A Conversation with Deb Caletti
Random House Reader’s Circle: Crows play a huge role in the overall imagery and underlying themes of the book. Do crows have any personal meaning to you outside the book? What inspired you to use them here?
Deb Caletti: Recently, we moved from the heart of the city of Seattle to a quieter spot near Lake Washington. We live in a house that is nearly all glass in the front (sound familiar?), which faces out to the wide lake and the big sky. It is an ever- changing show out there, from storm clouds and lightning to eagles and blue-blue-blue and boats of every kind. More relevant to the book—and just like in its opening scene—every morning at sunrise and every evening at sunset, the wave of crows passes by. Sometimes they are down low near the lake, and sometimes right overhead, and sometimes they make a racket, and sometimes there is only the quiet puff of wings. And, just like in the book, too, they coincide with the arrivals and departures of the seaplanes, which are also here in my regular view (I am watching one land as I write). So, my very own setting inspired me. I wanted to know more about those crows. I wanted to research and learn about their lives, and to think more about flight in general. I wanted to share the mystery and awe of their mass commute. Like Isabelle, I have seen those crows hundreds of times now—through white fog and windstorms and against the sherbet colors of sunset—and I never fail to feel the wonder.
RHRC: In many ways, What’s Become of Her is a story about returning to the past, and eventually moving beyond it. For Isabelle, it’s coming home to take over the family business; for Henry, trying, and failing, to outrun his dark past. While writing, did you find yourself returning to your past as well?
DC: What’s Become of Her is definitely a story about understanding and moving beyond the past. Isn’t that what we all must do? No matter our situation, we grapple with where we came from and what that means and how it still continues to affect us. Isabelle does not just return to the family business, but to all of the family business in the largest sense—her relationships with her mother and father, and how those dynamics have affected her self-esteem, her partner choices, her sense of personal power, and her relationship to anger.
Most definitely I returned to my own past while writing the book. For me, if you don’t make a personal and deep connection to what you’re writing, the book won’t be very honest or meaningful, to either write or to read. Every time I begin a book, I ask myself what is on my mind, what is bothering me, what I might want to think more about or understand better. With this book, it was my own relationship to anger, which is, of course, rooted in my own past. I’d been thinking a lot about that, how I often felt cut off from my anger, how I didn’t really understand it at all, and how it seemed a useful and beautiful thing out of my reach. Like Isabelle, I’d had adults in my childhood whose anger had been large, and like Isabelle, I had grown into someone who stepped carefully around others’ aggression and my own. But how could I, or Isabelle, make sense of anger and wield it? How does one embrace it as a part of the self-protective arsenal given all humans and animals? As a writer, returning to your past is where the good stuff is, for both the book and for you as an evolving human being. You roll back the rock from the cave door, and skeletons are in there, but there is also treasure. And writing about anger and fury and wrath and rage, especially when you haven’t allowed yourself to get very near those things—well, it felt pretty great. Glorious, actually.
RHRC: Though Isabelle’s mother died before the story begins, she is still the driving force behind many of Isabelle’s actions. Can you discuss the challenges in creating and developing a character who lives only in memory but reaches so far beyond the grave?
DC: When someone dies or even just exits your life, they can still be very, very much alive in your own mind, and the more complicated the relationship, I think, the more likely this is true. I knew, then, that Maggie could naturally become a fully developed character just from her appearance in Isabelle’s thoughts, especially if we also heard Maggie “speak” in those thoughts. Maggie would be less clear and wouldn’t work as well as an off-screen character, if we didn’t have a way of actually hearing her voice. Dialogue is so critical to a character coming alive for a reader.
Still, Isabelle’s relationship and views of Maggie are only Isabelle’s own, and readers would likely know that one daughter’s take on her difficult mother will be both biased and limited. Rounding Maggie out, letting the reader see that Isabelle’s experience with her mom was trustworthy, this required supporting evidence from others. With this in mind, I was careful to include Jane’s own complex relationship to Maggie, as well as brief insights from the people in the Parrish community, from Remy and Jan, owner of the Red Pearl, to Joe, and even Officer Ricky Beaker.
RHRC: Weary is a very mysterious character throughout much of the book, and it’s often unclear whether or not he is trustworthy. What inspired you to create him this way?
DC: The most obvious answer is that not knowing Weary’s motivations—whether he is out to harm or hurt Isabelle—builds suspense. But I also love the idea that we are all unreliable narrators of our own story; I love that every person brings their own history and temperament and a million other things to their view of their life experiences. I am intrigued by the way people can present themselves one way, but how, after learning the events of their past, you gain a deeper understanding of that individual. Weary is a complex character, with a traumatic backstory. He is full of rage and fury, but also full of love and regret. He is sometimes cocky, sometimes insecure; he is sometimes fearless and sometimes very afraid. He confuses and unsettles us, until the pieces come together and we finally see who he truly is and what has happened to him—and then, hopefully, every mystifying emotion and behavior makes perfect sense.
RHRC: Edgar Allan Poe has a strong presence in the book and heavy influence over many characters. What inspired you to weave the poet into a modern story, and what were some of the challenges you faced in putting a fresh spin on his classic work? How did this alter your writing process?
DC: I knew I wanted to write something with contemporary gothic shadings. With both the crow-raven element and the revenge theme, Poe was a natural consideration in terms of a tie-in. My mother had a book of Poe’s poetry and stories that I read as a teen, and back then, I loved the melodramatic horrors and florid language of his work. I was an avid reader of Hitchcock stories and Agatha Christie, haunted anything, gloomy-castle-plus-heroine paperbacks on up to Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and the southern gothic classics of Faulkner, Capote, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor.
When I started thinking about What’s Become of Her, I returned to my mother’s book of Poe (with its pink cover and raven on the front), which I still have on my shelf. In rereading these poems in light of the book, I was most struck by Poe’s complex relationship with women. What leapt out at me was the lost woman, the idealized woman, the attractive yet passive and helpless damsel, the dead beauty on a pedestal, the woman-as-object. Reading once again about Poe, the man, was also enlightening. His vast, unrelenting ego and his terrible, tormenting insecurity jumped out at me, too, because, while I remembered these things about him and his work, all of this looked different to me now. As someone who, like Isabelle, followed the siren call of the past right smack into an abusive relationship, I felt quite certain that I knew what I was seeing. Although I am not a Poe scholar, I at least recognized warning signs—idealization, objectification, controlling criticism, rigidity, and possessiveness. Poe seemed to share these traits with Henry (and with most abusive men), and this was my “fresh spin.” It did not alter my writing process so much as enhance it. That the same personalities (and personality disorders) have existed over time—it was a piece that added layers, I felt, to the idea that people from the past can go on haunting us.
RHRC: While reading, there were many times when our predictions about the ending were totally upended by new plot twists, which made the actual ending even more satisfying. Can you discuss why you chose the ending you did, and how you imagine Isabelle’s life will unfold after the final page?
DC: In spite of all the heartbreak and horrors and tough stuff and too-real plot twists a life can bring, I guess I am still an optimist. I want to believe that we can summon the power to go from victim to hero, from tragedy to triumph, in our own stories. I chose this ending because I think it’s the ending Isa- belle earned and Weary earned and that they both deserved. And while that might be lofty and novelistic, I do more realistically believe in our own personal evolution, in our ability to learn from our past, even if true change remains a bit of a daily struggle. I am a believer in one-step-back, two-steps-forward toward peace and joy. So, I guess I imagine Isabelle doing just this, but in her new environment now: evolving, learning, still in the daily struggle. One-step-back, two-steps-forward, in that beautiful place where she can finally exhale.