Interview: Tara Altebrando
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"The day my mother dies is a Thursday in mid-June."
So begins The Pursuit of Happiness, Tara Altebrando's first novel for teenagers.
"The opening pages are something I wrote years ago," Altebrando says, calling from her home in New York. "They are completely autobiographical. This was a really important story for me to tell."
Altebrando was a teenager when she lost her mother. Hearing the news, crying with the family, attending the funeral, and suffering through the attentions of well-intentioned relatives, some of whom she barely knew - she relived all of these things at the beginning of her story.
Her mother was a public school teacher who always took her kids to the library and to bookstores. Altebrando loved selecting items from the Scholastic order forms and remembers how excited she would be on the day that the books arrived.
She started writing when she was very young. Her mother was very supportive - but also a little concerned. "She knew it was hard to make a living as a writer and didn't want me struggling my whole life. Since I was a dramatic child, she imagined me writing for soap operas and making real money that way."
The Pursuit of Happiness is a far cry from a soap opera. It is a drama, not a melodrama, and it follows one summer in the life of a teenager named Betsy. Prior to her mother's passing, she had a nice little nuclear family consisting of herself, her father, her mother, and her younger brother, Ben. She also had a loyal best friend, Mary, who worked with her at a colonial village frequented by tourists, and a boyfriend, Brandon.
After her mom dies, Brandon dumps her, and Mary leaves the job. Her father stops cooking and the family survives pretty much on fast food. Betsy is left feeling even more on her own.
She still has her job at the village, where she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Liza, a schoolmate with a tarnished reputation, and gets involved with James, a kind boy who lost his father in an accident. There's also a neighbor, a grown man whose mental capacity is that of a child, who tells Betsy that her mother was his best friend.
Young adult novels often give protagonists a solid gang of friends. Countless television series and films have people who all seem to hang out together rather effortlessly, with everyone being friends with everyone else.
Altebrando is adept at showing Betsy's relationships with other characters, letting her have allies in various places. "Sometimes fiction seems too neat," she says. "It's a struggle to figure out where you belong. I've always been someone who had different friends for different reasons."
At James' urging, Betsy shares favorite memories of her mother with him - with someone her mom never knew and will never get a chance to know.
Altebrando more than understands this eerie feeling. "It is still astonishing to me that my husband has never met my mother. The two people who were so close to me never knew each other."
A few years ago, Tara's last name was still McCarthy. She was writing Love Will Tear Us Apart, a novel which revolves around female Siamese twins who are pop singers. Through a friend, she heard of the band Dutch Kills. She was so inspired by their song called "Anchor" that she put the lyrics into her manuscript, intending to later replace them with her own words. However, the song influenced the story so much that she decided to email the songwriter for permission to reprint the lyrics. He granted it.
Then they started dating.
Then they got married.
In Pursuit, Betsy has a few secrets from her father and brother - nothing bad, nothing illegal, just personal. One of these secrets is a wedding dress in her closet, the result of a shopping expedition with her mother. The trip began as something whimsical and ended with a purchase for the distant future.
In real life, Altebrando wore her mother's wedding dress for her own wedding.
"I hated it when I was young. I said, 'I'm never wearing that,'" she recalls with a laugh. "When I got older, I was relieved to find that I liked the style, that my taste had matured."
Things definitely do change over time.
Altebrando worked at a colonial village for two summers when she was a teenager. She revisited the farmhouse as an adult and said the scale felt very different. "In my memory, it was much bigger."
One thing hadn't changed: a woman who had worked there when Altebrando was in high school was still there when she visited nearly twenty years later.
She made Betsy's workplace more elaborate and dramatic than the one she knew as a kid, incorporating a labyrinth and the backstory of a tragic love story on the grounds. "It was more romantic."
Though she grew up on Staten Island, Altebrando decided to place her story on the Jersey shore, a spot she visited every summer to see her grandparents. "I loved being there when I was a teenager, just sitting on the beach and thinking about life."
Altebrando still loves beaches, so she loves the book jacket, which depicts the legs of a girl standing on the beach as waves crash around her ankles. The photograph from Getty Images truly fits the feel of the book. The previous cover featured a bikini-clad girl reaching out for a boy's hand, but it was ultimately discarded. Altebrando much prefers the final cover with the solitary figure. It is appropriate for the point of the story and comes complete with the caption:
"Declare your independence."
The back cover also has a great lead-in:
"These are the real five stages of grief: agitation, intoxication, experimentation, resignation, and reinvigoration."
Altebrando has Betsy go through these stages over the course of the novel. Sometimes the stages hit her one at a time; sometimes they overlap and overwhelm her.
Having been there herself, she knows that grief never really goes away. "I think that it's something that happens in fits and starts. The breakthrough is when you can perceive being happy again in a genuine way."
When she finished writing Love Will Tear Us Apart, Altebrando was not sure what to do next in terms of adult fiction, but she always knew she wanted to write young adult fiction. She heard that MTV Books was looking for teen fiction, so she submitted the first 150 pages of her work-in-progress. They liked the concept and the character right away.
Once Altebrando finally sat down to expand on that story she had started years ago, it came rather easily. After all, the story had been "knocking around" in her head for years.
She wrote very quickly, but she didn't write an autobiography. Betsy's story is very different from her own, and ends more happily than her own; the author admits that she was still "very rough around the edges" when she went back to school that fall.
She found it was easy for her to get back into the teenage mindset. "I feel like I'm still sixteen in a lot of ways," Altebrando remarks. "I can still tap into that part of me."
One of the things that helps Betsy heal is her new hobby: making silhouettes. She begins cutting profiles and figures out of black construction paper. As the story progresses, so does her art. She tries working with different kinds of paper and different backgrounds. Without spoiling the story too much, let's simply say that she shares her art before the book concludes, and the resulting scenes are very touching.
Altebrando has an old-fashioned hobby of her own, inherited from the women in her family. Her great-grandmother, great-aunt, grandmother and mother all collected spoons.
"The spoons don't take up a lot of room, and they're kind of fun."
Her most recent acquisition is from Hawaii. After her honeymoon, she added a spoon from Belize. Later this year, she'll travel to Ireland to attend a wedding. She also has friends who are travel writers that send her spoons from their journeys.
Where would she like to visit? "Right now, Italy, because I'm hungry!" She cracks up, then adds that she's always wanted to go to Australia. She never had an interest in Hawaii, but the recent trip there blew her away.
After a childhood spent in New York, Altebrando went to Boston and attended Harvard for four years. She spent a year abroad in Ireland after college before moving back to New York.
"When I was writing Love Will Tear Us Apart, I decided I wasn't getting enough done. I rented a cabin in Nova Scotia for a week. I went to Halifax for maybe one afternoon, but otherwise, I isolated myself (in the cabin). It was very dramatic - like a movie - and I got a lot done.
"Right now, I'm writing at home. If I had my way, I'd be writing in a mansion on a beach."
Altebrando worked for magazines for a while. She has been supporting herself as a copywriter for the last ten years. Mostly, she writes book jackets, which "is fun and keeps me up on the market."
She now works as a freelance copywriter every other week. She is out of the house and in an office for 5 work days, then comes home and writes in her personal office for 5 work days. She thinks it is a good balance. "After a week of writing, I'm pretty beaten up by it."
She is currently working on a book about a group of Americans who go to Belize for a wedding. It is slated to be released in 2007 and will be shelved in the adult fiction section, alongside Love. Thus, the cover will bear the name Tara McCarthy, while The Pursuit of Happiness - the book stemming from the loss of her mother - has a name her mother wouldn't associate with her.
"I think there is a reason why I wrote it after I met the man I was going to marry," Altebrando realizes. "I was finally really happy, so I was able to go back and come to terms with it (my mother's death) in a way I hadn't before. Writing this book was very healing for me."
She has an idea for a second young adult novel now. She doesn't care about the labels of her books, being more concerned about writing good stories for general readership. Already, she has received messages from mothers and daughters who have read Pursuit.
Someday, she hopes to have a book that has her full name, Tara McCarthy Altebrando, boldly printed on it. It might be for teens; it might be for adults. Either way, it will undoubtedly be something that would make her own mother proud.
TARA'S TEN FAVORITE BOOKS
Amanda Davis, Wonder When You'll Miss Me
Ann Patchett, The Magician's Assistant
Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Katherine Dunn, Geek Love
David McCullough, The Great Bridge
Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Phillip Roth, Patrimony
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meaney
Shawn McBride, Green Grass Grace
Jennifer Lauck, Blackbird
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Related Posts at Bildungsroman
Review: The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando
Review: Love Will Tear Us Apart by Tara Altebrando (as Tara McCarthy)
Review: What Happens Here by Tara Altebrando
Review: Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando
Review: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando
Interview: Tara Altebrando (August 2006)
Interview: Tara Altebrando (November 2012)