Karen DelleCava is a member of Women Who Write. Her short stories, games, and crafts have appeared in Highlights for Children magazine. She is also the author of a contemporary young adult novel entitled A Closer Look (WestSide Books 2011), which the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association named a Top 40 Pick for 2011 for Realistic Fiction. Karen’s book is about a high school freshman who struggles with her self-image after being diagnosed with alopecia areata, a condition in which a person’s hair falls out.
Your book has many realistic details about alopecia. Did you know someone with the condition?
In high school, my sister’s friend’s brother had alopecia, although the name of the disease never came up─only the symptoms. (George was one of my early readers whom I acknowledged at the end of the book.) But it wasn’t till my nephew’s grandmother donated her hair 10 years ago, did I really take notice of the fact that there were kids out there with this condition.
So did your nephew’s grandmother’s gesture inspire your novel?
Absolutely. When she explained that she donated her hair to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for children with alopecia, I started imagining what it would be like to cut off all my hair and give it away to a child in need. Having had long hair most of my life, the idea of it simmered for some time and I started writing a middle grade novel about girls who donate their hair.
Of course, things were going to go horribly wrong and only my main character would actually cut her hair. Later, I imagined that main character seeing a girl on the beach and overhearing a conversation about how she was looking forward to her prosthetic wig. When I saw the girl on the beach, I knew Cassie’s story─the girl who is losing/lost her hair was the story I needed to tell. So I scrapped 80 pages of that novel, started researching and started all over.
As writers it is drilled into us that we must throw in a lot of complications into our main character’s life. Yet, you weave all of the threads seamlessly. Was it difficult on the first draft to balance these plotlines?
The first draft showed plenty of uneven seams and messy stitchwork. So now I was faced with a real creative challenge. The beauty and joy of the revision process gave me time to dig deeper into both character and plot development. Tommy didn’t exist in the first draft and adding a first romance increased the tension and was mega fun to write although there was a lot of angst there, too. Mom was the most difficult character for me to write. It took years plus the keen eye of my editor, Evelyn M. Fazio, to get Mom’s whole deal straight and her back story to make sense. Robin was a bully from minute one. Unfortunately, I think we all remember girls like her from school.
I found your book to be very tightly written. Was that achieved in the critiquing process before you reached the submission stage, did Evelyn help you snip things out, or was it a one-two punch from the critique group and your editor? Or, last option─are you able to self-edit?
Thank you, Melissa. My critique group is fantastic plus I had an amazing writing instructor, Margaret Gabel, who brought the work up to the level that caught Evelyn’s eye.
It was Evelyn, though, who was ruthless and I mean that in the best possible way. My husband I had her over for dinner right around the time she’d begun major line editing. She’d warned me not to panic when I saw all the red cross outs. What an eye opener when the manuscript arrived with all those words zapped!
She was very open for discussion and if I needed/wanted something to stay and could justify why, Evelyn kept it. Once or twice there was something I wanted in and she wanted out so she asked me to trust her. I did and I think it worked out beautifully.
Cassie’s attitude about living with alopecia ultimately changes. What do you think she would say, after the book, about what she’s learned and how it has affected her?
I’ve asked Cassie that question, too and she responded by starting her own blog. Check out her first post:
“Okay, queue the intro music to Lady GaGa’s Born This Way!
Cassie here! I’m 14 years old and I have alopecia areata. Over the past six months, I lost all of my long hair. And the truth? It was the WORST, most suckful thing that ever happened to me and I cried-A LOT. I felt like I lost who I was, my entire identity.
But ya know what else? I’m still here and I ROCK! Yeah, I said it. I ROCK! I just want YOU to know that you rock, too, with or without hair. It might take time but I guarantee you’ll figure it out. I’m just as cute wig on as wig off. http://baldteensrock.blogspot is a place for bald teens who rock (like me) and their friends to hang out, have fun and even try to make you feel better if you’re having a particularly sucky day.”
You had an agent who did not sell an earlier draft of A Closer Look. Can you fast-forward us along to the happy ending part, when you received “the call”?
I was at work when I got the call on my cell from Evelyn. She’s so warm and lovely and she started chatting. Then my brain went into hyper drive .Editors only call if they have good news. So I asked her what was up and she said WestSide would like to buy A Closer Look! I let out such a shriek of joy I think the people in the next building heard me. Yeah, and there were tears!
Unfortunately, your publisher, WestSide Books, is no longer in business.
It was very sad when I found out WestSide was closing its doors, especially since A Closer Look hadn’t been released yet. But even worse, an incredible editor was losing her job. Ultimately, I still felt fortunate that a modest print run of my novel would be sent out into the world.
Where can people buy copies of your book?
A Closer Look is available at Well Read New & Used Books, an awesome independent bookstore in Hawthorne, NJ, Amazon.com and B&N.com.
Will more be published?
WestSide recently informed me that my novel (along with 4 others) is OSI (Out of Stock Indefinitely) and no more new copies are being published. SIGH! The publishing gods giveth and the publishing gods taketh away. Of course I’m disappointed but I couldn’t be happier that I’ve reached teen and adult readers who’ve been moved enough to contact me directly via emails or letters or post reviews. Without a doubt that has been the most satisfying part of my publishing experience.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer who is reluctant to join a critique group?
Force yourself to join one!!! Gosh, the benefits are invaluable─but I’ll add─as long as you can find the right fit. Writing is a solitary business and an awesome critique group will provide you with support and a very necessary second set of eyes and/or ears that will help detect weaknesses in your writing. We all want to submit our best work to editors and too often we become so close to our own work we can’t see what’s wrong with it. And when you critique others’ work, you’ll begin to fine tune your own editorial skills and apply them to your own work. Don’t ever feel though, that you have to revise to comments by your critique group, but try to put your ego aside, step back a bit and decide if their comments will improve your work. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how often they’re right!
Thanks for these great answers, Karen, and good luck with your new novel!
It’s been lovely spending this time with you. Thank you so much!
By: Melissa Eisen Azarian
Melissa Eisen Azarian is the VP Membership of Women Who Write. She is a member of the New Providence Writing for Children Group, as well as the Peapack Mixed Genre group. In 2009, Enslow Publishers released her first children’s book, The Amistad Mutiny: From the Court Case to the Movie. It is part of a series that received favorable reviews in School Library Journal. She writes picture books and novels for kids, but is currently focusing on a novel for women.