Brunch at the Umstead: Walter’s Book Club with Sarah Dessen

2015-WALTER-DESSEN-70photographs by Travis Long

Walter was thrilled to host eight-time New York Times bestselling author Sarah Dessen as the featured writer for our fall gathering of Walter’s Book Club at the Umstead.

For an author whose name is synonymous with young adult contemporary fiction, she has readers of all ages, and they arrived eager to meet their favorite writer. And so Walter’s Book Club became a multi-generational affair, a lighthearted literary party on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with raspberry mocktails for the younger set, proper bubbly for the grown-ups, and a delicious lunch, talk, and conversation.

Her fans will tell you that for 20 years, Dessen, a Chapel Hill resident, has been writing bestselling books that speak the truth of the teenage experience. That she does it with respect, intelligence, and humor, as well as with great writing, storytelling, and style. Today there are nearly 10 million copies of her books in print.


A fire alarm led to an impromptu walk outside where Dessen continued to talk about her books and writing process.


Author Sarah Dessen visited with guests as they enjoyed mocktails and champagne upon arrival.



The latest, Saint Anything, she calls “the book of my heart.” It is her 12th, and another New York Times bestseller. It tells the story of a teenage girl grappling with the major impact of her brother’smisguided decisions, her own feelings of invisibility, and her role in the world.

Dessen told the group that Saint Anything came only after a failed attempt at a different novel, one she abandoned when it wouldn’t come together. When she told her husband she’d decided to give up on that book, he congratulated her. “Good,” he said. “You’ve been miserable.” It wasn’t until that book was off her plate that the idea for Saint Anything began to crystallize, and then, she told the room, she wrote it quickly, in about four months.

But that kind of ease, for Dessen, often comes on the heels of frustration. She mentioned that in addition to her 12 published books, she has 13 fully completed manuscripts that never saw the light of day.


Rachel Harris and Sophia Weimer


Walter editor Liza Roberts

2015-WALTER-DESSEN-62Her career got started in much the same way. When her mentor, Lee Smith, sent a manuscript of Dessen’s to Smith’s own agent for a look, the agent asked to see something else of Dessen’s. That something else caught the agent’s interest. The agent told Dessen it would make a “great Y.A. novel.”

Dessen wasn’t expecting that. “Y.A?” She said she remembered thinking at the time: “I’m a serious writer.” She smiled at the recollection. “I’m Flannery O’Connor!” The agent quickly sold That Summer, and her career was launched. The first manuscript gathered dust.

Today, Dessen, 45, says she’s considering writing contemporary fiction, but hasn’t been able to make the jump. In the meantime, she’s trying to get some traction on her next book, but so far, things haven’t quite gelled. With Dessen’s track record, that’s a sure sign there’s another bestseller just around the corner.


Felicia Gressette chats with Cecilia Roberts as Walter creative director Jesma Reynolds, contributing writer Tracy Davis, and Allie Higgins look on.


Whitley Henderson chats with Walter intern Mackenzie Robinson.


Walter community manager Mimi Montgomery and Karen Montgomery.


Jon Corcoran and Ryin Corcoran.