A Chat with Holly Cupala, author of TELL ME A SECRET

It's a joy to discover a YA novel in which an author has introduced a diversity of characters thoughtfully and proactively. TELL ME A SECRET (HarperCollins)—a tenderly told bildungsroman about forgiveness in a Seattle family defined by secrets and grief—fits the bill.

Today I'm delighted to host the author of this brilliant debut novel, readergirlz diva and superb storyteller Holly Cupala, on her whirlwind blog tour.

Namaste, Holly! So glad to have you here on the Fire Escape! Let's start with the journey of getting the novel published. What was a high point? A low point?

There have been many high points along the way—just being on the shelf after a long journey is a miracle in itself, and meeting so many lovely people along the way. A low point…probably how very, very hard I was on myself through the writing process. I even created a separate document in which to pour all of the scathing thoughts I had. I wouldn’t dare open it now, like Pandora’s Box. The SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant was a lifeline. After I finished, I could see how much power I’d been giving those thoughts. Lies, really! The second novel was so much easier.

What was one big change you made in response to your editor’s suggestion?

I cut about ten thousand words! My wonderful editor, Catherine Onder, had said from the beginning that she thought the story arc was sound and we just needed to speed up the pace. Of course, this sent me into a tailspin of terror, despite her assurances. What do they call it, when you expect the worst and reality turns out to be not-so-bad…? Her letter was quite nice, and very doable. I would get to a place where she had written, “I don’t understand what you’re saying here.” I’d read it over, and I didn’t understand, either! So I would cut, cut, cut. We also clarified some of the issues between Miranda and Kamran and honed a lot of the details.

I loved how you included characters like Kamran and Shelly, describing race and ethnicity with such deft writing. Can you describe some challenges you faced in creating multicultural characters in TELL ME A SECRET? How did you resolve them?

My hope was always to portray a wide range of characters in the most honest way possible in the context of the story. Sometimes that meant hinting at ugly attitudes—for instance, the mother blames the Latino boyfriend for her older daughter’s death and makes prejudiced remarks. Miranda dates Kamran, a Persian boy, partly in the hopes that they will have some of the same con leche that defined her sister’s relationship. Her greatest mentor ends up being quite the opposite of her racially and culturally, though they share key bonds.

A subtle arc in the story is the shifting of the family’s ideas. I was in the middle of revisions when the cover controversies exploded and brought race in YA to the fore—which made me all the more nervous to tackle the subject. But many fruitful discussions came out of that. I wanted so much to write these characters with love and respect, and the dialogue with you (thank you, Mitali!) and on Chasing Ray and other blogs were incredibly enlightening. It also helps that I am married to a devastatingly handsome American-born half-Parsi, half-South Indian who consulted on some of the particulars!

You're very welcome. It meant a lot to be asked for input as you were writing this novel. One last frivolous, fashion-related question: Have you ever made, seen, or worn a safety-pin dress as described in the novel?

Ahhh! I’m so happy you asked! Xanda’s safety-pin dress was inspired by this amazing razor blade dress, worn by Blondie’s Debbie Harry, that I saw in Seattle’s Experience Music Project museum years ago. There’s definitely something Blondie or Courtney Love-ish about Xanda, so the dress just popped out of the subconscious. I tried to make one (unsuccessfully)…then called upon my costume designer sister to help me. It turned out to be an even more painstaking process than I imagined—she and my niece have assembled a safety-pin cami so far. Maybe someday they will let me wear it…

Thank you so much for visiting, Holly, and for (1) including multicultural characters in your novel, (2) taking the time and thought needed to write about race and diversity, and (3) writing a sensitive coming-of-age novel that ends with hope and grace.

Get a taste of Holly's ability to create unforgettable characters by reading a two-chapter preview of the novel at Vermont College's journal Hunger Mountain.

This TELL ME A SECRET tour includes prizes awarded each week for blog comments – signed books, t-shirts, music, journals, gift cards, and more! So comment here or on any of her other stops this week, including tomorrow's destination, Green Bean Teen Queen. Here are the official tour contest entry rules:

TELL ME A SECRET Tour Contest Entry Rules
  • Leave comments at any official tour stop or Holly’s blog throughout the tour! Each comment counts as an entry (one comment per post*), so start right here.
  • Tweet about the tour (@hollycupala) and tell her what you think.
  • Post about the tour, then leave a comment at Holly's blog.


Great interview! I can't believe she managed to cut 10,000 words at the suggestion of her editor. Thanks for sharing this with everyone!
holly cupala said…
Thank you, Adventures! And many thanks to Mitali, both for hosting me today and for her wonderful input on TMAS. It would not have been the same story without the thoughtful questions you posed, or without your very gracious help!
Natalie Aguirre said…
Great interview. It's so inspiring to hear that you were able to cut 10,000. I have to cut abut 6,000 and you're inspiring me to think I can do it.
Doret said…
Just read chapter one, now I want to read the book.

I always love hearing about YA with a diverse cast.
holly cupala said…
Thank you, Natalie and Doret! Natalie, I'm glad to hear cutting 10K words is helpful to you - you'd think it would be giant swaths of beloved text, but it was more like odd or repeated phrasing here or there that added up astonishingly quickly.

What I didn't confess is that the first draft was about 105K words! complete with lots of notes to myself and meandering, trying to find the story. I cut 30K right off the top, then my editor helped me squeeze out 10K more. So when I wrote the second novel, I tried to use what I'd learned the first time and turned in an MS of 68K...hoowah. ;)

Doret, I hope you enjoy the book!
Lady_Graeye said…
Great interviiew! I am amazed that someone can cut 10,000 words while still creating a wonderful story. Truley amazing!
Erika Lynn said…
Holly you really need to share a picture of the safety pin cami!
Lee Wind said…
Great interview - and kudos to you both - it's an angle that really makes the whole book launch blog tour make sense - that each blog author can ask their own questions and put their own spin on it!
Great job, ladies - and wow but I can't wait to read Holly's book now.
Llehn said…
I love it how you aim to portray a diverse set of characters in the most honest way possible. Characters are so hard to get right!
Blueicegal ♥ said…
Ive read the sneak preview and i have to confess it just makes me want to read more i know this will be a amazing book for sure! thank you for the insightful interview!
Cass said…
10K is a lot to cut off! I'd love to see what kinds of stuff you left out of the book. :)

I, myself, felt that race was not a foregrounded theme. It was definitely there, but (perhaps it's just my not reading between the lines) I didn't see it causing much complication in their relationship.
lost.in.stories said…
Thanks Mitali for a really insightful interview. It's always great to find an author who's not afraid of tackling difficult issues in YA fiction particularly about ethnicity and peoples preconceptions which is such an important and relevant topic. In Australia at the moment we are having a debate about asylum seekers which seems to be based around people's preconceptions of these people which are often unfounded and distract away from the actual debate. So long story short anything that tries to tackle this issue in a insightful manner is very important.

I, like other commentators on this post, am amazed Holly was able to cut 10,000 words, wow, I couldn't even cut 500 words form my literature review for uni!

Thanks again for the interview and congratulations to Holly for writing what appears to be a great novel which I can't wait to find a copy and read :)
Ashley said…
I definitely agree with the comment about not being afraid to tackle issues of ethnicity/race. In one of my classes we were just talking about diverse materials for children, and it's difficult to get that authentic feel.