I first met MB Caschetta more than 20 years ago when she was a student at Vassar College attending a reading I'd been invited to give. In a room filled with bright young lights she stood out: smart, funny and wiser than her years.
Caschetta would eventually move to New York and begin a career in the health field, advocating for women and gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Yet all the while she was secretly writing, short stories and essays -- on everything from the culinary gifts bestowed upon her by her Italian grandmother to the special joys of becoming a lesbian bride.
Eventually she began to get published in anthologies; every other month it seemed I would pick up a nonfiction collection only to discover that my favorite piece carried her byline. In 1996, during a stint as editor in chief of the then-newly rebooted Alyson Books, I got the chance to publish Caschetta myself: a book of stories the publisher titled Lucy on the West Coast (though her original title, Nuclear Family and Other Fictions, better conveys the book's implosive subject matter). Glowing reviews noted that a unique and original voice had been born.
All that time Caschetta was also incubating another project: a novel about a young girl with magical propensities that rise from a fraught and sometimes violent childhood in upstate New York during the tumultuous '70s. Now her years of dreaming and writing come to fruition with the publication of Caschetta's mesmerizing first novel, Miracle Girls.
When you were little did you imagine you'd grow up to be a writer? What would your younger self make of this book and of your career?
I always wanted to write. I also wanted to be a doctor for a few years in grade school, so maybe it makes sense that I ended up a medical writer. My younger self is probably more comfortable with the places this novel goes than my present self. I was a little weirdo and a pretty religious kid when I was little. Though probably my younger self wonders why I have only managed to publish two books. She's overly ambitious that way and has no idea how tough the world is.
Was there a specific kernel of inspiration that first set off your desire to write Miracle Girls?
I really had no plan to write this particular novel. It started as a short story about a girl in upstate New York whose neighbor was a small potato in the Mafia. In it, the girl's brother dies by drowning in a pond. I got rid of the Mafia bit, but kept the brother and the pond. I had just published my short story collection, and I was still in my 20s. So I was casting around for a novel topic. When I hit upon this little crumble of fiction, I thought that they were characters I could live with for a long time. I didn't know how long that would be!
It must seem unreal that it's finally happening.
It's been a long haul -- I started writing Miracle Girls in 1997. I make my living as a medical writer and have to answer to tight deadlines, so my time is not exactly my own. But I have been working on this novel steadily since my first book was published, and I truly thought I would get it written and published within a few years, maybe the year 2000 at the latest. I'm still not sure why it took so long. There's a point in writing a novel, I think, where the book becomes its own thing. A smart writer lets go and lets that happen naturally. I resisted, I guess. But I finally did let go about a year ago, and it became a very surprising novel to me.
In what way?
I didn't expect to look deep into my soul and find radical nuns there. What more can I say?
You had an unusual path to publication. You certainly had more than your share of frustrations, with different agents having various takes on the book and prompting new rewrites each time, only to drift away. Can you give hope to struggling writers and share how things finally worked out?
I sent the book out everywhere for a long, long time. When it came back rejected, I revised it, trying to get it to work on its own terms. This went on for years. I also entered it in contests, including one given by Engine Books, a small press that puts out four books a year. One day I got a note from Victoria Barrett, its publisher, saying she loved Miracle Girls but that she wasn't choosing it as the winning selection in their contest -- I was a finalist, and that was that. More revisions, more sending out, more rejections. Then, one Sunday night -- it was Dec. 29, 2013 -- I received an email from Victoria saying that she hadn't been able to stop thinking about Miracle Girls. She was wondering if she should choose it as the fourth and final book on her list for 2014 and asked if I would consider letting her publish it.
A testament to never giving up. And you managed to put all that rejection to use: You recently came out as the author of the highly entertaining blog Literary Rejections on Display.
I started writing a blog in 2007 to see if I would like it. The most distinguishing thing I had going was a huge drawer full of rejections, so I started posting them, crossing out my name but keeping everything else legible, and commenting on it all. For the purpose of keeping it anonymous, I created an alter ego: Writer, Rejected. W,R is much mouthier than I am, so there was a little controversy here and there throughout the years. At first people sent me email about how I would never get published EVER if I didn't cut it out; the blog upset them. No one had ever posted rejections before; it was considered private business. (Now everyone posts rejections.) I just kept posting and joking. People started sending me their rejections and I posted those. We had a very lively writer's community online through LROD -- those people really went through the whole crazy ride with me and my novel. At one point, when blogging was still the thing to do, I sometimes got as many as 100 comments on a single post. Last week, after seven years online, I posted the cover of my book and also tweeted about it at both @writerrejected and @caschetta. There is a lively Twitter exchange between those two Twits (myself and my alter ego). Is that weird?
Only you can answer that... You've said Miracle Girls is a revisiting of Chaucer's "Second Nun's Tale: The Life of Saint Cecilia." Are you particularly drawn to works that reimagine classics?
I got stuck really quickly when I started writing this novel. In part I thought it would be some sort of metaphorical telling of my childhood. My friend Nancy Blaine had given me a beautiful Chronicle book about the saints, so I decided to look up the characters' namesakes to fill in backstory. The protagonist is little Cee-Cee Bianco, and I found all this incredible literature about St. Cecilia, who is the patron saint of music. There are wonderful poems by Dryden, Pope and W.H. Auden, but I really became enchanted with Chaucer's version of her story, which probably originated in Caxton's "Golden Legend." The story of St. Cecilia was passed down quite a bit from writer to writer through the generations.
It would seem a Catholic upbringing, like a Southern one, is a rich breeding ground for inspiration. How would you prepare the agnostics among us for the religious elements of this story?
I'm afraid I can't really help out in that regard. Let's hope some reviewer will offer up an interpretation to help.
What is your favorite aspect of Miracle Girls?
I love how cranky Sister Edward is saved by ordinary human love, and that she ultimately becomes the one who carries the story of Cee-Cee's miracles forward. She is the second nun from Chaucer's "Second Nun's Tale," who in Chaucerian style tells of Cee-Cee Bianco for the rest of her life.
But my secret favorite part that no one knows about but me is that the freight cars in the dead train yard, where Sister Amanda goes looking for the first missing girl, are named after other famous poets who wrote about St. Cecilia. I think the list is something like: Romeville-Turner Radiators, Erie-Canterbury Coal, Dryden Oil Drums, Pope's Fuel & Propane. And there's also Wystan H.A. Livestock, which is for W.H. Auden. Just something I did for my own amusement.
Are there novels you wish you had written? Any you have been more inspired by than others?
I don't tend to read other writers and wish I'd written their books. More often, I get absorbed and lost in their writing, and I love them for that. On occasion, I will study how they did what they did, and that kind of insight sinks in and becomes part of my writing, I think.
Well, maybe when I read Nabokov's novels, I wish I'd written them. I really appreciate his playfulness and word games, anagrams and doubling metaphors -- maybe because I studied Russian and got to read part of them in translation? Of course, Nabokov wrote in English, which wasn't even his second language, because he was a genius. But I suppose those are books I read with envy...though I think I would call it heightened admiration much more than envy. I kind of marvel how he is able to pull it all off.
Any writers you like that might shock readers of Miracle Girls?
I love some of Chuck Palahniuk's work. It's weird and wonderful and dark. But I also love character-focused writers whom you might expect me to like: Elizabeth McCracken, Alice Munro, Junot Diaz, Sally Bellerose.
Have readers had unexpected reactions to your novel?
That it's dark. That the writing is like a secondary character. That it offers a gritty view of the world. You know, you write one book, but often people read an entirely other book. For me, Miracle Girls is a novel that shines a great light of hope in a dark world. I don't know if all readers will necessarily see that. But for me it's so bright that I'm surprised when it's not the first thing people say about the book.
And now at last you've finally released Miracle Girls into the world. Any postpartum depression?
I do sometimes feel sad that writing this novel is over now. It was with me for so long. I will never again get to shape and edit it. I will never again get to have it with me alive where it only belongs to me. Now it belongs to everyone who reads it.