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Interview: Deborah Davis

July 17th, 2007 (06:48 am)
awake

Current Mood: awake
Current Song: Potential Breakup Song by Aly and A.J.

In NOT LIKE YOU, teenager Kayla may not know what she wants to do with her life, but she certainly doesn't want to end up an alcoholic like her mother, Marilyn. She finds comfort in an older boy named Remy, dogs, and music.

If teen readers are in a similar situation, where can they find comfort and support?

Author Deborah Davis had this to say: I think Al-Anon and Alateen, along with the other 12-Step programs, are terrific. They're free, they're welcoming, and they can even be fun. Where else can you go to share your problems and not be judged? And to learn how to handle those problems simply by hearing people talk about their own, similar troubles?

There are teen support groups and hotlines in all big cities and in many smaller cities and towns too. You can find them in the Yellow Pages, through the Internet, or through a school counselor. Some groups and hotlines welcome both adults and teens. The best thing a teen can do -- even though it may feel like the hardest! -- when facing a difficult problem is to reach out to both stable friends and established support groups. I think a lot of teens -- and adults -- believe that if you don't talk about a problem, it will just go away on its own. Or if no one knows about it, it won't be so bad, or that talking about the problem will make it worse. Usually just the opposite is true. It's amazing what the act of asking for help can lead to -- often a much better outcome than you would have dreamed possible.

I also recommend that people ask for help in several different ways, from several sources. That way you can see which type of help feels best to you. Sometimes the first person or group you approach isn't the right one for you, so it's important to check out a few.

Okay, that was a mouthful, but I really believe it!

Would Kayla's life have been better if she had found and stayed with a stable foster family?

That's hard to say, but I like to think that Kayla needs to do exactly what she does in Not Like You; that is, try to work through her issues with her mother. She might have had an easier time in some ways with a caring foster family, but she might not have had the opportunity to face and resolve her feelings of anger and resentment toward her mother, or to get as honest with herself.

Was the book always called Not Like You?

No, it was originally called What Kayla Wants, but we changed it for several reasons. One was that another book with a very different story but similar title came out before Not Like You. Also, my editor and I thought that What Kayla Wants wasn't particularly strong, at least not for this story. You could title almost any novel What _____ Wants, filling in the main character's name. We decided that my book needed to be in Kayla's angry, hurt voice, and it needed to reveal some of her passion and strength. I brainstormed somewhere between 400 to 500 titles before we settled on Not Like You.

The Secret of the Seal, your first novel, was published in 1989. How long did it take to write? To sell?

I wrote the bare bones of The Secret of the Seal in about 20 minutes. It took me a year to flesh out the story, working mostly on Sunday afternoons. I received one offer on the book within two and a half weeks of sending it out and a second offer from Crown, which I accepted, just two months after that.

In contrast, you devoted five years to You Look Too Young to be a Mom, a collection of essays written by teen moms. Do you keep in touch with any of the contributors?

I'm in touch with quite a few of the contributors. A few have become friends, and we exchange emails, visit, or talk on the phone. Several have asked me for references for jobs or graduate school. Many send emails with updates about their lives from time to time.

Society and medicine have changed a great deal since the initial publication of My Brother Has AIDS. Would you ever revise that novel or revisit its characters?

While I don't have plans to revise or revisit that story and its characters, I do think about how I'd write it differently today. For instance, I'd make the sibling with AIDS heterosexual, not homosexual, and I'd make that character female, not male. Many straight women do not realize that they're at risk for AIDS, so I think it would be both more interesting and more useful to tell the story about a girl whose sister has contracted the illness.

Your website reveals that your earliest audience was made up of your stuffed animals. So was mine, but my biggest fan was my real cat, Twinkie. Do any of your family members (and yes, pets do count!) act as editors or sounding boards for your stories now?

My husband has given me great feedback on early drafts of my novels, and my teenage son, who has a terrific ear for language, has pointed out some of my more awkward sentences and even suggested improvements. My mom, who prefers to read non-fiction, has been a wonderful sounding board for my novels, and the fact that she doesn't like most fiction makes me trust her opinion when she says my fiction is good!

What was the plot of the first story you committed to paper?

The earliest I recall -- and I still have it -- is a poem I wrote in sixth grade about a turkey who is anticipating getting slaughtered at Thanksgiving. It's from the turkey's point of view, and it ends with the line, "Down came the knife..." I always did like dramatic stories.

Yikes! You had a string of teachers that made you doubt your writing ability. That makes me unbelievably sad. What or who gave you confidence in your creativity? Do you have any advice for young writers?

Oddly, it was my tenth grade math teacher who helped begin to re-instill my confidence about being creative. That occurred after I solved a geometry problem that no one else in my class could solve, and the solution involved, literally, thinking "outside the box" - I had to draw a point outside of a square to solve the math problem. Everyone else was putting their points inside the box, which didn't work. Then I had a history teacher in my junior year of college who wrote on my papers that my ideas were original, and he was openly excited about my writing. But it was a woman named Jane Burdick, who taught me how to free write during a workshop at the Proprioceptive Writing Center who really helped me unlock my writing voice. After that workshop, I participated in Jane's writing group for several years where I wrote -- and read aloud -- anything that came into my mind. Jane was completely non-judgmental and encouraging about anything anyone wrote, and it taught me to trust myself as a writer.

What are your ten all-time favorite books?

I hate this question! There are too many books to name, and my top-ten list shifts with my mood, the season, and what I've just read. Okay, today it is:

The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak. Charlotte's Web. Sonya Hartnett's Thursday's Child, which has one of the most memorable characters I've ever met and he never even speaks. To Kill a Mockingbird -- such perfection! Ian McEwan's Atonement. Usula Hegi's Stones from the River. Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Chris Lynch's Inexcusable.

Oh, no -- only two more? Let's see: Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. And Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl. And I just read an amazing memoir by . . . oh, that would be 11.

I list what I'm reading on my blog, in case you're looking for book suggestions...

Visit Deborah's official website.