In Lost Stars, Lisa Selin Davis’ young adult debut, protagonist Carrie is in crisis. Her older sister was tragically killed in an accident, her mother abandoned the family, and she is in a state of constant conflict with her father and younger sister. Carrie’s only solace is when partying with her older sister’s friends, listening to music, and eventually, connecting to fellow lost soul and next-door neighbor, Dean. It’s the portrait of a turbulent moment in this character’s life, which was inspired by the author’s own true story. Book Club Babble talked to Ms. Davis about her new novel.

Mary Sullivan: You were encouraged to write your debut YA novel, Lost Stars, after the piece that inspired it was published in the New York Times’ Modern Love column. In the essay, you talk about finding love during your difficult teenage years. In the novel, protagonist Carrie is reeling from her older sister’s death and the disintegration of her family. Did you also experience similar problems growing up? What were the challenges of turning personal experiences into fiction?

Lisa Selin Davis: Carrie’s trials are far worse than mine were. Her sister has died and her mother has abandoned Carrie, her sister, and her father. She has legitimate reasons to be freaking out and misbehaving. My pain came from a much less dramatic place. My parents had divorced, and I’d moved around for a few years with my mom while my father stayed in our old house. I never really felt safe again, and I always wanted to be in that old house, with my father, with the friends I’d left behind. For the rest of my life I went back and forth between my mom’s house (eventually we settled in Massachusetts) and my father’s, in a town where I still had close ties. I used to say that I lived in Massachusetts but my life was in New York.

Carrie had emotional challenges before her family suffered so many tragedies: she had a really hard time handling her feelings. She had very little self-control. To be honest, that has plagued me as well. Emotional self-control—that is still elusive for me. I feel like I wade through a soup of shame and self-doubt every day. I didn’t find writing the book, or about my personal misadventures, challenging. I guess I almost found it freeing. I got to dump all that stuff into someone else’s psyche.

MS: Carrie is a complicated character. We learn in the first couple of pages that she takes drugs, drinks, and fools around with boys she doesn’t even really like. Her wayward youth is not even particularly fun for her; it’s portrayed as a (poor) coping mechanism. She lashes out at her family and friends, and she has a difficult time controlling herself—an issue that predates her sister’s death. I think that most Book Club Babblers appreciate complicated characters, but it’s easy for difficult teenagers to read as irritating. How were you able to make Carrie complex yet sympathetic?

LD: I really hope she is sympathetic! It’s funny—I didn’t think of her as irritating. I identified with her, and I felt her feelings as I was writing. Does that sound obnoxious? Maybe. But writing fiction, for me, requires empathizing with the characters I create. I’m interested in people who misbehave, in how they justify that, how they make sense of their actions and feelings, the disconnect between those two things.

I think Carrie very much wants to behave. She is terribly confused about the feelings that overwhelm her, and constantly feels on edge because she’s walking in shoes that don’t belong to her, in a life that should have been her sister’s, not hers. The main thing, I think, is to immerse yourself in a character’s emotional profile, so that the reader can be there, too.

MS: Lost Stars is a set in the 1980s, and ‘80s culture—particularly musical culture—plays a huge role in the book. Carrie and her love interest Dean are audiophiles, and you frequently reference particular bands and songs throughout the story. Why did you make music such a central portion of the book? How do you feel today’s teens, who might not be intimately familiar with these groups, will relate to music from another era?

LD: I think a lot of the music in the book transcends the era (and some of it is from earlier eras). I mean, Eye of the Tiger—that’s still a classic, isn’t it? But I think it’s okay if readers don’t get all of the musical references. What they know is that both Carrie and Dean define themselves in part by the music they love and the music they make, and that a huge part of their connection is the appreciation for the same bands.

Music was an enormous part of my teenage experience. First, I spent a lot of time hanging out with my friends who were in a band called The Figgs (who are still together!). Second, my friend Rachel had a radio show, and midnight on Saturdays we’d help her pick out records at the Skidmore College radio station, and it was awesome. Third—the most obvious?—my dad is a musician, and I was musical but not a great musician or singer. So it was a huge part of my identity but also a constant reminder of how I didn’t measure up, the ways in which I wasn’t loveable. I think the music in the book tells a story of its own.

MS: Perhaps the biggest theme in the book is the metaphor of the mysteries (and certainties) of the cosmos. Carrie’s into astronomy, and spends much of the book charting the course of a comet. She often says that light from collapsed stars is still visible—sort of the way her late sister remains present in her life. Where did the inspiration for this theme come from?

LD: I love that you see it this way, the sister surviving somewhere in those collapsed stars. I cannot say exactly why this theme emerged. The summer that I met the long-haired boy and did the whole junior construction work camp thing, there were a lot of meteor showers. There I was, lying on the grass at SPAC (the outdoor concert venue in Saratoga Springs, NY), holding that boy’s hand, staring at the night sky, watching stars dance across it. It was magical.

But the comet, well, I really don’t know how that got in there. I started writing, and there it appeared. Not a satisfying answer, I know. I have always had a layperson’s interest in astronomy, and in science in general. Science was the only subject in school that I really sucked at, and later I realized it was kind of the only subject that really mattered, so I’ve educated myself as much as I could over the years. The comet was like a metronome in the background, keeping time, giving her an event that she was waiting for.

MS: Carrie is preoccupied with being cool, despite some dark problems laid at her doorstep. She has divided her world—and even her past and present self—into the nerd crowd and the cool crowd. She associates her interest in cosmology with being nerdy and her partying friends with being cool. She even disavows a former childhood pal, Tonya, for being too dorky to hang out with, even though Tonya has much more self-confidence than Carrie has. By contrast, the comparatively older friends Carrie idolizes and the sister she revered mask their own deep insecurities by partying. What type of message—if any—were you exploring with these ideas about perceived popularity or Carrie’s personal journey?

LD: I don’t really think I was exploring a message, so much as charting someone’s journey, from the person she thinks she’s supposed to be to the person she really is.

But I hope the message is about complexity, duality, our abilities as people to encompass contradictions. She can be her nerdy self and smoke cigarettes and listen to punk music and have her old nerdy friend again and have a cool boyfriend and love her pals who party too hard. Once she grows into herself—and once she deals with her emotional problems, which will likely plague her for a long time—she can be all those different things without sacrificing.

MS: Finally, I must ask about the love story, my personal favorite element of the book. Dean admires in Carrie things she finds embarrassing about herself—her interest in the stars and even her work uniform, for instance. Why is romantic love such a potent salve for Carrie’s self-worth? Do you think such a phenomenon is limited to the teenage years or is it a universal human experience?

LD: In truth, I think Carrie puts too much stock in finding a boyfriend, in finding love, when really she’s going to have a long, hard road ahead of her getting her head together. But this is her first step toward feeling lovable and worthwhile for who she really is. Her friends—or her older sister’s former friends—love and take care of her, but they don’t really see her for who she is, and she can hardly see herself at this point. She thinks her father doesn’t forgive her and her mother left her, so she feels completely unlovable and generally unsafe in the world, afraid of herself and enveloped by guilt. I think this love clears a path for her. He’s not going to save her, but he’s going to help blaze a trail down which she can walk, and save herself.

I think the potency, that bracing, terrifying, and amazing emotion of love, is a gift, a singularly human experience. I felt it long after my teenage years, but it can be overwhelming, as if too much is at stake. And when I met the person I would eventually marry, there was definitely a phase of the delicious-exciting-terrifying stuff, but there was also something quieter, more consistent. He was my friend, and he cracked me up, and I knew he was right for me. A lot of the most intense “love” I felt was for people who were never really going to love me back. I guess there are a lot of different kinds of true love.

Thanks so much to Ms. Davis for sharing her insight about her new novel. To learn more about the author of Lost Stars, visit You can purchase her book here.