Interviews « Deb Caletti
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Interviews

Interviews with some of Deb’s favorite interviewers

Talks with Roger
Powell’s (2007)
Teensreadtoo
Q&A with Deb
Publishers Weekly
Powell’s (2011)

Powell’s Books:

Describe your new book.

The Nature of Jade is about a girl who works with the elephants at the zoo near her home, and who, through her involvement with them, becomes involved with a boy and his baby. Jade also suffers from anxiety, but the book is not a “Girl with Anxiety” book. It’s about human nature and animal nature and fear and about the way fear can make us stuck. It’s about the necessity of moving on even when that means leaving things behind.

If you could choose any story to live in, which story would it be? Why?

Just one? Well, then, probably A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Paris in the 1920s, during the early days of his career, hanging out in cafes in the company of Fitzgerald and Joyce and Ford Maddox Ford (always loved his name). It was a time when Hemingway and his wife existed on nearly nothing, a time when “we were very poor, and very happy,” and when the city was home to extraordinary expatriate writers discussing their craft and living fully.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.

Well, I’d have to choose F. Scott Fitzgerald for poetic passages — open one of his works at random and you’re likely to find something that’s breathtakingly beautiful. This, from The Great Gatsby: “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue garden men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands?

The last really good book I read was a compilation of three novellas by Andre Dubus (We Don’t Live Here Anymore). I discovered it on a wandering library trip, one of my most favorite kinds of days, when you go to the library with lots of time on your hands and can just meander and peruse and gather until your arms are full. I am ridiculously happy on those trips, though I usually have to go alone because no one I know quite has the library-stamina I have.

What is your favorite breakfast cereal?

Lucky Charms. But I’m getting a little cranky about their continued efforts to “new and improve” it. What’s wrong with hearts and clovers and moons? Now there’s this disgusting purple blob that has some sort of glitter-ish stuff on it. It reminds me of something a kid makes his mother in kindergarten. On occasion, I also redeem myself with granola or other packing-material type healthy cereal, or Chex, which wins for Biggest Box.

What is your idea of bliss?

Bliss is the ocean, a towel on the sand, the sun out, the chance to swim in waves or walk dragging a stick behind you, a good book, a cold drink.

Share an interesting experience you’ve had with one of your readers.

I get a lot of letters from my readers, many who read The Queen of Everything and found meaning in it after going through a hard experience themselves, or who love a certain character or passage in one of the books and want to share that. My oldest fan is eighty-five and lives in London — she was slightly in love with Travis Becker, the bad boy in Honey, Baby, Sweetheart. I get some letters from rabid folks dooming me to hell for the profanity in my books and who urge me to mend my ways. But the most memorable exchange was with a girl from Poland who was having a bad relationship and was asking my advice. Since I am by no means an expert on the subject (my daughter said, “She’s asking YOU?” Ha, very funny), I kept encouraging her to listen to herself. Her situation was eventually resolved, but I’ll treasure our bumbling communication through language barriers, and the idea of our shared humanity played out in very different parts of the world.

Make a question of your own, then answer it.
Why did you become a writer?

I became a writer because I love books, and I believe in their power. Even more, I love images and sentences and particular words and their beauty and humor and the way they look on the page. I like the word aubergine (even if it means eggplant), but think oevre sounds like a boiled egg. A passage in a book can make you cry, it can make you think differently, it can make you remember something from long ago. To be a writer is to connect and to play and to attempt to see clearly and understand. It astounds me regularly that feeling things deeply and writing them down is basically my job description. It is one of the wackiest and most privileged professions, if you can call it that at all. Writing is not something you do, but who you are. It’s the way I came.

Seattle PI – John Marshall

A moment with … Deb Caletti, writer

This is dream week for Deb Caletti, a 41-year-old Issaquah writer who is one of five finalists for the National Book Award in young adult fiction for her second novel, “Honey, Baby, Sweetheart” (Simon & Schuster, 308 pages, $15.95). Caletti will be in New York City for the gala awards ceremony on Wednesday evening.

What does being a National Book Award finalist mean to you?

Oh, gosh, it’s just beautiful recognition. Having a group of people with authority say they think your work is of that quality is what I’ve always strived for. For me, it’s not kajillion sales; it’s my craft.

Do you have a speech prepared in case you win?

I was told by the foundation that I must prepare a speech. But I thought, no, I don’t think I will. The whole thing, even the nomination, is preposterous to me. It just seems so unreal. I’m really astonished by my good fortune to be a finalist, thank you. Anything beyond that is so unlikely that it is not even in the realm of possibility. I really feel that way.

Both of your novels have some sexual situations and four-letter language. What do you think is appropriate in novels for young adults?

I wrote my first novel for adults, so I was shocked when the publisher decided it was a young adult novel. I just write about people of all ages and let them take it from there. The lines about these things are becoming increasingly blurred. I have a daughter, 16, and a son, 14, and I had to ask if my work was appropriate for them. I really thought about that, but now it is OK for both of them to read it. Both are pretty mature and insightful.

You studied journalism at the University of Washington. What happened?

I wasn’t a journalist, I was a novelist. I was just too chicken to study what I loved, so I did the practical thing, which was study journalism. But I was too shy to be a journalist. I’m happiest in my pj’s at home with a cup of tea and my quilt, working at my computer. I finally became a novelist because that was something I always wanted to do. And I taught myself. Or, rather, all the great writers taught me.

Q&A with Deb:

A few questions for Deb, posed by readers, reporters, law-enforcement officials, and other inquisitive types…

What message do you most want your readers to get from QUEEN?

I would hope that people would stop and think about judgment – how easily it is done, and yet how complex an issue it really is. Also, that life can be like a kitchen junk drawer full of cool things and horrible things, meaningful things and everyday ones. Sometimes life is love and terror and inspiration, and sometimes it’s just looking for where you put your car keys. We never know what will come our way, but when the really awful times come, we have an amazing ability to get through them, especially if we find home – who we most are, and who is most there for us.

What inspired you to write QUEEN?

Several things inspired me to write it. I had recently seen a newspaper article describing a crime of passion and it mentioned that the man involved had a daughter. I just had to wonder what she must have gone through – I mean, this is your FATHER, the guy who cleans the gutters and eats Altoids and tells you not to put your gum in the car ashtray. How would this feel? What would it be like if your sense of stability just disappeared? So that was the seed of the book. I was also living at that time in one of those suburban neighborhoods where the men all start their lawn mowers at the same time on Saturday morning, and the women don’t have much to talk about except each other. I started worrying I might catch conformity like you get some virus. What I noticed was that the people who were deemed “normal” seemed a lot wackier and off the mark than the supposed “abnormal” people. I was disturbed how it seemed that people’s priorities were all messed up – that the one with the biggest TV and credit card bill was supposedly the winner. I found that the most real people were the ones that had to/chose to be true to themselves. Jordan makes that realization.

Tall, Double Tall, or Grande?

Grande. And one of those cookies with the chunks of butterscotch and white chocolate.

Can you tell more about your background?

I was born in San Rafael, California. My mother was a bit of a hippie like Jordan’s Mom – she volunteered for Greenpeace and political campaigns and worked at schools helping disadvantaged kids learn to read. Later she owned her own business, a retail store. My Dad was in the optometric field, but was NOT like Jordan’s dad in other ways. Can we get that straight right now? He’s a wonderful guy and never murdered anyone! He’d look terrible in an orange prison jumpsuit! My parents, my older sis (my best pal – Sue, I’m sorry for biting you when I was six. And seven. And eight.) and I moved to the Northwest when I was ten. I spent Jr. High and High School in Kirkland, WA., a town on the banks of Lake Washington. In high school, I loved writing, speech, drama, and was in a lot of plays and spent a lot of time wishing I were somewhere else. I graduated from the University of Washington where I studied journalism, because nobody ever really becomes a novelist. While I was there, I wrote for the paper and read the news on a local radio station and experimented with plays and short stories. After I earned my journalism degree, I realized I wasn’t a journalist and that I still wanted to write books.

Do you know just how fast you were going, Miss?

Oh shit.

How much of your books are based in real life?

Okay, for the last time – MY FATHER DIDN’T MURDER ANYONE! He was a normal parent! He taught me to drive! (Sorry, Dad, maybe you don’t want to take blame for that). He taught me how to use power tools! (Okay, Dad. Maybe you don’t want to take blame for that, either). My mother actually SHAVES! (Mom, are you happy I’ve cleared that up, now?) Actually, this is something everyone wants to know. The people who really know you are the ones that ask it even MORE. What are you guys so nervous about? Didn’t I promise I wouldn’t write about that time with the women’s nylons? I think every writer takes off from the experiences or just the emotion of their own lives. I always try to make people feel better by saying the only character I’ve ever taken directly from life was my old neighbor’s dog. But really, you take bits and parts of things that are real and weave them together in the best way for the story and so that your (former) friends don’t set your house on fire. In QUEEN, there actually was a guy that used to play the bagpipes in my old neighborhood. It was weird and wonderful, and he just had to become a character. Jordan’s stepfather was created after seeing this amazing artwork hanging in the trees on Orcas Island, and Big Mama was based on a mentor and friend of mine. She has that same warm wisdom. In HONEY, there is actually a lot that is based on real life – mostly the relationship that exists between the characters, which is similar to that of mine with my kids. I stole a lot of lines from them, and that is in part why the book is dedicated to them. The setting is very much what we see every day, down to the paragliders that get stuck in the trees. WILD ROSES is primarily fictional, but my experiences with divorce drove much of its feeling.

What is HONEY, BABY, SWEETHEART about?

It is about a girl and her mom with very screwed-up love lives. They get involved reuniting a pair of old lovers, and embark on an adventure that opens their eyes about love and living.

What inspired you to write HONEY?

I was thinking a lot about crappy relationships and divorce and how it seems that young women and not-so-young women have a tendency to lose themselves in someone else. I wanted to say to women, and say to myself, that we needed to look outside of love for meaning in our lives. At the same time, I didn’t want any of us to lose faith in the good kind of love. The story came about when I heard that an aged and ill relative of mine was being kept apart from the little old man who loved her. He wanted desperately to be with her. “We are soul mates,” he had said.

Why is there profanity in your book?

A lot of people ask this. Some love it, some hate it. It’s simple, really. Some people swear in my books because they are the type of people who would swear. Others don’t, because they are the type of people who wouldn’t swear. Honesty is the most important thing to me in my work. If I’m not being honest, then I should be fired from my job. It is not my aim to show an idealized world. It is my aim to show the world as it is in all of its beauty and messiness and variety and wackiness and rare moments of perfection. If a character that is a thug gets kicked in the nuts, he will not say Oh golly! If a nun gets kicked in the nuts (okay, she doesn’t have nuts, but you know what I mean) she won’t shout the things that others with larger wardrobe choices and less comfy shoes would.

How do you keep so amazingly fit and in good shape?

Okay, so no one has ever really asked me this.

Are the locations in your book real places?

Parrish Island, of QUEEN, isn’t a real place, but is based on several San Juan islands in Washington State. It’s got a lot of Friday Harbor in it, with some Orcas Island thrown in, and a pinch of Lopez. The islands are amazing places, with great whale watching. The place where Jackson brings Jordan, that stone table, is actually there in Friday Harbor, as is the hotel (and the rabbits!). The stone table is amazingly eerie but awesome. Nine Mile Falls, where Jordan goes near the end of the book, is based on the town in Washington where I live, called Issaquah. It is also the setting for HONEY. Most of that setting is just as we see it, with the mountains and the paragliders and the nursery. I have a salmon-running creek that runs through my property, so salmon make an appearance in both books. I change the names of things so that I have the freedom to get the details wrong without people correcting me, but then I get confused in my real life what things are actually called. In terms of “Issaquah”, I believe it is a Native American word meaning hard to pronounce and impossible to spell.”

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

I think being a writer is about who you are, more than about the task itself. It is a way of looking at the world, a state of observance coupled with a deep need to make sense of the life and the people around you. If this is truly you, you won’t be able to help the desire to write, but you’ll need to learn to write and write well. Read everything you can. That is the best way to learn – reading the bad stuff, reading the great stuff. Write, write and write some more, and submit your work wherever you can. More than anything else, focus on the goal and don’t let go. Being an author is one of the Big Dreams. You have a better chance of becoming a rock star or an astronaut, so persistence is everything. QUEEN, the first of my books to be published, was the fifth book I wrote. If I didn’t have this feeling that being a writer was who I most was, and that giving up on the dream would be giving up on myself, I likely wouldn’t have kept going. I was (and still am) motivated by my profound love and respect of books and the feeling that being a writer is the ultimate PRIVILEGE. If you want to be a writer, have the determination of a dog with a knotted sock. Sink your teeth in and don’t give up. Become who you are, as Nietzsche said.

Can you explain The Big Bang?

Well, I just went to look for my favorite jean shorts and pulled out this old sun hat from the top shelf in my closet, thereby starting an avalanche of a whole bunch of things I’d been looking for for a long time but thought I gave away to the Salvation Army. I believe the big bang was my ex-husband’s old shoe-shine kit, hitting the edge of the tub, and maybe a couple of books, too, and a pair of snow boots and, okay, those exercise weights I used for about two weeks. Steve, I know I shouldn’t have kept the shoe shine kit, but I really liked all of the little tins of polish of different colors (black and brown, all right) and the helpful slanted wood thing you put the shoe on, and besides, my dad gave it to you anyway.

I want to be a writer. Do I need an agent?

If you have already written a book, and have hopes of being published by a major publisher, then yes.

Can I have my old shoe shine kit back?

No, Steve.

What do you like most about being a writer?

I like getting to be honest, and saying what you think and feel. I like the chance to really stop and try to figure things out. It’s cheaper than therapy. And I love being required to live in a way that is more observant. You’ve got to be open to those fine details that can escape people going about busy lives. You’ve got to notice. Details are what make something vivid and real – oranges in a tree, a yellow dog in a field, what rain smells like. A passing glance, a feather on the ground, what is in someone’s heart. Those inane thoughts we have, sticking your finger in the wax to make those creepy fake fingertips, an expectant sky. Being aware of the details of human experience lead to those moments when you are most alive. I love that as a writer, this is made necessary.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I like contemporary authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Tyler, Richard Russo, Michael Chabon, Alice Hoffman, Charles Baxter, Elizabeth Berg, Pat Conroy, Clyde Edgerton. I also love the contemporary masters – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Updike, Woolf, Cheever. All of the ones you don’t need a first name for. Flannery O’Connor is a special favorite, as is any great Southern writer. I read a lot of non-fiction. I’ll read just about anything on any topic, especially science, anthropology, art, literature, history. Okay, I’d never read a math book. Bill Bryson is a current favorite, for laugh-out-loud writing.

What is your favorite book?

This is always such an impossible question to answer. It’s like being asked what your favorite memory is, or friend, or vacation place. Same with music – it’s such a big part of my life I couldn’t pick just one song. But if I were in some kind of Stephen King novel where they tie the author to the bedposts and hold a Butterfinger just out of her reach until she answers, I’d have to give in and say The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. I still get excited every time they get through the wardrobe and are standing under the lamppost in the snow. After reading it, I always imagined Turkish Delight to be this amazing and wonderful thing until I actually had some. It’s disgusting. Horrible. You’d rather lick the bottom of your shoe. It was so disappointing.

Do you floss regularly?

God, you dental hygienists are pains. You should know we always lie anyway.

Why did you write WILD ROSES?

I wanted to explore the connections between genius and madness, and the questions this common pairing brings. Namely, why? Why did some form of mental illness haunt Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Cezanne, Gaugin. Tolstoy, Walt Whitman, Michaelangelo. Beethoven, Robert Frost, to name only a very few among MANY. I think the subject is fascinating.

I also wanted to write about divorce, remarriage and step-families in a very real way. My own parents were divorced, and my kids have gone through my divorce from their dad. I know how much it all hurts, and how hard it is when your parents yank on you and continually test your loyalties. I know how badly parents act during a divorce. During a divorce? Heck, for years and years afterward. So I wanted to say to my teen readers that I’ve noticed, I feel your pain, I understand, I’m sorry. And I wanted to say to the adults who read this book, I’ve noticed, I feel your pain, I’ve made your mistakes, and can’t we do better?

Paper or plastic?

Paper, please. And the bags with the handles are the best.

Where do you get your ideas?

I get asked this all the time and it always strikes me as funny. Where DON’T you get ideas? My real problem is keeping track of all the little slips of paper and gum wrappers and electric bills that I write my ideas on. There are two tips I have regarding remembering your great ideas:

1. Turn on a light when you write something down in the middle of the night. If you scrawl notes in the dark, in the morning that truly profound thought you had and have now forgotten will read something like, “My banana dance in Yugoslav country.”

2. Don’t write down ideas while driving. Enough said.

What was your first job?

I taught little kids how to swim when I was fifteen. Here is what I learned: One. Little kids scream really loud. Two. They are tough to uncling from fences and your bathing suit top. 3. If you are a swimming teacher, wear a one-piece.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. There was that brief period of wanting to be Nancy Drew. And I began the application process to become an FBI agent, until I realized there was no way I’d ever be able to climb that rope thing. Sometimes I still want to be a cowgirl. But writing has always been the place I feel most like myself. It’s more who I am than what I do.

Where do you find meaning in your life?

In my family. In my work. Sitting in a hammock under a palm tree. At the beach. Riding in the Jeep with the top down and the music on. In books. In a pan of warm brownies.

Are you working on a new book?

Yes. Right now, I’m working on my newest book, titled The Secret Life of Prince Charming. Before you’ll see that one, though, you’ll see the release of “The Fortunes of Indigo Skye,” in April ’08. It’s about a waitress with a great family and a hunky refregerator-delivery-guy boyfriend. Her life changes one day when she gets a big tip. A BIG tip. And to all those of you who write to me and ask for a sequel to The Nature of Jade – it’s not on the horizon yet, but you never know. Thank you, though, for wanting to know what happens to Jade and Sebastian.

Why is my shirt pink?

To all the members of my household, I am sorry. The good news is that ALL of your laundry is pink. You’ll never have to worry about what matches with what again.