Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Cara Haycak started her writing career at Columbia University’s graduate writing program and received an MFA in 1995.

Her first YA novel, Red Palms was awarded a Work-in-Progress grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in 2000, and was published in 2004 by Random House Children’s Books/Wendy Lamb Books.

Dutton Children’s Books will publish her second novel for young adults, Living on Impulse, on August 20, 2009. She lives in Los Angeles, with her husband and young son.

Booklist calls Living on Impulse ". . . stirring, smart, and affirming read."

And Publisher’s Weekly says, "Haycak creates a realistic portrait of a teenage girl whose life is spiraling out of control . . . With painstaking yet gratifying care, Haycak eventually starts Mia along the path of self-realization and forgiveness."

Please join me in welcoming Cara Haycak to the YA Authors Cafe!
Mary: Tell us about your newest book, Living on Impulse.

Cara: It’s about a 15-year-old girl named Mia, a high-school sophomore growing up in a college town in upstate New York, who has a bit of trouble controlling her impulses. When she gets caught shoplifting, her mother gives her an ultimatum—get a job and pay off your debts or else you’ll be out your own.

Mia takes an unusual route. She winds up accepting a job in the university’s entomology department…breeding flies.

On a deeper level, this a story about metamorphosis…Mia’s. She’s completely transformed as we read about her, and in a way that one might not expect. It’s not beauty or perfection that inspires her, but its opposite—an ugly white worm, a horribly dysfunctional family—it’s the harsher realities which show her how fragile yet tremendous the world can be.

And the idea of a cocooning is central to the story, too. Mia is forced to enter a cocoon of her own as everything familiar is torn away in the first half of the book: Her friends desert her, her family breaks down, even her sense of self is shaken to the core. And so, in order to emerge as an adult she must build a new life in the dark and by herself, using truth and passion—and most importantly, her instinct for risky impulses—as her guiding forces.

Mary: Do you remember writing the first words?  Are they still the same?

Cara: This book started as a short story that was published in Cicada Magazine, many years ago. That story opens with a scene of Mia shoplifting, and so does the book. The only difference between them is a change of tense…in the book, the opening paragraphs are written in the present tense.

"In early April, Mia hits the department store downtown on the Commons…"

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

Cara: You bet. I wanted this girl to be a troubled and troublesome character. I wanted her acting out in ways that weren’t so pretty. She’s not always nice, she’s not always thoughtful, and she definitely makes some big mistakes.

But I didn’t want her to be an unlikeable character. I found out this is hard to do. I didn’t want teens to write her off, or think she wasn’t worth their time.

Sometimes I could walk this fine line by editing a bit to temper her behavior. Sometimes I could pump up the volume on the thing that triggers her to act out, so the reader can understand why she’s reacting badly. Sometimes I just let her be angry, and do what she’s got to do.

Ultimately, I’m hoping that teens will relate to her because of her dark side.
Mary: Tell us something about you that no one knows.

Cara: Since the heart of the story takes place in the entomology lab of the local university, where Mia works breeding flies, it seems important to mention that I did this same job between my junior and senior years of college at Cornells.

Like Mia, I was unsure of what I wanted to do when I graduated. I thought about studying law, which meant I had to take the LSATs, but I’m a terrible test taker. So I decided to stay at school for the summer, do the Stanley Kaplan course and test before the fall semester buried me in other studies.

I worked hard and the night before the exam, I decided to prepare a healthy and delicious dinner. I bought fresh scallops, grilled them, and immediately got food poisoning. I spent the whole night on the floor of the bathroom.

I missed the test, of course. And I never became a lawyer. But I did get to write about the fly lab, so I know that all the things we go through (the negative as well as the positive) are useful experiences. Especially, if what we really want to do is make art. It’s a choice that ultimately seems right for the character, Mia, too.

Mary: What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Cara: First draft. It kills me. I may know exactly what I want to write, and I’ll have the outline sitting there next to me, but getting it on paper feels like I’m literally pulling the gray matter of my brain out between my ears.

Mary: I can totally relate to that! I think I’ve lost a bit of gray matter that way myself! How did you become a writer?

Cara: I chose an obvious way, and went to graduate school for an MFA in Creative Writing (Columbia University, 1995).

But I think storytelling intrigued me starting with watching Bugs Bunny cartoons when I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s. I loved all the Looney Tunes, but Bugs, in particular, blew me away. He was funny and irreverent, but he also had this amazing ability to control events as they were happening. You know, if the hunter has his shotgun aimed down your rabbit hole…well, then you just pull on it, and stretch it, then send it out a new rabbit hole and aim it back at his butt.

I really liked how Bugs was able to create the world he inhabited…and that he could make it work the way he wanted it to. That seemed to be a superpower.

And when writing is going well, I get to experience some of that. I think that’s the thrill for me.

Mary: I loved Bugs Bunny for all those reasons! He never lost his cool. What were you like as a teen?

Cara: See answer above, referencing Bugs Bunny. Rebel Rebel.

Mary: What's on your nightstand right now?

Cara: A lovely YA novel called If I Stay, by Gayle Forman. I never want it to end. A girl lying in coma narrates it, but it’s not dreary or a downer. It’s the most life-affirming book, about our relationships to the people we love and how they make life worth living, and how sometimes those relationships can tear you apart. It’s going to be made into a film directed by Catherine Hardwick (Twilight). Gosh, I should be her agent, I’m talking it up so much. But this book has me by the throat.

I just finished reading Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. I adored it. She is an inspiration for me…She can write about things in a way that is so detailed and knowledgeable, and yet it’s so accessible because she writes characters that you fall in love with. And boy, she really lets you get to know the place she’s writing about, as well.

I’m just starting Haruki Murakami’s, Kafka at the Shore. His books are so out there. I love that feeling I get reading his work…that anything could happen.

Mary: What do you do to "unblock" writer's block?

Cara: Ignore it. Does that sound trite? I mean to say that if I’ve got a project going, instead of letting inertia take hold, I force myself to sit down and write. It helps to have an outline, because then you have an assignment: "Today is the day I write the scene in which the girl argues with her mother about money," etc.

Sometimes it goes very slow. But I always work where other people are working. A café, a library. That way I don’t feel so isolated.

In between projects, I can get very very….not blocked, but dry. Like, there’s nothing left but a dribble of brackish water way way down in the well. So I read, and that becomes the first step toward writing, because at least I’m doing something with words that have been put together with much tender care. Or I may get an idea for how to handle something that’s been percolating in my mind about a new story.

But just as often I start to feel a bit competitive or challenged. Like the gauntlet has been thrown down… "Top this sentence, why don’t you?" Or, it might be a gentler prod… "Do you think you could write a book this good? Wanna try?"

Thanks so much for including me on YA Authors Café!

Mary: Thank you so much, Cara! I loved hearing about your book, process, and the rebellious cartoons of your life! Congratulations on the imminent release of Living on Impulse!

For more information about Cara and her books visit her website at

Readers, now it’s your turn. Ask a question! Leave a comment. Cara will pop back in for one week to respond. You’re up!


Anonymous said...

Another question I wanted to ask you, Cara, is about the change of tense. What made you switch from past to present?

cmonkey said...

When those impulses overtake Mia, it creates a very specific feeling for her...It sets her pulse jangling, as everything slows and suddenly she is very "in the moment" and highly aware. Present tense sets those impulsive moments apart from the rest of the text, which is written in the past tense.

Thanks for asking Mary!

cmonkey said...

ps: I'm cmonkey!

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