Deb Caletti knows she was "meant to be holed up in my room wearing my pjs and talking to my imaginary friends." And, even though becoming a young adult author wasn't part of her original plan, her complex stories about distressed families and complicated romances have certainly connected with teen readers—and critics. Her book Honey, Baby, Sweetheart was named a finalist for a National Book Award in 2004. Here, Caletti talks with Bookshelf about what it's like to write after winning such an honor, the inspiration behind her newest novel, The Six Rules of Maybe, and the actual rules she chooses to live by.
Can you talk about what inspired The Six Rules of Maybe?
All of my books come from something that I happen to be working out at a given point in my life. It's kind of self-therapy. For this book, I was thinking about my own life, and letters I've gotten from readers, and about us folks who tend to be givers and look after other people, maybe to the point of our own detriment.
Six Rules is really about those kinds of questions: When is giving too much? When does that mean you are doing it for the wrong reasons? It's about hope and when we get tripped up by our own hope and need to think about things in a different way.
You set all your books in the Pacific Northwest, where you also live. How does the setting influence your work?
I think a setting is hugely important. I look at setting as a character with its own look, sound, history, quirks, goofy temperaments and moods. Our Northwest setting, especially all of our islands and places I like to choose for my books, are such a great inspiration, because they are moody and quirky and beautiful and rich. I have a lot of material right outside these windows.
Some of your characters show up in more than one book—mail carrier Clive Weaver, for example, appears in both Six Rules and Honey, Baby Sweetheart. Why do you choose to do that?
I just love that idea that we're sort of interconnected, and that other people's stories are going on in all of their fullness right next to your story. It's connected to the thoughts that you have when you see a lit-up apartment building or a house at night, and you see the light in there and you wonder what's going on with the people inside. I just love the idea that you might have previously passed on the street the person you are now married to.
Beyond where they live, what do you think your protagonists have in common?
I think they're all searching, and they're all a mixture of maturity and immaturity, worldliness and naiveté, and a mix of getting it right with really screwing it up. They all have a little secret monologue going on, like we all do.
Can you talk about what drew you to write YA books initially?
Becoming a YA author was actually a very lucky accident. When I wrote the Queen of Everything, I thought it was a book for adults. I was kind of surprised when it got picked up by a young adult editor at Simon & Schuster. And you can tell what my misconceptions about YA were—I thought they were going to edit it down to 35 appropriate pages. They ended up really not touching it at all.
It's been such a great thing because I am with this audience that's so honest and always ready to look at the big questions and attempt to find meaning.
Your book Honey, Baby, Sweetheart was a National Book Award finalist. What was that like for you?
That still gives me goosebumps when I think of it. I have the medal in my favorite bookcase, but it seems really kind of impossible that that happened. I had gotten an email from the office of the National Book Foundation saying they had an urgent matter in regard to a possible appearance that I needed to contact them about. I though, "Hmm?" I had no idea, because I wasn't someone who follows awards or waits for them to come out. I just couldn't believe it, but how wonderful! What an exciting thing to be a part of when you look at historically who's been involved.
You've written several books since then, but was it intimidating to write the next book after receiving such a big honor?
Heck, yes. At first I thought, "Gosh, now has the bar been raised? Am I going to have to keep this up?" I just try not to think about it. I just try to get in there with my characters and do that thing that I really love to do. Otherwise it would be too crazy, too scary.
But you walk by the medal occasionally and catch the glint....
And think, "How'd that get there? Who put that there?"
What are you working on next?
It's called Stay and it's about a girl who leaves for the summer with her writer father to get away from her obsessive boyfriend. They spend the summer in this moody beach setting. It has a lot of the same elements as my other books, but it's faster paced and a little bit of a ghost story. I've pretty much just pushed the send button on it, and it will be out in April 2011.
Finally, Six Rules includes a real list of instructions about the importance of hope and pursuing your dreams. Do these rules figure into your own life?
They do figure into my life. If you think about becoming a writer, that's just really one of the big dreams I had. It's really important to have those dreams and pursue your passions. That's what gives you the desire to get up in the morning. I am living this really amazing life from pursuing this really far-out dream. And I worked hard to have that happen.
The Six Rules of Maybe by Deb Caletti. Simon Pulse, $16.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-416-97969-2