Young adult novelist Sara Zarr is no stranger to the genre, with three award-winning books to her name (Story of a Girl, Sweethearts, and Once Was Lost, which Her.meneutics contributor Laura Leonard reviewed last spring). Her latest book, How to Save a Life (Little, Brown, 2011), received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and landed on its "Best of 2011" list.

How to Save a Life is the story of several lives that need saving: 18-year-old Mandy Kalinowski is pregnant and has been sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. Robin MacSweeney, who was unexpectedly widowed 10 months before, is adopting Mandy's baby. Jill, Robin's daughter, isn't sure how to define herself or fit into the world now that her father, one of her best friends, is gone. And, of course, there's Mandy's baby.

The story opens with an exchange between Mandy and Robin, setting up an undocumented adoption. As Mandy moves in with Robin for the final weeks of her pregnancy, Jill must come to terms with the stranger living in her house and rekindle relationships she cut off after her father died. The story comes across as a heartfelt, sincere approach to young grief and love as Mandy and Jill both learn to move past despair.

Zarr lives in Salt Lake City with her husband, Gordon, a teacher. She enjoys Flannery O'Connor's book of essays, Mystery and Manners, and used O'Connor's short story title, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," as the epigraph for How To Save a Life.

"She's a writer that all the popular people in Christian arts and faith circles talk about all the time," Zarr said. "I tried reading Wise Blood two years ago, and I need someone to explain it to me. I don't want to pretend like I'm some intellectual person who understands Flannery O'Connor."

Zarr has blogged about theology, adoption, and How to Save a Lifehere and blogs on her website here. She talked with Her.meneutics' Ruth Moon about faith and writing.

The first thing that came to mind with your book title was the song by The Fray. Is that why you picked that title?
I liked the idea of everyone thinking the life being saved in this story is the life of Mandy's baby. But in truth, Mandy and Robin's choice to enter into the adoption is saving their own lives in a lot of ways. Mandy in particular thinks she's doing this for the baby, and that's part of her motivation, but she's a girl who desperately needs saving. She's smart enough to recognize that the life she's in is not going to take her anywhere good, and she needs better models of what it is to be an adult.

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Jill says early in the book, "Love is just a word we use to describe what boils down to a selfish and temporary state of happiness." How does her idea of love evolve?
The questions Jill has about love are probably questions or thoughts I've had in trying to understand what love—familial love, romantic love, friendship love—is. So when my characters are questioning things, it's not me leading up to an answer; it's me asking those same questions and letting the characters' lives unfold and seeing where it takes them. It was not an intentional discovery of love. I don't know if she really has answers, but I think she has more faith that love isn't just a false promise.

How has your faith developed?
I grew up in San Francisco in the 1970s. We were part of a church that belonged to the California Jesus movement. I never stopped going to church. I took some breaks in my adulthood, but the idea of the church as community was really ingrained in me. I always felt that church is where I'm going to find my community and people to live my life with. So when I got married, my husband grew up Lutheran and we decided to find a church together. Now we go to a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) church. I'm always in a place that is sincere but conflicted about different things that come with being a Christian and being an active, churchgoing Christian.

Did you make a conscious decision to not market your books through a Christian publishing house?
I always had characters in mind who were getting themselves into emotional trouble and practical complications. I didn't want to be asked to redeem everything all the time by the end and have a "message." I just wanted to tell these stories. I wanted to be free to write the way I wanted to write, and my impression of Christian publishing, at least in fiction, was that there wasn't room for what I wanted to write. One of my favorite authors is Robert Cormier. He was a devout Catholic and a very nice man, which might not be the impression you get from reading his books. They're really dark and disturbing. I always loved those books. So I felt like he was an inspiration for me—you can have sincere, devout faith and still go to dark places with your writing, if that's what you need to do.

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How does faith play into your writing, particularly this book?
How to Save a Life started with a writing prompt. It wasn't until I was done that I looked at it and [realized it echoes] some of the themes in all my books: family, choosing family and trying to love and failing and trying to receive love and failing, being let down and letting other people down but sticking in there anyway. That definitely connects to my experience of family, my experience of church community, and the idea of home that I'm looking for. I always think about what my pastor says before Communion –"This isn't a table for perfect people." Family or love or romance, whatever it is, is not restricted to perfect people. If it were, it wouldn't exist. All of that comes out in my work in some way.