You know that very specific joy you feel when you pick up a new book and everything just works? Your mood matches the tone of the book. You keep flipping back to the cover to enjoy how it fits the story more with each new chapter you read. You happen to be able to afford a big chunk of time, focus, and emotional investment when you first crack open the spine. And enough about you. The book! The writing draws you in from page one. You’re in love with the characters by page five. Something surprising yet inevitable happens in almost every scene. The structure impresses you. You laugh. You cry. You yearn. And at the end, you have questions that you know will never be answered—and you are okay with that. When you close the book you are amazed but unsatisfied because you now feel the gaping hole that true readers feel every time they finish a great book: You can’t imagine finding the above-catalogued joy ever again.
You know what I mean.
This happened to me with Marisa Calin’s debut novel, Between You and Me.
Between You and Me hits stores on Tuesday, August 7th. In advance of publication, Marisa was nice enough to answer a few questions for my blog. And her publisher was nice enough to contribute two copies of the book for me to give away to YOU. To enter to win, please leave a comment below sharing what you need for “the perfect reading experience” and I will choose two winners.
Happy reading! I hope you love the book as much as I do.
1. You did a beautiful job integrating the world of film/drama into your novel. What did you find inspiring about the screenplay/script format? Did it pose any structural challenges?
Firstly, thanks! I started by writing plays and screenplays. I’ve always been inspired to write because as an actor you interpret someone else’s characters, so it’s really exciting as a writer to create characters and relationships that reflect more personal experiences. There’s also something amazing about knowing that a novel is the last piece of the creative puzzle and people will be able to picture it exactly the way you tell it. So it seemed like the perfect starting point to take elements of a format I love for its vivid immediacy and tell a story as visually as possible. I started with the character, rather than the story. I knew that Phyre wanted to be an actress and that she sees her life in this sometimes self-consciously cinematic way. It was a fun point of view, to show Phyre’s subjective reality with just glimpses of a wider perspective. I stepped out of the screenplay framework to use a first person narrative because an unrequited crush is the most personal of experiences, ninety percent of which happens in your own head. So from any other perspective there isn’t even a story!
Since ideas have always come to me in pieces of dialog and in moments between characters, the scripted format also helped me play out those scenes in as concise and punchy a way as possible. The very present narrative of a screenplay lets you watch a story unfold moment by moment. That was also the greatest challenge; to keep it present. Every scene has a setting – Phyre is always somewhere, doing something – so I started every scene with what can she see, hear and feel right now? That helped keep my meandering thoughts in check, the kind you write late at night and think are brilliant and read the next morning and think ‘blablabla’. So while there were surprisingly few challenges, structurally the balance was to make sure that everything that needed to be said was there. Screenplays are visual not emotional, so with the help of an amazing editor, we’ve hopefully married Phyre’s inner monologue with the scripted elements I loved using. Above all, I thought it would be fun. And it was the greatest creative experience.
2. Your decision to use the gender-neutral second person in all interactions between Phyre and her best friend was innovative and moving. Can you talk about this choice?
Sure. As the story took shape, I realized very quickly that I couldn’t identify YOU’s gender if I didn’t want to write a story about gender. So as not to make a commentary on who we should end up with in our lives, I really wanted to resist giving Phyre a picture perfect handsome boy ending to put everything to rights. Then her crush on Mia could be read as a phase that she overcomes to embrace normality. The ambiguity meant that I could preserve the validity of a straight crush, but more importantly write about finding real love, not about with whom. A story about genuine love versus the power of imagined love was just as interesting to me. And I hope people will finish the book feeling that her choice ultimately didn’t need to be about gender. I knew who YOU was for me, but this way I could let the reader decide for themselves.
Fortunately, the idea also played wonderfully into my goal to write something inclusive, that as many people as possible might relate to. I wanted readers to find familiar emotions and recognize pieces of themselves in the characters, so I tried to leave space for the feelings to resonate and not give so much detail to the setting.
3. We all encounter people who help us grow, who push us toward our truest selves. Who in your life has been a “Mia?”
Can you believe no one I know personally has asked me that yet? There have been two Mia’s in my life and I’m grateful that I knew them. Those crushes led me to recognize that a person can be inexplicably special to you, and that’s something you can’t choose whether or not to feel. But I never told a single person how I felt. Neither of my Mia’s were teachers, they were both girls a few years older than me. So I was really more friends with them, and certainly never dreamt of telling either of them. Well, I dreamt of it, in a great declarative ‘I’m completely in love with you’ kind of way, but I never actually considered it. So there were probably therapeutic reasons for writing the book. I think they’d both fall off a chair if they knew how I had felt. The experience of writing about it has given me a sense of coming full circle and I’ve been tempted to tell them recently when I never have been before. Will I? Probably not. Maybe. I expect not… I wonder if lots of people I used to know are sitting there thinking, is it me? Well, two of you are right. How funny! Thanks. You inspired a book. I’m blushing. There are a few small clues in there. Any other similarities to people, places and events are strictly coincidental! Maybe.
4. You gracefully navigate the fear of being different–without making the world of LGBT prejudice a prominent element in the book. How did you acknowledge the reality of ignorance or closed-mindedness without letting it darken the bright heart of your love story?
I love this question. That was my very reason for writing this book. My hope was to normalize and validate the feelings of a crush without the need to make definitive sweeping statements about who we are. I felt sure the reality of closed-mindedness, and the equally powerful fear of closed-mindedness, would be present in the simple anxiety of giving voice to a feeling. My crushes at Phyre’s age were primarily just about the purest of admiration. The feeling was so positive and inspiring, but there was clearly something about it that meant I never expressed it to anyone. I never heard my friends talk about similar feelings, so never put myself out there emotionally or made myself vulnerable. Not feeling able to share in my own life was acknowledgment enough of prejudice, so it was easy to reflect that in the book without making it a focus. For Phyre, when you strip away the fears that come with what other people think, she is left, as you so perfectly put it, with the bright heart of her love story. The emotion of feeling love for someone, even of the same sex, is as pure and simple in your own heart as it is for anyone else.
5. Phyre’s name is so evocative. How did you choose it?
That’s such a fun question to think about. I started with her name. I didn’t find the character and then hunt for her name. ‘Phyre’ felt volatile, and ignitable. She’s in a key vulnerable place where we really start having a sense of who we are. There were so many things about the image that I liked. From kindling the spark of first love, to flames that you can’t smother even when you’re afraid of them. Sometimes a fire will burn and there’s really nothing you can do about it, which is what she’s facing. Those reasons might not have been so clear to me when I was on the first draft, but I noticed more and more that her name encompassed everything I wanted it to. The book was called ‘Phyre’ and only ever found a new name when it was pretty much on its way to the printer, so it was very much part of its identity for me.
6. What can we look forward to next from Marisa Calin?
That’s an excellent question. I’ve asked myself the same thing. As an actor, I will shortly be going into the studio to record another audio book, Sapphire Blue, the second in a trilogy by Kirsten Gier. And as a writer, I’m on a second novel. Its pretty different from Between You & Me. I started with a story rather than seeing where the characters would take me, so it’ll be an interesting challenge. It’s more plot driven, but still real life. I’ll leave the dystopia that I love to read to those who do it best, and angels, I will leave to the greatest angel of all. You. Thanks so much for giving me the chance to answer these amazing questions. They’ve been a pleasure to think about.
Marisa Calin is an actress and novelist. She grew up in Bath, England and moved to New York City to train at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She tried her hand at plays and screenplays before her love of a good book inspired her to take charge of every facet of the creative picture and tackle a novel. The only thing better than being absorbed in the world of a film for two hours is being absorbed in the lives of characters for the duration of a book. She lives in Greenwich Village and writes from what she knows–memories of her not so distant teenhood.