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In Deb Caletti’s new YA novel Essential Maps for the Lost, Madison and Billy hardly meet cute: Mads is swimming in Seattle’s Lake Union when she bumps into the body of a woman who apparently had thrown herself from the bridge above. That woman is Billy’s mother, but Caletti intriguingly takes her time before allowing the two teens to find each other — and fall in love. (A love, by the way, in no small part fueled by Mads and Billy’s mutual book-of-life, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.)
Roger Sutton: As I started the story, getting to know Mads and Billy in their disparate chapters, of course I wondered: will they get together? When will they get together? What’s going to happen? How does a writer calibrate that kind of suspense — how long can you keep your characters apart before pissing off your readers?
Deb Caletti: I am terrible at craft questions, because I’m such an intuitive writer. I’m not an MFA-er or someone who’s studied. I’m a reader. Books taught me. So it’s more of an instinctual thing. Maybe I do piss readers off. I probably do, because I like the other stuff more than the plot stuff.
RS: So you wouldn’t consider yourself a plot-driven writer?
DC: Oh my gosh, no. Not at all.
RS: Well, the plot certainly sucked me right in!
DC: You think that? I feel good. I have to work at that part, because I love the stuff that’s in the mind and the heart, in the passenger seat of the car, that kind of thing. What’s in a person’s coat pockets. I work at controlling my own impulse to spend too much time on those details in order to keep the story tight.
RS: I can’t stand books where the characters just sit around and talk to each other. I argued with my husband after we saw Spotlight, which he thought was brilliant and I thought: this is just people talking to each other.
DC: That’s exactly what I said. It was the relaying of information through dialogue, which — no, I don’t do that.
RS: So how do you do that? How do you relay information in your stories?
DC: You get to know people over time. You dole out information through the things characters say, what people think of them, their funny habits — the same way we get to know people in real life. We hear things, we witness things.
RS: Going into this novel, what did you know you wanted to do, right when you started?
DC: I always start with a need. For me, writing is always very private. I’m in the writing-as-therapy camp. It’s something I want to think about for a year, to work out. This story came to me right around the time we had a suicide in our YA community. We were hearing a lot about people’s struggles with mental illness and depression and breakdowns. All of that is hugely important. We need to hear that and know that. But I was feeling an absence of hope. I was feeling that we needed to hear about the beauty in the struggle. I started there.
Then I wanted to explore something more personal about what it is to be a child — even an adult child — who carries responsibility for a childlike parent. Kids can really be up against it, having a mentally ill parent or being in a position where they need to be the one who holds things together. I wanted to explore that idea. And I knew I wanted to talk about book-love some more. I’ve done that in the past, in The Last Forever and in Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, with the librarian characters. I believe in books so much, they’re so important to me, that I wanted to revisit that book-love. I wasn’t quite done with talking about it.
RS: Do you have any book the way that Mads and Billy have Mixed-Up Files?
DC: I’m a reader. I have many of them. So many. How do we choose? But I have my own copy of Mixed-Up Files. It says “Debbie Caletti, 1971,” in my funny fat writing, all beat up. It opens to that map in the middle, because I loved that. I loved looking at that map and imagining myself somewhere else. Sometimes I needed to imagine myself somewhere else, like these characters do. I was that kid who hid in my room and hid in books to escape. I’m still that kid. I get all worked up about it, because it’s an amazing thing when you have a book like Mixed-Up Files to keep you going: Billy’s mother jumps off a bridge, and yet he cracks up when Claudia and Jamie are hiding in a bathroom stall. And Madison, with her troubled family, wants to sleep in the museum bed.
RS: I wanted to do that too, when I read that book.
DC: It’s why I wanted to go to the Met. When I went there for the first time, seeing that bed gave me goose bumps.
RS: I’m surprised we don’t see more kids reading in kids’ books. Because who’s reading kids’ books but kids, right? Kid-readers.
DC: Who else is going to understand book-love? How can I not write about book-love, when that’s me as a reader, and my readers are readers.
RS: Did you see that David Denby article in the New Yorker recently? It was another one of those complaints that teens don’t read the way they used to.
DC: That’s just so silly.
RS: But one thing that is different now — when I think back to YA in the ’70s and ’80s, the real audience for those books was junior-high kids, mainly girls. The characters tended to be a little bit older than those readers.
DC: Someone was always pregnant or shooting something up.
RS: Right. Very exciting. But now we have YA books about characters like Mads and Billy, who are out of high school. I guess this is a two-part question: who do you see as your reader, and what do you know demographically about your readers?
DC: Again, I’m the private writer, so I don’t like to think too much about that, or I worry it’s going to be my former in-laws or something. But who I know is my reader: my readers are all ages. Since my books can be a little bit slower, more character-driven, it’s often hardcore reader-girls. Usually they’re a bit older, teen- through college-age, but a lot of adult women as well, which is partly why I have also been writing adult novels recently. The crossover started to make a lot of sense.
RS: What’s the difference for you between writing a young adult novel and an adult novel? Particularly since, as you said, you’re not really thinking about audience as you write.
DC: There’s more room to roam. I can go a little bit slower. I hope that my books for younger readers are rich thematically as well, but in an adult book I can explore some ideas in more layers, take more time with them. Creatively, it’s a great thing for me. It’s like going to a foreign country. You come back with a wider worldview.
RS: I’m guessing that your audience, whether they’re teenagers or adults, would be going back and forth from one to the other anyway. That makes sense, right? We didn’t discriminate as young readers.
DC: No, we didn’t. Are you kidding? I read whatever I could get my hands on.
RS: My first job in libraries was in 1979. Judy Blume had just published Wifey. Do you remember that?
DC: Oh, yeah, of course.
RS: Which had that scene right on the first page, the motorcycle guy masturbating? Girls who had loved Are You There, God? etc., etc. were lining up for Wifey.
DC: You better believe it.
RS: It was Judy Blume.
DC: I know. Judy Blume, what would we do without her? One of the greatest experiences of my life was when Honey, Baby, Sweetheart was a National Book Award finalist, and that year she won the lifetime achievement award. It was so right. She had been there and there she was again, describing her own road to that place which was so up my own road.
RS: Why do you think we now have such a large number of adults reading books published, at least nominally, as young adult titles? In some estimates it’s mostly adults who are buying young adult books.
DC: What a really good question.
RS: So, give me a good answer.
DC: I think the quality of YA has changed so significantly. Like when I was a teen reading I Know What You Did Last Summer — the teens crossing the road in the headlights of the car. It looked a lot different than YA looks today, where anything goes. I read for the National Book Awards as a judge in 2013. What we have now is rich and varied and thematically interesting. It’s all the things we love in any great book. Maybe it’s that YA has come up to a point where readers are recognizing that there’s so much to appreciate. (Not all New Yorker writers, maybe, but a lot of other readers.) YA has met the reader, rather than the reader having met YA.
RS: Interesting. I think it’s also that adults have been through early intense love. We remain fascinated with it, even in our doddering old age. To go back and be able to experience those feelings again in a book like yours, which is intensely charged by the emotional landscapes it draws of the two protagonists. There is that focus on character and emotion, but at the same time, as I credited you with earlier, you do have a plot pulling these people through. They’re not just sitting around a dinner table talking.
DC: And the feelings and the struggles — people always ask, “How do you get in the mind of the teen reader?” I think all human beings have these common threads. We struggle with the same things. We desire love and attachment. We have to sort out how much we want to be attached and be independent, how we manage need and being needed and being hurt. These are things that begin when we’re — how old? Then in those teen years we start to really feel them.
RS: There’s a real consciousness of them once we become teenagers.
DC: Our eyes open.
RS: And I think to be able to go back to those moments, the first time you really fell in love with somebody —
DC: — and felt that vulnerable, really —
RS: It’s appealing.
DC: And it’s something we continue to feel, I think.
RS: Do you bridle at having your books called romance novels?
DC: I do. I’d like to say I don’t, but I do. It actually surprises me more than raises my hackles. To me they’re so much more. The romantic element is what the story sort of sits on, but all the stuff below the surface is really about family. It’s about the baggage we bring, both the good and the hard stuff in that baggage. It’s more about the other relationships. It’s about mothers and fathers and sisters and dogs, all of the pieces. It’s really more about — yes, love, in its widest usage.
RS: Right. Well, I think that what the relationship does in this book, between the boy and the girl, is to throw all those other relationships into relief. Once you open yourself up to another person the way that they do, you see things, you understand things, about all the other relationships that are already in your life.
DC: Exactly. Because that’s how it is in real life. That’s how it is in a teen’s life and in an adult’s life, when it comes to love. Suddenly all those other relationships, you feel their import too. You feel how one thing leans on the other.
RS: Why do you think this kind of story works for you? That this is where you found a home?
DC: I was in a difficult marriage, writing to sort of save myself, writing book after book after book. I wrote five novels. The fifth was The Queen of Everything, about a young woman whose father is involved in a crime of passion, and she’s kind of watching what’s going on. It was bought by Simon & Schuster, who I’m still with, and bought as a young adult book, which was a surprise to me. I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is going to get edited down to five pages.”
RS: It’s going to turn into Go Ask Alice!
DC: This was thirteen, fifteen years ago — it was right at what we were beginning to call the golden age of young adult literature. And it came out basically whole — really nothing was changed in that book. So there began this wonderful relationship. My second book was a National Book Award finalist, so I got really anchored into YA. But I love it. It’s challenging, because we can do so much now, because there is so much room to explore all of these relationships. I remember, when I was first starting, I kept hearing, “In YA they don’t really write about the parents,” and I thought, “I don’t even know how to write YA. I have no clue. I’m just writing what I want to write. Wow, I guess I must be doing it wrong.” Those relationships are as crucial as any boy-girl stuff in the books.
RS: Oh, yeah.
DC: So it’s been interesting, trying to ignore what’s going on and do my own thing.
RS: Well, I’m very glad you found the right place.
DC: I am too. It’s been fabulous. We all probably say this, but it means a lot to most YA writers to be in that place with that reader at that age. I think about Judy Blume standing there, giving that speech. Those books stay with you. They last. There’s some magic power there. You can remember those for years and years afterwards.