Wednesday, August 22, 2007

NOT LIKE YOU is the story of 15-year-old Kayla, who is trying to create a life for herself after years of taking care of her alcoholic mother. It’s about first love, alcoholism, mother-daughter bonds, and the search for independence.

Please welcome Deborah Davis, author of NOT LIKE YOU, to the YA Authors Cafe.

Marlene P: What was your inspiration for this story?

Deborah Davis: NOT LIKE YOU has many inspirations. I began with just an image of a girl finding her passed-out mother on the floor of their New Mexico trailer, and that image intrigued me: how would the girl resolve her conflicting feelings of love and fury? How does a girl in Kayla’s position get out from under the burden of having to mother her own mother? How would she find love for herself?

Marlene P: What kind of research did you have to do for this story?

Deborah Davis: My own life experiences provided much material for NOT LIKE YOU: I have lived in a trailer in New Mexico, I loved and trained dogs like Kayla, I’ve known many alcoholics and have had my own issues with drinking in the past, and, like Kayla, I had an older boyfriend when I was a teen. I did additional research, as well, on social service agencies and foster care, on alcoholism, on New Mexican plants, and on the cities of Dallas and Denver.

Marlene P: What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Deborah Davis: Consistently trusting that I have something worthwhile to write, and getting myself to my desk to write it. Consequently, I tend to write a lot or not at all. Also, sometimes I hit a wall after the first 75 or 150 pages, after the first burst of enthusiasm for a story wanes and I have to dig in and figure out what the story is really about and where it’s going. I start to wonder, is this really worth telling? Is there even a story here?

Marlene P: What one question do you wish an interviewer would ask you but never has?

Deborah Davis: How do you get past those moments of self-doubt? My answer: I keep writing. I have to ignore the feelings of doubt and the inner critics and let my character take some sort of action. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense to the story or not: the act of writing the next scene erases much of my trepidation and gets me involved in the story again. I can then decide, does this scene work or not, and change it or keep going. The act of writing is itself a solution to the problem of not writing! I’ve also come to realize that getting stuck is a sign of how important the story is to me. I want it to go well. I’m scared that it won’t. I’m scared that I’ll fail. When I recognize how much I care about the story, it helps me be willing to continue.

Marlene P: Was there any part that you struggled with or avoided writing?

Deborah Davis: I changed the last quarter of the book several times. I can’t say why without revealing what happens at the end, but I will say that I tried to make Kayla’s life easier in ways that diminished the impact of the story. I agonized over this. I didn’t want Kayla to have to face such difficult circumstances and choices. But in the end, those difficult circumstances and the choices she makes around them are what make the story interesting and powerful, so I had to include them. It’s hard to do that to a character you’ve lived with and loved for years.

Marlene P: What's on your nightstand right now? Deborah Davis: A great book called Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, about the Nigerian-Biafran civil war in the 1960s. The latest New Yorker Magazine. The latest Horn Book Magazine. Bicyling Magazine. A really funny book titled Everybody into the Pool. There’s other stuff on my nightstand, but that’s private!

Marlene P: Besides writing, do you have any other passions?

Deborah Davis: Spending time in the wilderness: in mountains, on the ocean, anyplace that’s wild and lightly visited by people. Other passions: freedom of speech, travel to other countries, reading, my family, and dark chocolate.

Marlene P: Have you ever wanted to quit writing? Why?

Deborah Davis: Yes, but the desire doesn’t last for more than a minute. I have moments of wanting to stop because writing is so challenging : I have to sit for long periods of time; I have to dredge up memories and emotions that can be painful to feel; I have to make myself very vulnerable—to my critique group, to my editor, to my publisher, to readers, and—gulp!—to reviewers. I take this story that I’ve sweated and lost sleep over and I put it out to the world. Sometimes it feels like I’m removing my heart and handing it over to strangers. What if they trash it? Or even worse: what if they simply don’t give a hoot about it? What if this thing I’ve slaved over has no ripple effect at all and simply fades into obscurity (otherwise known as “ignored by reviewers” and “going out of print”)?

Marlene P: What are you working on now?

Deborah Davis: A novel about a high school senior named Lina who wants to be a doctor but whose parents take her to India, interrupting her plans to graduate with honors. Her experiences in the impoverished small towns of South India present a challenge to her plans, her aspirations, and her beliefs about suffering and her ability to alleviate it. There’s a romance, too, that challenges her beliefs about love and sex.

Marlene P: Tell us something about you that no one knows.

Deborah Davis: That’s a tough question. I try not to have too many secrets: it’s no fun, and it takes a lot of energy to hold them in. I have some really close friends who know pretty much everything about me. Okay, here’s something: when I was 19 and going to college in Bogota, Colombia, I met a very sexy Colombian musician—a drummer—and had a really nice time kissing him, unbeknownst to my then-boyfriend, who was in Colombia at the time.

Marlene P: How did you become a writer?

Deborah Davis: I grew into being a writer. I’ve always been a storyteller: even as a little girl, I made up stories, using my stuffed animals as characters and giving each animal a different voice. Through 9th grade I wrote stories and poems, but in high school I had to write essays, which I struggled with, and I began to think I was not creative and had no talent for writing. It wasn’t until my last two years of college that I began to enjoy writing again—even as I still agonized over completing my college papers. After college, while working with teenagers in wilderness challenge and community service programs, I started having lots of ideas again for stories. I felt compelled to write—but I also felt very afraid both to write them down and to show them to anyone. I finally broke through my fear after taking a workshop at the Proprioceptive Writing Center (see, which consisted mostly of writing everything that came into my head and reading it aloud in a group setting, over and over again. Getting support for whatever I wrote, and hearing how brilliantly people write when they are not being judged and when they truly write without editing, was a huge help, and I began to write a lot, trusting the ideas and words that came to me. That was over 20 years ago, and really, I’m still becoming a writer. I’m still learning how to write better, still learning to trust the words and stories that come to me, still trying to improve how I write dialogue, reveal character, and tell a story with a whopping impact.

Marlene P: What is your favorite line, passage, chapter from this book?

Deborah Davis: The beginning...the middle...and the end? This is a tough question, sort of like asking a mother to choose her favorite child. I love when Kayla meets Shirley and Sherrie, because they’re so funny. I love the scenes where Kayla and Remy are exploring the Anasazi ruins, scenes that are romantic and tense, in a fascinating setting. And the scenes when Kayla and her mom interact: their relationship is unusual in YA literature, it’s the emotional heart of the story, and those are the scenes with the most depth.
~~Cafe Note~~ As a regular part of our interviews, featured authors will pop back in for one week after their interview is posted to answer any other questions blog readers may leave for them. So if you have any questions or comments for Deborah, send them now! She'd love to hear from you!


Kerry Madden said...

This is such a great interview, Deborah. Thanks for posting, Mar...I could so relate to the feelings of self-doubt, worry, and the struggle to believe in the work after the first 75 to 100 pages. I love how the book begins with an image. That's how I started with Gentle's Holler - a baby sleeping in a drawer. Thank you, Deborah, for your candor and honesty. Wonderful interview! The book sounds terrific too.

All best

Erin Vincent said...

What a wonderful interview!
Thanks Marlene for sharing Deborah with us.
xxx Erin

Dianne Ochiltree said...

Great interview...intriguing questions with equally-compelling answers. Thanks for giving us insights into your creative process, Deborah, as well as a glimpse of the result of your labors. The book sounds compelling, and I look forward to reading it.

Lisa Yee said...

Wonderful interview!

Deborah also does a mean hula, but she's too modest to mention it.

Deborah Davis said...

Hey, folks, you're supposed to ask me QUESTIONS, such as, How did you learn to do the hula when you were born in Irvington, New Jersey? Or, how does your family cope with you when you are wrestling with your "creative process"? And what the heck is a creative process, anyway?


MaryP said...

Deborah, Congratulations on your debut! Your book sounds wonderful and the title alone speaks volumes. I love what you said about how "getting stuck is a sign of how important the story is to me" and your common sense solution to keep writing.

My question: I love hearing about how authors sell their first books. Tell us about how you got the news!

Lisa Yee said...

Deborah, I was just wondering, how did you learn to do the hula when you were born in Irvington, New Jersey? How does your family cope with you when you are wrestling with your "creative process"? And what the heck is a creative process, anyway?

debbi michiko florence said...

Great interview and perfect timing! I finished reading NOT LIKE YOU recently and thought it was powerful. Congratulations to Deborah!

My questions: I both loved and disliked Remy while reading the story (for reasons I'm sure you understand). What were the challenges in developing this relationship between Kayla and Remy? I don't want to ask too specific a question - I don't want to spoil the novel for anyone who hasn't read it yet - but were there times when you wanted to make Remy "different"? And how did you come to terms with that?

Deborah Davis said...

Hi, all,

I'm sorry to be slow in replying to your questions, especially after hounding you to ask them. I've been visiting family, and things got a bit hectic at the end, plus the Internet access was sketchy... Anyway:

NOT LIKE YOU is actually my third novel and my fourth book, but my last novel came out in 1994, so in some ways this new one feels like a first. My first novel, a chapter book titled THE SECRET OF THE SEAL (Crown, 1989) sold within two and a half months of my sending it out to 11 publishers. (You can read more about how each of my books got published at I actually had an offer on SECRET just two weeks after I sent it out, but it was a terrible offer, so I waited to see if I got another. The next 9 responses were all rejections, with many encouraging comments. The 11th response--and the second offer--came from Crown, a publisher I selected only because a friend knew the president of the company (it was still independently-owned then; Random House bought Crown three weeks before SECRET was released). I told my friend, "Please read the manuscript, and if you like it, you can send it to your friend." I felt embarrassed to be using a connection! Other friends said, "They're not going to publish it just because you have a connection there!" THE SECRET OF THE SEAL is about an Inuit boy. The president liked it, and he sent it to the head of children's books, who not only liked the story but happened to have a collection of Inuit art. So there was some interesting serendipity involved. I was so excited--and astounded--when I got my advance that I made an enlarged photocopy of the check (which I had to cash immediately to pay bills) and put it on my wall, so I'd have time to digest what I'd done!

Atheneum published my second novel, MY BROTHER HAS AIDS in 1994, when my son was a year old. I kept writing, but I found it hard to concentrate with a small, lap-loving little boy in my life. Skip ahead to 2004, when I met Clarion editor Jennifer Wingertzahn at an SCBWI event in Seattle and had an opportunity to show her the first chapters of NOT LIKE YOU. She loved my writing, and I felt very drawn to working with her. A year later she had a full manuscript and made an offer.

Never underestimate Irvington, NJ, where I was born, or South Orange, NJ, where I lived till I was 10! As for my family, my 14-year-old has learned to cook, and none of us minds having cereal or pancakes for dinner. Plus, they are used to seeing me with my eyes glazed over. They seem to have a healthy amount of respect for the times that I live more in my characters' world than our own. And last, what is a creative process? Well, I liken it to making a meal: You start with an idea, look at what's in the kitchen, see what you can assemble, and start putting things together. You scramble, stir, chop. You add heat; you let things cool. You taste. You add more stuff. Occasionally, you eliminate ingredients that you realize won't blend in well. Occasionally, the whole mess needs to be tossed, and you start over. Sometimes you laugh, or cry, or feel astonished. Sometimes you need help. Sometimes you end up with something much more delicious than you'd imagined.

Or something like that. I guess that was "Deborah's creative take on the creative process." How would you describe it? And I wonder who's going to make dinner at our house tonight?

Ahhh, Remy. Yes, there were challenges. I really grew to love Kayla, so sometimes I wanted Remy to be much nicer and more generous than he was really capable of being. And sometimes, because it's easier to create one-dimensional characters, I made his personality too harsh. Ultimately, I tried to draw him as a complex person, one who cares about Kayla but who also has a great deal on his mind that has nothing to do with her. I won't offer any details here, but I will say that NOT LIKE YOU had several different endings before I settled on the published version, and Kayla's relationship with Remy underwent a number of changes as part of that revision process.

Great questions, everyone! Thanks!


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Anonymous said...