Our guest: Brittany Cavallaro is a poet and author of young adult fiction, whose first novel, A Study in Charlotte –about the great-great-great-grandchildren of Holmes and Watson– is out now, via Katherine Tegen / HarperCollins.
The Proust-Esque Questionnaire is based on a set of 36 standardized questions designed by Marcel Proust in the 1890’s to give an overview of the respondent’s personality. Our goals are less lofty, but hopefully will provide some insight into how your favorite authors and illustrators work and what they love.
I distinctly remember being four and coloring in the eyes of all the bears in my Berenstain Bears books with a green marker. It was ‘washable,’ and so I thought, oh, I’ll just leave my mark on these books and then I can always undo them.
Then I tried to wash the books out in the sink.
Needless to say, it didn’t work. But most of my children’s lit memories a bit less hands-on. I remember loving the Amelia Bedelia books from around that same time. All of the idioms and puns! I loved that a phrase like ‘dress the roast’ could mean more than one thing. I had the same response to those books as to the Shel Silverstein poems I loved so much, that language was strange and wild and untamable thing..
Laura, from the Little House books. I was an eager, talkative, impetuous little girl, and also I wanted desperately to roast a pig’s tail over a fire.
3. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR? ILLUSTRATOR?
Philip Pullman has stayed with me the longest, in the most significant way. There isn’t a universe where I could write anything half as good as The Golden Compass, and still I return to it as a master class in world- and character-building.
As for illustrators, I love Jon Klassen and buy his books for all my friends with children. I Want My Hat Back is so funny and hilariously dark!
4. IF YOU WERE TO THROW A KINDERLIT PARTY FOR FIVE GUESTS, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?
I am going to indulge in a childhood fantasy and say the founding members of The Babysitter’s Club. We’ll meet in Kristy’s bedroom. Claudia will pick out my outfit (as long as it involves her platform shoes and fuzzy sweaters), and Stacey will tell stories about growing up in Manhattan, and we’ll wait for the phone to ring.
Though I was an awful, distracted babysitter myself, so I might sit out the actual babysitting part…
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
In YA, especially, truth in dialogue. Characters need to have distinct voices. The best ones, the most realistic ones—they tease each other, talk over each other, repeat inside jokes ad nauseum. They swear profusely, if that’s in their nature; they don’t self-sensor for their audience. I think that teenagers have the most finely tuned BS detectors, and they want characters who sound real!
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT?
Oh wow. This is difficult! Maybe the combination of dark themes with humor.
7. IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND REDO ONE THING IN YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
It’s really too hard to say. When I’m rereading a book I’ve written, most often I want to tinker with the language. It’s a visceral thing, a poet thing. I hate finding out that I’ve repeated a significant word in a paragraph. But on a larger scale—no, I don’t think so. At a certain point, you really do have to put your work to bed, or those sleepless nights are going to start adding up!
8. WHAT IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
Two conflicting pieces of advice, actually.
- Always be working on the next thing;
- Don’t be afraid to step away and refill the well. I try to split the difference. I’m an avid reader, and sometimes the only thing I’m capable of, creatively, is spending the night tearing through a new book. Going to a museum. Watching a film. But I can’t read or see anything without feeling inspired or frustrated, without wanting to get back to my own projects and try out some of the things I’ve learned.
9. DESCRIBE YOUR WORK PROCESS.
I’m an inveterate late sleeper. I like to think of the Casey Thayer poem “Our Congregation of the World Weary,” where he says, “We sleep like we mean it. We give /110% to sleep.”
There’s something virtuous about waking up early, but by that standard I am epically impure. I spend my mornings reading, drinking coffee, cleaning the house, daydreaming. Very occasionally I can be hauled out to meet a friend for a writing date before 10 am. Left to my own devices, I write in the afternoons, from about one in the afternoon to dinnertime.
When I go to bed (quite late), a lot of the time I have a million ideas after I shut my eyes, and so I’ll haul out my phone and write them up in short, misspelled sentences, and send an email to myself so I can deal with it the next day.
When I start a new fiction project, I’ll write forty pages to see if there’s something there: Voice, character, if the idea holds up. And then I’ll step back and plot the rest out.
10. WHAT IS YOU VERY FAVOURITE CHILDREN’S BOOK?
A lot of favorites, but a series that stuck with me particularly was Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, especially Deep Magic. Loved the sheer amount of knowledge and research in those books, loved Kit and Nita, loved the sense of danger and wonder.
11. TELL US ABOUT A BOOK THAT YOU LOVE, WHICH, FOR ONE REASON OR ANOTHER, HAS NOT FOUND A WIDE AUDIENCE.
When I was a kid, I was enamored, for years, with Emily Cheney Neville’s It’s Like This, Cat, a wonderfully snarky, funny, episodic novel about being a teenage boy in New York City in the sixties. And it’s such a sixties novel—beatnik mothers, dates to see West Side Story, arguments over records played at home. I loved that it had a boy narrator, and that it didn’t feel like it was talking down to me. It has one of my favorite first lines, too: “My father is always talking about how a dog can be very educational for a boy. This is one reason I got a cat.”