Today we’re sitting down with young-adult author Steven Parlato, whose book The Precious Dreadful (Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster) hit bookstores on Feb 13, 2018. –Melody Maysonet
Author Steven Parlato (Photo credit Jillian Parlato)
MM: Hi, Steven. And welcome to TuesdayWriters.com.
Parlato: Hey, Melody. There’s no place I’d rather be on a Tuesday!
MM: First, can you tell us a little bit about your novel The Precious Dreadful and what inspired you to write it?
Parlato: Sure thing. The Precious Dreadful is sort of a mix: gritty contemporary realistic with paranormal elements. It follows Teddi Alder, a spirited, sarcastic teenager who has a toxic relationship with her trainwreck mom, Brenda. Struggling to define herself over one hot summer, Teddi joins a library writers’ group, and her journaling uncovers more than she ever expected.
Inspiration’s tricky. After my debut, The Namesake (Merit Press, 2013), I knew I couldn’t take five-plus years to finish a second book. That summer, when my semester ended, I dove into a couple different stories—but neither would cooperate. Frustrated, I decided to forego writing for reading. After finishing The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which just about gutted me), I couldn’t sleep. Tossing ’til 5:00 am, I suddenly had this name, Teddi Alder, pop into my head. As I listened, this young woman started telling her story. With nothing to write it down, I typed the first 500 words on my phone. Teddi became real very quickly, and the story flowed pretty easily. I finished the initial manuscript in about a year—lightning speed for me.
MM: Wow, I wish I’d get inspired like that!
But back to you… Unlike your first novel (The Namesake), The Precious Dreadful deals with the paranormal. Why did you make the switch from contemporary YA to something more mystical?
Parlato: Great question! To clarify, rather than a “switch,” I think of the book as a natural blend. As a person of faith, with a belief in an afterlife, I really see life as having these multiple layers, the physical, the spiritual, and—having lived in an apartment where some pretty unexplainable stuff happened—I’m open to exploring those elements even in realistic fiction. In The Namesake, for instance, there are some moments that can’t be explained as anything other than mystical/supernatural. They’re tied into a Catholic belief system, which my character Evan Galloway and I share.
Anyway, I guess I’d describe The Precious Dreadful as a “contemporary realistic novel with supernatural elements, a mystery for Teddi to solve, plenty of humor, a focus on social justice issues—and a strong romantic thread”; sure to have wide appeal to readers of multiple genres, ha ha!
MM: Your protagonist, Teddi Alder, has a sharp wit and a wicked sense of humor, especially when dealing with tragedy. I get the feeling that Teddi is a reflection of you in this regard…
Parlato: Well, humor is definitely one of our best defenses against the darkness of life, and Teddi’s had to hone that skill considering her circumstances. For me, when tragedy happens—and it seems pretty constant lately in this world of ours—my initial response is often one of retreat or full-on blubbering. But since it’s hard to go through life all snoggery, I do tend to suit up with sarcastic armor fairly often.
MM: I understand you’re a professor of English, an artist, and also an actor. Do any of those other occupations play into your writing?
Parlato: For sure. I’m a believer in stealing liberally from life in my fiction. My day job as professor is all-consuming, so it really eats into my writing life; I hardly do any writing until semester breaks. On the other hand, spending months getting to know hundreds of diverse students with amazing stories provides great inspiration. There are shades of students in some of my characters.
My first novel features a protagonist who’s an artist, and Teddi’s friends Willa and Nic are cast in a production of Twelfth Night. (Nic lands the role of Sir Toby Belch, a part I once played.) I’d love to write a novel featuring a theater group (not that it hasn’t been done), because of the intensity of relationships that develop among kids in the arts.
MM: What are you reading now? Do you have an all-time favorite book? (Mine’s Watership Down, by the way.)
Parlato: Right now, I’m mostly reading student essays. I have about 100 students each semester, and I’m faculty advisor to our award-winning student newspaper, The Tamarack, so these take precedence. However, my students and I read ten YA novels last semester in my 200-level YA Lit class. Some favorites in that batch were The Catcher in the Rye, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Charm & Strange, Chinese Handcuffs, and The Hate U Give. Before this semester started, I read MOXIE, which was great. I’m sort of terrible at choosing a favorite anything, but I really love The Book Thief, and one of my first favorites was Animal Farm. So we have that animal story as allegory thing in common!
MM: The Precious Dreadful is your second published novel. Have you written others that are in a drawer somewhere? Are you working on something new?
Parlato: The first novel I completed, really my first attempt at completing one, was The Namesake. In between it and The Precious Dreadful, I started a couple novels that went nowhere. I think they actually have potential; it just wasn’t the right time, I guess. But no drawer full of manuscripts.
One piece, in particular, I’m considering my next project. The protagonist, Dexter, who’s unwittingly sensitive to “the other side,” and his single dad relocate to a seaside town, Cape Point (based on one of our favorite places, Cape May, NJ) for his father’s work as a chef. Dex discovers his great-aunt’s inn, where she holds séances and such—she’s a scam psychic—is actually the hub of activity for the ghosts of Cape Point. No denying this one represents a true shift to a paranormal genre. I’m excited to work on it. It’s got a crew of ghosts from all different eras, battling a nefarious real estate developer bent on wrecking the town’s charm for profit. We’re headed to Cape May over spring break, so, hopefully, I’ll be inspired.
MM: That sounds really cool. Can’t wait to read it. What was the easiest part of The Precious Dreadful to write? What about the hardest?
Parlato: Though I worried about writing an authentic female protagonist, Teddi’s voice came surprisingly easy, and much of the plot fell right into place. I also had fun creating the other characters, including Teddi’s dog, Binks, for whom our cockapoo, Austin, was a total inspiration.
Some of the darker moments—like Teddi’s recollection of terrifying memories involving her childhood best friend Corey—were difficult to write. Those memories surface when Teddi joins a writing group, so on some level, I felt like she was in charge of figuring out her story and sharing it. At times, it seemed neither she nor I could handle the tougher details. Some of it’s pretty brutal, and it took a toll out of us both, facing it, writing it down.
MM: What is the main thing you want readers to take away from your book?
Parlato: When I put my characters through trauma, I try to offer them—and my readers—hope. In her blurb, Stephanie Kuehn, author of Charm & Strange, called The Precious Dreadful “a dark, poignant exploration of friendship, loss, and the very real power of storytelling.” I was thrilled, because I hope readers recognize through Teddi that resilience, our ability to heal, even from unspeakable loss, resides within us and within our friendships.
MM: I love that. Thank you so much for talking about your book with us, Steven!
Parlato: Thanks to you, Melody, and to the other Tuesday Writers, for having me!