A Conversation with Sarah Pekkanen, Author of The Opposite of Me
1. What was the inspiration for your book? Is it based on any real events in your life?
Nope; it’s pure fiction. I’m lucky to have two brothers I adore, but I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a sister. I’m fascinated by the rich, complex relationships my friends have with their sisters – so when it came time to write The Opposite of Me, I made the relationship between Lindsey and Alex as messy and loving and complicated and competitive as possible.
I’m also intrigued by the way people get assigned certain labels in their family, like the “smart” one, the “pretty sister,” the “drama queen,” or the “peacemaker.” What if those labels don’t fit how we feel inside? What if they’re all wrong for who we are really meant to be?
2. What do you think the term “chick lit” means today? Is that what you would consider this story?
I think chick lit refers to fun, smart books about women who are figuring out their choices in life. As in every other genre, there is a wide range of books - some better than others. I’m not sure if The Opposite of Me will be classified as chick lit. I’m just hoping people will think of it as a good book!
3. Have you had bosses like the ones in the story? Or were you that type of driven employee yourself?
Luckily, I’ve never had the kind of bosses Lindsey had in New York (though I’ve had several bosses who turned into friends, like May did with Lindsey). I’m not especially driven – I watch far too much Reality TV and I have a love affair with Sunday afternoon naps -- but I am passionate about writing. I can’t imagine my life without it. It’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a child, when I used to get in trouble in school for not paying attention and wandering into the wrong classroom ten minutes after the bell rang. I was busy creating stories in my mind – and I still do it today, which means I often miss my exit on the highway and don’t realize it until half an hour later. By the way, my husband just loves this quality in me.
4. You are from Maryland yourself; did you find it easier to write about an area you knew?
Definitely: I knew it would be fun to write about my hometown and give cameos to my favorite spots and restaurants. But someday I’d love to stretch my imagination and create a fictional town as a setting, too. Can you imagine the sense of power as you create tall buildings and lakes and highways while you sip your morning cup of coffee?
5. Why did you decide to make Lindsey and Alex twins? Do you think that creates a special bond or competition between them?
I’ve always heard that twins do have a special connection, and some even create their own language as babies, or have a physical reaction at the precise moment something bad happens to the other one miles away. But when I sat down to write, I wondered what would happen if Lindsey and Alex were complete opposites. What if they had absolutely nothing in common, yet were constantly compared because they were twins? How would that shape their relationship?
6. The parents were such lovable, fun characters. Are they based on your own parents, or were you just hoping to add a lighthearted touch to the story?
Thank you! They’re completely fictional, although my parents read The Opposite of Me and expressed suspicion about a few similarities (my parents adore Ikea’s low-priced breakfasts, lingonberries and all). I love books that make me laugh, so I wanted Lindsey and Alex’s parents to provide some comic relief. I grew really fond of the parents, and hope readers will, too.
7. Have you ever gone on a blind date? Why was that a field you decided to throw Lindsey into?
I’ve never been on a real blind date – I can only imagine the angst and phone calls to my friends and quantity of hair care products involved! - but I thought a dating service would provide such great material for a novel that I couldn’t resist making it Lindsey’s new workplace. It was interesting to dream up all the reasons why someone would seek out a dating service, and I tried to give Lindsey an eclectic mix of clients.
8. I’m sure everyone is curious: is honey on popcorn actually good?
Ooh, it’s so good. One of my sons’ babysitters made it that way once, and I loved it. As Alex says, it’s “worth the sticky fingers.” Try it!
9. Finally, what projects are you working on now?
I’m diving into the next book, which isn’t a sequel and doesn’t have a title yet (I’m terrible at coming up with titles; my editor dreamed up The Opposite of Me after I suggested a few clunkers). And I’m gearing up to meet with lots of groups and book clubs who want to discuss The Opposite of Me – please contact me via my website at www.sarahpekkanen.com if you’d like for me to visit or phone in to chat with your group!
Jodi Picoult interviews Sarah Pekkanen about writing, motherhood, and the magic of female friendships…
Jodi:These Girls explores the nuances of female friendships. How hard was it to create a sense of realism between your main characters - Cate, Renee, and Abby - and how much of that came from your own personal experience in your relationships with female friends?
Sarah: Female friendships are vitally important to me, which is why I dedicated These Girls to my girlfriends, especially one I call my “frister” (a friend who turned into a sister). I’m surrounded by wonderful guys – I have two brothers and three sons – and I adore them. But female friendships nurture and uplift me, and I find them so textured and fascinating, which is why I’m drawn to writing about them. I love it that my girlfriends and I – often aided by a bottle or two of wine – can hopscotch from serious to silly to painful topics during the course of a single conversation, and end the night feeling as if we could’ve talked forever. I drew on all of those emotions while writing These Girls.
Jodi: Your main characters in this book come to reevaluate what's important in life as they navigate the complications of careers and love. As someone with three young children, and who has enjoyed a bit of success now as a novelist, how do you prioritize what's important in life? Has this changed as you've grown older?
Sarah: I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was a little girl. After college, I covered feature stories for The Baltimore Sun newspaper, but when my first son was born, I left that job because it required a long commute and frequent travel. And when I suddenly stopped writing, I felt as if I’d lost a crucial piece of myself. But I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile my need to write with my need to be with my children. Then one night after the kids were asleep (by then I had two young boys), I sat down in front of on my computer and began to type. The words poured out of me, and turned into my first novel, The Opposite of Me. I never forget for a moment how lucky I am to have a flexible job that I adore, and it’s fairly easy for me to work in writing time around my kids’ schedules. My family is my priority, but I know I’m a happier – and better - Mom when I’m writing, too.
Jodi: As someone who has twists in books all the time, I get asked about my endings a lot. These Girls, too, has quite a surprise in store for the reader. Did you know it would end this way before you started writing the book, or did that evolve?
Sarah: I love books that contain twists (which is one reason why I’m a big Jodi P. fan!), and I knew even before I wrote the first line of These Girls that it, like my previous two novels, would pack a big surprise at the end. I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries and sometimes I even deconstruct them, studying how an author put together pieces of the puzzle and used tension-building techniques like foreshadowing. It’s my hope that readers feel as if my books have the same page-turning quality as a thriller - but with less blood and mayhem, of course!
Jodi: What advice would you give to someone who is trying to break into writing as a career?
Sarah: Treat writing like exercise – you need to do it nearly every day to get results. For people who say they’re too busy to write a book, I’d encourage them to search for little windows of time in their day. Maybe wake up half an hour earlier than usual, or carry around a notebook and write a few paragraphs on the bus ride into work. Jodi, I remember that you and I once chatted about how we both wrote in car-pool pick-up lines outside of our kids’ schools because it was one of the few quiet times we could carve out of the day. I’d advise other writers to fight for those little snippets of time, and the page count will pile up, slowly but surely.
Jodi: What is the most bizarre fan encounter you've ever had?
Sarah: I love that you asked me this question, because it was the very first question I ever asked you! Years ago, I was writing a newspaper article on strange things that happen to big-name authors at booksignings, and you told me about the time someone asked if you’d ever consider writing non-fiction. You replied that it seemed daunting because one had to be meticulous about getting every single fact straight… and then you brought up James Frey, who got into trouble for making up parts of his memoir A Million Little Pieces. And a few minutes later, the librarian in charge of your booksigning brought over two audience members to meet you: James Frey’s parents. This was during the time when Oprah was eviscerating him, but you merely brought up his situation as an example and didn’t pass judgment or make a joke. I thought it was very classy, and even his parents weren’t bothered by your comment, which says a lot.
So… as for my most bizarre fan encounter, I’d have to say it was the time when my husband and I took our three kids out to dinner at a busy restaurant. One of our sons was very tired and cranky – we later learned he hadn’t eaten lunch at school that day – and while we were waiting for a table, he completely melted down, crying and whining. We quickly left, and then my two-year-old tripped and fell on the sidewalk and he started crying too. So there we were, this hot mess of a family, and suddenly a woman stopped and pointed at me and yelled, “Aren’t you Sarah Pekkanen? I love your writing!” And that remains, to this day, the first and only time I have ever been recognized in public. (And I’m still kicking myself for not answering, “No! I’m J.K. Rowling!”)
"Sarah Pekkanen's latest celebrates the healing power of female friendship for three very different young women sharing a NYC apartment. At turns bittersweet, laugh-out-loud funny, and painfully real, you'll wish you could move in with these girls." —Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of Lone Wolf and Sing You Home