In Sarah Combs’ debut young adult novel, a bookish high schooler goes off to “geek camp” for gifted and talented students and comes out with a deeper understanding of Kentucky, its people and herself. To some extent, this is a story Combs herself lived – the Louisville native mined her own transformative experiences with Kentucky’s competitive summer programs when writing “Breakfast Served Anytime.”
The coming-of-age story, published by Candlewick Press last month, follows a high school rising senior named Gloria to a fictional Kentucky college campus, where she studies “Secrets of the Written Word” with a small group of unique kids, then has to decide whether or not to leave Kentucky after graduation.
“[Gloria] has long held a dream of moving to New York and being an actress and living this glamorous artist life she’s long imagined, but when she gets to ‘geek camp,’ she falls in love with her native state of Kentucky for the first time, and meets friends who challenge her notions of who she is, what she wants, what her political views are, what her emotional views are,” says Combs.
Combs will read from and sign copies of “Breakfast Served Anytime” tomorrow (Wednesday, May 14) at Carmichael’s Bookstore on Frankfort Avenue at 7 p.m.
“Breakfast Served Anytime” is generating enthusiastic buzz in the influential YA literary blogosphere as well as hearty reviews from Publishers Weekly (“Infused with romance and intellectual energy, Combs’s story eloquently captures the euphoria and transformation that can arise from an intense period of personal introspection.”) and Kirkus Reviews (“In a promising debut, Combs crafts a strong, memorable female character and a broad collection of fully fleshed-out secondary players who share a magical summer.”).
For Combs, attending two competitive state-wide summer programs held on college campuses – Governor’s School for the Arts in 1993 and the Governor’s Scholars Program the following summer – were foundational experiences, exposing her to a broader view of Kentucky than she had as a Walden Theatre and Atherton High School student (then, she was Sarah VanArsdale) in the city.
“But somehow I still had this notion that I was living in this really small town,” says Combs. “That’s why, I think, I returned in my story to the experience of being at summer arts camp with people from all over the state, because I learned so much from my classmates and the friends I made. I had my own preconceived notions about things.”
“Some of those people are still my friends, these many years later,” adds Combs, who studied theatre at GSA, not creative writing.
Combs, who started college at the University of Kentucky as a theatre and English major, discovered she was drawn to the storytelling aspect of theatre, and started focusing on writing while at UK. Now, she’s lived in Lexington as long as she lived in Louisville, and she’s a married mother of two.
“I didn’t take my writing seriously as a job, or as something I was working toward life-wise, until I had kids,” she says. “I found myself at home with two small boys and they napped consistently. And during their naps, I started writing this book, which I discovered had lived in my heart and my head for a really long time.”
Combs says she found a fit for her voice in young adult fiction, which she realized when she worked as a teen services librarian and at a wholesale library book supplier, where she devoured new YA novel galleys. Right now, she’s reading Cincinnati author Kate Hattemer’s debut YA novel about art school rebels, “The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy.”
“I’ve always been interested in that moment in life when you start to become the person who you’re always going to be,” says Combs. “You grow up and become an adult, but you realize that in many ways, in your heart, you’re still the same person you were then. My passions are the same. The things I love are the same. The things I’m afraid of are the same. So it doesn’t take much for me to put my mind back in that place.”
(Note: Erin Keane is also a 1993 graduate of the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts.)