Sarah Dessen reflects on being an author and Tar Heel
Chapel Hill author Sarah Dessen was just like any other UNC student when she was here: she biked across campus, had a part-time job and, of course, was obsessed with UNC basketball.
“A lot of my favorite memories from Carolina are basketball memories. It’s like a religion,” said Dessen, who graduated in December 1993 with highest honors in creative writing.
Dessen said she was in awe of the men’s basketball players she would see around campus, much like students still are today.
“I had a class with a basketball player one time and I absolutely loved him,” Dessen said. “He said ‘hi’ to me in Lenoir one time and I was so shocked I couldn’t even say ‘hi’ back.”
But after graduation is when Dessen’s story departs from most of her peers in the class of 1993.
Dessen is now a No. 1 New York Times Best-Selling Author of young adult novels. A mere four years after graduating, she was offered a teaching position in the creative writing department at UNC.
A few of her 11 books include “That Summer,” “Someone Like You,” “The Truth About Forever,” “Just Listen,” “What Happened to Goodbye” and her most recent book, released in June, “The Moon and More.”
“That Summer” and “Someone Like You” were adapted into the motion picture “How to Deal,” starring Mandy Moore and released in July 2003.
“The Moon and More” is about a girl named Emaline before she moves away to college, whose perception of life is changed by an eventful summer, Dessen said.
Dessen said she loves that people can change their lives in as short as a season.
“Over the summer people change, and they come back to school different,” she said.
And Dessen said she has experienced some of her favorite seasonal changes in Chapel Hill.
“There’s nothing more beautiful than early spring on campus,” she said.
Although Dessen was born in Illinois, she moved to Chapel Hill when her father was offered a job teaching in the English department in 1973.
“I feel like I’ve spent most of my life at Carolina, from my dad teaching in Greenlaw to me riding my skateboard in the Pit as a kid,” Dessen said.
As an undergraduate student at UNC, Dessen said she wasn’t involved in many clubs or activities. Soon after her junior year began, she got a job at The Flying Burrito, a now-defunct restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Dessen said she would wait tables at lunchtime before attending her night classes in the English department.
Longtime creative writing professor Jill McCorkle, who also graduated from UNC in 1980, taught one of Dessen’s first creative writing courses.
“Sarah was just one of the students that I knew from the moment she turned in her first assignment that if this was something she really wanted, she could do it,” McCorkle said.
McCorkle, who now teaches at N.C. State University, said she adored having Dessen as a student, and described her as funny, cheerful and serious about her work.
Dessen said that the confidence displayed by McCorkle and other professors in the creative writing program had helped her gain confidence in herself as a writer.
“It wasn’t until Carolina that I thought I could pursue writing as a career — I needed someone to tell me I could do it,” Dessen said.
For most writers, talent and hard work do not always equal the level of fame that Dessen has now, McCorkle said.
“Sarah is the real deal, and it’s been wonderful to watch her career take off,” she said.
McCorkle herself has written 10 books total — her most recent, “Life After Life,” was released in the spring.
“If you walk around the world with your eyes and ears open, you cannot possibly live long enough to write all the stories you encounter, but you should keep trying,” she said.
Dessen published her first book, “That Summer,” in 1996, and soon after did a reading at Bull’s Head Bookshop on campus.
English professor Marianne Gingher said she remembers attending the reading as director of the Creative Writing Program — a position she held from 1997 to 2002. Gingher said she was so impressed by Dessen’s poise, smarts and wit that she felt compelled to march back to her chairman’s office in the English department and beg him to authorize funding to hire Dessen.
“It didn’t take much begging at all. He was all for the hire, and so was Sarah,” Gingher said.
Dessen taught an Intro to Fiction Writing course at UNC from 1997 to 2005.
Creative writing professor Bland Simpson, who worked with Dessen in the department, said he remembers her fondly.
“(Sarah) taught with us a number of semesters and was an excellent, popular, enthusiastic teacher — as you might imagine,” Simpson said.
For Dessen, the shift from student to teacher was meaningful.
“I literally went from waiting tables to teaching at Carolina within a week,” she said.
Simpson, the Creative Writing Program’s director from 2002-08, said faculty members were glad to have her teaching in the program.
Although a successful UNC alumna and best-selling author now, Dessen said she had difficult times in high school, and sometimes the only place that she felt understood was in a book.
“If my books can help anyone imagine a world beyond high school, then that is the highest compliment I can receive,” Dessen said.