Deb Caletti: On Exploring the Art-versus-Artist Debate

In this article, award-winning Deb Caletti explains how her latest young adult novel, One Great Lie, tackles a hot-button topic, and why you shouldn't shy away from serious themes for young adults.
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Deb Caletti is the award-winning and critically acclaimed author of many books, including Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, a finalist for the National Book Award, and A Heart in a Body in the World, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. She lives with her family in Seattle. Visit her at DebCaletti.com.

Deb Caletti

Deb Caletti

In this post, Caletti explains how her latest young adult novel, One Great Lie, tackles a hot-button topic, why you shouldn't shy away from serious themes for young adults, and much more!

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Fearless Writing William Kenower

If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.

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Name: Deb Caletti
Title: One Great Lie
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Release date: June 1, 2021
Genre: YA fiction
Previous titles: He’s Gone; Honey, Baby, Sweetheart; Girl Unframed; and A Heart in a Body in the World
Elevator pitch for the book: One Great Lie is a YA crossover novel about Charlotte, a young woman who travels to Venice for a summer writing program taught by a charismatic male author. During her time there, Charlotte is forced to confront some dark truths about the history of powerful men—and about the determination of creative girls—going all the way back to the Renaissance.

One Great Lie by Deb Caletti

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What prompted you to write this book?

Before I begin a novel, I always ask myself what’s on my mind—what’s compelling/infuriating/intriguing/baffling enough to spend a year or more exploring. For me, this question comes before plot, characters, or setting. Knowing that I have a deeply felt need to explore an issue assures me that the book will come from a true and powerful place. This time, I wanted to explore the art-versus-artist debate that caught fire during the #MeToo movement and still continues to blaze. As a female and a writer, this issue was definitely on my mind, and One Great Lie gave me the chance to examine my own frustration and confusion about the label of “genius” given primarily to male writers (and men in general) throughout history. It also allowed me to explore the persistence of the “separating the art from the artist” question, the underlying power dynamics of it that go back hundreds of years, and the perseverance of female creativity in the face of it. The book is part mystery, and part love story, but wholly and deeply feminist.

(5 Tips for Writing About Controversial Topics)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

I’ve been publishing a book a year for over 20 years, and as a working writer, I’m generally on a specific deadline. Each book takes about two years to see print. The first year is mine alone, as I work through my draft and my own very stringent editorial process. I don’t share my work with anyone until it’s as polished as I can make it, and then I reveal it to my most gentle audience first, my husband, and to my agent and editor after that. During that second year, it makes its way through more edits, copyedits, and the rest of the publishing process. 

The idea for One Great Lie didn’t change that much during the process, but it did gain focus and deepen, adding layers along the way. I’m not a writer who outlines, because I like to leave room for discoveries along the way. And there are always discoveries: things you learn through research, insights you get after wrestling with the book for months on end.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

The surprise during this book’s publishing process? It was edited and prepared for publication during the pandemic. Thankfully, I was almost finished writing it by then. It was a comfort to be already well underway in a book I loved writing, and entering my favorite part of the process, too—editing. But the pandemic brought the Now what? moments to publishing, along with every other industry. Rapidly, my team at S&S regrouped and found new ways to do their many, many different jobs from home. There was also another major shift during the publication of this book—my longtime imprint at S&S was dissolved, and the company went through a restructuring. I’m with a new imprint at S&S now, but it was really sad to see friends and colleagues of many years move on. Once again, I was reminded that the business of publishing is always adapting and changing and that you have to adapt and change along with it.

(Alyson Gerber: On Writing Difficult Topics for Young Readers)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

What surprised me were some of the people, real people, who found their way into the book. I didn’t know they were going to be a part of the story, let alone the large role they’d play, and they only found their way in after one bit of astonishing research led to more of it. These people? The incredible and fierce feminist writers of five hundred years ago. I had absolutely no idea that young women (many of them teens) were writing and publishing bold and controversial feminist works way back in the 1500s. It was an awful and shocking realization, that we are still writing about the same subjects that they were writing about then, and struggling with the same power dynamics, too. I found these women incredibly inspiring, and it’s extraordinarily meaningful to me, as a writer and a woman in the twenty-first century, to share their stories in my own work. These are the kinds of discoveries I like to leave room for as I write. But, wow, what a discovery.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope readers will question the old ideas about who we give the “genius” label to, and why, and what happens when we do. But I also hope that they’ll be transported to Venice, Italy, with all its surreal, atmospheric beauty. I hope they’ll see those narrow streets and the gold light of sunset and the tilting, ancient buildings, and hear those motorboats and the lilt of Italian, and maybe even taste some cicchetti and lemon gelato.

This is a book meant for book lovers and writers, so I also hope they enjoy indulging all the kind of stuff we love: ancient manuscripts, a palatial, centuries-old library, and an utterly magical bookstore, the charming Libreria Acqua Alta, with its volumes upon volumes stored in boats and bathtubs to protect them during the seasonal floods. As well, it would be wonderful if my readers, especially my writer readers, were as inspired by those astonishing teen writers as I was. Those women bravely wrote the truth at a time when it was very dangerous to do so.

Deb Caletti: On Exploring the Art-versus-Artist Debate

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

I think it’s always great to remember that your honest voice is the most powerful thing you have as a writer. Writers always worry about having what it takes, and we can get turned in circles with advice and have-to's. But what you need is right there inside, if you have the courage to use it. 

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