author of Just One Day
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I am what was once known as a Valley Girl (for more information, see this song. Or this movie. What this means is that I was born in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, in a culture that valued shopping malls and the perfectly torn sweatshirt. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I got out of there as soon as possible. I was an exchange student in England at 16. Took off to go traveling through Europe for three years at 18. At 21, I went to college in Oregon and then after graduation, moved to New York City where I’ve been ever since.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve, I wanted to be an actress. When I was eighteen, I wanted to be a traveller. When I was thirty, I wanted to be an author (though not yet a fiction writer). I think there’s a through line connecting all three, so stick with me. I gave up on acting when I realised that success depended on so much more than talent (which I didn’t have that much of to begin with). As for the thirty-year-old, she was about to go traveling around the world for a year, and she wanted to write a book about it. Which I wound up doing (my first book, a nonfiction travelogue called You Can’t Get There From Here, like my acting, isn’t that great). But after I came back from that trip and finished writing that book, I started writing fiction (more on that in the next question). I realised that I could continue to travel in my imagination (which was handy because now that I was a mother, going to places like India with my infant daughter wasn’t nearly as appealing) and also could tap into that old love of acting. I feel like when I write novels, I inhabit the characters, much the way an actor might, and it allows me to write them in a real immediate way. Acting. Traveling. Fiction Writing. Voila.
I had very strong feelings about Sonic Youth and the Pixies that don’t feel relevant anymore. I also had strongly disdainful feelings about college. I thought anything worth learning could be learned In Life. I now know that to be wrong. That there is something incredibly valuable about knowing the wider world, meeting people from all walks of life, expanding your comfort zone, etc. But that there is something equally important about grounding all of this in an understanding of history or economics or politics. I’m very grateful for both of my educations. All of them, really.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc. – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
1. She Being Brand by E.E. Cummings. My eighth grade English teacher bravely introduced this very racy poem to my English class, and not only did I love the wordplay, the way the language sounded tripping off my tongue, I also loved how the poem could speak out of both sides of its mouth. It was my first understanding of how playful language could be, how you could talk about one thing but really be saying something else entirely.
2. Rags by The Waterboys. I was a huge music geek as a kid, and I loved a lot of bands, but The Waterboys were probably the first band that connected to me on a deeply emotional level. Something about this song (the entire Pagan Place album) really resonated with me, made me feel deeply, an emotionality that I didn’t fully understand back then but I do now. It’s that emotionality, which music still ignites in me, that I need to access as a writer.
3. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It remains one of my favourite novels. I think it sums up why I write young-adult novels. Sometimes to tell a truly deeply moral story, you need to tell it via young people. Also, this book nails its setting. I haven’t read it in years, but I can still feel the dustiness of Maycomb in the summer.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
It chose me. After traveling around the world for a year and writing a book about it, I had a baby and didn’t want to travel for work as I had done in the past (I’d been a journalist). But I needed to be able to pay the bills and someone suggested I write a young-adult novel. It wasn’t completely out of left-field. Well, it sort of was because I’d never written a novel, but I had written for and about young people my entire career as a journalist. Within days, I sat down and started my first novel, Sisters in Sanity, based on an article I’d written years before on behaviour modification bootcamps. Once I wrote that book, I knew I’d found my true calling. I may have backed my way in, but this was it.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel, Just One Day
I like to describe Just One Day as a Trojan Horse love story. It begins with what seems like a very Before Sunrise plot. Uptight American Girl (Allyson) and Free-spirited Dutch boy (Willem) meet in Europe and wind up spending a magical day together in Paris. But after one day, Allyson wakes up to find Willem gone and over the next year must grapple not just with humiliation and a broken heart and university life that is not living up to expectations, but with losing the liberated, better version of herself she became that day in Paris. The book is really about Allyson searching for that part of herself, and maybe Willem, too. Willem gets his own book, Just One Year, which will come out later this year.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
For me, the best books are the ones that I finish a slightly different person than I was when I started them. The ones that give me an emotionally cathartic experience, that feeling in my chest, when I can feel my heart expand (be it from heartache or joy or some other emotion). As a writer, that’s what I aim for, too, to provide my readers with that same experience.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
One of my favourite authors is one of yours: Melina Marchetta. That feeling I describe in the previous question, the emotional catharsis, her books deliver that. I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood. The first two books in her MadAdam Trilogy are incredibly inventive with language, fascinatingly good stories, and also both manage to be profound statements about the world we’re living in. I love George Saunders, too, because he’s just out there, but also so humane. These are three very different writers, but they all take incredible risks in their work, which I admire.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To have each book I write be better than the last one. Not necessarily more commercially successful, but better written, more ambitious in scale.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
To let the work be the guide. To write in the voice that comes naturally to them, not the voice they think they should write in or the one the market demands. To write the story that is bursting to come out of them and not worry about the market. Because if you write a compelling and authentic piece of work that makes you feel breathless when you are writing it, chances are so much stronger that readers will find it, and react in kind.
Gayle, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
Follow Andrew: Twitter