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October 17, 2016

Q and A: Calla Devlin, Author of TELL ME SOMETHING REAL and Meg Medina, Author of BURN BABY BURN

Posted by Rebecca M

While fantasy and dystopian fiction seems to be dominating the YA market these days, 2016 has also seen the releases of some really fantastic works of historical fiction. Back in March, we reviewed BURN BABY BURN by Meg Medina, a book that combines the 1970s horror that was Son of Sam with some very timeless issues like love, friendship and independence. In a similar vein, TELL ME SOMETHING REAL by Calla Devlin takes readers to 1970s San Diego, where three sisters are struggling to hold their own following their mother's cancer diagnosis. Although cancer is not firmly stuck in the past, the ways in which the girls deal with their issues speak to a totally different time. In this Q&A, Calla and Meg discuss their books and how they combined elements of the past with timeless emotions.

Both novels are set in the 1970s, although they take place on opposite coasts. What drew you to that decade for your novels?

CD: TELL ME SOMETHING REAL features three sisters and each, in her own way, is searching for a sense of liberation from the tragedy consuming their family, which centers on their mother’s cancer treatments in Mexico. I chose this time period for two primary reasons: the lack of technology, especially cell phones and the Internet, and the boom in alternative (even fringe) cancer treatments. I wanted to isolate my characters as much as possible --- really cut them off from the world --- and setting the novel before the web was essential. Also, the seventies seemed like a time where so many people were exploring different kinds of freedom --- artistic, personal, and political.

In the seventies, an alternative cancer treatment called Laetrile became enormously popular. It’s basically cyanide derived from apricot pits, and was banned in the United States because it was dangerous and ineffective. Still, there was a strong movement to explore alternative treatments and thousands of people crossed the border into Mexico, where clinics were scattered throughout Baja California. That felt like the perfect setting, especially since the kids in TELL ME SOMETHING REAL don’t speak Spanish. They were cut off completely from everything—friends, home, school.

One of the many things I love about BURN BABY BURN is the extent to which the seventies is leveraged as a setting. It’s so visceral, so much so that it’s like time travel. The clothes and the politics and the music bring everything to life.

MM: Thanks, Calla. It was a lot like time travel to write it, in fact. I was actually drawn to one particular year --- 1977 --- because it is so seared into the collective memory of New Yorkers, including mine. That year was the perfect storm of disaster in the city. Racial tensions were exploding, the city was teetering on bankruptcy, entire neighborhoods were being torched, and worst of all, the serial killer Son of Sam was stalking young women. The crowning touch was a blackout that plunged the city into darkness during a heat wave and unleashed a massive crime spree unlike any other before or since. What’s fascinating is that the city found a way to survive and change course. To me, that seemed like the ideal timeframe for BURN BABY BURN, a story about a young woman tangling with violence in her own life and trying to find her own power and voice. (Plus, you know, the soundtrack was pretty amazing.)

Both the novels create a web of tension. They’re page-turners from the start. What’s your strategy for that kind of taut writing?

CD: Inthe first chapter of TELL ME SOMETHING REAL, the mother tells her family that her cancer is terminal, and she has only a few months left to live. I promise (PROMISE) my novel is not just another cancer book. The novel isn’t really about illness, not in the physical sense, and the mother’s prognosis gives the story a devastating countdown. Also, when a family is in crisis, unravelling day by day, things rise to the surface: secrets and truths and lies. When people are drowning, it’s hard to contain what we’ve buried deep inside us. My narrator, Vanessa Babcock, a musical sixteen-year-old girl, is cradling a live grenade, ready to explode. She wakes up feeling like she’s holding her breath. She spends her days at a clinic in Mexico, waiting as her mother receives this outlawed cancer treatment, and waiting for her mom to die.

MM: What a horrible countdown, Calla, but it really worked. In my case, I was also working with death. I was using the murders committed by Son of Sam as a time marker. There’s nothing scarier than worrying that your character or someone she loves is going to be killed. Also, my editor very wisely suggested compressing the time frame from early March to August, when the weather was getting hotter --- along with all the tensions in the city. The word I had in mind was dread. I kept trying to replicate the edginess everyone in New York felt that summer as we wondered if the killer was in our building hallway or on the bus with us. So as I wove in the parts about her personal life and school, I took care to build the tension there to match what was happening in the city as a whole.

Sibling dynamics are very prominent in both novels, and you each explore the extreme ways siblings impact one another’s lives. What did you want to say about the nature of brothers and sisters?

CD: My narrator is hyper-bonded with her sisters, a caretaker of the younger one and in awe of her older sister. In many ways, they need one another to survive, especially because, temporarily, they are almost orphaned by what is happening in their family. I wanted to create sisters who were so close and entwined that they felt like a part of one another, conjoined even. And I wanted them to seem, to one another, like they were the only people in the world.

MM: First, let me say that I love the sisters in TELL ME SOMETHING REAL. You drew girls that were so complicated in their own personalities and in their support for each other. I love cranky and foul-mouthed Adrienne the best, although I do wonder what that says about me!

As for Hector in BURN BABY BURN, so many people write to me about him and include that little red-faced emoticon or a fist. They hate him. And he is detestable in many ways: his violence, his lack of regard for anything but his own needs, his criminality. But for me, Hector is a victim, too. His parents abandoned him, basically. Papi leaves and doesn’t look back, and Mima abdicates her role as the person in charge of the rules of his home life. That loss has lasting impact. Kids who grow up to be abusive have often begun their lives as victims of their family problems, victims of their neighborhoods, and victims of their own biology in terms of untreated mental health problems. In the end, even the most violent and broken kid is someone’s son or maybe someone’s brother. They didn’t emerge from a pod. I wanted to draw Nora and Hector struggling with their relationships because I wanted to voice something that is often true: Family violence and immense love sometimes inexplicably exist together.

Which brings us to the adults in the novel, always a tricky thing in novels for teens. In some ways, both books are about losing parents in unexpected ways. How did you go about drawing them?

CD: When I was writing TELL ME SOMETHING REAL, I paid close attention to creating three-dimensional characters, especially as the adults struggled with a major tragedy and betrayal. The father is absent because he has difficulties coping and because his boss basically holds him hostage to long hours. When he finally emerges as a central character, he is a man who is drowning and doing the best he can, even if his best is inadequate. Given that, I wanted to make his devotion to his family clear, especially his fierce love for his daughters.

MM: One of my pet peeves is when I see books for teens where the parents are conveniently out of the country for three months or in a coma, etc. It’s a convention meant to set the young character at the heart of all the decision-making in the novel, but still, it makes me cringe. The fact is that teens’ lives unfold in the presence and with the help (or hindrance) of adults in their lives, so I like to put them in, sometimes as allies, sometimes as obstacles. In BURN BABY BURN, I drew the unhealthy relationship between Nora’s parents and tried to show all the effects that their relationship --- even after divorce --- had on their kids. It’s heartbreaking to be a kid who faces the idea that your parents may not love you more than anything else. It’s terrifying to have to fill in the role of a parent who is unable or unwilling to do the job, because it turns our concept of family hierarchy on its ear. But, I think that’s the reality for some families, and so I try to write about those things as honestly as I can.

What would a teen novel be without a good love interest? Still you both take care to write strong girls in relationship. Why do you think it’s important to write about the romantic lives of teens?

CD: Because I love a love story! The characters in TELL ME SOMETHING REAL --- all of them --- question the extent to which they are loved. Bringing in a romantic relationship seemed like an important dimension of that theme. While the love story is central, my narrator, Vanessa, is still her own person --- a very strong girl. That was very important to me. At her most fragile, Vanessa meets a boy, Caleb, at the hospital where her mother is being treated. With him, she opens her heart, even as she comes to terms with her mother’s prognosis. Caleb doesn’t save Vanessa. She’s filled with a quiet strength. But he, along with Vanessa’s family, show her that no matter what, she is worthy of love.

MM: So my formula is this: love interest, yes; sap, no. Love is part of a teen’s life, so I write about it, but it’s not the only thing that matters to them. I’m always interested in presenting my character with a moment where she has to draw boundaries on the relationship. In BURN BABY BURN, Pablo requires Nora to face so many decisions. How much of her personal life does she want to share with him? Will she tell Mima about this relationship? Will she and Pablo become sexually intimate or not? But for me the most important question is distilled in the scene when they have a big blow up because Nora has to decide what her boundaries are regarding how Pablo can treat her verbally and emotionally. Where is the line of what is okay and what isn’t? Those are the real questions girls face when dating, and they’re a lot more meaningful than “how cute is he?”

Something I think both books share is creating very resilient teenage girls. What do you think your readers will take away from each of your protagonists?

CD: Vanessa is a classic middle child flanked by two sisters who she regards as more interesting. She describes them as glowing at a higher wattage --- she is a soft light and they are ultraviolet. I wanted to create a character with quiet strength, and Vanessa’s huge heart and keen observational skills allow her to see many different points of view. She studies the piano, and music offers a creative outlet for her to explore complex emotions, especially when she feels isolated and abandoned. She’s resilient, but also compassionate and creative. She’s a girl in search of her place and her voice, and she finds both in an unexpected and tragic way. 

MM: Nora is an adult in progress, but she can’t really count on her family for guidance. What do kids do in these situations? Sadly, sometimes our families aren’t equipped to be our advocates. They’re too broken or violent. In those cases, a kid has no choice but to scavenge elsewhere for support. I think that’s what we see in the characters that populate Nora’s world. They are each part of the family that she cobbles together on her own. Stiller, the MacInerney’s, Sal, and Mr. Farina --- even her pain-in-the-butt guidance counselor --- each of them provides a little piece of support, each pushes her beyond where she is comfortable. The key to resilient girls is that they find support somewhere so that they can do the hard work of finding their own voice, strength, and talents.