When I interviewed her this week, we discussed her upcoming novel THE NATURE OF JADE as well as her previous novels and her work in progress. We also talked about what makes a good book and how to handle delicate subject matter in teen books.
Your stories - certainly QUEEN and ROSES - address heavy issues with unflinching realism. I give you kudos upon kudos. Did you find "self-censor" anything as you wrote, and/or encounter any worries from editors or publishers about the books' suitability for teen readers?
Thank you. No, I really don't self-censor, and my publisher is thoroughly supportive of my -- hmmm, boundary pushing? I guess I thoroughly believe in my readers and feel they deserve honest, thoughtful material that doesn't insult their intelligence. Honesty is my driving force, and I believe that if a writer isn't willing to be honest, that maybe he or she should take up knitting. It's our job. Our moral imperative. It's what we've been entrusted to do. If you can't look to literature for honesty, where can you look?
THE NATURE OF JADE, due in March, focuses on a teenage girl with panic disorder. Did you set out to write about this illness, or did it come to you as you developed the character?
I really dislike "issue" books, because I feel they tend toward dishonesty (there's that word again). We all have our issues (although maybe they don't all have labels), but our issues are only pieces of us, along with our talents and bad habits and histories and tendencies to crave chocolate when we're depressed. So I didn't set out to write about this disorder. The book is not about a disorder. Jade sort of appeared to me as she was, speaking in her own voice, if that doesn't sound too schizophrenic. What I did set out to write about was fear and the ways it keeps us holding on when we need to let go. I wanted to explore nature and adaptation, and the ways we're forced to change because change is ever constant, often there against our will.
How does JADE differ from your previous releases?
Jade herself is different from my other protagonists. She's more cautious, a little more insecure. As well, there's a whole element in the novel about animals and animal behavior, particularly elephants. The elephants are major characters. The book, I hope, challenges readers to see the ways we're similar -- the ways animals and humans both are here struggling to be strong against the forces of nature. We're all pretty brave, when you stop to think about it.
You've been an avid reader and a hopeful writer since you were a child, as have I. My earliest stories and songs revolved around my cat Twinkie. What was the plot of your first story?
The first story I remember writing was about being attacked by sea creatures and crazy seaweed, only to find I was actually in a carwash. This was somewhere around the first or second grade. I still find carwashes immensely entertaining.
At your website, you reveal that your first published novel, THE QUEEN OF EVERYTHING, was actually the fifth book you completed. Have you ever revisited and revised those first four novels?
It's always scary to look at your writing after some time has passed. In this case, though, my agent has all four novels (which are adult novels), and we hope to find a home for them. I have no doubt I'll want to overhaul them if this happens - you learn a lot after each book, and five subsequent books means a lot of learning.
All of your novels have titles which can be found within the stories themselves. For example, QUEEN comes from a line of dialogue spoken by Jordan's mother, if memory serves. Did any of your books have alternate titles during the writing and pre-publication process?
My titles usually arrive right around when the characters do, so they usually stay put. THE NATURE OF JADE, though, was originally LIVE FROM THE ELEPHANT HOUSE, in reference to the live cam where Jade watches the elephants and first sees Sebastian and his baby. The good people at Simon & Schuster weren't so sure about that title, and asked me to reconsider. I think they were absolutely right, and the current title has more shadings which better suit the book's content and themes. It's right for a bunch of reasons instead of one reason.
In THE QUEEN OF EVERYTHING, Jordan MacKenzie's father becomes the epicenter of a scandal, and she gets sucked into the maelstrom. When and how did this storyline hit you?
About two years before the book came out (2000, I guess) I read an article about a man who committed a crime of passion, and the article mentioned that the man had a daughter. I like the idea of stories told by characters who aren't at the center of the crises, who are watching and assessing and coming to conclusions one step out of the circle. In this case, can you imagine it? Your father. The guy that barbeques and watches his cholesterol, who has black socks rolled up into balls. I thought about this daughter, and she seemed to want to tell the most interesting and painful story. What happens when everything you know is suddenly everything you could never even imagine? When what is safe and stable and normal becomes what's most dangerous? The idea fascinated me.
In HONEY, BABY, SWEETHEART, Ruby is told by Anna Bee that there is more to her. She is flattered by how this sounds, "as if (she led) a life of passion and adventure, the stuff of a good book of fiction, just no one knows it." Ruby joins the book group for seniors led by her librarian mother. HONEY itself has been used in high school book groups. What do you think makes for a good book? For a good book group?
I think "a good book" really varies with each person. For some, it's a plot heavy book or the can't-put-down variety or the kind that brings you to another time and place. I'm character hungry and insight hungry and sentence hungry. When someone describes exactly the way I feel in a new way, I'm satisfied. I can read about two characters doing absolutely nothing and be perfectly happy if they seem like real people figuring out regular life stuff. I also love a writer who can wield a beautiful sentence. There are some writers I would read no matter what the book was about for that reason.
And for a book group: A book group usually wants meaty themes. And yet, talking about books is talking about life. A group of readers together can generally talk thoughtfully about anything, except maybe Sunday paper advertising circulars. Then again, a good book group could even do justice to a Home Depot ad, right? Discussing the time all the appliances broke down at once, or when you first learned to fix the sink after a divorce.
WILD ROSES weaves music and art into a story that explores the true (and frightening) side of passionate talent. Do you play any instruments? Did you do any research into the world of violinists and virtuosos?
As Cassie says in the book, the only instrument I've played is the tissue paper comb in the kindergarten band. I devour music, same as books, though I rarely listen to classical unless my daughter and son are playing it (cello and viola respectively). I am childishly impatient about listening to it otherwise -- I'm ready for the songs to be over about a minute and a half through. Still, I'm fascinated by the passion involved in the playing and creation of music. I wrote lyrics for rock musicians for a while, and loved seeing their own creative process. But, yes, the land of violinists and virtuosos was a foreign one that needed the guidebook and map research gives. It's one of the fun parts of writing -- delving headlong into things you know little about.
Would you like to tell readers about your current work-in-progress?
I am just finishing up my next release, The Fortunes of Indigo Skye, which is about a waitress that gets a huge tip that changes her life. Indigo cracks me up. I think she's my funniest character. My daughter keeps reminding me that I created her, but sometimes it doesn't feel that way.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Tough one. All right.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe -- C.S. Lewis
A Farewell to Arms -- Ernest Hemingway
The Great Gatsby -- F.Scott Fitzgerald
The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor
A Room of One's Own -- Virginia Woolf
The Collected Plays of William Saroyan, Eugene O'Neil, Arthur Miller (okay, that's three)
Catch-22 -- Joseph Heller
The Executioner's Song -- Norman Mailer
Cider House Rules -- John Irving
A Patchwork Planet -- Anne Tyler
Catcher in the Rye -- J.D. Salinger
The Agony and the Ecstasy -- Irving Stone
Oh man, that's twelve and I haven't even gotten to Updike or Cheever or Faulkner or contemporary favorites like Charles Baxter (A Feast of Love) and Richard Ford (The Sportswriter) and Richard Russo (Straight Man) and Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys) and Barbara Kingsolver (everything). And I missed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I adore. And Rick Steves' travel guides. And the Betty Crocker cookie book with the pictures of cookies across the tops of the pages. Love that. And what about Curious George, when he makes the boat out of the newspaper? Cruel question, this.
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