June 28, 2016

Cecilia Galante

When stories implode and make their ways into the world
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Cecilia Galante, author of The World from Up Here, talks about the constant process of being brave, what it means to share your unspoken secrets with the world and the incredible power of her eighth-grade students.

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Cecilia Galante, author of The World from Up Here, talks about the constant process of being brave, what it means to share your unspoken secrets with the world and the incredible power of her eighth-grade students.

Your book begins with a letter to readers confessing that both you and your daughter are worriers like your character Wren, and that you both faced separate quests to act bravely. How are things going for the two of you in the worrying and bravery departments? And how does Sophia like your new book?
I’m pretty sure at this point in my life that being brave is a continual, ongoing process. It’s never a one-and-done kind of deal that gets shoved back on the shelf after we’ve successfully stared down a snake or found our way home out of the woods. There are opportunities every day to dig for courage, whether that means sitting down at your computer and waiting for the words to come (me) or going to Philadelphia to watch your older sister graduate even though large cities terrify you and you are sure that something terrible will happen (my daughter, Sophia). And the truth is that neither Sophia nor I get it right every single time. There will be days when I throw up my hands and shut my computer screen—after only 10 minutes. And the day we plowed through those congested Philadelphia streets, Sophia gripped my hand so hard that I was pretty sure at one point the blood had stopped flowing through it.

But here’s the other side of those scenarios: I came back to my office the next day and opened my computer and waited for the words to come. And despite her terror of being in the city, Sophia actually let go of my hand for a few minutes on the way to the Mexican restaurant afterwards for lunch. So I guess the short answer is that we’re both doing OK in the bravery department because we keep showing up and doing the best we can with it. And showing up, especially when you’re scared, is half the battle.

As for how Sophia likes the book, that remains to be seen, as she is still making her way through Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. But she has a copy of it on her desk, and every once in awhile, I’ll see her pick it up and gaze at the cover, so I know it won’t be long!  

You teach eighth-grade English. How does that experience enrich your writing, in terms of plot, characters or in other ways?
Oh, my eighth graders! How I love them so! Interacting with them on a daily basis enriches my writing in so many ways, if only because they are so full of life and energy. Even their shortcomings are inspiring; their doubts and fears and lack of confidences are all so true and deeply felt. Everything with 12- and 13-year-olds is completely in the moment, wholly and unequivocally now, and always a life-or-death situation. They are convinced that most things are really the end of the world, that they will never survive the next test or crush or undertaking required of them, and that, despite a fledgling maturity, they will never get older. Being immersed in their world has been one of the best experiences of my life, because it reminds me of how important it is to live in the present, how deeply we all feel things and how critical friendships are to help us navigate those feelings.

"Being immersed in their world has been one of the best experiences of my life, because it reminds me of how important it is to live in the present, how deeply we all feel things and how critical friendships are to help us navigate those feelings."

I’ve only developed a few plot lines for my books from working with my students (The Summer of May was a big one), but you can see facets of their personalities in almost all of my characters. I tell them that I keep a notebook in my desk drawer full of secret notes about them, which is not entirely untrue. I don’t have a notebook, but I do have a very, very good memory!

The World From Up Here deftly explores several relationships, especially between Wren, her mother, her brother and her newly discovered cousin, Silver. It also features great mystery and excitement in the form of Witch Weatherly. Did you have any difficulty combining these two elements into a single narrative?
My goodness, did I ever! This book went through several major rewrites. And when I say major, I mean throwing out hundreds and hundreds of pages and then starting over again—four or five different times. My primary difficulty was figuring out how to combine the mystery of Witch Weatherly’s backstory with an interesting and plausible story regarding the two girls, each of whom come from very different backgrounds. I can’t begin to tell you how long it took for me to figure all of that out. Lots and lots of drafts. Some tears. Even a completely abandoned manuscript at one point. But something about the story—and Wren herself—wouldn’t let me give up on the book for good, and when I pulled the manuscript out for what might have been the 12th or 13th time, I was determined to keep trying until I got it right. I still don’t know if I’ve ever felt so simultaneously amazed and grateful when I realized that I finally did.  

Cousins Silver and Wren are both dealing with an absent parent, or in Wren’s case, two briefly absent parents. Your books often feature absent parents, estrangements and family secrets. Does your exploration of these potent themes stem from the fact that you spent your first 16 years in what you have described as a religious cult? And what is your relationship with your parents today?
I actually hadn’t realized just how many of my books featured absent parents or secrets until last year, when I started talking about my next book with my editor at Scholastic. We were throwing around story ideas and at one point she said, “How about something kind of light with a two-parent family?” I remember the question catching me off guard, and I sort of laughed it off, but later, on my three-hour drive back home, it gnawed at me. Why hadn’t I written a book yet that was somewhat “light” and involved a kid from a “two-parent family?” And what did it say about me that I still didn’t want to?

I think all writers probably draw from some aspects of themselves and their childhoods in their work, and this is certainly true of me. The strange uniqueness of my background, as well as the fractured relationship I had with my parents, has contributed to much of the material in my books. Despite the fact that my parents never divorced and that we lived as a “normal family” after the commune deteriorated, I think my early knowledge of such a tenuous parental structure continues to influence many of my fictional families.

It’s the secrets though (which I’ve come to understand most families keep) that I find the most interesting to write about. For years, I was forbidden to talk about where I’d come from or how I’d been raised, lest my family be seen as a bunch of freaks. I understand now that my parents were trying to protect me, but keeping a secret like that was akin to living with cancer. It slowly and very deliberately killed off any sense of trust I might have built in myself and the world around me. Luckily, I found a way out through my writing, but how many kids never find a portal to freedom? How many of them walk through their days at school, having heard their parents screaming at each the night before, or their mothers crying themselves to sleep? How many young girls sit at birthday parties and eat cake and ice cream with their friends, only to excuse themselves to go make themselves throw up in the bathroom? How many of them have heard a mother or father or an older brother say, “But don’t you dare tell anyone. Don’t even think about it.”

Many of my books address these types of situations because that time in my life is still such a vivid memory for me. I know what holding loaded images inside your chest every day can do to a kid. I know how it shapes the way they see others, themselves, everything around them. What my books try to explore ultimately, in a variety of different ways, is what a kid might realize, or even become finally, if those secrets implode and make their way out into the world. And that’s why I want to keep writing those kinds of stories.

"I know what holding loaded images inside your chest every day can do to a kid. I know how it shapes the way they see others, themselves, everything around them."

Several of the character in this book have interesting names, such as Silver, Bedelia and Witch Weatherly. Did you happen to draw upon any literary inspiration for these names, such as, perhaps, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, in which Whethersfield, Connecticut, is mentioned?
Wow, you’re good! I wish I’d been inspired by something as complex as The Witch of Blackbird Pond or Whethersfield, Connecticut! The truth is much simpler. It always takes me a long time to choose my fictional names; I spend hours on the Baby Name websites, scrolling alphabetically through endless lists of them and sometimes even studying their meanings. For this book, the name Wren came very quickly, because I already knew I wanted my protagonist’s name to be associated with birds in some way. Wren just sort of jumped out at me when I started researching the names of different birds, and I never looked back. As for Silver, I think the word itself is lovely and fluid sounding, and I’ve always been a sucker for alliteration, which is where Witch Weatherly came from.

Your book features some notable appearances by “hornet-head snakes.” Are you referring to coral snakes, by any chance? And have you had any run-ins with snakes, or do you harbor any particular fears?
I’m terrified of snakes. Mice, too. Animals like that, which have the ability to move so quickly, darting this way and then that, maybe deciding to bite, are just a little too much for my overly active imagination. Putting a little girl on the trail of an overgrown mountain swarming with hornet-head snakes was my idea of creating a legitimately terrifying situation. Obviously the snakes in the book, with their tiny horns and yellow eyes, aren’t real, but they do share a commonality with coral snakes in that they have the same unusual coloring and can deliver a fatal bite. Scary enough for me!

Witch Weatherly saves Silver with a concoction she calls “herb glue.” Is there such a thing?
I did a ton of research on the various herbs that Witch Weatherly could use to treat Silver’s injury. I was stunned to find that there were so many plants that had real medicinal qualities, such as elderflower, which is used to treat common cold symptoms, comfrey, which alleviates sprains, and dandelions, which are used as a diuretic. I definitely used the ones that would help treat wounds, such as yarrow and aconite, but ultimately I imagined the “herb glue,” which the Witch created by boiling the herbs down into a thick paste and then using to seal Silver’s wound.

What exposure to literature did you have while growing up in that environment? Did you go to school? And how did your love of reading and writing develop?
We were very well educated at the commune where I grew up. Our school was tiny—there were only two of us in the sixth grade!—but we had skilled and very dedicated teachers. I remember reading the Little House on the Prairie series not once but twice all the way through, as well as an entire biography collection of famous historical Americans including Ethan Allen, Clara Barton and Sacajawea. I think my love of reading began and developed with those early experiences, although it didn’t click that I might also love to write until I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school and realized that I could write about things I’d never said out loud—to myself or anyone else.


Author photo credit Herbert Plummer.

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The World from Up Here

The World from Up Here

By Cecilia Galante
ISBN 9780545848459

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