Callie da Costa is still grieving the death of her older sister Tess, who two years ago began hearing God’s voice and is being lauded as a saint. The teen blames her town and her mother’s religious fervor for the anxiety-induced heart attack that took her sister’s life. While Callie endeavors to prove that Tess isn’t worthy of canonization and was just a regular teenager, she and her sister’s bereft boyfriend stumble upon the mystery behind who kidnapped a neighborhood girl. Katie Bayerl’s debut YA novel, A Psalm for Lost Girls (Putnam; Mar. 14, 2017), touches upon the complex themes of religion, mental health, and grief and explores the bonds of sisterhood that even death cannot break.
What inspired you to write A Psalm for Lost Girls?
The first seed was planted during a trip to Portugal, where I dragged myself from beautiful Lisbon on a bus bound for Fátima one afternoon. This choice made zero sense. Here I was, a young woman who’d spent her life fighting against her Catholic upbringing, making a pilgrimage—voluntarily—to one of the church’s most holy sites. But I’d been reading about the “child saint” Lúcia dos Santos, who’d recently passed away and was on a fast track to canonization thanks to a mysterious experience she’d had at age 10. I couldn’t help wondering if she’d ever resented the confines of sainthood. What if, at age 16, all she wanted was to have an ordinary life—make mistakes, fall in love, be a regular girl?
My trip to Fátima didn’t provide answers to my questions about Sister Lúcia, but it did generate the spark that became A Psalm for Lost Girls.
What is the best thing about being a debut author? What is the worst?
The best—by far—is the enthusiasm of family members and friends, especially the ones who don’t know 200 other authors and find this accomplishment astonishing. I’ve received messages of support from so many surprising corners—a totally unexpected gift.
The worst? The idea that other people can read my story (and, thus, see into my heart) whenever they choose to is absolutely terrifying. (You’d think I would’ve thought this part through before seeking publication, right?) I was bullied as a kid, and I understand this type of anxiety to be a fairly common reaction to such trauma. The good news is that I’m learning to adjust my thinking and can already feel my skin thickening [now that] the book has cleared the hurdle of initial reviewers and readers. I can’t wait until my new skin grows in completely.
Which character do you identify with the most? Which one was the hardest to write?
Callie. To both questions: Callie. I identify with the warm, silly, “gifted” Tess as well, but Callie is my shadow self—the girl who never feels good enough, who has more questions than answers, who will do anything to prevent others from seeing her messy, wounded heart. Callie resisted letting me in initially, but I got there with music, visualization exercises, and a lot of help from Tess, who knows her sister better than anyone. Once I got under Callie’s skin, I fell for her. Hard. She has such a big heart and so much spirit, and her flaws are totally endearing.
This novel sits across multiple genres: mystery, magical realism, contemporary. How were you able to make all of these threads come together so well?
I think of Psalm as a contemporary novel dressed up in mystery clothes. Contemporary YA is my home—it’s what I read, what I love, and most of what I’ve written up until now. And the mystery genre is my not-so-secret addiction. (I’m pretty sure that executives at Netflix and the BBC use me as a data point: “Will this show have murder? Well, then it’ll be a hit with the Katie Bayerl demographic!”)
I knew from the outset that I wanted the story to be structured as an investigation, with Callie and Danny as the sainthood “detectives.” Because I watch and read so many procedural mysteries, this part came intuitively. Other parts were more deliberate. For instance, I rewatched favorite series to steep myself in the atmosphere and to see how they created tension and gasp-worthy twists.
As for magical realism, I want to debate that label. Maybe my Catholic upbringing is showing, but I think there’s an awful lot of wonder in the everyday, and so much documented human experience—including the experiences of voice hearers and visionaries throughout the ages—that teeters on that thin line between the ordinary and the transcendent. Some might call it magical; I call it life.
In writing the mystery aspects, did you know all along where the story was going? Or did you have to go back to seed the clues throughout after you finished the narrative?
Both. I knew the overall arc—I knew who did it and, more important, why. But I didn’t have all of the little clues that would allow Callie (and readers) to piece it together. That took work and a fair bit of nudging from my brilliant agent and editor.
We don’t often see teens facing questions of faith in YA, and I found the details from the characters’ Portuguese background fascinating as well. Why did you think it was important to explore the da Costas’ religious and cultural background?
I could talk about this for hours.
I’m not the first writer to mine her religious upbringing for stories, but young adult fiction has a certain queasiness around faith, doesn’t it? Even more so regarding religious skepticism. There are brave exceptions to be sure, but I think we need more books—many, many more diverse books for young people—that wrestle honestly with the enormous questions we all have about our existence, about all that is wondrous and terrible and inexplicable in our world. These were urgent questions for me when I was a teen and remain central questions in my life now. How could I not explore that juicy stuff?
As for culture—I’ll be a little feisty here, too—how could I imagine a character or family or community without culture? While no one’s culture is their sole defining feature, it’s such a deep part of identity and of place. I’m a major culture nerd—a lifelong student of history, language, and all of the intricate patterns and intersections that make up New England’s urban communities in particular. I feel lucky to live in such a vibrant, multicultural region. Many of my loved ones, neighbors, and students are immigrants or children of immigrants; others, like me and my protagonists, are a just a few generations removed. Culture is always right there, present in so many daily interactions.
I am not Portuguese, but my relationship to my Irish and German/Bohemian roots has parallels to the da Costa sisters’ relationship to their Portuguese heritage, and I’ve been around Portuguese culture for a long time. We might need a separate interview to discuss the reasons why I made this leap and how personal experience, research, and beta readers helped me capture these specific characters. I do hope I’ve done them justice.
The family relationships really stand out in this novel. How did you go about crafting the relationship between Tess and Callie? And their relationships with their mom?
I had heaps of personal experience to draw on here. I come from an enormous, complex family. I also have a baby sister, a sisterlike cousin, and a loving mother with very different beliefs from my own. While Callie and Tess’s family isn’t autobiographical, there are many dynamics that feel familiar to me. I had to push to get those relationships on the page in the right balance (Tess’s scenes offered a much-needed window), but the family itself felt whole and alive almost from the outset.
We see the alternating perspectives of Callie in the present and Tess in the past via her journal entries. Did you write these at the same time? Or was there one point of view that you wrote first?
I wrote Callie’s story first. I’d attempted to integrate Tess in early drafts in more of a Lovely Bones way, but it wasn’t working. The journal concept came later. By that time, I already knew Tess well, so her chapters just poured out.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a YA about a girl who’s disappointed to discover a life after death. It’s a little bit campy and a little bit dark and pulls on another of my genre addictions: the political spy thriller. If it sounds slightly bananas, that’s probably because it is.
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