In Printz Honor author Deb Caletti’s newest YA book, The Epic Story of Every Living Thing, protagonist Harper and her newly found half siblings look for their biological father, a journey that involves learning to scuba dive, letting go of social media, and being brave. Harper’s story intersects with the story of the 19th-century clipper ship Neptune’s Car and its accidental captain, Mary Ann Patten. Caletti spoke with PW about her personal connection to her books, why she loves history, her concerns about young women and social media, and how the pandemic got her thinking about identity.
In The Epic Story of Every Living Thing, Harper carefully crafts her Instagram persona. What did you want to explore about teens and their social media use?
I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about mental health for teens, particularly young women, and how social media use is connected with loss of self-esteem. I was worried about these young women, and I related to them. I was thinking about this pre-pandemic, and then once the pandemic hit, I noticed my reaction to spending all my time as a square in a square looking at a square. I kept thinking, “Is that me? Who is that? What is real here?” And if that was happening to me at my age, I wondered how young women were handling this.
You know, there’s this rah-rah-girls-can-do-anything idea, like there are these bracelets that say “Beautiful Girl, you can do hard things,” and it kills me, because you just don’t see those bracelets for guys like “Handsome Guy, you can do hard things.” When it seems so ludicrous that we laugh at it, we know something is seriously awry. Women don’t have Arctic Blast deodorant that makes you feel like, oh you can go climb a mountain. We have flowers and baby powder. How can we truly feel resilient, especially when social media shows us a constant influx of disaster sitting right alongside pictures of someone’s sushi? The juxtaposition is disorienting. There’s a bagel and a cronut and then someone’s grandmother died. I don’t know what to do with that myself, so I wonder how young people who don’t have my years of experience deal with all of that.
In the book, Harper, whose anxiety is exacerbated by Covid and, as you say, social media, learns to scuba dive, which makes her feel like she’s discovered wonder and a spirituality tied to the natural world. Do you think of this as an eco-novel?
There are pieces of that, but it’s more of a novel about identity and how the world as it is today and how we have to relate to it makes it difficult to grab hold of identity. All that noise makes it harder to hear the things that are truest about ourselves, the lasting things. Wonder and nature can help with that, and I wanted to offer my readers a sense of hope, to put my arm out to them the way books were an arm reaching out to me. I wanted to say, “I hear you” and “I see you” and “I have the same anxiety.” I wanted to offer the things that have helped me, which is being in nature, remembering things that last, looking at history and seeing how people have endured over time.
Speaking of history, last year you wrote a piece for PW about your love of doing research. The Epic Story has a subplot about a 19th-century sailing vessel. Is the story true? And if so, how did you come upon it?
It is true. All my books are personal, and one way I’m connected to this book is that my son was a sailor when he was young, and he captained a big yacht at the Seattle waterfront called Neptune’s Car. I was curious about where the name had come from, and I found out about Mary Patton. I was astonished to find that this teenager was the first female sailing captain, and while she was pregnant! I held on to the story for a while waiting for the right book, and I put it in this one because of the whole issue of how we can feel competent and capable with everything coming at us like this. Reading history and seeing how people have hung in there helps me realize how, like I say in the book, every human being and animal has had their own epic story. This young woman had to captain this boat during a pandemic. How can it not be the right story for now?
In the book, Harper and her half siblings are looking for their biological father, a sperm donor. What interested you in writing about genealogy and finding family?
There’s another personal piece to that. I was thinking about how we become who we are, looking at myself and asking myself what I’m presenting, what is real here, thinking about all the pieces that make a human being. My mom didn’t know who her father was, and I witnessed her longing. Anytime we’d travel somewhere, she’d look up names in the phone book—all she had was a name, and it turned out it wasn’t even the right name. This longing, this not knowing, was a part of my life. And even when DNA cleared up the mystery, I could still see the longing. She knew who it was, but that doesn’t necessarily solve that longing. I wanted to speak to that lifelong task of figuring out who we are. It’s a journey that requires going deep and, over time, understanding our full story as we’re traveling through it.
The scenes of Harper discovering the beauties of the underwater world are so vivid. Do you scuba dive?
No, no. I’ve spent a lot of time on boats, around water, but no. Or maybe not yet. I’d have to overcome the same fears Harper does. Maybe her doing that is a bit of wish fulfillment on my part. There’s a lot of metaphor in that, and in the idea of breathing, of how in order to dive you have to exhale. That’s another personal component for me, my own anxiety. Remembering to breathe, to put things in perspective, to take a leap off the side. I read a lot, watched a lot of videos, did a lot of research. Another great thing about books is getting to learn stuff about the big wondrous world out there. That’s a great part of being a writer.
I wanted, in this strange and surreal and stressful time, to give my readers a hopeful book that had a lot of love and connection and family and wonder—all that good stuff. Books have been lifesaving to me, both reading and writing them. And when I write a book it’s in part for me to figure out and think more deeply and understand my own life and the questions I’m experiencing, but it’s also in hopes that I might offer others what books have given me, the sense of being seen and understood.
What’s next for you?
I just finished my 2023 novel, The Last Unspoken Word. It’s about to get a cover and its first read throughout the publishing house. It’s about a young woman who travels from Paris, Tex., to Oregon to get an abortion.
That’s so timely, but you must have started writing it a few years ago.
I did. I think we all knew that the pieces for where we are now were being laid down—that things were being taken away.
Are you worried about the book being banned?
I’m assuming it probably will be banned, but I can’t imagine having an opportunity to use my voice and not doing it, especially with something that’s so critical, so devastating, and that has such ramifications for so many people.
The Epic Story of Every Living Thing by Deb Caletti. Random House/Labyrinth Road, $18.99 Sept. 13 ISBN 978-0-593-48550-7