Today's guest is debut author Katie Bayerl, whose book A PSALM FOR LOST GIRLS releases today! Katie is a proud graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program and teaches in Grub Street's creative writing program. She has an incurable obsession with saints, bittersweet ballads, and murder. It’s becoming a problem. You can find Katie on her site, Twitter, and Facebook.
YES. Well, actually there were a few different experiences and obsessions that fed this book (insert long backstory about my Catholic childhood, struggles with being labeled a “gifted” kid, lifelong obsession with female religious figures, etc), but the bits came together and sparked into a story while I was visiting the Basilica of Our Lady of Fátima in Portugal—the site where three children claimed to see the Virgin Mary in 1917. I made my visit in 2008, the same year Pope Benedict decided to hurry up and beatify Lúcia Santos, the last of the Children of Fátima to pass away.
A little backstory on her: Lúcia was 10 years old when she and her two cousins saw the Virgin Mother. The cousins died soon after, leaving Lúcia to carry this legacy on her own. She joined a convent (which, I guess, is what you do when everyone around thinks you’re a saint) and remained a cloistered nun until she died at age 97.
Now, by all accounts (including her memoirs), Lúcia was a woman of deep faith, but as soon as I learned the bare bones of her story, I became consumed with a completely fictional question: What if a young girl got stuck with a reputation of sainthood when all she wanted was to be a normal girl?
That question became Tess.
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
Well, so, if you’ve read the description of A PSALM FOR LOST GIRLS, you know the main character isn’t Tess. It’s her younger sister, Callie. So the story’s concept shifted a lot.
I had the Fátima question knocking around in my head when I began studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2008, but I wasn’t sure yet what type of book it would be, and I had three other novels I wanted to write first. But then I had a workshop deadline and cranked out—what I thought was—a completely different short story about a semi-delinquent girl rebelling in the wake of her holy sister’s death. Ha. Hahaha.
(Fact: I am terrible at short stories. They always want to turn into novels.)
I got excited enough about Callie’s story and decided early on that the plot would center around an investigation, with Callie going up against her community. I had a sense of where it would end and some of the things Callie would need to do to get there, but… the first attempt was a mess.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
All. The. Time. I especially seem to have a lot of discoveries around page 100 or so. I will often cycle back a few times to sort out the opening before I can see to the end.
This novel had more drafts than I know how to count, thanks to all of the circling and some smart feedback. My first draft included chapters from dead Tess ‘s point of view (think: The Lovely Bones), looking down on, and into the minds of, her community. And she was amazing! But several readers pointed out that this voice robbed the story of its main mystery—i.e., whether Tess was truly a saint.
So I took out her voice and felt sad about it, even as I kept working on getting Callie’s story right—and then I landed my wonderful agent, Erin Harris, who asked: Would you be up for a revision? What if you tried including Tess’s voice? When I was done laughing, I realized Erin really shared my vision for the book and, suddenly, I saw a way to bring Tess into the story in a way that wouldn’t be such a spoiler. The original sparkle came back, and I fell in love with both Callie and Tess in a much deeper way.
And then I met my brilliant editor, Stacey…
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
I have way more ideas than I can handle. I had another one last night! Sometimes it feels like a traffic jam of ideas. Because, see above, it takes me a loooong time to execute a truly finished draft. (I keep hoping I’ll get smarter and more efficient.) (Don’t laugh. A girl needs to dream!)
Anyway, shiny new ideas = my favorite. It’s a little like an amazing first date. I lose my head a little, getting caught up in the imagining, day dreaming and scribbling notes when I should be working on bill-paying things, stopping in the middle of sidewalks to leave myself voice memos. (Voxer is my savior!)
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
So far I’ve been guided by stubbornness. The next story I work on seems to be the one that I’ve been working at longest and that I’m too hardheaded to drop. I do cheat on my main projects sometimes just to mix things up. (That’s how I ended up with four substantial projects in the pipeline.) But it’s been a long time since I questioned which one was next. I’m kind of head over heels for the book that comes after PSALM (title is, ironically: WHAT COMES AFTER), and I needs/must finish it soon!
I usually have a cat or two with me while I write. They’re good for a pet if I need a moment away from the screen, and don’t seem to mind if I ignore them completely as long as I’m sharing body heat. Do you have a writing companion?
Two cats over here! One on each arm. But let’s keep that between us, eh? If my physical therapist caught wind of what’s going on, I’d get zero sympathy for this creaky shoulder and wrist.