Sarah Pekkanen: The Mouse Head Years
Ten Girls to Watch is all about getting started in the world. Once you’re comfortably on your way, it’s easy to gloss over the early years. They were hard! Who wants to remember the hard stuff! But that’s a shame, because those of us still mucking through could use the commiseration and inspiration. Plus, stories from “the early years” are almost always sort of funny. Or almost always sort of funny if you’re willing to laugh at painful tragi-comedy, which I am.
If you are too, let the tragi-comic inspiration begin! Over the coming months I’m going to be interviewing all sorts of fabulous people about how they got their start. And to kick things off, I talked with the wonderful Sarah Pekkanen, whose third novel, These Girls, hits bookstores TOMORROW. Turns out, before her life was filled with best sellers, it was filled with severed mouse heads.
CHARITY: What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?
SARAH: I knew I had to write — it’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little girl. I never really considered doing anything else!
CHARITY: What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school? Was there anything that made it particularly awesome or awful?
SARAH: I began to work as a journalist in Washington, D.C. I think I secretly wanted to write fiction, but I had to earn a living, and newspaper reporting offered a steady paycheck. But it turned out to be terrific training, as I learned to write about a wide range of subjects on deadline. For a while I covered Capitol Hill, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’m much more interested in the lives of real, average people than in covering budget hearings (admit it – you dozed off when you read the words “budet hearings,” didn’t you?) But then I moved to the Baltimore Sun newspaper, and had the chance to write long narrative stories – feature stories that defy the traditional inverted pyramid style of newspaper reporting, and instead strive toward riveting storytelling. That was such a great bridge into writing novels!
CHARITY: What was your first real apartment like? Anything notably atrocious about it? (Mine, for example, involved bunkbeds. Nothing says success like business casual days and bunkbed nights).
SARAH: I lived in a house with a group of girls, and I took the basement because it was the cheapest room — for good reason. It was kind of scary and dark down there, with a cement floor. One of the girls had a cat, and the cat liked to kill mice and leave them on my pillow. I guess that’s the feline equivalent of the little chocolates you get on your pillow in fine hotels — severed mice heads! Also, the apparent abundance of nearby mice kept me up at night as I lay in bed. Sometimes I also imagined I could hear a serial killer breathing in the darkness just steps away. I really didn’t get a lot of sleep.
CHARITY: Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties?
SARAH: I worked for a small wire service that has since gone out of business, and it was an insane, but fantastic experience. Here we were, a group of reporters in our early 20s, and we were doing things like going to the White House for press conferences and nabbing U.S. Senators for impromptu interviews in the hallways of the Capitol. But the owner of the wire service was struggling financially, and our paychecks often bounced. So every Friday, when our paychecks were distributed, I’d look at mine and decide whether I should race to the bank – ahead of the pack of like-minded reporters who were desperate to cash their checks before the money ran out – or wait until Monday. If you waited until Monday, your check would sometimes bounce, and you’d get a $100 bonus the next week. So it really depended on whether or not I had enough in my bank account to make it through the weekend.
CHARITY: Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?
SARAH: I was sitting in the train station in New York, on a holiday weekend, waiting to wedge my way onto a packed train, when my cell phone rang. It was my agent calling to say that Greer Hendricks — the woman who edits Jennifer Weiner and Lauren Weisberger — wanted to publish my first novel. I just clutched the phone and closed my eyes and screamed as loud as I could, but on the inside. It was too crowded to let loose with a real yell.
CHARITY: How about a moment or experience where you finally felt like you’d “made it”?
SARAH: A friend of mine was on vacation in Italy, and she posted a photo to my Facebook wall. It was a picture of my second novel, translated into Italian and displayed in the window of a bookstore in Venice. It felt surreal! I’d just learned that my books were officially bestsellers internationally, and the moment was so sweet. Now I need to go to Italy to see those bookstore displays myself!
CHARITY: Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?
SARAH: I think Jennifer Weiner is incredibly generous to other authors, and she always promotes new female novelists. She inspires me to do the same.
A huge thank you to Sarah Pekkanen! Check back tomorrow for the amazing Ann Patchett’s tales of kitchen burns and cigarette rationing.