Author Interview: Deborah Davis on Not Like You

Deborah Davis on Deborah Davis: “I write contemporary, realistic fiction about teens who think seriously about themselves and the world, who take risks, make mistakes, figure out what they love, and learn to laugh at themselves. My books contain a lot of ‘issues,’ but they contain humor as well.

“When I teach writing workshops, I teach from the belief that everyone can write well, given the right support and encouragement. I love working with reluctant writers. As a teen, I was a reluctant writer. Terrified, even. Now I believe that the scared or hesitant writers usually have the most to say.

“I recently moved from Seattle to Berkeley, California, an area that is rich with writers and literary events. I’ve been warmly welcomed here, and I’m thrilled to be launching Not Like You (Clarion, 2007) from the Bay area.”

What about the writing life first called to you?

As a child and young teen I loved making up stories, but I had such bad experiences in high school English classes that by the time I graduated I believed I couldn’t write and was not creative in any way. In college, I studied history and Latin American literature, and after college I wanted only to be outside and helping people. That desire led me to work with adjudicated and “at risk” teens in wilderness programs.

After a few years doing that, I began having ideas for stories about young people and felt an irrepressible need to write them down. I felt so strongly that I had something to say, that I had to say it through writing stories, and that I needed to have those stories read by others. I quit working with teens, took several writing workshops and classes, spent many hours free-writing, and eventually found a job editing magazine articles. While working on the magazine, I wrote my first novel for young people.

What made you decide to write for young adults?

Most stories that come to me are through the point of view of teenagers. It’s just the way I imagine them. Or maybe that’s simply what interests me: a time of life when you are figuring out who you are, what’s important to you, and how you are both separate and connected to others.

Could you fill us in on your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I’ve alternately sprinted and stumbled–or maybe sprinted and paused–since I began writing my first novel, a chapter book titled The Secret of the Seal (Crown, 1989), in 1985. I write quickly, but I revise a lot and sometimes I need to let a story sit before I can work on it more.

I wrote The Secret of the Seal mostly on Sundays over a year, and the book sold fairly quickly–I had two offers within two and a half months of sending it out.

My second book, My Brother Has AIDS (Atheneum, 1994), went through several major revisions, but I got to develop that story under the brilliant guidance of Atheneum editor Jean Karl, who eventually offered me a contract for it. I took time off from writing when my son was young, and unfortunately Jean died right when I was finishing a third book, one that she and I had been working on together.

That manuscript still needs a lot of work, and I eventually set it aside to write Not Like You (Clarion, 2007). I did my fastest and longest sprint on Not Like You–writing 200 pages of the first draft in 18 days–but ultimately it was a five-year process from concept to publication, one interrupted by a half-year living in India, a major move, and editing an anthology.

For those new to your work, could you briefly highlight your backlist as you see fit?

The Secret of the Seal (Crown, 1989) is a sweet chapter book about an Inuit boy who encounters an unusual seal while hunting. It was an IRA Teacher’s Choice and a Notable Trade Book in Social Studies and has been used in elementary classrooms across the country. My Brother Has AIDS (Atheneum, 1994), which was included in the NYPL’s Books for the Teen Age, tells the story of a 13-year-old swimmer named Lacy who courageously faces a family tragedy and learns how to move beyond it. My third book, You Look Too Young to be a Mom: Teen Mothers Speak Out on Love, Learning, and Success (Perigee, 2004), is a collection of true stories by women ages 20 to 60 who became mothers in their teen years. I worked with more than 100 women to create that book, which was also included in the NYPL’s Books for the Teen Age.

Congratulations on the publication of Not Like You (Clarion, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for this story?

My stories often begin as images, and it’s hard to say exactly where they come from. For Not Like You, I had an image of a teenage girl finding her mother passed out from drinking on the floor of a trailer in the New Mexico desert. The girl felt a mixture of concern and fury, and that piqued my interest: what was her story? How would she reconcile her conflicting feelings of deep love and intense anger toward her mother? I was also inspired by having lived in New Mexico after college, by my own history with drinking, and by my experience of having an older boyfriend when I was 16.

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

I give a terrific hour-long talk about this timeline, so I’ll try to keep it brief! I began Not Like You in 2001. Simultaneously, I started soliciting essays for You Look Too Young to be a Mom. In early 2002 my husband, my then 8-year-old son, and I lived and traveled in India and Nepal for five months. I worked on the anthology there–when we had power–and had to put Not Like You aside, and when I returned from South Asia I signed a contract for the anthology and had to focus primarily on that.

In the fall of 2003, I got to spend three weeks in a paradise otherwise known as Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers, and I finished the first draft of Not Like You during that time (that’s where I wrote 200 pages in 18 days). The book went through a round of rejections from publishers in 2004, so I completely revised it, and in 2005 my agent sent it out again. In the summer of that year I received an offer from Jennifer Wingertzahn at Clarion, and over the next year I did four more drafts of the book for her, finishing in fall of 2006. Whew!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The biggest challenges were a combination of psychological and literary. For instance, I had to make sure that Kayla, who turns 16 during the story, didn’t sound too mature or too self-aware. As the child of an irresponsible and neglectful alcoholic, Kayla has been exposed to a lot, yet she’s still young emotionally, so I had to show that she was both experienced and naïve. I also felt challenged to make Kayla’s mother, Marilyn, realistic. So many mothers (and fathers) in young adult literature are either absent, neglectful, or thinly drawn.

I had to delve deeply into Kayla’s relationship with her mother, which is at the heart of the story, and it was difficult to balance the love they feel for each other with the far more negative emotions each of them experiences. For both characters, I had to mine my own history of relationships–not the details so much as the feelings and the dynamics. Writing dialogue was particularly gnarly. I probably rewrote the scenes with dialogue more than any others, trying to create both text (what the characters actually say) as well as subtext (what they really mean).

The research challenges included making sure my descriptions of the Southwest settings were accurate–a task accomplished during two writing retreats I did in New Mexico while revising the book. I also spent time reading about alcoholic families and discussing them with a social worker friend.

What do you hope readers take away from the story?

Not Like You is unusual in the YA field in its focus on the mother-daughter relationship. Both Kayla and her mother make bad decisions, yet neither one is a wholly bad person. I hope readers will take heart from Kayla and her mother’s efforts to find their way through a maze of complex emotions.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

It’s been said by others, but it’s true: write a lot, read a lot (in your genre and in others), rewrite a lot. And participate in a critique group. Very few people can write and then improve their work entirely on their own.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love settling into my ergonomically-designed rolling chair with a mug of hot green tea, the morning sun shining on the cat curled next to my desk, feeling curious and hopeful: what will I discover as I write today? What will my characters discover and say and do? What problems will we solve? Will their lives get messy or juicy or complicated?

The writing process for me is fascinating. It’s the most interesting, challenging, and satisfying work I’ve ever done. It scratches an itch that nothing else can reach. It gives me a sense of purpose that I rarely get from doing anything else–and I’ve done many other kinds of work! I love creating something substantial from an idea, and I love how the truth and beauty inherent in that story resonate with readers. The connection that occurs between me and people who read my writing simply cannot happen in any other way, and it’s really deep and precious. It’s as if I have a part of me that can only be known through my stories, a part that I want known.

Okay, that was a little heavy and off-track at the end, but it’s all true.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

Only my periodic self-doubt, jealousy of other writers, and lapses in confidence. And the anxiety that accompanies waiting–for my critique group to give me their comments on a new draft, for my editor’s thoughts on my latest revision, or for reviews to come out.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

I’m not sure I can say I love anything about publishing, if you mean the business of it, unless it’s the kind of love one might have for a highly idiosyncratic or even insane relative. Publishing is a wacky, often unpredictable business. I enjoy talking about it, in small doses, and I love being published; otherwise, I try to walk steadily through the ups and downs of publishing, trying not to take anything too personally, trying to keep my focus on writing.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Aside from reading posts on too many listservs, updating my blogs, procrastinating (what is it about those REI and Sierra Trading Post catalogs?), and checking my refrigerator frequently to see if something decadent has spontaneously appeared, I read a lot, take long bike rides and walks and sometimes a dance class, or work out at the gym. I also hang out with friends and my husband and son, and I love to travel. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro two years ago and rafted the Colorado through the Grand Canyon last year. I’m aiming to do a 100-mile bike ride this fall.

[Visit Deborah’s LJ and MySpace].

What can your fans look forward to next?

My current work-in-progress is a novel about a 17-year-old named Lina, an ambitious student who hates to see people suffer and aspires to become a doctor. When her parents take her to India during her senior year of high school, she is miserable, and to earn money to return home she takes a job working for an attractive young photographer who photographs what he calls the beauty of suffering. Lina’s experiences in India challenge her beliefs about love and suffering, her confidence in herself, her commitment to her schoolwork, and her desire to pursue her dreams…