The Accidental Novelist
Brittany Cavallaro’s unexpected path to becoming a bestselling young adult author
By Jillian Manning | Feb. 25, 2023
You can take the girl out of Interlochen, but you can’t take Interlochen out of the girl.
Perhaps that’s why New York Times bestselling young adult author Brittany Cavallaro set her hugely popular Charlotte Holmes series in a boarding school. Or why Hello Girls, a young adult novel written with her fellow bestselling friend Emily Henry, takes place in Michigan.
It’s definitely why—a decade and change after graduation—Cavallaro came back to teach at Interlochen Arts Academy as an instructor of creative writing.
“When I was a kid, I read books about boarding school,” Cavallaro explains. “It’s such a fertile place for fiction; as you know, you’re living on your own at a young age, and oftentimes you’re in this very intense but rewarding setting. Your friends become your family. It’s a really wonderful place to set a young adult novel, because it’s just really ripe for narrative possibilities.”
Sherlock and the U.P.
Despite her love of all things boarding school, Cavallaro never set out to be a YA novelist. On the contrary, she had her sights set on poetry, earning her MFA at the University of Wisconsin alongside a PhD in literature. But, as Cavallaro says, along the way she started “sneezing out novels.”
“It was never part of the plan,” she tells Northern Express. “It was something I felt like I was pretty much doing for myself. I finished the book that became A Study in Charlotte, and I sent it off to agents not really thinking anything was going to happen with it.”
A Study in Charlotte made its debut in spring 2016—with a starred review from Kirkus, no less, and making the “best of” lists for organizations like the American Library Association. The second book in the series, The Last of August, became an instant New York Times bestseller in 2017, and by then it was pretty clear that Cavallaro’s expectations had been way too low.
The four-book series follow the teen descendents of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson: Charlotte and Jamie, respectively. The stories pay homage to original Arthur Conan Doyle tales on the grounds of a Connecticut boarding school and have all the twists and turns—and interpersonal ups and downs—you’d expect in a faithful retelling.
“I feel like I relate equally to both Charlotte and Jamie,” Cavallaro says when asked which character feels most like her. “I feel like we’re having a conversation about vulnerability and about how to be a good person and how to really trust somebody else.”
Hello Girls came next, a Thelma and Louise inspired tale of two Yooper girls trying to get away from the toxic men in their lives. Though Cavallaro says the family dynamics of the book weren’t at all like her “really supportive” upbringing, there is a bit of her in that story too.
“Lucille is sort of a sailor-mouthed Italian girl, ride or die with her best friend, ready to take on all comers, there with a quick comeback—and that was very much me at 17,” Cavallaro says with a laugh. “It was so much fun writing that character.”
Science and Poetry
The latest feather in Cavallaro’s YA hat is her Muse duology, Muse and the recently released Manifest. As Cavallaro describes it, the books focus on an alternate-history America in 1893 where the country is a monarchy and science is king. The World Fair and Nicola Tesla play into the storyline, as do magic, love, and revolution. (Signed copies of Muse and Manifest are available locally at Brilliant Books!)
She says Manifest was the hardest book she’s had to write to date, in part because of her desire to do justice to the details of the time period while bringing in her own narrative and perspective.
“I think I’ve rewritten every single word,” she admits. “When I sat down to write historical fiction, I had some trouble giving myself the authority to make big statements about the past and to play with these big important events that I had been taught in history books. … Events unspool differently in [my] books than they do in American history, but they obviously reflect them. But I hope that they also critique a lot of the events happening in 19th century America.”
She adds with a chuckle, “But, you know, I would sit down to write a scene and I’d be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I need to read three more primary sources before I can write these two paragraphs about people eating dinner.’”
Even with seven YA novels (and all that dinner research) under her belt, Cavallaro has still found time to devote to her love of poetry, publishing two anthologies, Unhistorical and Girl King.
And, we’re told, she’s making her first foray into adult publishing with a novel in verse co-written with another friend: acclaimed author Jeff Zentner, best known for his New York Times Notable Books The Serpent King and In the Wild Light.
“Bri asked me to write a verse novel with her, and I’m glad because I would have never invited her. That would have been way too intimidating to me,” Zentner tells Northern Express. “She’s a published poet and a teacher of poetry and truly accomplished in that field. It was such an honor to write with her. It was easily one of the most exciting and fun writing experiences I’ve ever had.”
Patience and Joy
Now, imagine if you can, all that writing—sounds like a full-time gig to us!—plus a teaching career. That’s what Cavallaro has been balancing since 2017.
“I really loved teaching, and I really loved being in the classroom,” Cavallaro says. “I knew that my dream situation was being able to work with the really motivated, passionate, wonderful kids and teenagers that I remembered from Interlochen. And then when I saw that they were hiring, I immediately applied, threw all my stuff in my car, and drove back up to northern Michigan.”
Having come full circle to her Interlochen roots, Cavallaro wants to pay it forward to the young writers of tomorrow, sharing the lessons she learned the hard way as an author. She calls writing “a study in patience” and advocates for being gentle with yourself during the writing process.
“One thing I tell my Writing the Novel students a lot, because it’s drawn from my life, is that you have to write a novel all the way through to know how to write a novel. When it comes to writing a poem or writing a short story, that seems like a no-brainer—of course you have to complete the thing to know how to write it. … I think one of the best skills that you can learn as a novelist is to just keep going.”
She goes on to say that the first novel may not be the one you publish. In fact, nearly every writer has a manuscript “in a drawer,” whether it was their first, their tenth, or just a beginning of something they may return to later.
As such, Cavallaro’s parting advice for writers, those who truly want to write that novel (or 10 of them) whether or not it gets published, isn’t to write every single day or follow a prescribed path to success. Instead, it’s to do the very thing that drew you to writing in the first place.
“I think the most important thing that you can do is just to read,” she tells us. “Read voraciously. Read absolutely everything you can. And when you do sit down to write, to try to write toward those things that make you happy, that bring you joy.”
What Is Brittany Cavallaro Reading?
We asked Cavallaro what’s on her reading list in and out of the classroom. Here’s what she told us:
Her core classes are in novel and poetry writing, with books on her syllabus like The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Never Let Me Go by Kazou Ishiguro, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, plus the work of poets such as Anne Carson and Inger Christensen.
For readers of all ages who want to improve their writing craft, she always recommends works by Tana French and Gillian McAllister.
And as for what she’s been loving lately in the YA space? Cavallaro lists Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer, The Winter Soldier: Cold Front by Mackenzi Lee, and Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat.