Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Interview with Holly Cupala, author of Tell Me a Secret

Marlene: Tell us about your book:

Holly: It’s been five years since Miranda’s bad-girl sister disappeared into the night and died in a mysterious crash. Five years of holding her family together – her drama-obsessed mother, her disappearing father. In just one year, she will escape to college on the arm of her boyfriend, Kamran, and disappear herself. Until then, she has a new best friend with the keys to unlock her sister’s secret world.
But now Miranda has a secret of her own…two lines on the pregnancy test that will shatter everything she hopes for—and may even show a way into her own future.

Marlene: What was your inspiration for this story?

Holly: A very hard year—two losses that changed my life. After that, my writing didn’t have much meaning. Then one day, the idea for Tell Me a Secret landed in my lap, and I just started writing. Notes, at first. With the encouragement of many writing friends, I got up the courage to write the book.

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

Holly: Vividly! Only because it was 3 a.m. I had a tiny baby who had just fallen asleep, and at that point I was so sleep-deprived that I should definitely not have been operating machinery…when the first line hit me. It’s tough, living in the shadow of a dead girl. I knew if I didn’t get up to write it down, Miranda might never speak to me again! So I got up and wrote the passage that in now the first few pages in the novel.

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

Holly: Much of it was experiential. Beyond that, I talked to friends, professionals, rocket scientists…
Even in a contemporary story, there are a million details that must be investigated. The hospital scenes were crucial, and I had some terrific consultants on those. I’ve heard from readers who have had similar experiences—it means a great deal to me that they thought I captured her story in a true and meaningful way.

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

Holly: Line: probably the first.

Passage, from Chapter 10, after the breakup:
Nothing I knew about Xanda prepared me for this. She left no roadmap for rejection…I had tried to pour Kamran into myself, filling those tunnels of despair left over from Xanda with tendrils of hopefulness, the way being with Andre seemed to fill my sister with a kind of tempered steel. Now that Kamran had forcibly ripped them out, I was reeling from emptiness.

Chapter: the Halloween party. I love love love the Q-tips scene! That was a lot of fun to write. Plus I was able to include my favorite word, palimpsest.

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

Holly: Me, avoid?? Uh, yes. The ultimate showdown chapter. In fact I pretty much skipped it through the first draft, only writing notes. I knew it would be a critical convergence of secrets and reality, and that we had to come out of it with some kind of resolution. Dialogue is probably the hardest ingredient for me, so I had to really wrestle with what Miranda and the primary villain would say…and in the process, realized the villain had so many secret reasons for her behavior throughout the novel. I hated every minute of it until the pieces finally fell into place!

Marlene:What's on your nightstand right now?

Holly: A giant pile. But I’ll give you the ones at the top: The Clearing, by Heather Davis; Stolen, by Lucy Christopher; Forget-Her-Nots, by Amy Brecount White. So little time, so much to read…

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

Holly: Like Miranda, I am an artist—though I love to paint and collage (labyrinths are way too exacting for me). The engraving of a medieval pregnant girl which Miranda avoids in Chapter 5 is actually from one of my paintings. I also love to do all kinds of crafty stuff and have a running DIY Friday series on my blog.

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

Holly: Absolutely. After our loss, I honestly couldn’t see the purpose in writing. Much of what I’d written up to that point had been to please other people, not really delving into anything true. But many encouraging friends wouldn’t let me quit, and they were a tide that lifted me and the story all along the way. And that experience stripped away all of the fears I had about writing something deep and scary. I wonder now if that was part of the process, to get to the story I was meant to write.

Thank you so much, Marlene and Melissa and Mary, for inviting me to YA Authors Café! I have such admiration for all of you and am very excited to be here.

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

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


Anonymous said...

No, Holly, THANK YOU! I have heard so many awesome things about Tell Me A Secret. I can't wait to read it. Especially since you consulted with rocket scientists : )

I'm wondering, since this story grew from an emotionally tough place in your life, how long did it take you to write it? Did you ever have to leave it for a while and then come back to it?

holly cupala said...

Thank you, Mary, you are so kind! (And by the way, I love your books!)

One of the characters, Kamran, hopes to study Aeronautics and Astronautics, a.k.a. rocket science - I had a number of A&A friends and housemates while in college who influenced that bit of trivia, and one very readily offered up details, requirements, etc. When it came time to take the GRE to get into graduate school, they were invaluable in re-teaching me all of the math I'd forgotten... Those were great years!

The timeline for the novel was pretty bumpy - a few chapters here and there, with a long stagnant period when our daughter came along. When she was about 10 mos, I hired a babysitter for one day/week and wrote in the library, and later, after I'd won the Work-In-Progress grant from SCBWI, my sweet neighbor watched her for two more days/week so I could finish. It seems like such a long time, but then there was a lot of healing taking place at the same time. So Rand's emotional journey mirrored mine in a lot of ways. The original ending was supposed to be very different, but I found I couldn't write it--the story demanded more hope! I just had to get there myself.

Nancy said...

Congratulations on the book, Holly, which I'm looking forward to reading. And thank you for the reminder that, ultimately, writing is a way of healing from great loss.

Nancy Werlin

libba said...

Hey Holly! Great interview. And thanks for forcing me to look up the word "palimpsest." :-) Also, I love the book trailer and the soundtrack!

I think I wanted to ask the question Mary asked (that Mary is on top of things because she is made of smart). So I'll ask something else:
1. What were you like as a teen?
2. If, like a palimpsest you have something written underneath you, what would it be?
3. What's your favorite aspect of writing? Least favorite?
xoxo Libba

holly cupala said...

Thank you so much, Nancy! That means a great deal, coming from you. I have always admired your work.

And Libba! One of the great moments of inspiration for this book happened during Libba's session at an SCBWI conference on "How to shut off your brain and get to the heart of your writing." I am indebted.

What was I like as a teen...divided in a lot of ways. Timid and outrageous, soulful and silly, longing to fit in but wishing to be brave and wise and unique. I was an artist and a writer, searching for a subject. Brokenhearted, thanks to that first love. Kind of like me now, only smaller and less content!

On palimpsests, or having something written underneath me - yes! (In awe of the presence of brilliance here.) Our lives are so much like that, with the past written and rewritten, and connections made and people forgiven and thoughts coalescing and futures yet to be written...what a thought. I would have to say I am written with all of those things, and faith and hope, and the many emotions around relationships and events...and more besides. Most prominently, I'm underwritten by my dear ones.

Favorite aspect of writing: when the ideas strike. There's really nothing like that initial rush of story or story solution (which for me most often happens in the shower). Least favorite: figuring out how to get those ideas onto paper, practically speaking. I love the big picture and really do not love figuring out how to get from A to B, B to C...that is, until the solution strikes. It's a horrible roller coaster. Do any of you go through this?

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