Interview with YA Author A.J. Cattapan

Seven Riddles to Nowhere includes one of the most original, intriguing minor characters I’ve come across in a children’s book. Old Man Englebert uses an electronic voice box, something I remember quite vividly from my own childhood. Several men that inhabited the smoky fraternal clubs my dad frequented used them, and they left a lasting impression on me. What inspired the character, whose voice provides an interesting contrast to the protagonist Kam’s selective mutism?

7 Riddles to NowhereI have to admit I never thought about what an interesting contrast Old Man Engelbert’s voice box is to Kam’s selective mutism! The truth is that I just wanted to make the man seem as scary as possible, and somehow the idea of an electronic voice box popped into my head. Maybe it was all those years of watching Star Wars movies with my brothers and listening to Darth Vader’s scary voice.

You’ve made many classroom visits with Seven Riddles to Nowhere. Who do you think is more inspired by your visits – you or the children?

The kids have written me a lot (via Instagram and snail mail) that they were inspired by my talk to believe that hard work and trusting in God really does pay off. At the same time, they inspire me to keep writing. When I enter a classroom where the kids have already read Seven Riddles to Nowhere, their faces light up and they nudge each other, whispering things like, “There she is!” I get such a kick out of it because that is definitely not the reaction of my regular students when I walk into the classroom! The questions they ask about the book are amazing, too. Like your first question, they have insights about the story and the characters that I had never thought of! One eighth grade class got really deep into some symbolism in the book and took it much further than I had ever expected. (I’d say what the symbolism is, but I’d spoil some of the ending.)

Angelhood begins with a very dark scenario, which is prevalent in a lot of contemporary YA fiction, but it doesn’t end there. How can Catholic fiction bring hope and light to teen readers?

AngelhoodBecause Catholic fiction is written from a Christian perspective, it can offer Christian hope. Our faith, our hope, our trust are all in Jesus. Just because someone follows Jesus doesn’t mean his or her life is going to be easy, so of course, our books need to reflect the challenges that everyone faces. The difference is that we can face these challenges knowing that we have an advocate by our side.

How do you think your profession as a middle school teacher gives you an edge in writing for the tween and teen audience?

First, it means I get to read a lot of young adult and middle grade literature, which I think is so key in learning to write for this age group. You need to know what else is out there. Not just in terms of inspirational fiction, but the general market as well. Second, it means I get to hear students talk about the books they read: what they like and what they don’t like.

I’ve enjoyed traveling with you vicariously via Instagram. Does travel deplete your creative energy or restore it?

That depends on the type of traveling I’m doing. In recent years, a good amount of my travel has included some “solo time,” time I get to spend being alone and reflecting. It becomes almost a sort of retreat experience for me, especially because I tend to visit places with many churches where I can sit in silence and prayer and reflect on where my life is going. It can become a time for me to really reconnect from God, away from my usual work.

What is your next project?

Right now I’m brainstorming ideas for a sequel to Seven Riddles to Nowhere. My hope is that I’ll have enough of a plan to write it during NaNo next month. However, back in 2011, I had planned to write Seven Riddles to Nowhere, but I didn’t have enough of the plot worked out and had to put it off until the summer of 2012. Three days before NaNo 2011, I came up with the idea for Angelhood and wrote that instead, so who knows what will happen this year. Maybe I’ll write a sequel to Seven Riddles, or maybe God will send me a completely different story to write! At this point, with all my teaching and grad school work, I just hope I’m able to write something.

A.J. CattapanA.J. Cattapan is an award-winning, bestselling author of fiction for teens and preteens. Her young adult novel Angelhood, a guardian angel story in the tradition of It’s a Wonderful Life, has won two books awards (a gold medal in the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards and an honorable mention in the Readers’ Favorite Book Awards). It was named a Carol Award finalist in the young adult category. Cattapan’s second book, a middle grade mystery named Seven Riddles to Nowhere about a boy trying to save his school from closing, released in August 2016.  Cattapan has also been a Chicken Soup for the Soul contributor and had numerous short stories and articles published in magazines for teens and children, including Highlights, Pockets, and Hopscotch for Girls. Her goal in writing is to empower young people so that they may live extraordinary lives filled with heart and hope.


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