christine christine
Q & A

Tallulah Falls is your first novel. What inspired you to write this story and, specifically, to write for young adults?

In writing Tallulah Falls, I was curious to see if a young woman—who's been told all her life that she can't do anything right, that she always makes the wrong choices—if you took this girl and dropped her among strangers, in a strange place, in difficult circumstances without her family or friends, could she discover that she's really quite a different person?

Questions of identity fascinate me. Whose voices do we allow into our heads—parents, teachers, friends—and which ones do we end up believing? How can we come to believe our own voice?

To be honest, it didn't occur to me that I was writing a young adult book. I just wrote what seemed true to me. When it came time to find a publisher, the book turned out to be a good fit for the YA market, and I'm glad! (more on that later...)

How would you describe your writing style?

It's tough for me to look at my own writing objectively. But I can tell you what kind of writing I love, because that's what I'm trying to achieve. I love writing that is visual, that paints a picture in my head as I read. I love writing that gets me to see something in an entirely new way. I love writing that is confident and that flows, one sentence to the next, with no awkwardness to jolt me out of the story. I'm not there yet. But I keep striving!

You're an author, a veterinarian, and a teacher. Where do you find the time?

Umm—under my bed?

When I first began Tallulah Falls, I was working full-time as a veterinarian. In a year, I'd managed to write only 80 pages. I realized that I could either continue working full-time, or I could finish this novel. I couldn't do both. So I quit my job. Eventually I settled into two part-time positions, one as a veterinarian, the other as a community college instructor. That opened up a couple of mornings a week, which was helpful since I write best in the morning. Also, it's amazing how much time you can find by kicking the TV habit. And I have to admit there is often a fine layer of dust on the furniture, which wasn't there before I started writing.

I recently quit my teaching job. I'll miss it, and I'll miss my students. But I am looking forward to more writing time!

Do you have any pets of your own?

We have two dogs and two cats, all of them either rescued or adopted from the Humane Society. The dogs are a labrador-mix named Ginny and a shepherd-mix named Inja. Our cats are Molly Brown, a tabby girl abandoned at birth whom I hand-raised, and Seamus O'Leary, an orange tabby boy who lost one of his hind legs in an accident before we adopted him. Molly and Seamus take turns on my lap as I write. Typing gets a little tricky when they use my wrist as a pillow.

We also have a hognose snake named Snappy Tom. Hognose snakes are non-venomous, but when you get close to them they do a pretty good imitation of a rattlesnake. They're hoping to fool you into leaving them alone.

Who encouraged you most to pursue writing?

My boyfriend is my biggest supporter by far. When I was thinking about quitting my job to write a novel, I thought he'd tell me I was crazy. Instead, he was enthusiastic. Not only that, he did many things to help me fit writing into my life (and by extension, into his life!) All those years I was getting rejected, he never once hinted that maybe I'd made a mistake. At times, I think he was more confident I'd get published than I was.

I also received enormous support and encouragement from one of my first writing instructors, Verlena Orr. Verlena taught an evening adult-education class, Beginning Fiction Writing, at the local community college. I took that class 6 times over 2 years. Verlena had so much to teach about technique, craft, critique—but most of all, she is passionate about writing. At the beginning of every term, when she introduced herself to the class, she would describe how she'd turned her own life upside-down in order to write. One day I was at work—this was before I quit my full-time job—and Verlena called me there to tell me that she thought my writing was very good and that I should pursue it seriously. That conversation was like a bolt out of the blue. It helped me begin to see myself as a writer, to realize that yes, maybe I can do this.

Would you categorize Tallulah Falls as a coming-of-age story?

Yes, definitely. To me, coming-of-age means figuring out who you are, independent of the expectations of your family, your friends, your teachers. Most of us grow up with some kind of label: the pretty one, the loud one, the good student, the screw-up. Those labels are not always wrong—I grew up as the shy kid, and I still am—but that's not all I am.

It's tough to let go of the perceptions that people have of you. Especially when you feel like everyone has the wrong idea about you, but you don't know what the right idea is. That's the situation Tallulah's in, at the beginning of the book.

What did you enjoy reading when you were a teenager? Were there any books in particular that impacted your own coming-of-age?

I discovered Jane Austen in my early teens and have been in love ever since. Thomas Hardy, too, ever since Tess of the d'Ubervilles in junior English. I read the Brontes, I read Tolstoy. I wasn't entirely a classics geek, though. I also read a lot of science fiction—Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Andre Norton. My dad and brothers were all into sci fi, so we had tons of it around the house. I guess that still makes me a geek, but a well-rounded one.

One character that made a huge impact on me as a teenager was Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. While I can't exactly say I identified with her (if I ever tried batting my eyelashes like that, I'd pop a contact lens), still, I was struck by her determination, her doggedness in the face of fear. She killed a Yankee soldier, remember, who was threatening her family. After that, anytime she was faced with something that frightened or intimidated her, she would tell herself, "Well, I've done murder, so surely I can do this." And then she'd do it.

Not that I'm advocating murder as a confidence booster. No, what I realized—and it's a simple thing, but a new realization for me at the time—was that I could look at something I'd already done, even if it was just a small thing, and say, "See, you did X, so you can probably do Y, too." That was how I started getting past my shyness. I still use that technique. (Thank you, Margaret Mitchell!)

Have you noticed a change in books written today for teen readers as compared to books you read as a girl?

When my agent suggested we submit Tallulah Falls to the young adult market, I was initially doubtful. "But I'm not a kids' author!" I told her. When I was a teenager it seemed we went straight from horse stories to adult reading, with a little S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel thrown in along the way. I couldn't see where Tallulah Falls would fit into that. "Go to the bookstore," my agent said. So I did. First, I was amazed at the amount of YA fiction out there. We never had our own section of the bookstore when I was in high school! Then I put myself through a crash course of YA reading (which I'm still doing. I've fallen in love with these books.) I was impressed and humbled, and eager to jump in with my own novel.

Aside from the sheer number of YA novels, one change I'm thrilled with is the number of strong female characters. Growing up, I got so sick of books in which the girls—if there were any—were always beautiful and "bright." To me, "bright" came to mean "intelligent enough to appreciate the genius of the boy hero, but not intelligent enough to solve any problems on her own." Like a Labrador retriever in a skirt. Lookin' good, babe, help me out and fetch that stick over there, will ya? Good girl. Sheesh. Now there's all kinds of girl characters out there mixing it up, and it's great reading.

Tallulah Falls is a contemporary story. Would you ever consider writing in a different genre?

Funny you should ask!

I'm currently working on a historical novel, set in Chicago during WWII. I love novels that make you feel as though you're truly experiencing a different time and place, with all the sounds and smells and sights. That's what I'm trying to accomplish—creating a world that feels real. Plus telling a great story, which of course is the most important job of any novel.

I often wonder, too, if I could write a good sci fi book. I just might have to try one of these days.

Setting is so important to this novel. Tallulah often compares her hometown of Portland, Oregon to her new surroundings in rural Tennessee. You've lived in both locations. How did your background affect the story?

I'd never lived outside California before we moved to Tennessee. You hear about how different things are in different regions of the country, and I remember thinking, Come on, it's all still America. I mean, they have McDonald's, right?

We arrived in late June. As a Californian, I was used to heat, but I'd never experienced real humidity before. At first, I felt constantly on the verge of gasping for air. That's the reason I set the novel in August—I wanted to blindside Tallulah with the relentless humidity, the heat, the thunderstorms.

It's also a big adjustment going from the city to a rural area. In the country, you know your neighbors; you wave to people you pass on the road. You get used to being recognized, even if you don't know the other person—they know you, through their sister's best friend's husband, or whatever, and they'll ask you how you liked riding So-and-so's gray mare last weekend. It was fun putting Tallulah through that experience. She's a city girl, she's used to walking down the street and being anonymous. That anonymity is like a cloak. It's protective. In a small town, where everyone knows you or has heard of you, just going to the store can make you feel incredibly exposed if you're not used to it.

One thing I didn't anticipate before moving to Tennessee was the accent. Not theirs—mine. Talk about loss of anonymity. Every time I said something, I found myself having to explain where I was from and how I'd ended up there. I got so tired of telling the same story over and over, I deliberately adopted the local accent. In Tallulah Falls I tried to recreate those cadences, the music of that accent, in its different variations. Even in the same town, not everyone speaks with exactly the same diction. I tried to recreate that, too, which is why Dr. Poteet doesn't speak the same way as Kyle, who doesn't sound quite the same as Ruth.

Like Tallulah, you also work at veterinary practice. What are your thoughts on the adage, "write what you know?"

It was helpful, for my first novel, to set the action in an environment that's familiar to me. I didn't base Clark Station Veterinary Hospital on any particular place, or the characters on any particular individuals. I didn't have to. I've worked in veterinary hospitals since I was sixteen, as a kennel assistant, a receptionist (as far as I'm concerned, this is the hardest job in the whole hospital—you go, Ruth!), a veterinary technician, and a veterinarian. I know veterinary hospitals from the ground up, and I've worked in a lot of them. That allowed me to create a completely fictional hospital and still—I hope—make it feel authentic.

That said, I think sometimes novice writers take the whole "write what you know" thing a little too literally. Imagination is the engine of fiction; it's what makes it go. If I wrote only what I knew, I never could have written Tallulah. My parents aren't divorced; I've never been stranded on a highway; I've never been arrested or in jail; I've never saved anyone's life. If Tallulah were me, she'd never have gotten to Tennessee at all; she'd be sitting at home reading a book. "Writing what you know" can give your setting and characters authenticity, but beyond that, the writer has to be willing to let go and take risks.

What do you hope a reader will take away from Tallulah Falls?

First, I hope they take away the feeling that they've read a really good story, that the time they gave to the novel was rewarded.

After that, I hope people realize that they can challenge assumptions about themselves, whether they're other people's assumptions, or their own. So many of us limit ourselves, because a voice in our heads tells us we're wrong, or we can't do it, or whatever. So we don't pursue our passions, we settle for what seems safe, we don't believe we deserve to be happy. We need to be able to challenge the voices that hold us back.

I'd also like readers to be aware of what it can mean to have a mental illness such as bipolar disorder. We understand so much more than we did just a decade or so ago, and yet it still carries a tremendous stigma in our society. That needs to change, but it won't until people educate themselves.

What's after Tallulah Falls?

Ten Cents a Dance! WWII Chicago. Ruby Jacinski has to drop out of school to support her family. But instead of taking a factory job, like everyone expects, she discovers how to make money—lots of money—while having the time of her life. Ruby's got it all figured out—until swinging with the hepcats turns into swimming with the sharks.

What is your favorite kind of pie?

Mmmm...pie. Pecan. Warm, with vanilla ice cream.

Now I'm hungry. I'm going downstairs for a snack—see ya!

Read another Q & A with Christine on the Bloomsbury USA site.