Q&A With: Author Sarah Pekkanen
Author from DC area talks new novel, writing process, and how Washington influences her work.
May 15, 2012
Sarah Pekkanen, the Bethesda-based former journalist and international bestselling novelist, gives Capitol File the scoop on her new book, chick-lit stigmas, and the constant influence of the Washington area on her writing.
Tell us about what inspired you to pen your new novel, These Girls.
SARAH PEKKANEN: I wanted to write a novel celebrating the rich, nurturing bonds of female friendships for a few reasons. First, it seemed like the natural progression in my books, since all of my novels focus on the important relationships in a woman's life. My first book, The Opposite of Me, is about sisterhood. My second, Skipping a Beat, is about marriage.
These Girls, my third novel, is about female friendships. And because friends are so important to me personally, I was eager to plunge into the creation of three very different women who become roommates in New York City and form an incredible friendship. The current novel is told from alternating points of view of my main characters—Cate, Renee, and Abby—and each of these women is carrying a painful secret. They end up finding the emotional lifelines they need in each other.
How do you develop the characters for your books?
SP: I don't base characters on people I know—even though I can't tell you how many times people have suspected that they're the inspiration for a character! But everything I write is inspired by reality. All of my observations and thoughts and ideas are filtered through a kaleidoscope then sprinkled onto the page.
I also did some interesting research for These Girls, which is set in the world of glossy magazines. I went to New York and had a staff writer for a big magazine sneak me into headquarters early one morning. I got a great behind-the-scenes tour and some juicy gossip, which appears in a slightly different form in my novel.
How do you balance your characters' lighter moments with more serious topics in your novels?
SP: I love books that give readers insight into their own lives and relationships, but not in a heavy-handed way. I also love books that make me laugh. So writing books that delve into painful topics without feeling heavy or depressing is my way of trying to blend what I like most to read into my own novels. I also shy away from endings where everything is neatly wrapped up. I like uplifting endings, but not ones that are unrealistically perfect, because life never follows that script, as much as we'd like for it to.
You grew up in Bethesda and have spent most of your life in or around the District. How does Washington fit into your writing?
SP: I always work cameos of my hometown in my novels! My first two books were set in the D.C. area and Bethesda, and even though These Girls unfolds in New York, one of my characters has been living and working in Silver Spring, and we see her in that setting quite a bit. It's fun to go to a park or restaurant and think, "How can I work this into my next book?"
Where do you write? Do you have any rituals to get you into the right head space to create your characters and their dialogue?
SP: I wish I had some elegant, impressive story about my glamorous writing life, but the truth is, I have three young boys and I write on the fly. I've piled up pages in the orthodontist's waiting room, in the carpool pick-up line, at the movie Kung Fu Panda—anywhere and everywhere I can find a little pocket of time.
But now that I'm on a book-a-year schedule, I find that getting in a few big chunks of writing time really helps me meet my deadlines. Luckily I speak at book festivals every couple of months, so train or plane trips, combined with a night in a hotel room, allow me not only an uninterrupted night's sleep, but the chance to wake up early, order a pot of coffee, and write for hours. It's blissful!
You've been compared to authors such as Jennifer Weiner and Emily Giffin—that's a tall order in the world of women writers! How do your novels differ from what could be described as classic "chick lit?"
SP: Chick lit sometimes gets a bad rap, because people seem to think it centers around shoe shopping and dating. But writers like Jennifer and Emily delve into much more serious topics, and I aim to do the same in my novels. I don't have any problem with the label chick lit, unless it's used in a derogatory way. Most of the women I know are navigating the same issues—relationships and work—and my books center around those topics.
What’s next for you?
SP: I'm thrilled that I recently signed a new, three-book deal with my publisher, Atria Books, which is an imprint of Simon & Schuster. So I'll have a new novel coming out every spring through 2015! My novels are now being published in a total of 10 countries, which is also really exciting (the latest country to buy translation rights is Russia).
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.