenty of things I’m confused about. You always feel like you’re falling behind.”
Staying in the Triangle has also helped Dessen write in the voice of a teenager—it helps, she says, that she drives by her old high school on a regular basis.
“It helps me focus on the things that haven’t changed, that are perennial about the teenage experience—the issues with your parents, the issues with your friends, the things that are forever. If you get hung up on what’s current with slang, with technology, you’re going to be instantly dated.”
And with the summer wedding season in full swing, Dessen has some advice for the soon-to-be-wed: “Try not to obsess so much about every detail, because it’s when things happen that are unexpected that are the most memorable. You’ll at least wind up with a story to tell. If you’re as worried about the napkins as the band, you’re going to burn out—that’s what I did!”
Dessen appears at Quail Ridge Books and Music on Sunday, June 10 at 2 p.m., and at Flyleaf Books on Saturday, June 17, at 4 p.m. Both are signing line ticket events.