Calla Devlin’s debut novel Tell Me Something Real, described by Kirkus Reviews in a starred review as “hands-down one of a kind,” goes on sale today (August 30)! Dive into this powerful novel with our exclusive extended excerpt and read on below for a glimpse behind the book from the author herself.
When I was young, about seven or eight years old, I rode in the backseat of my mother’s car, crossing the border into Mexico. My sisters and I sat in the courtyard of a seaside Mexican hospital where my mom, a nurse, volunteered. Sometimes we went with one of my mother’s friends, an older nun whose name I’ve forgotten, who bought us Cokes and pastries.
We were bored and restless. We wanted to be anywhere but there. If we were going to spend afternoons in Baja California, we wanted to swim and shop. We didn’t want to sit in the blazing sun, waiting.
I barely remember the actual building, and I don’t recall seeing the cancer patients my mother spent hours nursing. But I remember the drive, especially slowing in the crowded Tijuana streets. Back then, Tijuana was economically devastated. Families lived in refrigerator boxes. I had to close my eyes after a while, blinking back tears as I watched the begging kids, my age, so obviously hungry.
Whenever I road tripped, I thought of Mexico and the border crossing. I couldn’t shake the memory of that specific drive. I wanted to write about that setting, filling the hospital with characters I’d begun to imagine. I didn’t want to write about a sick child, but I wanted to evoke that helpless, almost hostage feeling of waiting, hours on end, knowing something devastating lingered within the halls of the hospital.
I promise (promise) my novel is not another cancer book. Tell Me Something Real isn’t really about illness, not in the physical sense. I wanted to use that as a setting and a premise. When a family is in crisis, unraveling day by day, things rise to the surface: secrets and truths and lies. When people are drowning, it’s hard to contain what we’ve buried deep inside us. My narrator, Vanessa Babcock, a musical sixteen-year-old girl, is cradling a live grenade, ready to explode. She wakes up feeling like she’s holding her breath. She spends her days at a Mexican clinic a little like the one in my vague memories, waiting as her mother receives an outlawed cancer treatment, cyanide derived from apricot pits. Vanessa takes care of her. She’s left taking care of everything, along with her older sister, who is volatile and angry and profane. The girls experience a profound betrayal and are forever changed. I wanted to explore how, in a shared trauma, some people can manage to move on, surviving to a certain degree, while others can be left irreparably broken.
More than anything, I wanted to show how, no matter what, we all deserve to be loved. At her most fragile, Vanessa meets a boy at the hospital. With him, she opens her heart, even as she comes to terms with the fact that someone she loves more than anyone destroyed her trust and made her question her self-worth. Caleb doesn’t save Vanessa. She’s filled with a quiet strength. But he, along with Vanessa’s family, show her that, no matter what, she is worthy of love. They all are. We all are. And in her fierce love for them, she manages to survive.