Sarah Dessen and Regina Hayes

The Slate Book Review author-editor interview.

Sarah Dessen and Regina Hayes
Author Sarah Dessen and her editor Regina Hayes

Photos (from left to right) courtesy of KPO Photo and Mardie Cohen

Regina Hayes has edited Sarah Dessen’s young-adult novels at Viking since 2001. As Dessen’s 11th novel, The Moon and More, comes out this month, Hayes and Dessen emailed each other about finding the right title, adding the right cameos, and writing the right boys (and the wrong ones).

Sarah Dessen: I’m really happy to have the chance to talk about the editing process. It’s something that I think doesn’t get the weight it deserves, especially with the rise of self-publishing. Maybe other writers have perfect first drafts, but I am not one of them. I always try to get the book as tight as I can, but you reach a point as the author where you have lost all perspective.

Regina Hayes: From my perspective you really don’t need much line editing; you have a very distinctive style that I wouldn’t want to change. So my initial editorial letter always has to do with bigger questions: structure, plot, motives.

Dessen: The day I get your editorial letter is always both exciting and terrifying. On the one hand, I’m glad to not be all alone battling the revision process anymore. On the other, I’m always sure you’re going to suggest something that I won’t be able to fix or do.

We do our revision exchange in a very old school way, with the editorial letter and actual manuscript and pencil edits. We couldn’t track changes in a Word document if you forced us! We joke that we’re Luddites (and we totally are) but I like being able to go through the manuscript page by page and make all the little changes first before I tackle the bigger ones you bring up in the letter. It just gets me back into the book slowly, and gives me a sense of control. Even if it’s a false one. 

Hayes: The girls in your books are always on a journey. The books are not problem novels, nor are they boy-meets-girl tales. They’re full, rich, stories about a person in transition, caught in a nexus of change. There is always a large, well-developed cast of characters, both major and minor. So my role, I think, is to provide a fresh eye on the overarching story and to ask a lot of questions.

Dessen: I think you’re right about how the books are always about a girl going through changes. It’s what makes the book so hard to describe and also difficult to categorize. It’s also why I am always so grateful that you write the flap copy that people read when they first pick up the book. Whenever anyone asks me what one of my books is about, I always say, “Well, it’s about this girl, and …” Twenty minutes later they have lost all interest but I am still talking.

Hayes: And then there are the boys. Of course they’re different from book to book, but they’re always quirky and/or artistic or musical, sensitive, tender­—and incredibly hot, natch.

Dessen: When I was a teen, I was never really into the captain of the football team or the student body president. The guys I liked were quirky and different: They listened to music I’d never heard of, never had lunch or gas money, and could always make you laugh. It’s one of the perks of being the person writing the story that you also get to fall in love along with your narrator, so I guess I am just making it easy on myself. What’s harder is when I know that the guy isn’t the One for a character, even if she doesn’t. It’s definitely more fun to make someone totally and truly appealing. Having someone appear that way, but turn out otherwise, is a bit trickier. You and I encountered this a bit in The Moon and More. You’ll jot comments in the margins like, “He’s such a jerk!” at the exact moment I can’t have my narrator or the reader thinking it. So I know then I need to adjust both the boy and the way I am writing him. 

Hayes: I’ve been reading through the correspondence about the books we worked on together—seven so far. It’s really been an eye-opener to remember how much work you put in to achieve a seemingly effortless result. Along for the Ride is a perfect example. I was surprised to see that we were worried initially about Auden’s likeability. In the first draft, she came across as a bit prissy and self-satisfied, disdaining all things girly and frivolous. But as you developed the back story of the divorced parents, the feminist/academic mother, the school she attended, the lack of congenial girls to be friends with, she emerged as a girl who had been denied a lot of normal teenage experiences and was rather clueless and wistful.

Dessen: I think that it is a common issue in my first drafts, the tendency to overmake a point. I’m usually so worried that I’m not crafting a character effectively that I do it over and over again, knowing that in editing we’ll be able to cut to the point where we have just what we need. As a writer, though, I’d rather have too much than not enough. Cutting is easy. Stretching is really hard. And just a bit of backstory can change everything.

Hayes: Your characters acquire a life of their own, so when one of them turns up in a different book, I have the feeling that I’m encountering an old friend – oh, hey, there are Wes and Macy having pancakes. Why did you start writing those cameos?

Dessen: I had so many requests for sequels! In the YA market especially, where there are so many good series, readers have become accustomed to knowing what happens next. But once I am done writing, editing, and promoting a book, I’m ready to think about something else. My readers are so loyal, though, and their connection with the characters so strong, that I wanted to do something to acknowledge how thankful I was. So I brought Scarlett from Someone Like You back in a small role in This Lullaby. The stories may be standalone, but I love that certain places—the convenience store, the mall, the coffee shop—are the same. Although I know it can be headache in terms of editing. I know more than once you and I have found ourselves saying, “OK, what was the name of that laundromat/coffee shop again?” It’s a lot to keep straight in your head. 

Hayes: I know! Keeping track of timelines, geography, etc. is neither of our strong points. Thank God for copy editors.

Dessen: I’ll agree with you that figuring out the timelines is my least favorite part of the copy-editing process. Even if I have my own calendar when I’m writing so I can keep track, the copy editor always proves me wrong somewhere. More than once I’ve gotten so frustrated, thinking, What reader is actually going to sit down and map all of this out on a calendar? But it has to be right, as frustrating as it seems. I know more than once in The Moon and More you wrote on the copy editor’s queries things like, “SIGH” and “!!!!!” I could so relate.

Dessen: You really go to bat for me with everyone at Penguin if marketing or publicity suggests something I don’t necessarily agree with. I think it must be a hard line for an editor, keeping both the creative and business sides happy, but you do it with grace. Is that difficult sometimes? 

Hayes: Yes, it is always walking a fine line in keeping as many people as possible happy. Sometimes it seems there are just too many cooks in the kitchen, but I have to remind myself that each person has an area of expertise that has to be respected. But it can drive you mad! I think the fights over jackets are the worst, especially because what we’re aiming for is so intangible and so subjective. What does it mean to have “a big book look”? And there have been the times when everyone in sales and marketing love a jacket, but you and I feel it doesn’t accurately represent the book. Do you remember the time we were all ready to send a jacket to the printer—I think it was This Lullaby—and I opened Publishers Weekly and saw the identical picture on another YA book? Argh.

Dessen: And what about everything we’ve been through with titles? I think it was you who suggested What Happened to Goodbye after it was pointed out that the first title, Cut and Run, might suggest another story altogether in an era of gritty YA about teens’ frightening problems.

Hayes: And we change titles for more prosaic reasons, too. The Moon and More was going to be Someone Else’s Summer, but sales was worried (probably legitimately) that it wouldn’t be kept on bookstore shelves once summer was over.

Dessen: I think it’s funny that we went through so much with The Moon and More. Considering how long we’ve worked together, you’d think it would be old hat by now. But certain parts just are hard with every book, regardless of our collective experience. I think with this one specifically, we had a lot of threads to keep track of: Emaline’s romantic relationships, as well as the push and pull of what was happening with her family, specifically her birth father. With that aspect in particular, I also think we had to realize that maybe there wasn’t going to be a classic happy ending, but rather a more realistic one. I’m such a romantic, I always want to tie everything up in a big pretty bow at the end. But as I get older, I’m realizing that there aren’t happy or unhappy endings. There are only endings.

Hayes: One thing your readers appreciate is that you are pretty frank about use of alcohol and drugs at high school parties. You also make reference to sex, and allow your characters to have a past. Do you get criticism from the gatekeepers for that?

Dessen: It’s funny. I think back in the late ‘90s, when I was first publishing, my books were considered a bit scandalous. I had a teenage pregnancy, an abusive relationship, and drug use, among other things. But these days I think they are pretty tame compared to a lot of what is out there. I do remember in Lock and Key, I originally had Ruby walking in on her sort-of boyfriend and her best friend, catching them in the act. You pointed out that maybe there was another way to show the betrayal and I changed it to the friend feeding the guy chocolates, which actually felt more intimate to me. But if it hadn’t, I would have kept it as it was. What’s been new to me has been critics on the other side, who think I don’t have enough sex. I’ve had people tell me my books aren’t true to the realities of teenage life for that reason. Honestly.

The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen. Viking.

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