It is my great honour this evening to present you with my interview of Morris Award finalist Calla Devlin, author of TELL ME SOMETHING REAL. Due to my ongoing residence in a pineapple under the sea, I hadn’t heard of this book until it was nominated, and it was just chance that it got assigned to me in the interviews process — but what a lucky chance it was! Here’s the blurb, via Goodreads:
Three sisters struggle with the bonds that hold their family together as they face a darkness settling over their lives in this masterfully written debut novel.
There are three beautiful blond Babcock sisters: gorgeous and foul-mouthed Adrienne, observant and shy Vanessa, and the youngest and best-loved, Marie. Their mother is ill with leukemia and the girls spend a lot of time with her at a Mexican clinic across the border from their San Diego home so she can receive alternative treatments.
Vanessa is the middle child, a talented pianist who is trying to hold her family together despite the painful loss that they all know is inevitable. As she and her sisters navigate first loves and college dreams, they are completely unaware that an illness far more insidious than cancer poisons their home. Their world is about to shatter under the weight of an incomprehensible betrayal.
I am always a sucker for books about sisters (being one myself), and I thought the family dynamics were spot-on here. These were real people, their pain and striving very real in the face of unbearable grief (and then, indeed, having the rug pulled out from under them). This is really Vanessa’s story, and you can see how the sisterly bond gives her strength, while simultaneously constricting her as she strives to balance her needs with her family’s. As I like to say about my own sisters: no one else sees your flaws so clearly, or loves you so fiercely in spite of them.
But let’s get to the interview! Calla’s way more interesting than I am, in my cold-addled state.
1) I’m the oldest of three sisters myself, and so I’m always interested in stories where sisters feature. I notice you’ve got a sister, too, and imagine you drew on that relationship to some degree. What aspects of sisterhood, both positive and negative, were you most hoping to convey? Were any moments drawn from life – emotionally, if not necessarily factually? Are there other novels about sisters that you’ve particularly enjoyed, or are there gaps in most sisterhood stories that you’ve been longing to fill?
I’m the oldest of three sisters as well, and I drew from certain emotional dynamics, but the characters are very different than my sisters. Startling so! I think that it’s easy to compare oneself to siblings, everything from appearance to relationships, to strengths and weaknesses. My sisters can be mirrors, and I think that’s true for many of us and I tried to capture that. I really wanted to explore how when people share a traumatic event, how each weathers it differently. Some emerge relatively unscathed. There’s a resilience. But others are somehow irreparably broken and never fully recover. When writing Tell Me Something Real, I thought of a family, of three girls who are very different but have an unwavering bond, who go through a shattering betrayal, and each cope very differently.
As far as authors who write what I think are fantastic stories, Jane Austen is my absolute favorite. Others are Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, the Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and the Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman.
2) I have to confess: I write and read mostly fantasy. What this means, practically, is that I have a thing for setting and worldbuilding. Are San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, places you’ve lived, or were they dictated by plot demands? If they’re places you’ve lived, what are some of the impressions you hope your readers take away from your depiction? If you haven’t lived there, how did you go about researching and choosing details to make them feel real?
First, I have to say how much I admire fantasy writers because of the tremendous work it takes to create a whole new world. That’s why I love reading fantasy, to completely immerse myself in another reality.
I have lived in San Diego but after college, I didn’t have any family there anymore, so I didn’t go back. When writing the novel, I drew completely from childhood memories, which are fuzzy now. But they stayed with me throughout my life, almost haunting me, and the setting is the most autobiographical thing about the book.
When I was young, about seven or eight, I rode in the backseat of my mother’s car, crossing the border from San Diego into Mexico. My sisters and I sat in the courtyard of a seaside Mexican hospital where my mom, a nurse, volunteered.
I barely remember the actual building, and I don’t recall seeing the cancer patients my mother spent hours nursing. But I remember the drive, especially slowing in the crowded Tijuana streets. Back then, Tijuana was economically devastated. Families lived in refrigerator boxes. I had to close my eyes after a while, blinking back tears as I watched the begging kids, my age, so obviously hungry.
Whenever I road tripped, I thought of Mexico and the border crossing. I couldn’t shake the memory of that specific drive. I wanted to write about that setting, filling the hospital with characters I’d begun to imagine.
3) The other half of setting is time, of course. I’m actually from the 70s originally, because I am quite antique. Have you lived there? How did you go about researching the 70s? What kinds of details do you think particularly convey time period in fiction? And why the 70s in particular?
Setting the book in the seventies was essential. I am younger than my characters, but not much. I was little in the seventies, so I had to research fashion and pop culture. The mother character, Iris, is diagnosed with leukemia and she wanted to explore a controversial cancer treatment that was banned in the U.S. but available in Mexico. The drug, Laetrile, was very popular in the seventies. Thousands of people traveled to Mexico to receive treatment, so I wanted to take advantage of that trend. Also, I needed the setting to be suffocating and isolated. The characters had to be completely cut off without cell phones and the internet. And the language barrier added another dimension of isolation.
4) This book is hailed as “not your typical cancer book” — and it certainly isn’t. I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say that the book also deals with mental illness. It must have been a challenge to write about mental illness in a 70s context — as much stigma as it carries today, things were surely even worse back then. How did you tackle the challenge of depicting a sensitive subject during an insensitive era?
For me, I wanted to write with as much compassion as possible. Mental illness is illness—just as serious and fragile and devastating as illnesses that compromise the flesh. However, the emotional implications of someone’s behavior as a result of mental illness are very real and can be damaging. I wrote so many drafts of this novel in an attempt to strike a balance between honesty and compassion. This family is devastated and someone is responsible for lies, secrets, and emotional abuse. I purposely have a therapist in the book who doesn’t appear on the page very much. I didn’t want to present dated views and stigmas of mental illness, so I didn’t include therapy sessions. Instead, there is one impactful scene where information is revealed thanks to an astute and empathetic therapist. But the treatment conversations are off the page.
5) Which character was most fun to write? Who was most difficult? Who surprised you the most? Who taught you something you didn’t know before?
Oh Adrienne was so much fun! Her inventive cursing and raw emotion really came easily to me. She definitely is the character I knew the quickest, but she’s also very straightforward. Iris was devastating to write. She’s not the most loving mother and those scenes were at times very painful to explore. Vanessa, my narrator, was the biggest surprise. She’s so real to me now, but it took a while, and I really learned how to convey quiet strength.
6) It looks like you wrote short fiction before your YA novel debut. Which format do you find you prefer? Are there more YA novels in the works, or even adult novels? Also, did you set out to write YA, or did you just write the book of your heart and that’s what it turned out to be? And what has the experience of your debut year been like for you?
I did start off writing short fiction, and Tell Me Something Real started out as a collection of linked stories. I learned how to write stories in grad school, but the only way I learned to write a novel was by writing this one over and over again!
I started off writing this for an adult audience, but my characters are usually young, in high school or just graduated. I love writing about that period in our lives, when we’re about 75% fully formed but the world hasn’t gotten a hold of us yet. Then, throw in a transformative event that defines the rest of a character’s life. That’s what I love to explore in my novels—what shapes a young person. After completing a draft, my agent called and asked me what I thought about submitting the novel as YA. Honestly, as an adult I had read the Hunger Games and Twilight (loved both, btw), but that was it. She gave a reading list and I blew through it. I’d found a home. YA is exactly where I belong and there are so many YA writers that have given the world beautiful, emotionally complex, and essential books. I became much more confident as a writer because the voice and emotional immediacy comes naturally. I love teenagers and writing for a teen audience. It’s been a wonderful experience.
My debut year has been extraordinary! Honestly, beyond my wildest dreams. I am so grateful to my agent, editor, and the whole Atheneum and Simon and Schuster team. I feel supported in countless ways. And I have to thank the readers, teachers, librarians, bloggers, and booksellers who have shared Tell Me Something Real with the world.
I have a second YA novel coming out in September called Right Where You Left Me about a high school senior, Charlotte Lang, whose father is a journalist and is taken hostage while covering a story abroad. I just started a third as well, one about best friends who find themselves in a difficult situation and have polar opposite opinions of what happened. It rocks their world and they don’t know if their friendship will survive.
7) Lightning round!
a) Favourite writing snack? Coffee and apples.
b) Favourite guilty pleasure TV? Orphan Black
c) Favourite book when you were 15? Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
d) Go-to writing music? Bon Iver and the XX
e) Cats or dogs? Cats
f) Rain or snow? Rain
g) Advice to young writers? You have a story. Your story is real and important and the world is waiting for it. Get it on paper and share it. First drafts are never, ever perfect. Some won’t connect to your story. That’s okay. Your story is still important and you will find people who do connect. Trust your voice!