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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Author Sara Zarr won the 2005 Utah Arts Council competition.

To get your first young-adult novel published by Boston's prestigious Little Brown is a feather in the literary cap — just ask Sara Zarr.

Because she's just 36 years old, it also sounds like the Salt Lake writer started at the top. But not exactly. It's been a dozen years since Zarr began her publishing quest.

Born in Cleveland and raised in San Francisco, she earned a degree in communications from San Francisco State. She says her first book, about a girl and her guitar, was too sad to receive much attention.

Zarr was smart enough to get an agent, but she was shy about bugging him.

By the time she and her husband had moved to the Avenues in Salt Lake City, she had written four books, dismissed her agent and learned a ton about the world of publishing.

"I've been in Salt Lake for seven years and I really love it," Zarr said during an interview in the Deseret Morning News offices. "I have no desire to go back to San Francisco."

Her golden manuscript — number four — turned out to be "Story of a Girl," set in Pacifica, a bedroom community of San Francisco.

The story centers on Deanna Lambert, a 13-year-old girl whose life is turned upside down after her father finds her in the back seat of a car in a sexual encounter with 17-year-old Tommy. Not only is she treated badly by her father, but she gets a reputation in school as being easy. The story centers on how Deanna turns her life around despite seemingly overwhelming odds.

When Zarr finished the book in 2005, she submitted it to the Utah Arts Council competition and "Story of a Girl" was selected as the best young-adult novel of 2005. "I have to say that doors don't fly open at the sound of state arts-council prizes, but it was great to have something to put in a query letter. It was also a psychological boost. And I found a new agent after that. By May of 2005, he got me a two-book contract with Little Brown."

Zarr and her agent revised the manuscript together before he sent it out to publishers.

Her second book with Little Brown will be set in Salt Lake City and is about a boy and girl who were elementary-school sweethearts. He moves away and returns in their high school years, and they try to pick up their relationship. "It's about the power of shared experiences. I'm not really a plot writer — I'm more interested in the characters and sort of small events that propel the story forward."

Ironically, Zarr sees herself as "a little scared of teenagers — I always think I'm not cool enough to be around them. I wouldn't say I'm stuck in my adolescence, but I think, like a lot of people, I carry my teen years with me. I feel really in touch with those feelings, and how intense and complicated life seems in those years."

Zarr considers the emotions teens experience to be timeless. "If you worry about what's trendy, in a few years readers may not know what you're talking about. There is some slang in the book but, I don't think, enough to date it. Everyone has an identity crisis when they are 16 or 17 years old. This family doesn't do a very good job at it, but that's like real life."

The author suspects that some potential readers will not get into this book because parents are afraid of dealing with the sex issue — and she doesn't blame them for that. "But eventually young people have to learn to filter out what is appropriate or not on their own. I tried to tell the story in a way that is as authentic as I could make it."

Zarr writes in an inviting, down-to-earth way and treats the issue of teen sex in a delicate manner, with no graphic description. She portrays believable characters coping with typically horrendous problems in their teen years. And her dialogue does seem authentic.

She doesn't believe in writer's block; she thinks when a writer feels afflicted with it, she just needs to apply self-discipline.

And she doesn't consciously write message books, though there are lessons that can be gleaned from the book — especially about the relationship between parents and teens.

Still, Zarr thinks some people expect too much from young-adult novels. "They want them to teach a lesson, to be uplifting, to be above reproach — yet there is a huge range of interest in the genre. I just did the best I could with it."

Above all, Zarr intended only to tell what she considered to be a good story. And the only autobiographical aspect she used was the strained relationship between father and daughter. Her own father was an alcoholic, and even homeless for several years, so she missed him and yearned for the validation of her life that only parents can provide. "It's hard for girls. Every girl needs a good male role model in her life. Even if Deanna's father had said, 'It's OK, I love you anyway,' it would have made a huge difference.

"My mom was great with me, and I had a great stepfather by the time I was in high school. So high school was better for me. I really just made up this story."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com