About the book: For years, Castella Cresswell’s world has been confined to her ramshackle family home deep in the woods of upstate New York. There, she and her five siblings abide by the strict rule of God, whose messages come directly from their father. Enrolling back in school, Castley's world rapidly expands beyond the woods she knows so well and the beliefs she once thought were absolute truth. Just as she begins to form a plan to escape her father’s grasp, he makes a chilling announcement: the Cresswells will soon return to their home in heaven. With time running out, Castley must confront the depths of her father's lies. The forest has buried the truth in darkness for far too long…
Sounds good, right? IT IS. I loved this book. I was so nervous to read it, but it floored me. I had to keep stopping to take pictures of passages. Read on for an interview that includes fanfiction, writing poetry on rock star’s typewriters, and finding yourself in the Magic Kingdom.
I had been writing fan fiction for years and it got to the point where I was writing literary versions of really crap novels just for a laugh. It dawned on me that fan fiction was a crutch for me; it's this very benevolent world where everyone loves you and you get immediate feedback. I realised it was preventing me from actually writing publishable stories. So I took all my fiction down and joined Twitter and immersed myself in the path to publication.
Aww! A lot of YA authors started in fanfiction. It’s a great community! But I’m so glad you took that leap. One thing I love about you is that you are always determined to find your own way. I have complete strangers ask me for help getting published. We're family, but I had to beg you to let me read your book! I saw a lot of that same fierce independence in Castley, your main character. But she wasn't originally the point of view in the first draft. How did you discover Castley and her voice?
Yeah, so the very, very first version of this story was from Caspar’s perspective, and then it was from his girlfriend’s perspective and I was really struggling with it for a long time. I kept getting the same feedback: what are the stakes? It took me ages understand what that meant but I finally realized it was the Cresswells who had the most at stake, and so the story needed to be from their perspective.
Something that really stood out to me in The Cresswell Plot is that you work with such a large family. Typically in YA we see only children, or maybe one or two siblings, maximum. And parents are frequently absent or killed in the epidemic of tragic and mysterious car accidents some of my own fictional parents have fallen victim to! Juggling such a large cast--and making them all memorable individuals--is no small task. You did it so well. I still think about Baby J sometimes, and she doesn't say a word in the book. Tell us a little about how you tackled such complex characterization?
I think it helped that I had written so many different versions of the book, so I felt like knew the characters. But more specifically, I wanted them to represent different ideologies. So Caspar is supposed to be representative of pure religion where Mortimer is a nihilist, and within the story you see how both schools of thought are problematic. For example with Caspar, his capacity for love and forgiveness in some ways seem to enable the abuse and with Mortimer, he's just taking whatever route is most damaging to himself because he feels he is already screwed no matter what. Hannan I wanted to be someone who is just trying to survive and Delvive is judging everyone while Baby J has completely switched off. For me I think it was a matter of dividing different aspects of my own psyche up between characters and having Castley as the one who is interpreting all of these different schools of thought or reactions.
I hadn’t thought of it that way! Such a smart lens to explore that many voices. Main character Castley begins to find her own voice when she's finally able to be an individual in drama class, away from her family. Did you have something in high school where you felt like the future opened up and you could see your way through to being the person you wanted to be?
Not so much in high school; it took me a long time to believe that I could be anything other than what had been dictated to me. Probably the biggest moment for me was when I went to work at the Magic Kingdom and was living separately from my family and also from the religious University I was attending and I was able to just see what it would be like to be myself, the way I was when I was alone, all the time.
That notion of performing identity for others comes across so well. You really captured it. Religion is also obviously a huge theme in the novel. The "scriptures" written by Castley's father are so odd and haunting. Did you do anything special to get into the right frame of mind to write them?
This is kind of a funny story: I was in Barcelona with my husband and his friend Peter Doherty from The Libertines on the roof of a hotel after dark. Peter was carrying around this typewriter and I wanted to really impress him with my brilliance and I wrote some of what later became the Cresswell’s scriptures. And I remember Peter was like, “who wrote this?” I mean, clearly he was blown away by my genius.
As well he should have been! I loved those sections. One of my other favorite parts of the book was watching Castley's internal arguments as she tried to move away from her father's teachings while still dealing with the fear that maybe he was right and she was damning herself. I read it less as a condemnation of religion in general, and more an exploration of how hard it is to claim yourself in the face of outside ideas eating up so much space in your soul. As someone who left a pretty intense religion you were raised in, how did you capture that tension of chafing to be free and also sometimes wishing to go back to the relative ease of simply stepping in line?
A pretty big aspect of what I wanted to portray was the fact that it is very difficult to determine what is right or wrong when you decide to step away from the rules that are imposed on you. Any choice you make will have both good and bad consequences. When you decide to think for yourself you're basically taking away the barrier that can shield you from the consequences of your own actions, because you can no longer blame them on somebody else. As you have suggested, you are making your life more difficult, but I also wanted to show how that makes you stronger and more self-actualized.
Okay, so, interrogation over. Almost. Tell us whether my husband is your favorite of your five brothers. No, that's okay, just nod. We won't tell the others.
Imma let you finish, but J is the best of all time.
(J is her favorite nephew. I happened to give birth to him. And if you want to read my favorite book by a family member—and my favorite YA read of the year—pick up your copy of The Cresswell Plot today!)