Our friend Lara Zielin celebrated the launch of her first young adult novel, Donut Days, this month. At a well-attended event at an Ann Arbor bookstore, Lara talked about how Donut Days would never have gotten published if she hadn’t been willing to bring it real.
She had to accept and love herself in order to write an honest book that tells a real story — she’d been kicking around drafts of Donut Days for years, but once she infused more of her life experiences and her point of view, her agent sold the revised manuscript in a matter of weeks.
On a recent vacation on Block Island, Lara and I talked over a couple of glasses of wine about the transformation she’s gone through since we met. The smiling, sparkling happily married Lara is nearly unrecognizable as the girl I met about a decade ago. She was unhappy in her first marriage, unhappy on her job and probably most important, unhappy with herself.
“Looking back, I know that being married to my first husband made me afraid to do anything because there was so much judgment there.” She felt his criticism about her weight, her job, her posture, who she spent time with.
While their marriage was failing, Lara went on a tornado chase in Oklahoma. (This weekend’s story in the Times is about the company she went storm chasing with.) It was something she’d always wanted to do and she went without her husband. She loved the adventure and the other people on the trip, and had a mini-epiphany.
“I really thought, ‘Maybe I’m looking at myself differently than I should be looking at myself.”
Right about that time, she got a new job as editor of the LSA magazine at University of Michigan. “For the first time ever, I had smart, interesting colleagues who thought I was smart and interesting, and it was great.”
“I felt for the first time in my life like I was in control of my own fate. I really took a lot of liberties with that,” she said.
Say, getting a long blond weave and wearing glitter. “I was so good in college,” she said. “That was totally delayed development,” she said of her sassy flashy phase.
Lara hadn’t dated as an adult so she took full advantage, and a few of us friends were a little worried when she seemed to be getting awfully serious with a new guy a little soon after the divorce.
“I know now that the smart thing would have been for me to not date for a year,” she said. “But Rob had a better sense of where I was than I did.” And Rob Hess, now Lara’s husband, turned out to be a great partner, cheerleading for her creativity and giving her some of the adoration she needed and deserved.
Buoyed by her new confidence, her new job sent her to the Bear River Writers Conference, a Michigan-sponsored creative retreat. There she got the idea to go back to Donut Days and transform it from a chick lit book to young adult.
Rob, a film maker who understands the creative process, loved Lara enough to be honest with her when he read a draft of Donut Days — or, actually, when he only got through the first 50 pages. He didn’t believe the characters and urged Lara to share her experience in the evangelical church — in Donut Days, a teen struggles with controversy in the church where her parents were pastors, as well as her own doubts about her faith, but the reader didn’t get to see what that life was really like in that earlier draft.
Michigan alumnus Brad Meltzer, an uber-successful thriller author, had suggested Lara get in touch with Larry Kirshbaum, a long-time publishing exec who had recently formed his own literary agency. Lara did and soon found herself represented by LJK Literary.
Lara’s agent, Susanna Einstein, told her the same thing Rob had. “She kept saying she wanted me to take her inside the evangelical church,” and after seeing Borat go into a church and explore it for laughs, “I had that Borat moment,” she said.
She infused more of her own sense of tension with her parents and her first-hand view of the church, and Putnam quickly gave her a contract.
She signed the contract as Lara Zielin — her maiden name — after changing it back from her old married name. She didn’t take Rob’s name when they married. “It was more important for me to retain my identity. I kind of got feminist about it.” She especially liked the symbolism of changing her name post-divorce because “that Lara was so unhappy. That Lara was living a really plastic life.”
What would this Lara tell that Lara if she could go back and offer some advice to her?
“I would tell her to take more chances,” Lara said. “To be more reckless.”
Not that this Lara is so reckless. She and Rob own a house in Ypsilanti, which they share with their beagle, Amos, and their crabby kitty, Pancake. Lara’s usually in bed by about 10. She enjoys playing house.
“When I finally got my champions around me, it was like ‘ha-ha universe! I’m going to be successful,'” she said. “For the first time, I felt, yes, I’m good enough.”
And I guess Putnam agrees — they recently agreed to buy her second young adult novel, Promgate. More on that later.
- Lara’s profile on LJK Literary
- Lara’s blog
- Donut Days at Border’s (based in Ann Arbor, you know?)
- Totally the Bomb loved Donut Days
- So did Read This Book
- And Serene Hours and SharonLovesBooksandCats, too.
- Publishers Weekly gave Donut Days a positive review, too!
Zielin gives Emma a wonderfully sarcastic voice (“Why couldn’t I go anywhere without finding myself surrounded by people who thought choosing which item to get out of a vending machine required prayer?”) and delivers lively characters, such as Bear, a member of a born-again motorcycle gang who Emma meets at a “donut camp,” celebrating the opening of a doughnut shop. Along with Emma, readers will discover that faith, friendship and family often lead to unexpected kinds of victory.