This month kicks off the Wilkes University Creative Writing Program’s January Residency. We spoke with one of the program’s most accomplished writers, Cecilia Galante. Cecilia’s first book, The Patron Saint of Butterflies, has won numerous awards and she has been on her way up ever since. Galante grew up in the Wyoming Valley, where she lives today with her husband and three children. When she isn’t writing, she likes to run, cook, bake and watch old episodes of Law & Order: SVU. Meet Cecilia Galante …
Your first Young Adult (YA) book, The Patron Saint of Butterflies, is set in a strict religious community. Was this inspired by your own upbringing?
Yes, Patron Saint was very much influenced by my childhood, having been born into and raised for the first 15 years of my life in a religious commune in upstate New York. It’s the story I wanted (needed, really) to tell before I said anything else, mostly because there were so many secrets about the place that I carried for years — and which ate away at me like a cancer — before I finally got the nerve to talk about them. Doing so — even in the guise of a fictional story like Patron Saint — really began the healing process for me, and also opened the door for me to write about other things.
Not many authors hit it out of the park on their first try, but you did. Oprah chose The Patron Saint of Butterflies as a must read YA pick. How did that feel?
The Oprah nod was thrilling of course (how could it not be?) but the most meaningful result of having written the book was hearing from other, long lost children of the commune with whom I had grown up. They said things to me like “thank you for giving us a voice after all these years,” comments which blew me away and made me realize that writing the truth — after so long — had in fact impacted more people than just myself.
You came of age in the Wyoming Valley. What place does this area have in your stories?
The Wyoming Valley does in fact play a big part in a lot of my books! In my third novel, Willowood, there is a place that the central character retreats to, a place inspired by my own walks in Kirby Park in Wilkes-Barre. My fifth novel, The Summer of May, was very much influenced by my time teaching at Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, and the surrounding area, including the Susquehanna River.
I know you’ve written children’s books and middle-grade, but you are known for your YA. Why that genre? What attracts you to it?
I don’t know if I am so much “attracted” to YA, as much as YA sort of found me. The first book I ever wrote was Patron Saint, and when my agent said that she wanted to market it as a YA book, I was really disappointed. I didn’t know much about the YA market, and I thought she was kind of relegating it to the “children’s bin.” Little did I know how huge the YA market has actually become, and what an incredible genre it is to write for. As far as continuing to write in that vein, I really don’t think about it. I just try to write as good of a story as I can, and then see what happens.
You’ve recently returned to teaching at the middle-school level. How has that been? Do your students realize you are a successful writer or do you try to keep that hidden, like Batman?
I recently returned to teaching at a private school, where I teach English to eighth graders. I had no intention of returning to teaching when I originally left it to pursue writing, but when this opportunity arose (as well as the chance for my own young children to attend the school) I couldn’t say “no.” It’s been wonderful so far, and while I am still adjusting to the teaching/writing schedule, I feel as though a part of me has always been born to teach. I love my students, and they constantly (and unknowingly) provide me with writing material. And, yes, I kind of keep the writing feather under my cap. It’s better to be Batman, especially during the daytime.
How has your experience been as a faculty member in the Wilkes MA/MFA Creative Writing program?
I love, love, love teaching part-time in the MFA program at Wilkes. It’s very important to me to keep my finger on the pulse of that genre and to work with students who are so dedicated to the craft, because it helps me with my own writing, and my own dedication to the writing life.
You have a shiny new book deal in the works. Tell us about it!
Thank you, yes, I do have a shiny new book deal in the works! Random House just bought my new novel, called The Blessing, about a girl who unknowingly gets involved in an exorcism. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever written, and it explores topics that I seem to find myself continually drawn to — religion, evil, goodness and the sense of self. It’s coming out next fall, and they have very high hopes for it. I can’t wait to see how it does.
You are reading Sunday night at Barnes and Noble on the square in Wilkes-Barre as part of the Maslow Reading Series. This event serves as the kick off to the week-long writing residency, and is free and open to the public. What will you read?
I’ll read an excerpt from The Blessing since it is my most recent work. Let’s hope it goes over all right!
Finally, if you were a guest on Oprah’s show, what audience giveaway would you insist she have?
Hmmm … if I were a guest on Oprah’s show, I would insist that she ask all the mothers in the audience to stand up. And then I would have her give all of them a week away at a spa in Italy! (author’s note: hope I get invited to that one!)
— amye archer
Catch Cecilia Galante’s reading at the Barnes and Noble on Main St. in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Jan. 6 at 7 p.m. You can read more about her at www.ceciliagalante.com.