I love Cecil Castellucci’s writing because it’s fearless without being invulnerable, brave without any hint of bravado. Cecil keeps it real, and knows that people always have stories inside that worry them, buoy them, and conflict them. Her new novel, Rose Sees Red, is a beautiful evocation of profound vulnerability in a deeply uncertain world. Her main character, Rose, is recovering from the defection of a best friend and a massive insecurity about her own talent as a dancer, which is compounded by the fact that she’s going to one of the most prestigious arts high schools in the country. Rose Sees Red is full of all the things that make high school what it is: love, fear, passion, conversation, doubt. And it’s set against the backdrop of world tensions, as Rose befriends Yrena, a Soviet teenager, and takes her on a crazy last night in New York City. Whether you’re a teenager or not, Rose’s need to figure things out is completely relatable . . . and marvelously told. Here, Cecil and I talk a little about the book…
DL: Like Rose, you were a student at the High School for Performing Arts in New York City in the 80s. What was that like?
CC: Going to the High School of Performing Arts was an amazing experience. It was a place where you could truly be yourself and were allowed to grow and learn and be very serious about art. I remember that the first day of school, as I rolled up to the old building (we moved to what is now LaGuardia High School in 1984) I found out that Ethel Merman had died. Everyone was upset about it. And I was so happy that people even knew who she was. And also, I thought it was a good omen. Fame, the first movie (ie. the good one) had come out a few years before I started, and I had loved that movie. I actually used to pretend play that I was going to PA with my friend Cindy in 7th grade. She thought we were joking. But I was dead serious. I was going to go there. I always thought that I was going to be a movie director (I don’t think writing is that far off from that.) And I thought going to a school for drama would be the best way to be an actors’ director. Theater just made me fall more fiercely in love with stories.
DL: Are any of the characters in the book drawn from people you knew back then?
CC: Oh! Yeah! I mean, everyone is tweaked and reinvented and of course they are not really those real people at all. But since this is the closest I’ve ever come to writing something that is a reinvention and very-far-away-yet-near to my own experience in high school, I definitely started off with models. Caleb is totally modeled on the boy that I was in love with in high school. (I don’t care if he knows it!) (I love(d) you DH!) But of course, it’s not him at all! As far as I know, he has no musical talent and is not a triplet and definitely didn’t live on Staten Island.
Maurice is kind of a mix of a bunch of people that I knew both in the drama department (which I was in) and the dance department. When I was in high school, Chaz Bono was a dear friend. (He gave me the nickname Cecil. Thanks Chaz!) And I thought making Maurice’s mom someone super famous, like Cher, would be cool, because there were a lot of people whose parents were famous at something or another. Most people didn’t care about that, but some people did.
As for Callisto and Caitlin, they are a mix of every wonderful friend I had in high school. (Shout out to you amazing besties in high achool! I hope you gals are doing well!) Also, there was a girl -- I can’t remember her name -- who dressed up as David Bowie. She was older than me, but I was so fascinated by her. Daisy is not one specific person; she’s every horrible friend I’ve ever had. I think that people that knew me back then will recognize the people as real, and if they say, “Oh this is me!” it probably is true, as in, a part of them is in that particular character. But it’s not just them, it’s a bunch of them. And together they make up my reinvented character. I mean, Rose is not me at all, and yet of course she comes from me.
DL: How is Rose different from the way you were? And also, if you weren’t dressing up as David Bowie, what was your high school style?
CC: Well, I had no trouble making friends! I was not shy or anything in high school. I was loud and proud and silly and made my mark. And while I had your usual bout of teen angst, and the typical run in with mean girls, I wasn’t as messed up as Rose was. Nor did I ever have a friend (at that time) who was as manipulative and controlling as Daisy was to Rose. Also, while Rose has a passion for dance, I have a passion for stories. Also, I imagine that she’s taller than me. My style totally grew as I became more informed by New Wave and Punk Rock and alternative culture in general. Mostly I loved vintage clothes and I often wore cocktail dresses to school. I also was obsessed with the 1940s, so I wore a snood all the time. (That’s a hairnet.) (My dad thought it was the ugliest thing ever.) And I had cat eye glasses with rhinestones. I even wore gloves on occasion. I guarantee you though, that I was not the craziest dresser in school. But I always looked fabulous.
DL: Have any of your high school friends read the book?
CC: I just did a book launch and had a bunch of people from high school do the reading with me. I had originally just given them the chapter that they were reading from, but at the party I gave them all a copy. I can’t wait to hear what they think! I think they are going to feel very warm and fuzzy about it.
DL: I know that you are a person who’s explored many, many forms of artistic expression – from punk rock to graphic novels to picture books to opera to YA novels (and more). Have you ever danced ballet?
CC: I did dance ballet! I was quite serious about it from the time I was four to twelve. Then I quit. It was a very hard thing for me to quit because I loved dancing so much. But I was small and I didn’t have the right body and my boobs were getting big. I think that I wanted to make Rose a dancer because it was something that was such a huge part of my life and yet it is now just this atrophied thing that I used to do. And I think it’s nice to have these other artistic things about ourselves inform our work. It’s like, rediscovering a favorite childhood food.
DL: What does the title Rose Sees Red mean to you?
CC: To me, it means three things. One: Rose gets a spine about having been so cruelly treated by Daisy. Two: She sees Yrena, a Communist, and begins to understand what that means in the world. And three: She becomes aware about politics and angry about stuff like nuclear arms, and is now going to begin to be an awakened, engaged person.
DL: One of the things I love about the book is that while it is set in a different time, so many of the themes carry over to our own time. Obviously, there are the perennials – love, loss, friendship – that don’t change very much. But I specifically wanted to ask about how you think the societal fear in the early 1980s – fear of the bomb, fear of Russia – relates to the societal fear today. Writing about then, did it make you see now any differently?
CC: I don’t know about you, but I read and hear the news every day and it all feels the same. I remember being so very frightened about nuclear bombs when I was growing up, and, quite honestly, I feel just as frightened today. I think that every generation deals with their scares, whatever they are, and I don’t see much difference between then and now. Now we might not fear Russia, or Communism, but there are many things that we do fear. I don’t see it differently today; it actually feels very much the same. My feeling is that fear of the other and their different ways is always misguided. People are people. And people really do have the desire to live, to love, and to have some kind of glorious journey in this world. I truly believe that we all truly want good for everyone. Writing this book just made me love the world even more. And ache to have everyone get along.
DL: At the end of the book, there’s a big No Nukes rally. Is this based on a real rally?
CC: There was a No Nukes rally in New York City on June 12, 1982 that was the biggest demonstration in American History. It took place in Central Park. I remember everyone talking about it. The rally that I mention is exactly this rally, but for the story as I was telling it, it made more sense for Rose to still be at the beginning of her school year rather than at the end. So I moved the rally to October for fictional purposes.
DL: Of course, I’m always interested in soundtracks. So I have to ask – while you were writing the book, did you go back and listen to the music you listened to in high school?
CC: Of course! I made myself a playlist of popular songs that were kind of on mainstream rock radio in 1982. My feeling was that Rose hadn’t discovered New Wave or Punk yet (or David Bowie) since she was so under Daisy’s spell. But I also wanted to pick songs that sort of had to do with the tone and temperature of the story. I listened to this music on constant rotate. It was fun to listen to all these songs again. If I had to pick an “A side” for this book, I’d say it’s Kids in America. And the “B side” would be Rehumanise Yourself.
Here’s the playlist:
Omegaman The Police
I Know What Boys Like The Waitresses
Spirits in the Material World The Police
The Tide Is High Blondie
Kids In America Kim Wilde
Queen of Hearts Juice Newton
Leather and Lace Stevie Nicks & Don Henley
Tainted Love (7" Single) Soft Cell
Start Me Up The Rolling Stones
There's No Tomorrow Squeeze
Rehumanise Yourself The Police
We Got the Beat The Go-Go's
Crimson and Clover Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
Stop Draggin' My Heart Around Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty
I Love Rock 'N Roll Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
Invisible Sun The Police
There's No Tomorrow Squeeze
Super Freak Rick James
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic The Police
Girls on Film Duran Duran
Shake It Up The Cars
Open Arms Journey
Centerfold The J. Geils Band
DL: That’s an awesome playlist. Now, the requisite last question: What are you working on now?
CC: I am working on a new YA novel for you! It’s called First Day on Earth and I am super excited about it. It’s my first book with a boy as the main character, so I’m in new territory! I also have a hybrid novel / graphic YA novel that I’m working on. It’s going to be an interesting experiment. Every alternating chapter is either prose or graphic novel. I’m very excited about that. And then, oh, well, you know, about one million other things! I like projects!
And now, an excerpt from Rose Sees Red:
I was black inside and so I took everything black.
It was the end of October, and a few leaves were still clinging onto the trees, all bright yellow, red, and orange. These leaves were suckers, I thought, tricking themselves into thinking that this fall would be different, that they wouldn’t have to let go and turn brown and make room for snow.
That’s what I had done. Before I was black, I was like them. I had tricked myself, at the end of summer, into thinking that starting high school would somehow make everything different. That I would be reinvented. That I would find my true friends. But it was almost Halloween and I was still lonely and friendless, and that made me see everything with a dark point of view.
Everyone in my family could tell I had a black cloud over me. I wore it like an extra sweater.
“We’re worried about you, Rose,” my mom said across the table while I barely ate my toast.
She said it all the time, and every time it made my chest tighten. I felt bad that she was worried, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it but mumble that I was doing just fine.
“What?” she said. “I can’t hear you.”
“I’m fine,” I said again. But I knew she was unconvinced.
My dad dealt with it by sinking deeper behind his New York Times. My brother Todd tried to make jokes, but he seemed to be the only one who ever laughed.
Maybe he just wasn’t funny.
“Come on, let’s rock and roll,” Todd said this time, grabbing an extra banana for the walk down to the bus stop.
“Have a good day at school,” Mom said. As I passed her to leave, she squeezed my shoulder. She wanted to give me a little encouragement, but I couldn’t let anything in.
“Rose,” she said, pulling me back into the kitchen. She put the palm of her hand on my face and cupped it.
Her hand was warm and I could feel something. I could feel that she was trying to send me some love.
In science class, Mrs. Merrick said that in outer space if you move one inch, you could end up a million miles out of your way.
And that’s what had happened to me.
“Mom,” I said, shaking her off.
It was a good thing, my mother’s warm hand on my face. Standing at the front door with the cold nip in the air, I could still feel it
As soon as I got outside, I motioned at the two men in suits who always hung out on the street corner in front of our house. They were like overgrown, well-dressed delinquents.
“What do you think -- KGB or CIA?” I asked Todd.
It was no secret that our neighborhood in Riverdale was crawling with KGB and CIA agents.
You’d think the Bronx would be the farthest thing away from the Cold War, but across the street from us was the Soviet apartment compound.
Here, on a daily basis, I was reminded that the world was acting like a couple of stupid kids on a playground. Only they were messing with the whole world.
“You can tell who’s who by their eyebrows,” Todd said, his usual goofy self. But then he stopped dead in his tracks, like he always did whenever the girl next door walked down her front steps.
She was a vision. I’ll give him that. Her legs were impossibly long and lean, and when she walked, it looked as though she were gliding. Her steps were so impossibly sure of itself. Regal.
“Oh my Goddess,” Todd said.
Todd really did think that the girl next door was a Goddess. He had even rolled up a Deity that looked just like her to use as a Non-Player Character in the Dungeons and Dragons game he ran in our garage every Friday night.
I swear he wanted to bow to her.
I didn’t say anything, though. I waited for him because I knew he always waited for me no matter how much I dragged my feet, or gave him dirty looks, or lived under the black cloud. Every morning he still walked me down the hill to the bus stop.
He did it out of love. He did it out of a brotherly sense of chivalry. We both knew that if he didn’t go with me I would have to stand at the bus stop alone, and even if we didn’t talk to each other, I must admit that it was a comfort to have him there.
“They have a school in the Soviet compound,” Todd said, and he pointed over to the large white apartment building down the street on Fieldston Road. “That’s where she’s going to school. She doesn’t have to live in the compound because her dad’s a Communist bigwig. That’s why they get to be in the townhouse next door.”
Todd’s obsession with the girl next door knew no bounds. One could even say that he spied on her, because he accumulated what information he had and told it to me whenever he was reminded of her existence.
“She’s sixteen. From Kiev. She just got her hair cut. She speaks French as well as she speaks English. She’s a ballet dancer like you. She likes strawberry ice cream. She listens to The Police.”
My room looked out into hers – the townhouses we lived in shared a garden path. I’d seen her brush her hair, read a book, talk on the phone. I’d noticed that we had the same ballet poster hanging on our wall. I had never seen her pull down the shades, have friends over, or sit at her desk. Or. Or. Or…
Just last year, half the neighborhood had been emptied of those with special privileges, because a bunch of them turned out to be bona fide Soviet spies, caught in the act of stealing state secrets. But not our neighbors. They seemed to be the only ones who hadn’t been deported. She was as Soviet and Communist as they come.
“Yrena,” Todd said. “Isn’t that a beautiful name? Like a poem?”
I had reached my limit. I punched Todd hard in the shoulder to snap him out of his stupor.
“Ow,” he said.
“Put your eyes back in your skull,” I told him. “You are setting back US-Soviet relations fifty years with your tongue wagging around like that. You are going to cause Armageddon with your leering.”
He ignored me.
“Okay, but Rose. Be honest. Do I look okay?”
I gave him the once over. With his overgrown mutton chops, he looked like a soulful sheepdog -- not at all like someone who could cause any trouble.
But, I thought, he was also a sack of hormones. Todd was all thick glasses and wiry John Lennon glasses, skinny skin skin with a sunken chest. And a little too shiny. But he didn’t need to know that. He just needed to know that he was letting his adolescent boy hang out a little too much.
I kind of softened.
“You look like you always do,” I said.
He seemed relieved, and I realized (at least a little) that my brother was a good guy -- even when he said dumb things.
“Russian girls are hot,” he said now. “James Bond agrees with me. Just watch From Russia With Love.”
As the girl next door got to the bottom of her front steps, she noticed me and Todd, like she always did when we left our buildings at the same time. There had been many mornings that fall where we all walked out our houses at exactly the same time. That particular day happened to be the one when everything fell right into place. At the time, I thought it was just a coincidence. But it wasn’t.