Author Interview: Donna Freitas on The Possibilities of Sainthood

See Donna Freitas’s official author website.

What were you like as a young reader?

I was as voracious with books as I was (am) with all Italian foodstuffs. My mother was an elementary school teacher, and so she was very big on reading me books and on me reading in general (television was heavily monitored and very discouraged in my house).

A couple of my strongest memories have to do with reading and how excited I got (I sound like such a geek) about choosing books.

My mother and I used to make frequent trips to the library, often several times per week, and I remember the very first time she let me go off on my own to pick out a book while she waited at a safe distance, as if she was minding her own business. I felt like such a big girl. I loved the feeling of independence and choice. I think I must have spent over an hour trying to decide what I would take home.

My other strongest, earliest reading memory has to do with my first chapter books, which I brought everywhere, including in the car (my parents were always advising me that I had to stop at intervals to look out the window or I was going to get sick), and I particularly remember reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary (William Morrow & Company, 1965), and turning to my grandmother who was sitting next to me in the backseat and exclaiming, “Grandma, I’ve read 50 pages already!” I was very proud of this accomplishment.

So that was the beginning of a lifelong love of books. As I got older I read anything Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume (interview), Madeline L’Engle, all Noel Streatfeild‘s Shoe books (I was a dancer and a gymnast), and then eventually, Sweet Valley High (for summer fun), and classics–the usual suspects you read in high school. But I got a little obsessed with Ayn Rand‘s novels, too, which now makes me roll my eyes but then, we all have pasts.

Why do you write for teenagers today?

The stories that show up in my head feature teen protagonists and decidedly high school concerns and experiences so I’ve just gone with it. But then, I think young adulthood is one of the most exciting, rich, quirky, funny, and searching times in our lives, so it’s a wonderful time to explore through fiction.

I’ve been a teacher of some sort for fourteen years now (high school and college), and I absolutely adore my students and think they are one of the best audiences around that a person could reach out to in her writing, so for me it’s really an honor to write for a group of people I already respect so much. Writing YA fiction is another way to be in conversation with teens and college students.

What about young fictional heroes appeals to you as a writer?

Most of all I love a strong voice, and some of the best character voices around are in YA fiction—I’m thinking about Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork (Arthur Levine, March 2009) as a great, recent example.

Besides, with YA you get to dig down deep into romance—and I love romance—because that’s such a huge part of being a teenager. At least it was for me—I was pretty boy-crazy in high school (and it’s possible that my protagonist, Antonia Lucia Labella, from The Possibilities of Sainthood (FSG, 2008) has a lot of that in her, too).

The other best part about young hero/ines is that this is a time in life when you are asking and struggling with life’s biggest questions. As a one-time philosophy major in college (at Georgetown) and now a professor of religious studies, I love Big Questions and I think children’s literature is one of the most daring, risk-taking areas of literature in this regard.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I never thought I’d publish a novel, not even when I started writing The Possibilities of Sainthood. But my wonderful agent (Miriam Altshuler)—who has represented all my adult nonfiction and some amazing children’s/YA writers, including Alex Sanchez (interview) and Walter Dean Myers—was very excited when I told her I was writing a novel and especially after I told her the story.

She really cheered me on as did two very good friends of mine, Tanya Lee Stone (author of A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl (Wendy Lamb Books, 2006))(interview), and Beth Wright, the children’s librarian at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, Vermont. I’d also told them the plot and character, and they were amazingly supportive and pretty much the people who convinced me to go for it.

So I did—and I guess you could call my first draft a sprint: I finished it in about three and a half weeks. I wrote like a person possessed. It was a blast.

Once I had a draft, my agent sent it out to one editor in particular who was my dream editor: Frances Foster at FSG. One of the books Frances had edited—Holes by Louis Sachar (FSG, 1998)—was the book that inspired me to imagine my own story filled with quirks and wacky characters. My fantasy was that Frances would read The Possibilities of Sainthood and get its sense of humor and fall in love with the story. I didn’t imagine I would get my wish, though!

When my agent called to tell me that Frances wanted a meeting, I almost fainted. It was a dream come true. And Frances is my heroine. Not only is she a wonderful editor, but I am learning so much as a writer by working with her. She’s hilarious, too. I pretty much want to be Frances when I grow up.

As far as the trials and tribulations of getting this first novel published…it was really hard work, grueling even. While the first draft tends to pore out of me, revising is like pulling teeth. And Frances and FSG took a chance on me—for which I am grateful. The Possibilities of Sainthood needed a lot of work. Everyone at FSG put a lot of effort into shepherding this book to publication and helping me stay sane in the process.

FSG has incredible people in publicity and marketing, folks who make an author feel very loved and supported both before and after a book comes out, and then I was lucky to have Robbin Gourley design the cover, which I adore. I love looking at the cover. And she came up with it on the first try.

I still have to pinch myself, though, when I see the book. I can’t believe it’s real.

Looking back on your apprenticeship as a writer, is there anything you wish you’d done differently? If so, what and why?

I don’t know that I really had an apprenticeship. I didn’t set out to become a writer, and even now I have a difficult time applying the title to myself. I’ve always written—but mostly academic papers in college and grad school when I was getting my Ph.D.

I loved writing philosophical treatises and all, but generally professors of philosophy and religious studies do not care about style, etc. They only care about content, the ideas you put out or grapple with. So no one gave me lessons on developing my writing style or character development or anything like that.

When I first realized I might have entire books in me, even novels, and then realized I might also write these books, I began to pay closer attention to my favorite books—both nonfiction and fiction: How did the authors use dialogue? Create setting? Character? And then I dived in and did the best I could.

It would have been great to have a mentor (or several) early on, but eventually I lucked out and landed my Frances, from whom I’ve learned so much, as well as finding wonderful writing friends to exchange work with for critique.

I often envy those who get MFAs in children’s writing at great places like Vermont College and The New School because of the ready-made, amazing community these programs provide aspiring writers, both in terms of teachers and peers.

On the flip side, what was most helpful to you in terms of developing your craft?

Meeting writers willing to offer advice, answer questions, read drafts, and of course, paying attention to my editor’s advice, even if it required that I rewrite the last third of the novel (which I did.) Also, learning to trust—and listen to—my character’s voice.

As I said above, while revisions are really difficult for me, first drafts are pretty thrilling. I literally could “hear” Antonia talking in my head and realized that my job was to listen to her voice and go from there. I knew I could always come back and work on the manuscript later. The most important thing was to get it all out while I had the energy and spark.

That initial inspiration is key for me—taking advantage of it while it’s there—and letting myself worrying about the rest later (you know: the polishing, um, the grammar, the readability, important stuff like that).

Congratulations on the success of The Possibilities of Sainthood (FSG, 2008)! Could you tell us about the novel?

The Possibilities of Sainthood is the story of Antonia Lucia Labella, a 15-year-old Italian girl from an immigrant family, living in Rhode Island.

She has two main desires: 1) to become the first ever official living saint in Catholic history (and she’s been writing the Pope in Rome once a month, every month since she was seven, proposing new saint ideas and herself as the ideal candidate); and 2) to land her first kiss.

The setting is about as Italian and Rhode Island as you can get—Antonia’s family owns an Italian market in Federal Hill (Rhode Island’s famous Italian neighborhood) and they live above it. Her family is loud, melodramatic, and always either cooking food to sell in the store, eating food in general, or working in the store and talking about food. Antonia also goes to Catholic school, complete with plaid skirts, the whole thing.

When she’s not proposing new saints—like the Patron Saint of Figs and Fig Trees or of People Who Make Pasta or, eventually, the Patron Saint of the First Kiss and Kissing—she’s going back and forth between her two love interests (one’s an Italian, the other a hottie Irish boy).

I hope, hope, hope that people find it funny. It’s meant to be very lighthearted.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the book?

A combination of being Italian myself (Italians are characters), growing up in Rhode Island (which brings me to more characters: Rhode Islanders are a quirky people), and then my mom and grandmother. My mom actually grew up above her family’s Italian Market—it’s called Goglia’s Market and it’ still there, but in Bristol, not Federal Hill—and all my life she told me these hilarious stories about the store and especially the two giant fig trees out back that came from clippings carried over from Italy. She’d talk about these trees like they were miraculous—for their size, the giant, succulent figs they would put forth each season, how they’d have to bury the trees so they’d survive the Rhode Island winter.

That’s the first thing Antonia talks about in The Possibilities of Sainthood—burying the family fig trees and what a crazy task this is.

I guess the last bit of inspiration would just be the Catholic saints—I think of them as comedy just waiting to happen. There are saints for hilarious things and things you would never imagine. I had so much fun finding the most ridiculous ones, and of course, the ridiculous stories of how they died (they all have crazy martyrdom stories.)

What was the timeline between spark and each publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I wrote the novel in the spring of 2006, and it just came out in the fall of 2008, so over two years. FSG has a really long lead time. They bought it in April 2006, and it was so difficult to wait for the release date.

Aside from writing it, the most major event was that meeting I had with Frances at FSG’s offices (with my agent and another FSG editor and publisher as well) before she officially made an offer. It was one of the most exciting meetings of my life.

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

Revision, revision, revision! That was my biggest challenge. And speaking of literary—just hoping that lighthearted and funny could also have depth. That’s part of why I hoped for Frances as an editor—Holes is such a funny book, but it’s also really smart, and I had this fantasy that she’d get the humor in my novel, too.

In general, logistically, it can be difficult juggling my professorial responsibilities and my adult nonfiction with the fiction publication schedule.

Actually, the copy edits for my most recent, adult nonfiction publication, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses (Oxford, 2008) and the copy edits for The Possibilities of Sainthood came in on the same day.

Both publishers wanted the manuscripts turned around ASAP of course. Plus, I was teaching new courses at Boston University and embroiled in the media controversy surrounding the movie of Philip Pullman‘s The Golden Compass. It was one of the craziest times in my life, trying to manage all of that at once.

The one other thing I’d say about challenges is just that my novel has so much of my mom and grandmother in the story (my grandma lived with us my whole life), and they died about 18 months apart, a couple of years before I started writing.

The novel is dedicated in their memory, and I wish with all my heart that they could read it. I hope it would make them laugh. But I loved bringing them alive in spirit on the page. For that, I am very grateful.

Yours is one of the few YA novels that comes to mind in terms of positive/upbeat depictions of religion. Why do you believe this is the case?

Positive depictions, or even funny ones, are pretty rare in YA lit. Though there are more and more that I am finding—like one I already mentioned, Marcelo in the Real World (which is deep and endearing), and Lauren Myracle (interview) has a lighthearted novel called Peace, Love, & Baby Ducks coming out this summer (Dutton, 2009) where faith, questions about God, and, in particular, Christianity is just a regular part of her protagonist’s life so it’s part of the book, too.

Then I have other favorites like Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah (Orchard, 2007), which is so wonderfully lighthearted, and The God Box by Alex Sanchez (Simon & Schuster, 2007), which is not only moving, but such a smart, sensitive discussion of navigating coming out in the context of a religious community.
Oh, and I can’t forget to mention A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt (Wendy Lamb Books, 2006)(interview), which is also moving, subtle, and wonderful in handling faith with sensitivity.
So maybe times are a-changing on this front.

Though, I’ve learned to keep a low profile (at least at first) about my other life as a Professor of Religious Studies within the YA Lit world—that people make all sorts of assumptions about what that must mean for who I am and what I believe. Religion in general makes certain people nervous, and so having an affiliation like “Prof of Religion” sometimes makes people a bit anxious as well (not everyone, but still).

But it’s a part of life for many, many, many of us—probably most of us to some degree—and certainly a part of the life of many teens who read our books as well, so I think it is important to have books that feature characters with a faith life that are not only about faith-in-crisis, but simply faith as a part of life or even as the foundation for a fun, quirky story as is the case in Does My Head Look Big In This?.

Why do you think it’s important to reflect faith in the lives of young people?

Because they care—and deeply so, and YA literature should try to be inclusive of and sensitive about this interest. In my work as a scholar, I actually did a nationwide study measuring the level of interest in religion and/or spirituality among young adults in college—the results are published in Sex and the Soul which I mentioned above.

Teens and young adults—both for my research and several other major national studies–register as religious and/or spiritual to the tune of about 80%(!). That’s such a huge number I don’t think it can be ignored.

So theoretically, YA Literature is way behind on engaging this particular life dimension of our audience—if I had to guess, the percentage of YA novels published that feature a character who even mentions going to any sort of faith service is pretty low!

What insights did you bring into the process?

Well, I am a person of faith (I grew up Catholic), so I hope that helped!

And then, I’m a religion professor, so I hope all that work toward my Ph.D. did some good in the novel, too. I’ve long studied saints and mystics, especially women saints and mystics.

But maybe most of all, I am constantly talking to teens and college students about their faith lives, their questions and struggles, what they find humorous and especially ridiculous about religions and/or spirituality. That’s my job as both a teacher and a researcher in the field.

And, in my study certainly, but also in the talks I give at universities and colleges across the country and classes I’ve taught, I’ve learned over the years that teens are fascinated by spirituality and religion, especially spiritual journeys of all sorts.

So I hope that my protagonist, Antonia’s journey, however quirky and lighthearted it may be, will engage that hunger and interest that I see as so widespread about teens and young adults today.

The novel also has a terrific sense of place. Could you tell us how you developed and integrated the setting to best effect?

Well, I think it’s the food, really, that gives it a sense of place. There is constant talk of pasta of all varieties, spinach pies, meatballs, sauces—you name it. Is that possible—for smells and descriptions of cooking can evoke a sense of place, that food can shape a home, a store, and neighborhood? Everything in my house when I was growing up revolved around food, so it wasn’t hard to use that as the center touchstone of the book. I suppose the plaid skirts, saint icons all over the place, and then quirky Rhode Island helps, too.

Rhode Island is such a distinctive place, and I love writing about it, so I don’t know that I can take much credit for that part of the setting. But I hope people find it as fun place to set a story and characters as I do!

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

Ooof. I find the balancing act very difficult. There are so many writers who maintain LiveJournals all the time and do tons of author appearances, etc. I haven’t figured that part out yet.

I’m hoping to start doing school visits soon (I haven’t done one yet, but am really looking forward to trying it out), but then, a lot of my time is also occupied by the writing and lecturing I need to do in relation to my research, especially for Sex and the Soul.

So if you have any advice about juggling, please send it my way!

What was it like, being a debut author in 2008?

Thrilling and intimidating, too. I feel like such a newbie when it comes to fiction, and I like to think that I have a long career ahead of me where I get to improve my writing and “polish” my craft, so to speak.

Then I look at other debut novels like Kristin Cashore‘s Graceling (Harcourt, 2008) or Melissa Marr‘s Wicked Lovely (Harper, 2007)(interview)—just to name two—and think to myself, Wow: so this is their first try at this novel-writing thing?

Overall, though, it’s been an utter thrill. I still get geeky excited just holding the novel in my hands, seeing that it’s real.

As a reader, what were your favorite books of 2008?

Too many to name! But I have to gush about The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski (FSG, 2008), which is just lush in terms of place and description—Marie is a stunning debut fantasy author.

I also loved Graceling—what a romance!

And E. Lockhart‘s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion, 2008)(interview) I fell in love with from the first page—I was so happy it was a finalist for the National Book Award and got a Printz Honor.

What do you do outside the world of books?

Um, there’s an outside? Well…As I mentioned before, I am a professor at Boston University and I love, love, love teaching, especially college students. I love being a part of a community whose whole purpose is to read and think and contemplate and ideally, somehow, through this process change the world. In other words, I am very idealistic.

As for other stuff: I am a huge “Buffy” fan (I just re-watched all seven seasons), and more recently, I’m hooked on “Battlestar,” so I am kind of a TV-movie-junkie (I go to the movies all the time by myself, actually—I love that and I think it comes from being an only child—you learn to go off on your own a lot).

I also love to drink coffee and read novels for fun (surprise!) and most of all, hang out with friends and family.

Eat, too: eating is a favorite activity, as is cooking (and my husband is a very good audience for the eating of my cooking). I really do cook all those things mentioned in my novel for real—I grew up learning to make all those Italian goodies including homemade pasta.

And the last thing I’ll mention is living in New York City—is there a more amazing place? I love walking the city and discovering new things (there is always something new to discover), and I love the people-watching. It’s hard to imagine living anywhere else.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have a draft of a sequel to The Possibilities of Sainthood sitting on my computer, which I originally thought would be my second novel, but it’s far from ready at this point.

This is because I went and surprised myself and wrote an altogether different story than I expected to—I started it out of the blue one day. Antonia’s story is so lighthearted and bordering on melodramatic with all that Italian passion poring out of her and I had such fun writing her story that I imagined that I would always, only write funny. This proved not to be the case.

So my next novel, The Gorgeous Game (FSG, spring 2010), is sad and dark—though ultimately hopeful, I think—and it does have some romance in it. But it’s about stalking.

I used to think that it would be terribly painful to write a sad story, especially one with such darkness as involving a girl who is being stalked by someone. The experience of writing this novel surprised me tremendously, though. I felt like a warrior who was slaying a monster. It was one of the most empowering experiences I’ve had so far as a writer.

I hope readers who enjoyed The Possibilities of Sainthood will forgive the switch in style and tone for this one and be willing to discover a different kind of voice and story from me.

Next up after this one will be a funny story because I do love funny. But I’ll be curious to see how people respond to my “stalking novel” as I’ve taken to calling it. Hopefully readers will like it. That’s all an author can hope for, right?