Interview: Sara Jade Alan, Author of A MESSY BEAUTIFUL LIFE

Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?

After college, I moved to New York City with my college improv group. I got a job working for a bestselling author of YA fantasy books, Tamora Pierce. She was so inspiring, and her fans were so inspiring. She introduced me to this whole world of YA lit that I hadn’t known about before. I worked for her for seven years and fell in love with the YA community and the books. So when my first book idea came to me, I knew it would be YA.

Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

My parents would take my sister and I to the library every week to get a giant stack of books, so that fostered my love of books and reading. Also, my older sister Theresa is an author, and she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a writer. She was always talking about books and writing, and I would edit early versions of her manuscripts, so all of that nurtured my love for the process of writing.

How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing in some form or another since elementary school, but A Messy, Beautiful Life is my first novel, and I started writing it eleven years ago, in 2006.

What kind(s) of writing do you do?

Through my teens and twenties I mostly wrote (and performed) sketch comedy, standup comedy, two-women shows, and a one-woman show. I still write sketches for The Novelistas—a comedy show about the highs and lows of writing and publishing. But now I’m most passionate about writing YA novels, and that’s been my main writing focus for the last decade.

What was the hardest part of writing this book?  

Learning how to write a book while writing it. I think writing characters, emotion, and dialogue came more easily to me because of my background in performance. But learning how to plot and structure the story arc took a long time. It really took my editor Candace guiding me on how to rearrange the beats to make the story come together.

Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book?  If so, discuss them.

It’s not necessarily an underrepresented group, but I haven’t read any YA books about teens who love improv before. I’ve believed for a long time that if all kids learned improv and yoga in school, the world would be a better place. Improv is a fun, playful way for young adults to develop emotional awareness, confidence, and empathy, as well as a low-risk way to practice taking risks. Especially for girls, there’s such a focus on being pretty and perfect, and I don’t want to see them lose their silly. So, I’m happy my book might have the chance to introduce teens to improv if they haven’t thought about it before. Also, sarcomas are a rare cancer that can often be misdiagnosed, and I hope Ellie’s story might bring a bit of awareness to this form of cancer.

Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?

Tamora Pierce: As I mentioned above she introduced to me to the world of YA lit I was missing out on, and she inspired me to write girls with grit. Also, her heroes have amazing friends that can count on each other and support each other, like Ellie in A Messy, Beautiful Life. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write fantasy, but I love reading it and admire authors who can world-build like Tammy.

Sarah Dessen: She was my first introduction to YA contemporary as an adult reader. I wish I’d had her books when I was a teen. I think her tackling real issues that teens face in a way that still makes for a compelling story has been an influence in my writing.

I have many other favorite authors, and I think what they all have in common are smart, empathetic characters with heart and a sense of humor. Those are the kind of characters I’m interested in reading about and interested in writing about.

What did you find most useful in learning to write?  What was least useful or most destructive?

There are many craft lessons that have helped me along the way, but I think learning how vital good critique partners are (and finding great ones!) has made the biggest difference in my writing. I think I’m lucky that I can’t think of anything destructive I’ve learned.

Are you a full-time or part-time writer?  How does that affect your writing?

I write part-time. I’m already a pretty slow writer, so having a limited amount of time to focus on writing makes progress feel glacial sometimes. But, I’m in this for the long haul and believe in steady, committed action over time, so I will continue on that path. (Well, you know, at least until the giant movie deal comes in and I can write full time.)

What are some day jobs that you have held?  If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.

I’ve had a ton of different jobs including:being a business manager to an author of YA books (which eventually inspired me to write YA); delivering sushi to grocery stores at 4:30am; working the door staff a comedy club; working stage crew in community theater; being a server in an Irish pub in Times Square; community organizing with Clean Water Action; dressing up as a flapper and giving out coupons outside of a casino in Black Hawk; plus many office jobs. These experiences have given me the chance to meet and observe different people and provided insights into a variety of industries. In my next book, I pull more from a few work experiences than I did with this one.  

What do you like to read in your free time?

I read mostly YA books, but I’m obsessed with the wiring of the human brain and our potential to change our thoughts and habits, so I always have some kind of book in this vein to listen to on Audible. Most recently I listened to Grit by Angela Duckworth, and I always have one of Pema Chödrön’s books at the ready.

What projects are you working on at the present?

It’s another YA contemporary called LOVE AND OTHER PUNCHLINES. It also features comedy, mostly standup. The story is told in dual-perspective from two clashing teen comediennes who are the only girls in a nationwide comedy contest. One needs the grand-prize to afford college, the other must win to support herself and her dream. Along the way the two young women learn there are other valuable prizes at stake—like self-discovery and sisterhood. It’s like PITCH PERFECT meets LAST COMIC STANDING.

What do your plans for future projects include?

When I was 19, I did a summer internship with an environmental activism organization in DC. We were all staying in dorms, and when I went to my dorm to meet my roommates, there were two guys in my room, Matt and Seamus. At first I thought, oh, maybe this organization is very progressive and the rooms are co-ed, but then we realized we were the only co-ed room. Since our names were pretty straightforward gender-wise, we were confused at how the mix up happened. I’m sure I could have gotten my room switched if I’d asked, but I ended up liking and trusting them both pretty quickly and I’m glad I stayed bunking with them, because we had a blast during the internship and stayed friends for years after. So, I want to use that idea for how the two main characters meet in another YA romance…but I only have the first page right now. I have no idea yet what will happen next.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Being able to teleport myself anywhere, anytime, so that I could visit my friends who live all over the world. I would love to just be able to pop up in Oaxaca for a night and take my best friend out for dinner, or in Brussels to see my friend’s new apartment, then pop over to LA or NYC to see my friends in a show.

Where is one place you want to visit that you haven’t been before?

There are so many places I want to visit! But I’ll go with Australia. When I started college I thought I was going to major in biology and wanted to do a semester abroad to study marine biology in Australia. I soon learned that while I found science interesting, I didn’t have a knack for it, and somehow I abandoned my studying abroad vision, too. But I would still love to travel there someday.



Sara Jade Alan wrote her first comedy sketch during second grade recess, then cast it, directed it, and made costumes out of garbage bags. Since then, she has performed in over a thousand improvised and scripted shows all over the country. When she lived in New York City with her college improv group, she worked as an assistant to a best-selling author of young adult novels featuring strong female heroes and was completely inspired by her books and the awesomeness of her teen fans. Spending a year on crutches, Sara turned to writing her own young adult stories and was hooked. Currently, she is one-half of the comedy duo, The Novelistas, who perform about writing and teach performance to writers. Hailing from a suburb of Chicago, Sara now lives in Colorado with her husband—who she met in that college improv group—and daughter, who they waited a bunch of years to make. She is a member of and guest instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.





Life is funny sometimes. 

And not always the ha, ha kind. Like that one time where a hot guy tried to kiss me and I fell. Down. Hard. And then found out I had cancer. 
I’m trying to be strong for my friends and my mom. 

And I’m trying so hard to be “just friends” with that hot guy, even though he seems to want so much more. But I won’t do that to him. He’s been through this before with his family, and I’m not going to let him watch me die. 

So, I tell myself: Smile Ellie. Be funny Ellie. Don’t cry Ellie, because once I start, I might not stop. 


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