An Interview with Sarah Pekkanen, Author of “Chick Lit with Grit”
April 30, 2012 by Jada.Bradley
Sarah Pekkanen, author of the recently published novel These Girls, was born in New York City and grew up in Bethesda, MD. Like many a writer before her, Pekkanen spent a good deal of time perusing local bookstores–including the Bethesda Barnes & Noble and Politics & Prose–to dream and conduct research for her future writing career.
Before she began writing novels that center on women and their relationships to themselves and those around them, she wrote for The Baltimore Sun. Pekkanen lives in the DC area and she communicated with us via e-mail.
inReads: You were born in New York City and moved to Bethesda as a child. Like you, a number of your characters find themselves leaving New York City for the DC area ( or vice versa). Did you consciously decide to have characters divide their time between your two homes?
Sarah Pekkanen: It wasn’t so much a conscious decision as one that stemmed naturally from my own personal circumstances, since the DC area and New York City are the two places I know best. I grew up in Maryland and returned here in my early 30s, and I visit New York every couple of months for meetings with my agent and publisher. I like being able to visualize local restaurants like Matchbox, intersections like Wisconsin and M Streets, and parks like Candy Cane City and give them cameos in my novels.
I haven’t lived in too many different places, though I love to travel, so I may start taking notes on my next vacation and use the location as the setting for a book! (That is, if we ever go anywhere but Disneyworld… we have three young kids, in case you haven’t guessed).
inReads: You found your agent using information from books but cemented your relationship via e-mail. How has the online world, including Twitter, been helpful in connecting with readers? Other writers?
Pekkanen: Social media has completely transformed the writer-reader relationship. Every day, I hop on Twitter and Facebook to chat and joke around with folks, and I thoroughly enjoy it. Often, I talk about what I’m writing and I even ask people to participate in the process. For example, twice now my readers have helped me name characters (I send them signed advanced copies of my novels by way of thanks).
I love being able to instantly connect with readers, and I’ve formed real friendships with some of them, despite the fact that we’ve never met. It’s the same way with other authors. For example, Jen Lancaster and I met via social media, hit it off, and now we’re doing a joint talk at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in May. Eleanor Brown, who wrote a wonderful book called The Weird Sisters, became a good friend after she and I contributed to a group writer’s blog – and now we see each other socially whenever possible. If any [inReads] followers want to find me on Facebook or Twitter, please do!
inReads: How was your experience writing a short stories for the Kindle? Did you write these specifically for the Kindle or were these stories you’d written before?
Pekkanen: Writing a short story was an exhilarating experience, tinged with a healthy dose of deadline-induced terror. I got a call from my editor at Atria/Simon&Schuster late on a Thursday, asking if I’d be willing to write an original short story. I told her I’d never written one, but I’d love to give it a try. She said she’d get back to me with a deadline, and a few minutes later, I had one: I needed to turn it in first thing Monday morning.
At this point, I didn’t even have an idea for a story! But my agent, editor and I batted around a few thoughts, and then on Friday I just plunged in and began to write. It was an incredible challenge, because as I mentioned I have three young kids, but my husband stepped in and took over most of the childcare so I could glue myself to my laptop. I was signing books at a festival in Annapolis that Sunday, and I literally edited the story in between customers. I sent it to my editor, and a few weeks later, “All is Bright” was published for e-readers for 99 cents. It ended up selling really well, so I wrote a follow-up story called “Love, Accidentally” last year, and I’m writing another one this summer. All of my stories have crossover characters, and I love the creative challenge of writing 40-page stories that can stand alone but also enhance each other.
inReads: Once at an event, you told the story of how your publisher had to start from scratch with the cover for one of your books because a book in the same genre that used the same stock photo was published before yours. Has that happened since? How much input do you have in cover design?
Pekkanen:Believe it or not, it has happened to me twice! It’s highly unusual – in fact, my editor has never had this happen to another one of her authors. It’s very common for cover designers to use stock photos and then tweak them, but the original image is still recognizable, so we scrapped the cover for my first book, The Opposite of Me, and the designer re-created it.
It ended up working out for the best, in my opinion, because I liked the second cover so much better! For These Girls, another book came out with a similar cover, but it was in a different genre and so we went ahead and kept the cover. Generally, authors don’t have a lot of control over their covers, which I think is a good thing. My contracts state that I have “right of consultation” and I usually weigh in with some thoughts. Some of them are incorporated, while others aren’t, and that’s fine by me. I figure the experts know what they are doing.
inReads: So far, the covers for your books don’t show women’s faces but we may see your characters onscreen. You recently told The Washington Post that you are getting into screenwriting and one of your books may be made into a TV show in China. How do you think your books will change when they are brought to the screen?
Pekkanen: We’ve been approached by a big television company in Beijing about turning The Opposite of Me into a 30-hour miniseries, and I really hope it happens! My books are sold in 10 countries, including China, but just as I have very little to do with the translation-rights process (other than signing contracts), I won’t be involved in any television production overseas. The language barrier alone would prevent it. However, I’m so eager to move into screenwriting and am planning to approach it the same way I did publishing – I’ll learn about the business, study the craft, and then produce original material.
Most books are changed when they evolve into film, and it’s hard to predict how mine might be. For example, The Oppostie of Me is set in D.C. and New York, and I have no idea if it would be reformulated to have Beijing by the central location if this project becomes a reality. I’m curious and excited about the prospect, either way. In general, I’m interested in all kinds of storytelling, and now that I’ve written for magazines and newspapers, as well as published short stories and novels, screenwriting seems like the natural next step in my writing life.
About The Author:
Jada Bradley (jadabradley.com) is a Washington DC-based writer and educator who enjoys telling stories in formal and informal ways. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and online. She holds Masters in Spanish Translation and is a great supporter of creative expression in the various forms it takes. She also writes about local cultural events as D.C. Cultural Events Examiner for Examiner.com. Her blog, In Other Words, can be found at inotherwordz.blogspot.com.