I could not be more excited to share with you the inaugural post in the Debut-to-Debut Interview Series. Interviews will be posted sporadically throughout 2017, 2018, and 2019—the year leading up to, during, and following my own debut. I hope to connect with a wide-ranging group of debut young adult novelists through this series and to share their books and experiences with you: fellow writers, fellow debuts, fellow readers, fellow YA enthusiasts.
This month, I corresponded with Katie Bayerl about her debut young adult novel A Psalm for Lost Girls (Penguin / Putnam, 2017).
From the jacket:
Tess da Costa is a saint—a hand-to-god, miracle-producing saint. At least that’s what the people in her hometown of New Avon, Massachusetts, seem to believe. And when Tess suddenly and tragically passes away, her small city begins feverishly petitioning the Pope to make Tess’s sainthood official. Tess’s mother is ecstatic over the fervor, while her sister Callie, the one who knew Tess best, is disgusted—overcome with the feeling that her sister is being stolen from her all over again.
The fervor for Tess’s sainthood only grows when Ana Langone, a local girl who’s been missing for six months, is found alive at the foot of one of Tess’s shrines. It’s the final straw for Callie.
With the help of Tess’s secret boyfriend Danny, Callie’s determined to prove that Tess was something far more important than a saint; she was her sister, her best friend and a girl in love with a boy. But Callie’s investigation uncovers much more than she bargained for: a hidden diary, old family secrets, and even the disturbing truth behind Ana’s kidnapping.
Without further ado…
KIT FRICK: A Psalm for Lost Girls is told through three voices. The novel’s primary narrator is Callie, who must navigate the aftermath of her sister Tess’s tragic death and her hometown’s fervor to petition for Tess’s sainthood. But we also get pieces of the story through the diary entries that Tess left behind and through an omniscient voice privy to the experience of Ana, a local girl who is—possibly miraculously—found after six months missing. Tell us a bit about your writing process for developing a first person primary narrator, a second narrator who speaks to us only through her journals, and a third-person omniscient point of view. Did you always know your book would include all three, or did any evolve through the revision process?
KATIE BAYERL: I’d like to say it was all part of my master plan. The novel began as a (third person!) short story in the voice of Callie, the skeptical, grief-stricken sister. Once I realized it was a novel, I knew I wanted to include Tess’s voice too, but it took a few drafts—and a failed attempt—before I found a way to make it work. (She’s dead at the outset of the story, after all.) Ana Langone, the missing child, appeared in early drafts as a nameless child who’d been miraculously healed, and as the novel took shape, I realized there was more to her story.
I can see now that the three voices were all there in the beginning, but writing this novel felt like carving a statue out of stone. It took a lot of chipping away before the story emerged in its full form. In the end, I think the three girls provide important, complementary perspectives. Callie is the raw emotion and grit, Tess offers heart and humor, and Ana’s third-person narration adds an ethereal, suspenseful layer. I’ve come to think of them as a holy trinity of sorts, a metaphor that feels appropriate.
KIT: Religion—particularly Christianity and the phenomenon of sainthood—plays an important role in the novel. For some in the book’s setting of New Avon, Massachusetts, including Tess and Callie’s mother, religion provides both a comfort and a sense of purpose following Tess’s death. But for others, particularly Callie, the town’s zeal to petition for her sister’s sainthood is a source of pain and outrage. Tell us a little about your interest in saints, psalms, and miracles, and the research you did when writing your debut.
KATIE: I grew up Catholic in an era when the saints were hardly discussed, and I was pretty fed up with the Virgin Mary as the only available female role model. (The way her story was told, it seemed like the poor woman never had a unique thought of her own!) I began combing through other faiths for more spirited female icons. That search—and the friction it caused with various adults—was a huge part of my teen years.
It was my study abroad semester in the Dominican Republic that put sainthood into a new light for me. I encountered another conception of sainthood there—a blend of Catholic and West African traditions known as santería—that knocked me flat. That’s when I first realized that lady saints didn’t have to be bland or docile. They could be powerful, flawed, complex. I was hooked. From that point on, everywhere I’ve traveled I’ve hunted for images and stories of lady saints. The idea for this novel was born during one of those trips—to the site that commemorates the “child saints” of Fátima, Portugal.
I read quite a bit about saints and miracles as I worked on the novel—most of it for inspiration or to sort out specific details. The two books that most influenced my thinking were The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan, a journalistic dive into how miracles are investigated by the Catholic church, and Muses, Madmen & Prophets by Daniel Smith, an historical take on voice hearing and its many interpretations.
KIT: Tell us something about A Psalm for Lost Girls that isn’t apparent from the book cover or flap copy. We want the inside scoop!
KATIE: I became a ruthless cutter and shed many favorite scenes along the way. The darling I mourned most was Tess’s visit to a psychic named Miss Edna who tries to help her come to terms with her gift. It was a tragic scene in a lot of ways but also cracked me up.
KIT: What gives you the most joy about your life as a YA writer right now? What is bringing you satisfaction at this moment in time?
KATIE: I’m really enjoying how enthusiastic my family and friends are about this book! For so long, writing was this weird thing I did that I really only talked about with other writers, but now that the book’s out there, my parents, aunties, cousins, and friends are all out hitting the streets, telling everyone who will listen about my book. It’s adorable.
KIT: The publishing journey is unique for every author, but it’s safe to say that the road to book publication is filled with surprises, twists, and turns for all of us. What has surprised you most about the process of putting a first book into the world?
KATIE: The time it took? If anyone had told me how many years lay ahead of me when I first started pursuing writing seriously, I might have given up on the spot. In hindsight, I needed that time to develop my craft . . . but I truly had no idea how much I had to learn or what a strange, winding process it would be—at every single stage.
KIT: Drawing from your own unique experience, what advice would you to give to future young adult debut authors, or debut novelists in general?
KATIE: Throw away your timelines. Time is irrelevant. You’ll get to where you need to be. Just focus on the step ahead of you, and do the work that your story is asking of you. Do your story proud.
When Katie Bayerl isn’t penning stories, she coaches teens and nonprofits to tell theirs. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught creative writing in schools and a variety of community settings. She currently leads the VCFA Young Writers Network and teaches classes for teens at GrubStreet. Katie has an incurable obsession with saints, bittersweet ballads, and murder. A Psalm for Lost Girls (spring 2017, Putnam) is her first novel.
Kit Frick is a novelist, poet, and MacDowell Colony fellow. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, she studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA from Syracuse University. When she isn’t putting complicated characters in impossible situations, Kit edits poetry and literary fiction for a small press, edits for private clients, and mentors emerging writers through Pitch Wars. Her debut young adult novel is See All the Stars (Simon & Schuster / Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2018).
A Psalm for Lost Girls released on March 14, 2017 and is available wherever books are sold. Allow me to recommend your local indie, in addition to Amazon.