On Writing, with Deborah Kerbel
Think you're sleepy today? Lily MacArthur, the teenage narrator of Deborah Kerbel's new YA novel, Under the Moon (Dancing Cat Books) hasn't slept in weeks — not since the death of her beloved aunt.
Under the Moon tells the story of Lily's strange condition and the people she meets during her sleepless nights.
Deborah talks to Open Book about sleep, writing for teens and her upcoming projects.
Tell us about your book, Under the Moon.
Under the Moon is a young adult novel about a teenage girl who’s lost her sleep, a teenage boy who’s lost his dreams and the twenty-six nights that change their lives. It’s about grieving, friendship and first love. And at the heart of the story lies a question: what do we, as human beings, really need in order to survive in this world?
Lily finds herself unable to sleep following the death of her aunt. What is your own relationship with sleep like? Can you relate to Lily's experience?
No, I’ve never suffered from insomnia. I’m the kind of person who needs eight hours of sleep every night or I can’t function the next day. Believe it or not, this book was actually born out of my desire for less sleep. I started writing it in the spring of 2010 — at that time, my children were aged seven and four and, between the dueling demands of motherhood and writing, there were never enough hours in the day to give proper attention to everything. To put it bluntly, most of the time I barely had a spare moment to scratch an itch. During the busiest moments, I secretly resented having to give up so many precious hours to sleep. Around that time, a strange fantasy began working its way through my exhausted brain: Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to sleep at all? Imagine all the things I could accomplish.
And that’s where the idea for Under the Moon came from. Sure, I knew what I would do with all those extra hours in a day. But what would a teenager do if she didn’t have to sleep? How would she fill the long, dark hours of a sleepless night? I wanted to find out.
What do you enjoy most about writing for teens? What are some of the challenges?
I love writing for teens. One of the reasons is probably because inside, I still kind of feel a like a teen myself (of course, that’s until I look in the mirror and remember how old I really am). The teen years may be short, but they’re filled with drama. Life moves at high speed, your body is changing, hormones are blistering out of your pores, ‘first times’ are a daily occurrence and emotions are running high. Teen life is practically a novel waiting to be written. Truthfully, the thought of writing about adults seems almost anticlimactic to me.
But writing for teens can be humbling and, at times, uncomfortable. It forces you to dig deep down to the memory of your most vulnerable, raw self. And teens are a tough audience. You’ll lose them if your dialogue’s not fresh, if your pacing’s too slow, or if your characters aren’t real down to their core.
Under the Moon takes place over a short period of time. How did you decide on your structure, and what were some of the considerations while you were writing?
The bulk of the book takes place in just under a month and there are two reasons for this. First of all, realistically, there was only so long I could keep Lily awake without having her succumb to fatal sleep deprivation. Secondly, since the moon plays such an important role in the story, it seemed fitting to work around the basic framework of a lunar cycle. In terms of pacing, this really helped to keep the story moving.
Were there any books you read prior to or during the writing of Under the Moon that you found inspiring?
I was reading Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant around the same time I started writing Under the Moon and was inspired by the innocence and freshness of the main character, Audrey. I’d love to think that some of her quirkiness might have seeped into Lily’s voice.
What are you working on now?
My kids are a couple years older now, so lately I’m starting to get more accomplished (read: no more insomnia fantasies). I’m actually working on several projects at the moment, each in various stages of completion and revision: a picture book about the importance of memory; a middle-grade novel about the evil eye; and an urban fantasy YA novel with a bit of a horror edge. On top of all that, I’m also co-authoring a non-fiction book about kids and money. There’s a little something for everyone in the works.