Bethesda Interview: Sarah Pekkanen

The Chevy Chase resident and best-selling novelist talks about plot twists, scaling mountains and selling the movie rights to her latest book

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Photo by Liz Lynch

Name: Sarah Pekkanen
Age: 50
What she does: Novelist and short-story writer
Lives in: Chevy Chase

When Sarah Pekkanen was a young girl, she sent stories to book publishers on three-ring binder paper. She was pursuing her dream to be a novelist. “One was a mystery, à la Nancy Drew,” she says. While her early submissions weren’t picked up, she received “one very nice letter from an editor in New York who told me to keep going and that I’d have a book published one day,” Pekkanen recalls. She was 10 years old. “It meant a lot that she would take the time to write it.”

Forty years later, Pekkanen is an internationally best-selling author who has published seven books in seven years, including The Perfect Neighbors, which People magazine called “a delicious beach read.” Pekkanen’s novels focus on the important relationships in a woman’s life, she says: sisters, spouses, new and old friends. All of her books have gone into multiple printings, and her best-sellers have sold a couple hundred thousand copies worldwide. 

Pekkanen co-authored her eighth and latest novel, The Wife Between Us, with her former editor, Greer Hendricks, and the two recently received the news that many novelists hope for: Their psychological thriller was optioned for a movie by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners, an arm of DreamWorks. The book, due out Jan. 9, has pre-sold in 30 countries. The Hollywood Reporter compared it to Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train, and Pekkanen already has thought about who she’d love to see star in the movie. “Naomi Watts and Scarlett Johansson would be a dream,” she says. “And for [the character] Richard, Leonardo DiCaprio could be an intriguing choice.”

Pekkanen, who has three sons—ages 9, 16 and 18—was born in New York City and moved to Bethesda with her family when she was 4. After graduating from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1985, she attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison before transferring to the University of Maryland, College Park, where she studied journalism. Following graduation, she worked at Gannett News Service/USA Today and The Baltimore Sun. She got away from fiction writing for a while, covering politics on Capitol Hill, and writing feature stories for The Sun, where she reported on everything from the National Aquarium’s rehabilitation of a baby porpoise to the Columbine, Colorado, shootings. “I’d really delve into a particular story and spend a lot of time with it, even a month, and then write it in a narrative form,” says Pekkanen, whose father, John, is a medical writer. “That was kind of the building block for getting back into fiction.”  

After her first two children were born, Pekkanen left daily reporting and worked as a freelance writer. “I just wasn’t able to do the type of stuff I had done for The Sun, where you might have to stay late at night or catch a plane with three hours’ notice,” says Pekkanen, who has also published two short stories and a novella. She continued to take assignments for The Sun, as well as Washingtonian, and started writing a column for Bethesda Magazine. She also returned to her first love: fiction. “When I took the column, I think I had started to write a book, but it took a while [to finish it] because I only had about three hours a day when the kids were in preschool,” she says. She’d write in coffee shops, on the sidelines of soccer fields, even at Chuck E. Cheese’s. “I was never really tethered to one space.”  

Bethesda Magazine interviewed Pekkanen in October at Quartermaine Coffee Roasters, one of the many places where she’s worked on her novels over the years. 

What, or who, inspired you to write when you were a kid?

My father definitely influenced me, and I definitely remember certain teachers encouraging me to write. I found one of them on Facebook recently and thanked her for reading aloud one of my creative essays to my English class at B-CC.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve done in pursuit of a story?

I spent a night in a haunted house while on assignment for The Baltimore Sun. It was just like something out of the movie Poltergeist. A developer near Ocean City built homes on a former graveyard. The tombstones were removed, but the graves were not. One family had inexplicable things happen during the years they lived at the house—items being moved, inexplicable noises, electronics flickering off and on, along with other strange occurrences. Their young son often talked about the old man who would come into his room at night and want to tell stories about his life, and the wife once caught a glimpse of a strange face in a mirror. I traveled there to meet a medium who tried to communicate with the spirits. Spending the night in that house was definitely a creepy experience. 

Having gone from the deadline-driven world of journalism to fiction writing, where you need to create your own deadlines, how did you make writing your first novel a priority? 

It was just something I had to do. I didn’t give myself a certain deadline, like 2,000 words a week or anything like that. It was just never really in question. Whenever I had a free moment I would turn to the manuscript, and I was thinking about it all the time. I had notebooks in my car, and in my purse and nightstand drawer. I’d scribble down a few lines here and there, so it was kind of more of a compulsion. 

Have you learned any tricks along the way, in terms of immersing yourself in your characters’ lives? 

The backstory is so important, knowing your characters well enough to know [that] if you were asked what kind of car they drive, or how they take their coffee, even if you hadn’t thought about it before, you would have an answer. That’s super important, so spending a lot of time building their psychological profile, understanding them and understanding how they’d react in certain situations, I think makes the writing much more authentic. I think about it more than write it down. Long walks with music are great for coming up with characters and plot points. 

How has the job of novelist evolved over the years, and how is it different from what you thought it would be? 

A big piece of it that was surprising to me is the business side. You have to be really involved with things like social media, emails to weigh in on certain things, building websites, and contracts, so the business and housekeeping take up 50 percent of my time, which I enjoy, but it is part of the job. Right now I’m doing two books a year. I’m writing a book with my former editor [Greer Hendricks], which will be out in January. And then I’m still writing solo novels with my old publisher, Atria/Simon & Schuster, and I’ll have one out in June, and then the same thing the following year. It’s definitely a pretty intense pace right now. 

How did that partnership with Hendricks come about, and what was it like to go from writing alone to working with a collaborator? 

I don’t know if I could have collaborated with anyone else. We worked together on the seven solo novels and hit it off. We became really close friends and we have this weird number of things in common that are very specific. We’re the exact same age, both played field hockey in high school, both studied journalism and psychology in college, and we’re really close to our brothers, who are both named Robert. We just had an unusual relationship in that we were author and editor, but we became close friends. When she left Simon & Schuster after 20 years, she mentioned to me privately, ‘I’m thinking about writing a book.’ I said, ‘I just finished writing a solo novel, why don’t we write one together?’ And that’s how it happened, kind of a very impulsive thought, a very instinctive thought. I love writing with her. We are on the phone every day for probably five, six hours talking about characters, writing together, and we’re emailing, texting and calling in between with little snippets like, here’s a magazine article to read, or this podcast, and how about this song to use as a ringtone [for a character’s phone]. 

How do you structure the work together in terms of who writes what?

She’s in New York, I’m in D.C. Most other writing duos, they each write a chapter and send them back and forth, or each takes a character, but we didn’t want to do that, so we did Google Hangouts and Google Docs, where you can phone each other through the computer and have a shared document where you see the other person’s cursor. So we’re on the phone and we’re both typing things in and saying, ‘not that’ or ‘yes, that word,’ and then one would go in suggested mode and edit what the other was writing, and then vice versa. If you point to 100 different lines in the book, I could not tell you who wrote what because most of them are a collaboration.  

What’s a typical day like?

I’m up by 5:30 or 6, check email and make coffee, walk the dog, make lunches and get the kids off to school, race to the gym (I go to a place called Balanced Athlete in D.C. for small classes), then I get on the phone with Greer and we work straight through until it’s time to pick up the kids from school or sports practice. I spend time with the kids after school. Then at night, and in little found pockets during the day, I answer emails or review the day’s writing and make notes of things to discuss with Greer.

Where do your story ideas come from? 

It varies every time. Sometimes, for Greer and I, we talk and talk and talk before we come up with the idea, which is constantly refined. I’ve never really had a lightning bolt moment in which an idea comes fully formed in my head. It’s usually much slower and more gradual—and usually around an action, and then the characters come into play. I would love [to be able to say] what J.K. Rowling said [about how] she was riding on a subway and the idea came to her and she wrote it on a napkin, but that has never happened to me. 

Is any of your life in your novels? 

I never write anything autobiographical, deliberately, partly because I’d run out of material and partly because I’d never want my kids to think I’m writing about them, so I’ve always had that little bit of a fire wall up. I would be very worried if I was writing about a mom with three boys who were the same ages, and they thought they’d recognize themselves in that. I think that would be a little bit of a betrayal to them. That is probably the one thing I’m super careful about.

Is there a character in one of your books who has stuck with you longer than the others?

It’s always the most recent one that’s more in my head. All of them do, in some ways. I feel a little bit protective toward them all, as though they’re all old friends; college friends you were really close with but lost touch with. I think Julia in my second book, Skipping a Beat, was special to me. That was an emotional book. I was pregnant when I wrote it, and I remember just feeling that book really intensely. 

What was it about Julia?

I think she was somebody who was trapped in this world, in this life, and kind of didn’t know how she ended up in this very enviable life, but she wasn’t being who she was meant to be, and that was very interesting, and I think it plays into a bit [of] what we see on social media. We think everybody is living this beautiful, picture-perfect, Instagram life, and yet people are struggling deep down. So she was kind of special. And then there was a character named Tina in The Best of Us who was a very overwhelmed mother who got away on a vacation, and she was special, too. With three boys, I’m always drowning in soccer balls and laundry and [giving them] rides everywhere, so I like throwing a bit in with my characters sometimes. 

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