Author Interview: Cecil Castellucci on The Queen of Cool

The Queen of Cool by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2006). From the promotional copy: “a funny, incisive look at a teenage girl who becomes bored with her popularity and dares to take off her tiara and do something really cool with her life.” Ages 12-up.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I had just handed in Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005)(author interview)(a Cynsational Book of 2005), and I was just kind of obsessed with the L.A. Zoo. I had gone to visit one day when I was having an emotional freak out. I was wandering around and I noticed there was a big picture of the Condor near the aviary only there were no condors to be seen. They keep them hidden away. That made me really sad. I got the idea for a scene, in a flash, about this girl who was totally cool who goes on a field trip to the zoo and sees a baby condor die while it’s hatching and her life is changed. For some reason, she was sitting next to a girl who was a dwarf. I went home and wrote the scene. I called the girl “Libby,” and she was so bored with her routine. And she was trembling because she (and I) knew that she was as rare a bird as that condor, and as rare a bird as Tina (aka Tiny) who was sitting next to her.

I started seeing everyone around me as these kind of endangered species. Then one day I was at this function (Forest Ackerman’s 88th birthday party, if the truth be told) and before I’d gotten there, I was totally worried that I wasn’t going to be cool enough to be there but then when I got there, I kind of felt like I was actually one of the coolest people in the room. That got me thinking about how it’s pretty amazing that you can feel both totally cool in one situation and like the biggest loser who can’t fit in no matter how hard you try in another social situation.

By the way, the Field Trip is not in the book. At all. Neither is the Condor. Just FYI. It turned out to be just a jumping off point. It was the core of the whole story, but not what made the book.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

So this was like January 2004. I had met Aimee Bender, who is a fabulous L.A. author, at a literary speakeasy. When I told her that I had sold my first novel, she said “Write your second one before your first one comes out.” I was like, “Why?” and she was like, “Because that way you won’t freak out.” She’s kind of an L.A. literary Goddess, so naturally, I trusted her, and I just got to work. I kept scratching away at it but honestly, I was really busy working on my first indie feature film “Happy Is Not Hard To Be,” because that’s what a girl does sometimes, she makes a feature film. Meanwhile, Kara LaReau, my editor, kept asking me if I had anything else kicking around in my head. I wasn’t finished with this cool zoo Libby/Tina thing. I only had like a skeleton of a story but I asked Barry if he thought it was worth sending. He thought it was pretty OK TOMATO. Kara bought it that Summer 2004. Only she changed the title, I had called Rare Birds and Animal Magnetism.

I was just finishing it up when I went to ALA in January ’05 when Boy Proof came out and I was like WHOA! Good thing I listened to that smart Aimee!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? I’m especially interested in how you found out about working behind the scenes at a zoo!

Literary challenges, as always for me is – plot, plot, plot! I had all of these characters! But what was going on? How do they get from here to there? Intertwining all the characters was challenging. I had one of my screenwriter friends read it and he was like YOU HAVE NO PLOT!!!!! I actually called Kara’s office voice mail at like 2 in the morning in a panic about it. She called me the next day and laughed at me…with love and comfort.

Research wise I joined the L.A. Zoo. I went there a lot. I walked around. I talked to the docents. I talked to the animal services people if they were hanging around the cages. I talked to the student volunteers. I observed. I read the information signs in front of the cages! I called the head of animal services. He let me ask him questions. I also talked to the Zoo Librarian. They have a library there! Anyone can go and look stuff up! She really helped me with the nitty gritty of the animal stuff.

For the dwarfism stuff, which was mostly background-y kind of stuff so I really knew Tina, I did things like I went to the LPA (Little People of America) site and to a couple of LPA meetings. I also watched a great documentary called “Big Enough” (2004), which was on PBS. Also I watched the film “Tip Toes,” which is a fiction film.

Queen of Cool follows your smash debut novel Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005). It doesn’t seem you suffered at all from The Dreaded Sophomore Novel Block that plagues so many authors. Tell us about your momentum! What gets you up and writing and feeling the story each day?

Ha! Ha! Ha! Does it really look like I didn’t suffer the dreaded sophomore novel block! It must be my regiment of salt scrubs, sleight of hand, balloon twisting and the art of mesmer! Honestly, I think it helped that I sold it before my first novel hadn’t come out yet because I didn’t know enough to be terrified. I told my agent Barry Goldblatt that what I was working on might just be a palette cleanser.

I don’t feel it everyday. Sometimes I lay around staring at the ceiling thinking, “OK that’s it. I’ve had my last idea. I’m done. It’s over. I’m a big fat fraud. And I might be ugly, too.” But Jennifer Richard Jacobson, who wrote the terrific book Stained (Atheneum, 2005)(author interview), once said that she tries to just write 9 lines a day. So I would have to say that it’s not momentum that gets me writing, it’s puttering. I leave the page open and I try to show up to it all the time. Sometimes that means taking a bath, or a walk, or slacking off. It’s all a part of the process.

Romantic that I am, I just adored two of your supporting chracters, Tina and Sheldon. Though marked as nerds by the popular kids at their high school, it’s clear to me that they’ve got cool to spare. How did these characters evolve?

Sheldon comes of my love for boys with gorgeous brains. I’ve liked some boys that are eccentric huge brained geniuses like Sheldon, and I know they certainly didn’t make it through high school being thought of as cool. But now, they are so friggin’ cool I can’t believe it! I want to kiss them all!

Tina came about because I think a lot about being small. I am quite small, though not as small as Tina and I wondered about how that would be, to be smaller than I am and yet be so big. Tina, is a pretty big girl on the inside. When I look back now, I think in part two things made Tina be in that field trip scene I wrote. At that time I was doing this writing assistantship at the New Works Festival at the Taper and I was working on this one woman show written by this differently-abled actress named Anne Stocking. She’s like this powerhouse, sexy, amazing, talented writer performer. She’s smaller than I am, but ballsier. I had also just gone to a wedding and my friends Uncle has achrondoplasia. He was trying to encourage me to join the LPA so I could get blocks for my car since I have trouble reaching my pedals. At 4′ 10″, I actually make the cut. So I did. It’s been so interesting!

As I was finishing the novel, it struck me that I couldn’t think of another YA title that included a character who, like Tina, is a little person. Are there some I’m forgetting or missed along the way? I wish they weren’t so rare.

I can only think of Funny Little Monkey [by Andrew Auseon (Harcourt, 2005)] and Freak the Mighty [by Rodman Philbrick (Scholastic, 1993)]. Or A Prayer for Owen Meany [by John Irving (Ballantine)], which I guess isn’t YA. I wish they weren’t so rare either. In those two books, the little characters go to hospitals a lot, which of course, does happen in life. I wanted Tina to just be a normal teen, who happens to be a dwarf. This story doesn’t take place during any hospital stay that Tina might have had to / or would do later. In this story, Tina’s dwarfism was a way to sort of have Libby be confronted physically with a difference. A way for Libby to have to see past that and into the true meaning of cool. ‘Cause Tina’s pretty friggin’ cool.

Of the young adult novels you’ve read of late, which are your favorites and why?

Well, I just read Nick and Norah’s Ultimate Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan [(Knopf, 2006)]. E. Lockhart‘s The Boyfriend List [(Delacorte, 2005)(author interview)](really moved me with that whole carnation scene. It was like I had an Aha moment! I’ve read a draft of Holly Black’s Ironside and WHOA! It’s amazing! Honestly, I am ashamed I haven’t read more. I am a really slow reader so I’m terribly behind on my reading.

What strikes you as “cool”? How would you define it in your own life–past, present, and future?

People who are their genuine authentic self are cool. That’s always the case. Past, present and future. If you are yourself, true to yourself, 100% then that is cool. Always.

Were you the Queen of Cool as a teenager? You certainly are now!

I don’t know if I was! I think I was in the middle. I wasn’t the coolest person I knew but I wasn’t the dorkiest. For me, I had this big personality, and I was sensitive and emotional and raw. (Uh, I might still be those things) (Don’t tell)

I think now, the advantage of being an adult is that I can manage myself a little better, and I also can see the cool thing inside of pretty much everyone. In my opinion, everyone has something deliciously, exquisitely, divinely cool in them.

But I still have those social situations where nothing I do is cool enough and I guarantee you, I’m the biggest loser in the room. Then I remember that really, truly, I am a Queen. (And so are you!)