By Laurie Paolicelli
Chapel Hill resident Sarah Dessen is the author of more than a dozen novels, including the New York Times bestsellers The Moon and More, What Happened to Goodbye, Along for the Ride, Lock and Key, Just Listen, The Truth About Forever, and This Lullaby. Her first two books, That Summer and Someone Like You, were made into the movie How to Deal.
Gather the family together this holiday season, turn on Netflix and watch a new film based on her work, Along for the Ride, an entertaining story for all ages.
In Along for the Ride, Auden (Emma Pasarow) finds a perfect place to escape for the summer and start anew in Colby, North Carolina. In the small, beach-side town, everyone knows one another and her estranged father resides with her stepmother and their newborn baby. Auden’s summer in Colby leads to friendship, self-discovery, and a newfound interest in onion rings and bike rides.
Colby, of course, doesn’t actually exist. Sarah has said that Colby is based on the town of Emerald Isle, North Carolina, which she visited in the summer when she was growing up. And, true to her childhood, the movie was shot in several towns along the North Carolina coast. For locations, visit this site.
Sarah graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with highest honors in creative writing. After graduating, she worked as a waitress at the famous Flying Burrito Restaurant, writing all day and working at night. After the publication of her first novel, she quit the Burrito for a teaching position at University of North Carolina in English department. Now she writes full-time.
We had a chance to sit down with Sarah and talk about her work, her family, and her life.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer/storyteller?
I was always a reader, which I think is where it all started. I loved books and stories and hated when my favorite ones ended. So I started writing my own. As a kid, I had a little desk and a typewriter in our TV room – this was the seventies – where I’d sit and write. In high school, I took a creative writing class with a teacher named Mr. Sonnenberg. He basically let us write whatever we wanted, and I did a bunch of stories about my friends and the people I was hanging out with on Franklin Street after school. My friends would pass them around between periods. I loved that. But it wasn’t until college, at UNC, that a professor told me I was a writer and I began thinking I could do it for real. Sometimes, someone else has to say it first.
You had many options on where to live, why did you decide to stay in Chapel Hill?
My husband and I both grew up here. (He was one of the people I hung out with after school on Franklin Street.) In our twenties, we talked about moving. But our families were here, and I was teaching at UNC. And by our thirties, a lot of our friends who had moved away were coming back. We built a house out in the woods in 1999, and we’ve watched the town change ever since. Very different from the “village” of our childhood. But it’s still so special. Seeing my daughter riding her skateboard around campus, just like I did, is indescribable. In the best way.
What is one of the sweetest pieces of feedback you’ve received from a YA reader?
I’m always so touched by people who tell me how my books got them through high school. Because that was me, clinging to a paperback in a carrel at the CHHS library, just trying to endure another lunch with a shattered heart. (Long story.) I love the idea that if someone else is struggling with friends, family, relationships, identity, and everything else that one of my books can help, even in some small way. Sometimes stories are all we have.
What keeps you up at night?
My personal witching hour is around 2:22 am. That’s when I jolt awake and remember about the state of the world and climate change and the fact that I am a parent, somehow responsible for another human being. There’s not a lot to do about all this then, though. So I do what I’ve always done: tell myself a story – ideally a happy one – until I fall back asleep. Like I said, sometimes it’s all we have.
Sarah Dessen’s work – and the films inspired by her work – are rooted firmly in Chapel Hill, the town she’s lived in all her life. But like her characters in Along for the Ride, she wanders far and wide, to the beautiful Carolina coast a mere two hours away. Like a favorite book by our favorite author, Kure, Atlantic, Topsail, Emerald Isle – everyone has their favorite beach, one we return to again and again and again.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.