A perfect start for your summer reading, He’s Gone is about love, loss, marriage, and the secrets we all keep.
I’ve been a Deb Caletti fan for years, since that very first hot pink ARC of The Queen of Everything arrived at the store in the early ‘00s. It was the dawn of true young adult literature and this book was perfect for those who had outgrown the after-school-special type books that made up the genre at the time. Deb’s books give teens and young adults characters and stories they can truly identify with, with realistic problems and situations, with no pat endings because, you know, life is messy.
With He’s Gone, Deb shows us that navigating life, no matter how perfect it may seem, is messy at any age.
RK: Tell us a little bit about Dani and your new book, He’s Gone.
DC: He’s Gone is about a woman, Dani Keller, who wakes up to find that her husband has vanished. The idea for the book arrived in much the same way that He’s Gone begins. I was lying in bed, trying to determine if my husband was home or not, doing that thing you do, where you listen for the sound of footsteps, or the toaster lever being pushed down, or coffee being made. And then, rather handily and helpfully, came the What If that can often begin a book: What if you woke up one morning and found that your husband had vanished?
He’s Gone is often called a psychological thriller, but the emphasis is most definitely on the “psychological.” It explores the subjects of guilt and marriage, the wrongdoings within relationships, and the way those old, treacherous voices from childhood can continue to haunt us. Dani is a person who tends to feel too much responsibility. Her story, in many respects, is a confession in the broadest sense; a self-reckoning that leads to self-realization. This, all of it, is what she is guilty of. The extent of her wrongdoing, though – that’s where the “thriller” part of the story comes in.
RK: Are there autobiographic components to your storytelling?
DC: Definitely. I suspect there are autobiographic components to most storytelling. I write to make sense of my own life experiences, and so it’s a therapy of sorts. That is NOT to say that my books are my own life, written down. Generally, what I want make sense of is a question in my own life, rather than a particular event. With He’s Gone, for example, my husband (thankfully) had not disappeared. But, like Dani, I have felt the press of guilt in my life, and I can struggle to make peace with my own past wrongdoings. For some of us, guilt is a default setting. The question is, why is that so? And how do we sort through our human failings and transgressions to find some sort of self-forgiveness?
Of course, I draw from other, more daily experiences, too. I once lived part-time on a houseboat. I did have an abusive first marriage. My dog does ride in the passenger seat, looking like a gentleman. For many years, I had a car than ran on prayers, and when I look at my grown children, my heart sometimes longs for the days of finger paint and glitter. My mother did have a neighbor who built a totem pole in his yard, and I apparently do have a place in my brain reserved for lyrics of songs from the 1970’s. Writers are gatherers, and I think our own humanity is what allows us to best relate to our readers.
RK: You have been writing for young adults since the beginning. Why move to the adult side of books?
DC: It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now, and so when an editor at Random House (the fabulous Shauna Summers) approached us with the idea of “crossing over,” I jumped. I had written adult novels before – four unpublished ones, and then The Queen of Everything, which to my surprise was bought by a YA editor at S&S. Because of these beginnings, my writing has always sat at the edge of YA and adult, and this has lead to an already very large adult audience. My beloved YA readers were getting older, too, and creatively, I was ready to shake things up a bit. I was also biting at the bit for the challenge – there are many authors who cross from adult to YA, but few who go the other direction. Making this leap just made sense.
Queen is about a young woman whose father is involved in a crime of passion, and so I was a little surprised and alarmed that the book would be published for teens. I thought it would get edited down to maybe twenty-five appropriate pages. You can see how much I didn’t know about YA, which was then just entering what has been called its “Golden Age.” YA might have been an accidental happening for me, but what a lucky place to land.
DC: I got “the call” after years of writing, and years of hope, writing one book after another after another, with the Nietzsche quote “Become who you are,” hanging above my desk. Those years of writing were spent first in an abusive marriage, and then trying to leave that marriage. My ex-husband had finally, finally signed the divorce papers, when, just a few weeks later, my agent called with the incredible news. The fates were conspiring; I have no doubt. My author life began then, but so did my real life – the one that was mine all along.
RK: Will you tell us about your writing “process”? Is your writing a job with regular hours? What is your day like?
DC: My writing is my job, and therefore I must see it that way, same as anyone else with a mortgage and college tuition, and, and, and… Because I worked so hard to get here, though, and because of the way I feel about books, I also see it as a tremendous privilege that I never take for granted. I generally write in the mornings and early afternoons, keeping to the same schedule I started years back when my kids had just started school. I write until I have my pages in for the day, usually about five. I write in as much silence as possible (although the dog disagrees with that plan), and I write on my laptop. The afternoon is spent doing the other parts of my job – PR, interviews, etc. for the book that is recently out; discussions involving covers, jacket copy, marketing, proofreading, etc. for the one that is coming out. I am generally working with three books at a given time – the one I’m writing, the one that’s getting ready for publication, and the one that has just been released.
DC: I don’t tend to re-read books, because there are so many new and delicious ones just waiting to be read. I have always considered myself to be a reader first and a writer second, and my voracious reading habit (addiction?) began as a child at the library. I was one of those kids who came out carrying a stack that I could barely carry. I loved the library. I still love the library. I still come out with a stack I can barely carry. It brings out my greediest and most joyful self. Going to the library or a bookstore and spending as much time as I want there is one of my very best kind of days. I’m happy right now even thinking about it.
RK: Do you do research before writing a new novel or do you just jump in and figure it out as you go?
DC: I usually figure it out as I go, and research along the way as needed. I like the writing of a novel to be a process of discovery.
DC: I usually start my writing day with a cup of coffee and a cookie. I drink way too much coffee while writing. It can make you think your ideas are stratospherically fantastic, until the caffeine wears off. Well, that’s what editing is for.
And, now that you mention it, drinks are different when reading versus writing. I usually drink tea when settling in with a book. I need some jazzing up for writing, but like to slow down when reading. Wow – this is sounding like the hot-liquid equivalent of the drugs rock stars use before and after a concert, but I promise, I’ve never wrecked a hotel room. I practically make the bed before the maid comes.
RK: I like the way you pull our private thoughts into the obvious, our inner eye rolling and snarky comments, the thoughts we don’t want anyone to know we have. Dani is seen as something of a goody two shoes but she has a very complicated, much darker, inner life.
DC: Hmm. Wonder where I got that.
I think people not only have double lives but triple and quadruple lives. The smart-mouthed person I am with my kids or my husband is probably not exactly the person I’d take out in public. The one in my own head is even worse. That’s one of the great things about writing – the freedom to be honest on the page in ways we can’t always be in real life.
DC: I hope so. They tell me they do. I trust that my regular old self isn’t that different than the regular old selves of my readers. I trust that if I think and do certain things, other people think and do the same. I hope we – my readers and I – can be ourselves together, and laugh/cringe/nod at our shared humanity.
RK: Any questions you wish someone would ask that they haven’t?
DC: Where would you like these cookies sent?
René Kirkpatrick has been primarily a children’s bookseller most of her career and recently became an owner of Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island in WA. Her blog, Notes from the Bedside Table, has recommendations for all ages.