Cecil Castellucci on Beige, Her Creative Process

Cecil Castellucci is a storyteller of many platforms. In a creative sense, she wears a seemingly infinite number of hats–the most apt description of her work can be found at her You Tube channel: “young adult author, Graphic Novel writer, filmmaker, performance artiste and general troublemaker”. Her 2007 Young Adult novel, Beige was released in paperback last month (March) . I caught up with her recently to discuss that novel, as well as the path that has led her to find a new voice as a writer. An interviewer always hopes to get a subject who can be as open and direct as Castellucci, but it happens so rarely, I’m always appreciative.

Tim O’Shea: Beige is partially inspired by your initial move to Los Angeles. While the novel is not your story, of course, I’m wondering if when writing a novel like this do you find you learn a little about yourself in the process?

Cecil Castellucci: While no novel is biography, there are always elements of myself and where I’m at or where I’ve been. Sometimes it’s a look back, sometimes it’s a reflection of now, sometimes an imagined path not taken. So, I think that I learn a little bit about myself from every novel I write. For Beige, I was inspired by moving to my particular neighborhood in Los Angeles, Silverlake, and dealing with all the punk in Los Angeles. Everything was so punk rock here and I felt like an outsider looking in, even though I had moved here to put out my first CD on No Life Records. I was working at Epitaph Records and I was this little indie rock girl who sang Twee music. I suppose in this case I learned about the essential roots of punk, which are pretty much the essential roots of being an artist in the world. Ask questions. Pay attention. Think for yourself. When you do that, it’s all good.

O’Shea: One of the main characters in Beige, Katy’s dad (The Rat) is a recovering addict. In writing a young adult novel, how hard is it to touch upon subjects like that (addiction/recovery/impact on the family) without either getting too adult with the topic or talking down to the audience?

Castellucci: I don’t think it’s too hard to talk about anything in Young Adult literature. That’s the great thing about it. There’s room for all kinds of stories, all kinds of conversations. I think you can touch on anything, any subject, as long as you do it with empathy, heart and honesty. In this book, it was important to me to talk about recovery and redemption, rather than the more typical way that drugs and addiction are presented in YA. A lot of times there are very grave consequences, characters end up dead, lives ruined and don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning drug use or abuse, I am just saying that once you’ve made that mistake, there is life after that. The Rat and Sam Suck all paid dearly for their choices. It ruined their lives and the lives of Katy and Lake’s moms and greatly affected how Katy and Lake are brought up. In the end, they got through it. Well, most of them. In my life, along the way, I have met many people, who are in recovery for drug or alcohol abuse and they were (are) amazing people. Talented, brilliant, kind, generous, human. I feel privileged to have met the ones that I call friends and acquaintances at that time in their life, while in recovery, after they had gone through all of that dark stuff and come out the other side. I got the best of them. With The Rat and Sam Suck and Katy’s Mom, I wanted to write a book that reflected those people who got sober and gave themselves a second chance.

O’Shea: Who was your editor on Beige? After writing a novel, how painful (or painless) is it to endure the editorial process?

Castellucci: I’m so glad you asked! Kara LaReau was my editor. She had edited my two previous novels Boy Proof and The Queen of Cool so we already had a shorthand. I would say that the editorial process with her is a fantastic experience. Not that I don’t get frustrated and beaten down by the process of making a novel. I weep sometimes. I curse my clumsy sentences. I eat bon bons in despair and beat my chest dramatically. But she makes it a lot easier. She’s a big cheerleader and a great sounding board. She also sometimes says one thing about the story, one sentence that just blows my mind and clicks everything together in the story for me. Basically, in our process together, we have long talks about the heart of the book. This book was a bit more layered than my other books, there were more words! So there was a plot chart that was made so we could quickly look at the beats of the narrative broken down chapter by chapter. I love when I give my book to Kara and then we talk. She pulls the best stuff out of me, she has this magical way of just tweaking things just so and then I’m off and running. I love when I get her notes and then I revise. Revising is fun. First drafts are hard.

O’Shea: Who was your favorite character to write in Beige? Now that it’s been a few years since you wrote the book, have you gained a greater affection for other characters in the book?

Castellucci: Oh, picking favorites is always difficult! But in writing the book I loved writing The Rat! He is so fragile and great. He’s trying so hard! He’s really making a go at his second chance. These few years later, I now have a super soft spot for Garth Skater, who wears his helmet all the time because he’s so beautiful, who makes Katy the punk primer cd mix that make up the chapter headings. And of course Katy and Lake, well, their hard blossoming friendship was a treat to write.

O’Shea: When you do a book like Beige, with a certain set of characters–do you ever have the temptation to revisit the characters in another novel?

Castellucci: Beige is the only book where I knew what would happen if I ever got to write a sequel. I knew where I wanted it to go. As a matter of fact, the first draft took place over the summer with the rat and then continued through the whole next school year. Kara LaReau, my editor and I had a long talk and decided to cut out the second half of that draft and just concentrate on the summer. Other than that, except for the Plain Janes, I haven’t really had the temptation to revisit characters. My books are usually pretty stand alone.

O’Shea: Back in 2007, when Beige first came out, you started a blog discussing favorite punk songs in honor of the book’s release. At the blog you run a photo of yourself giving the one-finger salute. The book finds its roots in punk music and the punk attitude, so the picture (in the right sidebar under “This is Cecil”) makes sense to me (and is funny). But do you ever worry that as a contemporary YA writer some potential consumers might be turned off by the photo?

Castellucci: Oh, the one finger salute! I try not worry about stuff like that. I think that as long as you are an excellent adult, honest, true to yourself, full of heart and good deeds, then it’s all good. That is the most important thing to show kids. How to be an excellent person. I try to be an excellent person. It’s a process. I would say that a better way to think of people being turned off by the photo or other things that make consumers (I’m going to venture that would be parents) uncomfortable, whether it be my smiling punk picture or the content of a book, any book, is that those are great opportunities to engage in an open conversation with kids. My feeling is that any entry into dialogue with kids is great. I bet if they sat down and talked with their kids about that picture, Why am I giving the finger? What is punk? then they would likely come to the same conclusion that you do, that in context, the book Beige finds its roots in punk music and the punk attitude. That’s a good dinner table conversation. I’m all about good dinner conversations. So I’m not going to worry about being shown with the finger as a YA author because I know that pretty much every single person has given the finger at some point. And I’ll probably give the finger at some point in the future about something. It happens.

O’Shea: With the Beige is Punk blog, what’s been some of your favorite songs that you’ve been introduced to through the blog?

Castellucci: Well, I finally watched the movie Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Which is FANTASTIC! Also, I rediscovered a bunch of songs. I was actually surprised at how many songs I had known already and adored. But pretty much everything Douglas Wolk picked! He’s got such great eclectic, underground, wonderful taste and I hardly knew any of them.

O’Shea: Did anyone punk veterans happen to read the book (albeit not your target audience) and give you feedback on the book?

Castellucci: I wish!

O’Shea: When your career expanded into the world of graphic novels, did you find that coverage helped to expand consumer interest in your YA novels?

Castellucci: I think so! I think everybody finds out about you and your work different ways. I mean, I have some people who read a book of mine because they used to like my band. Or some people read their first graphic novel because they liked my YA novels and vice versa. I’m sure it all goes around. I think some people will like all of what I do with my different ways of telling stories, and some will only like one part. That’s cool. I’m going to keep telling my stories in all kinds of different ways and I’m sure people will come and go.

O’Shea: 2009 is the year of short stories for you. How did this creative decision come about? And while it’s only March, how is 2009 going so far–any pleasant or unpleasant creative surprises?

Castellucci: The fact that I only have short stories coming out in 2009 is a weird fluke! First, I co-edited an anthology about Geeks and the Geek Observed called Geektastic with Holly Black. Then I was asked to be in a Vampire anthology, The Eternal Kiss and that was so fun to write. The story is called Wet Teeth and it’s totally creepy and wretched! Yeah! Then I have a story called The Long and Short of Long Term Memory coming out on the Interstital Arts Foundation anthology Interfictions II. That story is special to me because it’s my first story that is not a young adult story, although it’s perfectly suitable for teens. The most interesting thing is that I feel like these short stories have given me a chance to explore a new literary voice. The stories have informed the new work in progress that I’m working on, which is a novel, which is going to be something very, very different for me. So it’s been enormously wonderful and completely surprising to write these short stories. I feel very lucky that these new pieces in this new voice have been so warmly received and that my efforts to grow as a writer are going to be published. It’s encouraging me to be braver in my work. I love that!

O’Shea: Given that The Long and Short of Long Term Memory (A quite engaging title, I must say) is allowing you to explore “a new literary voice”–I’m curious to hear in what ways has the new voice allowed you to venture into new territory–and how soon into the writing process did you discover you’d tapped into this new voice? Was it in the midst of writing it, or later–when you were revising it?

Castellucci: The new voice question is tricky. I think I had been starting to toy with a new voice, but it wasn’t really fully present yet. Previously I had written a novel (unpublished) (and totally secret cause it was so different from anything else I’d done) called The Cherry Tree, which I am going to finish now that the new voice has sort of settled in my body and I feel stronger about what I’m doing. My editor, Kara read it and remarked at how different it was for me. She encouraged me and even said that she thought that this was the voice I was meant to write in. But I was so nervous, so unconfident and I didn’t know what it was. It seemed that maybe because I had written more contemporary YA that people would think my new ideas would be too weird or something. Then, through a stroke of luck, my new editor at Candlewick, Deborah Noyes was editing an anthology of weird stories called Sideshow. When I found out, I was bummed that I wasn’t the kind of author that would be asked to be in weird anthologies like that. I mentioned to her that I would like to try to write something like that one day. A week later, one of the authors in the anthology had dropped out and Deb asked if I wanted to take a stab at a story. I wrote this story called The Bread Box and she was surprised at what I had done. That gave me a little boost, but I was still feeling too nervous to really try something like a novel or something for adults. The Long and Short of Long Term Memory came from watching my dad, a neurobiologist give a lecture on memory while I was in Montreal recovering from a psychological trauma. I came home that afternoon and wanted to write a story about someone who was trying to remove a specific memory from their mind. That day the new voice really took hold of me. I’m really proud of the story and now, hopefully, it’s more like I’ve just added some kind of je ne sais quoi to my work. I suppose it’s opened me up to even more kinds of story telling, and more possibilities for myself as an artist, which is a bonus. I am working on a novel now that is combining what I hope will be the best of my old voice and elements of the new, so fingers crossed that it blends beautifully.

O’Shea: Are your days of playing in band in your rearview mirror–or do you see yourself doing some musical projects at some point down the road?

Castellucci: Like Cher. There is always room for a musical comeback.

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