New Voice: Holly Cupala on Tell Me a Secret

Holly Cupala is the first-time author of Tell Me a Secret (HarperTeen, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Tell me a secret, and I’ll tell you one…

In the five years since her bad-girl sister Xanda’s death, Miranda Mathison has wondered about the secret her sister took to the grave, and what really happened the night she died.

Now, just as Miranda is on the cusp of her dreams—a best friend to unlock her sister’s world, a ticket to art school, and a boyfriend to fly her away from it all—Miranda has a secret all her own.

Then two lines on a pregnancy test confirm her worst fears. Stripped of her former life, Miranda must make a choice with tremendous consequences and finally face her sister’s demons and her own.

In this powerful debut novel, stunning new talent Holly Cupala illuminates the dark struggle of a girl who must let go of her past to find a way into her future.

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

[Pictured are Holly and her editor Catherine Onder of HarperCollins.]

That has to have been one of the wildest days of my life. Crazily, I’d signed with the agent who wanted revisions—what was I thinking? But he was right, and I knew it.

So I worked on revision for a few months (cue the terror brought on by someone actually waiting for the manuscript) and got to the place where we both felt it was ready to go out.

I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime, I was getting ready to go to the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles (August 2008).

I was just about ready to leave for my flight when I got…

The Call.

And I remember feeling thrilled and sick and a wee bit annoyed that my agent hadn’t spilled one single bean throughout those three weeks of torture! He’d shown it to several editors I’d met at conferences and one pie-in-the-sky editor he was bringing to the table.

I didn’t even dare hope that she would love it—she had edited The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (HarperTempest, 2007, 2008), which won the 2008 Michael L. Printz Award and is one of my favorite books. So I’d pretty much put even the thought of her out of my head.

And then…she bought my story in a two-book pre-empt. It blew me away. So I didn’t really need a plane to get to L.A! I think I may have floated there all by myself and giddily told every single person there my news and put my sari for the red party on backwards and accepted a giant 50 rose bouquet from my wonderful husband. It was amazing!

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

The idea for Tell Me a Secret came out of a very difficult period in my own life—I almost quit writing. But then I had a number of incredibly encouraging friends.

One such friend, Justina Chen Headley (author of North of Beautiful (Little Brown, 2009, 2010)) asked if I was thinking of writing about it.

We went to a session to hear Libba Bray speak shortly after, and then the story just fell out of the sky. I took notes for several months and started writing bits and pieces.

I had a clear sense of the story and characters right away, but the voice came later. At 3 a.m., to be specific. I was a new mom, totally sleep deprived, and I had just gotten the baby to sleep when Miranda spoke to me: It’s tough living in the shadow of a dead girl.

I knew if I didn’t get up right then, she might never speak again! So I dragged myself to the computer and wrote a few pages, which turned out to be the very first few pages in the finished book.

Once I had heard Miranda speak, it was like I’d found a window. Miranda is a character who defines herself through other people, so I knew getting to know her would involve the powerful experiences she has in relation to other characters. In some ways, she was the most difficult to write because her journey is very internal. I drew upon many of my own emotional memories to find her center, which she eventually finds as well.

Cynsational Notes

Holly Cupala wrote teen romance novels before she ever actually experienced teen romance. When she did, her writing became all about about tragic poetry and slightly less tragic novels.

When she isn’t contributing to and writing, she spends time with her husband and daughter in Seattle, Washington.

These days, her writing is less about tragedy and more about hope. Tell Me a Secret is her first novel. Part of the author’s proceeds from this book will go toward helping sexually exploited girls around the globe.