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Iowa's Calla Devlin overcomes dyslexia to become author

Novelist caters to young adults, adults alike

By several market estimates, 70 percent of all Young Adult books are purchased by adults between the ages of 18 and 64. Even allowing that some are bought by adults for the younger set, all indications are that many adults are reading YA fiction. J.K. Rowling, Michael Morpugo and John Green are among successful writers who appeal to the adult crossover market.

Count Iowa author Calla Devlin in with that select group. A Pushcart Prize nominee, William C. Morris Award finalist, and Best of Blood and Thunder Award winner, she will appear at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at Barnes & Noble in Cedar Rapids. Devlin will read from her latest work, “Right Where You Left Me” (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, hardcover, $17.99), take questions from the audience, and sign copies of her books. The author, originally from San Diego, attended college in Los Angeles, and received her MFA in fiction writing in San Francisco. She now resides in Des Moines after moving to the Hawkeye state seven years ago.

“Right Where You Left Me” explores the family dynamic of teenager Charlotte Lang, her Russian-born mother, Valentine, and father, Jeremiah, after he — an international journalist — is kidnapped by terrorists in Ukraine. Emotionally estranged from her mother and frustrated by the FBI’s snail’s pace investigation, she employs her social media skills in order to secure her father’s release. But will her efforts cause the terrorists to retaliate by harming Jeremiah?

Revealing the genesis of the story, Devlin acknowledged, “I really wanted to be a journalist.” Instead, after seeing “Missing,” the film based on the 1973 kidnapping case of reporter Charles Horman in Chile, she has written a compelling tale involving one. She tabs journalists “as essential in a democracy as doctors are. They are witnesses, risking their lives.” The author views this book as “my love letter to the First Amendment” and hopes it inspires student reporters to pursue journalism. She wove this theme with another: that of a family who is emotionally lost and finally found again.

Interestingly, Jeremiah is the character who binds the family together in this story. Devlin observes the significance in making him “a complex, male character who contributes more than just a paycheck to the family.” Similarly, she also creates a strong father figure in her highly-praised debut novel, “Tell Me Something Real.” A heart-wrenching account of the Babcock family enduring a mother’s battle with leukemia turns even more horrifying with the revelation that she is faking her cancer diagnosis and treatment, suffering instead from Munchausen Syndrome. The mother’s actions and their consequences form the crux of the story. Devlin got the idea for this tale by incorporating her childhood experience in watching her mom, who was a nurse, treat cancer patients in Mexico. She also read an account of a woman who lied about having brain cancer, telling people she was having an operation, and even going so far as to make an incision on her head. The author combined elements of the two stories intertwining them with the family narrative.

Devlin’s crossover appeal can be attributed to several aspects such as her books’ weighty subjects. She retains some of her “teenage angst,” she said, and it informs her novels. “There’s always something intriguing in the darkness” of such subjects as kidnapping and Munchausen’s,” she said. “And grief is a fault line we always have to navigate.” Her ability to write dialogue that resonates also appeals to YA and adult readers. Her secret to developing this? “Eavesdropping,” she said. “I used to ride the bus and listen intently” to conversations, she said.

Devlin finds herself energized by the writing process, especially when creating a first draft. “That moment of discovery” and “feeling and trying to convey what my characters are feeling” are her biggest challenges and greatest rewards for her.

A mom of two daughters, she compares writing to “birthing and parenting” like you do a child. Recently, as her elder daughter nears her teen years, she suddenly viewed her as a potential reader of her books. That inspires her to write material “that will make her more compassionate and big-hearted. I want to give her a language for the emotional territory she will face as a teenager,” she said.

Devlin is now writing a novel, half of which will be set in Iowa.

Reading Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” led Devlin to discover the power of language. The author is anticipating the soon-to-be-released movie version, noting, “I had dyslexia and didn’t learn to read until the end of third grade.” Then she read the L’Engle classic.

“That book became my everything,” she said. “L’Engle actually provided me with dual inspiration: to read and to become a writer.”

BOOK READING

What: Calla Devlin will read from her new book, “Right Where You Left Me”

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 7

Where: Barnes & Noble, 333 Collins Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids

Cost: Free