Interview: Dia Calhoun
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Current Song: Heavily Broken by The Veronicas
The May issue of readergirlz is here! This month's spotlighted title is The Phoenix Dance by Dia Calhoun, which was chosen in honor of National Mental Health Month.
Do you love dragons, princesses, mystery, and magic? Are you a creative person? Do you admire a girl who can conquer her own demons? Have you ever felt sad one moment and happy the next? If you answered yes to any of these questions, this is the book for you!
Now let's find out the story behind the story. Dia Calhoun has graciously spoken to me at length about her novels and the inspiration behind them. Here now is the exclusive Bildungsroman interview.
Your experiences have provided the inspiration for many of your books, the majority of which are connected: ARIA OF THE SEA to THE PHOENIX DANCE, WHITE MIDNIGHT to FIREGOLD. Were they born out of necessity or inspiration or both? Had you planned on writing sequels and prequels?
I never envisioned writing sequels or prequels to FIREGOLD and ARIA OF THE SEA when I first began them. However, when I was nearly finished with FIREGOLD -- it took me five years to write as it was my first novel, and I was still learning how to write -- Jonathon's grandmother, Sephonie, had a vision in the firelight. She saw a girl scrubbing the floor, who looked up, frightened by something. That vision never made it into FIREGOLD, but it was the seed for the prequel, WHITE MIDNIGHT. That girl turned out to be Rose Chandler, and one of the chapters opens with her scrubbing the floor and being startled by Mr. Brae, the cruel master of Greengarden for whom Rose works.
As for ARIA OF THE SEA, I didn't get the idea to connect it to THE PHOENIX DANCE until I was well into the novel's note-taking stage. When I realized that Phoenix Dance would need a healer, a grown up, fully trained Cerinthe Gale from ARIA OF THE SEA seemed like the perfect choice. So I decided to set THE PHOENIX DANCE in the same setting as ARIA OF THE SEA -- the Kingdom of Windward. This was fun because I also brought back the other main character from the first book, the arrogant, talented dancer, Arianna Nautilus. She has a cameo role in THE PHOENIX DANCE.
Of the books you've written, which is your favorite?
My favorite book is WHITE MIDNIGHT. I love Rose Chandler. She has such depth. The premise, love conquers fear, is powerful. Step by step, Rose grows more and more courageous in order to save the land she loves from ruin. I think she is my best drawn character. I love the other characters in the book as well. The whole mystery of the Thing-in-the-Attic, I think, is well developed. The book is sort of a combination of fantasy, mystery, and perhaps a touch of horror. Yes, definitely my favorite -- and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.
When were you diagnosed with Bipolar Two?
I was diagnosed with Bipolar Two in my early thirties, about fifteen years ago. The doctor traced episodes of the illness back to when I was a teen. That is what gave me the idea to write a book about a teen with bipolar illness. I went on a long struggle to find the right combination of medications to control my illness. I do still sometimes get seduced by the firey excitement of the hypomania. Something Phoenix struggles with as well.
What was more difficult, to write about the illness in the context of a fictional fantasy, or to write the afterword revealing your own experience?
Both were difficult! Writing about Phoenix's emotions in the Kingdom of Brilliance (mania) and the Kingdom of Darkness (depression) was hard, sometimes agonizing. It was particularly challenging to write about depression and not enter it. Writing the Author's Note where I reveal I have Bipolar Disorder was frightening for me, because up to then I had kept my illness a secret from all but a few close family members and friends. But I knew the book would have greater truth if I shared my secret. And I wanted to use my experience to help others.
At what age did you start studying ballet?
At age five! Yes, I was very little. I didn’t get serious about it until age twelve or so, when I was promoted into the advanced class and started taking class every day. I was one of the youngest girls in the advanced class, which meant I had talent, but all I could see was that I was worse than everyone else. This took a psychological toll. Eventually, I grew good technically, but I never LOVED dancing. I never felt great joy and happiness when I was dancing -- which I do feel when I write -- only continual pressure to be better, to be good enough to get to New York.
By age sixteen, I was really unhappy and began to grow interested in academic studies and wanted to go to college. So I made the very difficult decision to quit dancing. How do you give up a dream? Many of Cerinthe's struggles with vocation in ARIA OF THE SEA came out of this experience.
When did you first know you were a writer?
My second grade teacher, Miss Kennedy, had us write lots of poems. She loved language and passed on that love to me. She encouraged me to write. I grew up knowing I would be a writer one day. I took creative writing classes in college. But it wasn't until I bought my first computer in my late twenties that I started writing regularly every day.
If you could go back in time and live the life of a princess, when would you go and who would you be?
What a fun question! My knowledge of history is too poor to answer this as you pose it, but I can say what kind of a fantasy princess I would like to be. I would love to be one of the "fighting" princesses; a princess who can defend herself and others who rely upon her. Skilled with a sword and on horseback, yeah, that would be cool. I would love to be a leader, courageous and bold and wise. I would love to have some kind of magical power, perhaps a healing gift. I would like to use all these skills to help save the world -- and to meet a worthy man, elven, preferably. No vampires for me! (I think I have just described Robin McKinley's Harimad-sol in THE BLUE SWORD!)
What is the basis of your next story? When will it be on shelves?
THE RETURN OF LIGHT: A CHRISTMAS TALE is a Christmas fable for all ages told by a young Christmas tree named Treewing. Treewing is cut down a year early from the tree lot on Faith Mountain, told by the Christmas Deer that he has a "special destiny to bring the Return of Light to the humans." Taken to a Christmas tree lot in the city, Treewing longs for a happy family to take him home and love him. This doesn't happen, however. On Christmas Eve, the friendship of a young boy, a precious baseball, and group of homeless people help Treewing understand his special destiny in bringing the Return of Light to those who need it most. The book will be out in October. It was a joy to write, with its themes of the war, homelessness, redemption, and of course, the usual Dia themes of darkness and light. All those leftover trees in the Christmas tree lots inspired the novella.
How did you come to be involved in readergirlz?
Good fortune falling from the stars! When Justina Chen Headley (NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH and a few white lies) decided to form readergirlz, she graciously asked me to become one of the four founding readergirlz divas. I was excited at the prospect of bringing such a wonderful experience to teen girls. And I have learned so much personally, and grown in ways I never would have imagined. It’s been an honor working with all the divas: Lorie Ann Grover (ON POINTE) and Janet Lee Carey (DRAGON'S KEEP). I do most of the graphic arts work for the group, the copy-editing, and database work. We all pool our skills.
If after reading THE PHOENIX DANCE, one of your readers recognizes his or her own hypomania and/or depression, what would you advise her to do?
First, go to the website About: Bipolar Disorder. There you will see lists of symptoms for mania and depression. This will give you a vocabulary to use when talking with someone.
Second, talk to someone who has the power to help -- a parent, school counselor, teacher, pastor, grandparent. Tell them you think you need to see a psychologist. There is nothing wrong with seeking treatment for a mental illness. It is no different than seeking help for heart disease or cancer. Having Bipolar Disorder does not mean you are weak or flawed. It means there is something messed up biochemically in your body.
Last, read everything you can find about Bipolar Disorder. One of my favorite websites, especially for people with Bipolar II, is psycheducation.org
Also, be gentle with yourself.
What is the first fairy tale you recall reading (or being read) when you were a little girl?
My parents read THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT to me over and over and over again. I loved that fairy tale. In fact, when I was little we had to cut through a neighbor’s garden to reach a playmate's house. One day I was running through the garden, fell over, and landed on a cabbage! The neighbor shook his rake at me! I ran home sobbing and told my mother that Farmer McGregor had chased me.
What are your ten favorite favorite books?
THE BLUE SWORD
A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA
THE TOMBS OF ATUAN
A WRINKLE IN TIME
A WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND
STONES FROM THE RIVER
THE DARK IS RISING
THE HUNDRED DRESSES
THE KEEPER OF THE ISIS LIGHT
If you would like to chat with Dia, talk about The Phoenix Dance, or discuss mental illness and awareness, please drop by the readergirlz forum. Recent topics include Creative Fire, Highs and Lows, and Treated Badly. You may feel free to start new topics or comment within existing threads. Dia will respond to questions and comments at the forum until the end of May.