Sarah Dessen is 30 years old, has her name on the cover of four novels, and she teaches undergraduates. But she still gets mistaken for one. The first time Dessen went to get her mail, a secretary tried to chase her out of the faculty mail room because “students aren’t allowed in there.”

Dessen is used to being the kid around here. Her father has an office down the hall. When she was eight she would skateboard the rough red bricks in the pit, a gathering place near the student stores. At 10 she played volleyball with her brother at faculty picnics.

But she didn’t wear precious Carolina blue, and she didn’t dream of her name on a UNC diploma; her dad and mom taught here, for Pete’s sake. She figured she’d had enough of this place. In high school, the closest she wanted to get to it was the sundial at the Morehead Planetarium, where she and her friends would sneak a few cigarettes.

High school graduation came and went, and Dessen got accepted at UNC-Greensboro, thought she’d major in advertising. But before her first year was over, she was back in Chapel Hill. She got a job, never mind what, then started taking classes at Carolina. Shortly, she found Doris Betts’ creative writing class, and she knew. “That class reconnected me with writing,” she says. “I had been writing most of my life, since I was about six, except for the last couple years of high school when I was messing around and getting into trouble.”

Dessen eventually started going to Carolina full time, and she worked hard. Five years later, she was graduating with honors from the English department’s creative writing program. She had already finished her first novel (which today she calls “awful”) and was writing every day. She decided she didn’t want to stop. Since her junior year at Carolina, she had been waiting tables at the Flying Burrito, a Mexican place about a mile from campus. Three or four nights a week was enough to cover the necessities and a rented “shack” in Durham. And it left her days free to write. She told her parents she wouldn’t be sending out résumés.

Here’s where maybe a little luck, and definitely the right teachers, come in. Dessen took a class from Lee Smith, of “Southern writer” fame. Smith hired her as a part-time personal assistant (a lot of walking the dog and going to the post office). But Smith would read whatever Dessen wrote, and one day she put one of Dessen’s books in a cardboard box and sent it to her own agent. The agent liked it but had no immediate buyers. Then Smith mentioned that Dessen had another one, something that could fit the young-adult market. The agent said she’d read it. A month later, Dessen got a call. She had sold a book.

Her life didn’t change. The book, That Summer, came out in October, and in December she was still waiting tables, except that now, during a shift, she’d set down her tray once in a while to sign copies that customers had bought as Christmas presents.

But less than a year later, Dessen got rid of her tray for good. She read from That Summer at the Bull’s Head Bookshop, and in the front row was Marianne Gingher, director of Carolina’s creative writing program. Weeks later, Gingher called to offer Dessen a job as a creative writing lecturer. Without even asking what the salary was, Dessen said yes.

Dessen didn’t intend That Summer for young adults. She thought of it as simply a novel with a teenage narrator. But it did well, and the publisher wanted more. Writers of young-adult fiction are expected to turn out a book each year or so. Dessen seems to keep up with the pace easily; her mind and conversation run pretty much on high. And as she says, “It’s a good gig.” She loves hearing from her fans—preteen and teen girls who aren’t as jaded as adult readers. “I get these letters from girls who’ve connected so much with the book, and that’s really rewarding, something I wouldn’t have expected.” Dessen answers each one.

Still, Dessen also writes novels for adults; she’s got six sitting in drawers at home. Every couple years, she’s sent one to her agent, who always seems to like her young-adult books more.

When will that change? “I think a lot of it has to be me coming into my own adult voice and feeling confident about it,” Dessen says. “It’s comfortable writing in a format where people like what you’re writing and say nice things about you. But a risk can be exciting.”

Her most recent young-adult book, Dreamland, takes a few risks. It’s aimed at an older teenage audience; the protagonist has a drug problem and an abusive boyfriend. After a flurry of readings and appearances to promote Dreamland, Dessen would like to take a step back to figure out what story she wants to tell next—whether it fits the young-adult category or not.

Dessen was 26 when she wrote That Summer. Since then, she’s gotten married, has traded waiting tables for a “real” job, and she and her husband have moved out of the shack and into a house he built. “It’s very easy for me to write about high school. But I don’t think I could do it forever,” she says. “I’m growing up, and my characters will too.”


Like any writer, Sarah Dessen has gotten the inevitable bad reviews; one, for her second book, from the Daily Tar Heel. Dessen clipped it out and carried it around in her purse to show to people. “This girl just slammed the book up and down, up and down,” Dessen says. Okay, but it was the Daily Tar Heel—respectable as far as student newspapers go but not exactly the New York Times Book Review, which had given the book a good mention that same week.

Even so, Dessen kept the clipping for a year. Finally, at a wedding, when Dessen pulled it out for yet another viewing, her best friend flushed it. It’s something that could happen in one of Dessen’s books, where one good friend can usually make everything okay, whether she teaches you to tweeze your eyebrows or agrees to be your Lamaze partner. Her teen heroines start out timid but by the end are more sure of who they are. “Really believing in your sense of self,” Dessen says, “I think girls need to hear that, especially in high school and junior high.”

That Summer was named a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association. Dessen’s second novel, Someone Like You, was a School Library Journal Best Book. Her third, Keeping the Moon, was an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and a School Library Journal Best Book.