Congratulations to Katie Bayerl. She visits the Launchpad today and discusses her young adult mystery, A Psalm for Lost Girls.
When Katie isn’t penning her own stories, she coaches teens and nonprofits to tell theirs. A summer 2010 graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katie currently leads the VCFA Young Writers Network, which connects alumni authors with underserved kids and communities.
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.
Welcome Katie. What was the spark that ignited this book?
About a month before I began at VCFA, I took a trip to Portugal. Before I left, a friend (who knows I’m obsessed with saints) sent me info about the recently deceased and soon-to-be-beatified Lúcia dos Santos, the last of the Child Saints of Fátima. I dragged myself away from Lisbon for a day to see what that was all about. The básilica is basically a hideous tourist trap, but I found myself sucked into the history. You see, Lúcia was just 10 years old when she and two cousins claimed to witness apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917. The cousins passed away young, leaving Lúcia to carry their story. I couldn’t stop asking myself what it would be like to be in her position, on track to sainthood (and confined to a life as a nun) at such a young age. What if, at age 16, she had a change of heart? What if all she wanted to live a normal life, make mistakes, fall in love, be a regular girl.
It was a series of “what ifs” that stuck… and at the end of my first semester at VCFA, I found myself writing a response to those questions from the perspective of a young saint’s grieving sister.
Tell us about how you sold this book. Were there a lot of revisions along the way?
I wrote the first two drafts at VCFA and really wanted to have a submission-worthy draft upon graduation. That didn’t happen. Not even close. I got the core of it down in my last two semesters, but I still had so much to figure out before I could find the story’s shape. I spent three more years revising the manuscript—giving up for about a year in the middle—and then coming back to it when I had a major plot breakthrough. (My stints as a VCFA graduate assistant helped a lot!)
My agent, Erin Harris, had a revision idea that excited me: include Tess (the alleged saint) as an alternating point of view. I’d tried to include Tess in early drafts; this time, I saw a way that would work. I added about 80 pages to the book at that point, and Erin cracked a whip, getting me to tighten the rest considerably.
I lost track of how many drafts it was in the end. There was still some significant revision after I sold the book to Putnam, but those final drafts—with agent and editor—were the most satisfying because I could finally see the story emerging in its true form.
Who was your favorite character to write and why?
I had the most fun writing Tess (the saint). Those scenes, constructed as diary entries, poured right out. I love her warmth and sense of humor and had fun being with her, even in the agonizing moments.
The main protagonist, Callie, was much harder. Much. She has a tough skin and didn’t want anyone—least of all her author—to see her true self. You know what? I get that, and I respect her for it. It was a tricky dance, recognizing her boundaries while showing enough of her underbelly for let readers into her story. In the end, Callie is the one I fell for the hardest.
What authors do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?
I will trade plot for great sentences and heart-tugging characters any day of the week. Also? I really think that character is established at the sentence level, so basically, I’m cheating on this question.
Three authors who slay me with their sentences: Benjamin Alire Saenz (especially his YA), Edwidge Danticat (especially her works for adults), and VCFA’s own Jandy Nelson. That’s just a sampling. I’m such a sentence slut; if I start listing all of the writers who knock me over with their sentences, it would get embarrassing.
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
Sharon Darrow, Tim Wynne-Jones, Shelley Tanaka, Rita Williams-Garcia
How did attending VCFA affect your (writing) life?
I learned a lot about craft, obviously, but it was the community that had the greatest impact on me. I made the best friends of my life at VCFA and, as a result of those relationships and so many meandering conversations about craft and art and politics and life, I feel like I became not just a better writer but a better me.
You can visit Katie at www.katiebayerl.com or on twitter at @katiebayerl