By day, Katelyn Detweiler is a literary agent, and by night—and any other time she can squeeze in—she’s an author. Ms. Detweiler explores the intersection of faith, celebrity, privilege, and friendship in her new young adult novel, Transcendent. She was kind enough to answer some questions about theme, process, and her dual roles in publishing for Book Club Babble.
Mary Sullivan: Your novel, Transcendent, opens in the aftermath of a horrific terrorist attack. Someone has bombed Disney World in Florida, resulting in over 10,000 deaths. Many more were maimed or injured, and obviously a majority of the casualties were children. This is about as apocalyptic as it gets. Why was it important for the story to have such an extreme event occur? Did you worry about potentially turning off readers who don’t want to imagine such a thing happening?
Katelyn Detweiler: I knew from the beginning that the book needed to start with an unprecedented tragedy, a state of heartbreak and desperation so raw that the world would be at a total loss for what to do next—looking to anything, anyone, to bring stability or clarity or hope. Something that was so completely awful people might actually stand still. Might remember, might keep remembering. I didn’t want it to be gratuitous; the protagonist, Iris, isn’t there firsthand, witnessing it through the news instead. As tough as it was and is to imagine the scenario, it felt necessary to me, starting these conversations—and it feels more necessary, more relevant today than ever.
MS: Iris, the teenage heroine of the story, discovers the truth of her birth when a man from her mother’s past comes calling. I don’t think it’s a spoiler alert to say that Iris’s mother was a virgin when she became pregnant with her. Despite the obvious similarities with Jesus, this is basically a secular book. How did you come to retell a Bible story? Why did you retell it without the overt Christian religious element?
KD: The story has been writing itself in my head for years now, ever since I was a teenager and asked my own mom: would you believe me if I said I was a pregnant virgin? She said she would. It stuck with me, the idea that faith in another person can be so all encompassing. That we can believe in something that defies all reason. I personally would identify as spiritual, not religious, and I think the book reflects this. Spirituality—to me—is believing in more than the orderly scientific rules of our world, even if we can’t explain it, even if there’s no set doctrine. My goal (for Transcendent, as well as my first book, Immaculate) was to explore and question with respect for all sides; I wanted there to be something for everyone, to find the commonalities that unite people of different faiths (or no faiths) rather than the differences.
MS: The terrorists who bombed Disney World had a populist message. One of their slogans was, “Greed is the Root of All Evil.” It’s hard to miss the populism in the air, especially in this campaign year. What types of themes or motivations were you looking to explore in this book? What was your inspiration?
KD: Yes, I definitely wanted to explore this idea a bit—part of why I chose Disney is because of the vast privilege it represents. This is not a park, a destination, for everyone. This is for an elite group. A fairytale that is unobtainable to so many—a tangible way of separating out the haves and the have-nots. Iris herself is an upper middle class white teenager in Brooklyn. Though she’s open minded and aware of the disparity around her, she’s still very much in her own bubble. Iris’s Brooklyn is the version we see in the media: farmers markets and organic everything, beautiful old brownstones, hip bars and restaurants, etc. Iris has accepted her privilege as normal, more or less, until for the first time the guarantees of her life come into question—and she’s forced to question everything.
MS: Iris’s birth is like Jesus’s, so naturally people wonder if she is divine as well. The truth of her existence creates a media storm. Some people beg for her help, and others blame her when they don’t get what they want. What, if any, ideas about the intersection of faith and celebrity were you dealing with here?
KD: Yes, I loved this idea of a savior figure in our modern times, especially in a world so driven by the Internet and social media. No one is safe. Certainly not celebrities. And Iris does become a celebrity of sorts, very quickly, and with no say in it at all. I’m fascinated (and horrified) by the power people assume online; the criticism, the hatred they spew so freely, as if the person on the other end isn’t a human being with emotions and vulnerabilities. Religion is always highly flammable in these situations; it burns hot and spreads quickly, and the effects can be devastating. Iris learns this all too well.
MS: Many of our Book Club Babble readers are also writers. How does your day job as a literary agent inform what or how you write? Can you share any advice with others looking to break into the YA market?
KD: Being an agent has absolutely made me a stronger writer—the constant reading, the constant conversations about books. Words, words, words! Always. Thinking about what works and what doesn’t work in others’ writing has sharpened my own process; I am constantly self-editing. A blessing and a burden. (!) Part of what inspired these books was seeing so many other retellings playing out in YA—fairytales and myths, old classics. I wondered why the idea of a pregnant virgin set in contemporary times hadn’t yet been done. And as soon as I wondered, I knew that I wanted to be the one to write it. I had to be. For aspiring writers, the best advice I can give: read all the time, read every kind of book. And write because you love it. Because you can’t not write. Always write for yourself first.