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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Opposite of Me: An Interview with Sarah Pekkanen

Sarah Pekkanen's debut novel, The Opposite of Me, was a Redbook magazine pick and won 3.5 out of 4 stars from People. The Opposite of Me has been sold in countries including Holland, Germany, Spain, Australia, China, and Italy - where it hit the bestseller list. If this sounds glamorous, please consider the fact that Sarah writes part of her books at Chuck E. Cheese while her children scream for more tokens.

Her second book, Skipping a Beat, will be published in February 2011. Sarah's novels are published by Washington Square Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. She is a former journalist whose articles have appeared in publications including The Washingtonian, The Washington Post, People, The Reader's Digest, The New Republic, The Baltimore Sun, and others. Sarah lives in Chevy Chase with her husband, three young sons and rescue lab Bella.

I recently read The Opposite of Me and LOVED it! I particularly related to the main character and the pressure she put on herself to succeed. I was so thrilled to talk to Sarah about why we women tend to do this, the labels we're given in our families, and more!

Shelly Rachanow: Your book, The Opposite of Me, has received some amazing reviews and you have been compared to writers like Jennifer Weiner and Emily Griffin – that’s amazing company to be in. Tell us more about The Opposite of Me.

Sarah Pekkanen: Thanks so much - believe me, I'm thrilled to be in the company of writers like Jennifer and Emily, since I adore every word they've ever written. When my agent called to tell me that Jennifer Weiner's editor wanted to buy my book, I had tears in my eyes!

The Opposite of Me is the story of 29-year-old twin sisters who have nothing in common - or so they think. Lindsey is the driven overachiever, while Alex sort of floats through life on the strength of her looks. But life as they know it changes for both sisters, and they're forced to re-think their relationship and the assumptions they've always made about one another.

Shelly Rachanow: When we first meet Lindsey, she’s working very long hours in a stressful job – something so many women can relate to. She also has placed a ton of pressure on herself to succeed, which is something else so many women can relate to! Why do you think so many women do this to themselves, especially when they don’t seem to be happier in the process?

Sarah Pekkanen: What a great question! I'm not sure how much of the pressure is internal or external, but I know that I was raised to believe I could do anything I wanted, which is an exhilarating and also scary prospect. I think because women were held back for so long, our generation carries a lot of hopes and expectations. We feel as though we should be able to do it all - but no one can, at least not without going a little nuts. Magazines that trumpet celebrity moms squeezing back into their size 2 jeans just weeks after giving birth certainly don't help. I wish we could all get together and admit that we don't floss enough, that we put on a baseball cap to cover up our gray roots, and that we inhaled a pint of Ben & Jerry's over the sink for dinner -- instead of worrying we don't measure up.

Shelly Rachanow: One of the themes of your book is the labels we’re given in our families when we’re young (i.e. the smart one, the pretty one, etc) and how these labels can shape our lives in the future. What made you decide to explore this topic in The Opposite of Me? Did you have a label in your family and, if so, how did it impact who you are today?

Sarah Pekkanen: I took a lot of psychology classes in college, and I'm always interested in the experiences that help shape us as individuals. I think the notion of identity is so fascinating. Probably like most of your readers, I switch hats a dozen times during the course of the day: I'm a parent, wife, writer, sister, friend.... I play different roles depending on, say, if I'm meeting with my kid's teacher, talking on the phone with an editor I want to impress, or grabbing a drink with my girlfriend. In a way, we're all shape-shifters, aren't we? It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly how my idea for this aspect of the book formed; I wish I knew! But I loved the idea of creating twins, then making them as different as possible. I've always heard about twins who are so close that one of them feels pain if the other one gets injured miles away - but I wanted to twist around that phenomenon. What if my twins had nothing in common? What if they weren't close at all?

I also think it’s very common in families for children to get certain labels, either spoken or unspoken – like the “pretty sister,” the “smart one,” the “drama queen,” or the “peacemaker.” I’ve always been curious about how those labels are formed – are they really a true reflection of who we are inside? It’s interesting to me that we can go out into the world and re-invent ourselves as adults, yet when we go home to visit our families, they still see us through the lens of our childhood roles. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, we get dragged kicking and screaming back into those roles! So I took both of those notions and spun them around in my mind for a while before they turned into the premise of my novel. The intersection of those themes – sisterhood and identity - is the heart of my novel.

In my family growing up, I often played the role of peacekeeper. I don't really like conflict, which is interesting, because my biggest challenge as a writer is trying to infuse it into my manuscript!

Shelly Rachanow: Balancing work and family is one of the biggest challenges facing women today, especially when we have young children as I know you do. How do you think we as a society can be more supportive of women or make things easier for women in the future?

Sarah Pekkanen: In an ideal world, women would have access to fabulous, inexpensive child care, generous paid maternity leave, and flexible work schedules. In fact, some of these benefits already exist in other countries, like France and Canada. It's a shame that women in our country are booted out of the hospital so quickly after having children, and that many have to return to work after just a few weeks off. I wish fathers had these benefits, too. Hopefully as more women rise in the government and private sector, we'll be able to carve out more supportive surroundings for all women.

Shelly Rachanow: What can you tell us about your next book? What can readers look forward to?

Sarah Pekkanen: SKIPPING A BEAT will be published by Atria Books/Washington Square Press on Feb. 22, 2011. Skipping a Beat is similar in tone and genre to The Opposite of Me, but the story is totally new. It's about a woman named Julia Dunhill who discovers that her husband has turned into a completely different man after a sudden, shocking medical trauma - and now he wants to rewrite all of the rules of their marriage. Julia, who sees pieces of her life in scenes from the world's great operas, has three weeks to decide if she should stay with Michael or leave him. Like my debut, it's set in the D.C. area (my hometown!).

Shelly Rachanow: And last, the 'If Women Ran the World Blog' question for everyone - What would you do if you ran the world?

Sarah Pekkanen: I'd make it more like kindergarten. Everyone would get a nap at 2 p.m, followed by a cookie and glass of milk. Think of how much happier we'd all be! Especially if the cookies were chocolate-chip.

To contact Sarah, visit:

Web site: http://www.sarahpekkanen.com/
Email: sarah@sarahpekkanen.com
Twitter: @sarahpekkanen
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Sarah-Pekkanen/215202723761?ref=mf

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