If you haven’t read one of Kate Hattemer’s charming, witty, and insightful YA books yet, you won’t believe what you’re missing. Her debut novel, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, tells a hilarious, story about a fine arts high school that’s being taken over by a reality TV show. It merges thought-provoking ideas into a read that is incredibly fun from start to finish. Her new title, The Land of 10,000 Madonnas is heartfelt and heartbreaking; the kind of story that stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
Seriously, guys, you have to read her books. If you aren’t convinced yet, I’ve brought Kate Hattemer straight to y’all with this exclusive interview!
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind The Land of 10,000 Madonnas? Has it evolved a lot from start to finish?
Writing a book takes me so long that I never have just one lightning bolt moment, but the most obvious real-life inspiration behind 10,000 Madonnas was a trip I took in the summer of 2012. Having just quit my teaching job with no back-up plan, I decided, in a fit of questionable adulting, that it’d be totally rational to buy a plane ticket for a six-week trip to Europe. I ended up traveling with various friends and relatives through Germany and Italy, and it was absolutely amazing: I love hiking and art museums and gelato and long conversations, and the trip included all of those in spades.
Why all the madonnas? Are you a fan of art history? Did you have to do a lot of research to get the artist details right?
Why the Madonnas? Where even to begin? I think my own identity as a Catholic, a feminist, and a classicist makes Mary especially fascinating to me, but she bears such deep cultural resonance: she’s depicted in Western art more often than any other person. I’ve always been drawn to the Annunciation story, in part because it’s so relatable — she’s just sitting there reading, and suddenly her life changes in a way she never could have expected. It’s the ultimate tension between fate and free will.
I had an incredible art history teacher in tenth grade, and when studying abroad in Rome for my Latin major I took a class on Italian Renaissance and Baroque art: that’s it for my official background, so yes, I had to do a lot of research. The best book I read was Jaroslav Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries. I’d recommend that to anyone interested in European art, the philosophy of religion, women and their culturally mandated roles, or, of course, Mary.
Which of the characters do you identify the closest with? (I personally related to Ben a lot.)
Tough question! I think I inadvertently put a bit of my personality into each of the five third-person characters. Cal, the runner with a dubious sense of style, is the most autobiographical, but I have a lot in common with the others — though I’m hoping that won’t be too obvious to readers who know me. This book contains a lot of my interior life, and, especially in the weeks approaching release date, that’s scary!
Your characters all process their grief over the loss of Jesse very differently. What made you choose to focus on the various stages of grief and the grieving process in this story?
Life is long; so is grief. When I was seventeen, my world was shattered by a devastating death in my family; seven years later, I began this book as a letter to the girl I was. I wished I could tell her that it was okay not to be okay, that her grief would change and grow alongside her, that it would always feel messy and unfinished. That’s why I wanted to set the book not in the immediate aftermath of Jesse’s death, but a year later. I wanted to show the long slipstream of grief.
I think my teenage self would have taken a paradoxical solace in knowing that now, almost eleven years later, I’m still grieving. So is my family; so are his friends. We will always be grieving. To me grief isn’t about accepting the tragedy; it’s about accepting the idea that you will never accept it. It’s about striving for the moments when the paradox clicks into position, the moments where I truly believe that I will never see him again and that he will always be at my side.
What was your writing process like while you were writing this book? What did an average writing day look like for you?
The book was written over the course of three years, so my writing days varied considerably! I wrote the first draft in the few months before I started working part-time at a bookstore, but after I quit teaching Latin (or, I should say, after I thought I quit teaching Latin). I’d usually hammer out a lot of words in the morning, take a break to run and get outside, and spend the afternoon in research. The rewriting, which happened on and off over the next few years, was mostly done on non-bookstore days. I have some really happy memories of camping out in Cincinnati coffeeshops with a backward baseball cap and Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Sometimes I’d be with fellow YA author Emery Lord, too: those days were way more fun but also, uh, way less productive.
Did the writing and publication process differ a lot between The Land of 10,000 Madonnas and your first novel, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy?
In the big picture, not a lot, but Madonnas was a more difficult book to write and edit. Technically, it posed more challenges — the most obvious being that it’s from six perspectives, rather than Vigilante Poets’ one — and it took me many, many more drafts to push it to the point where my editor and I were happy with it.
What motivates you to keep writing? Do you have any advice for writers who are still starting out/struggling to finish or publish a manuscript?
For me, writing is like any other habit; it’s so much easier as it becomes a natural part of my life. It’s like running: it kind of sucks when you first start training, and you have to build your endurance and stamina slowly, but once you’re in the habit, it’s no big deal to lace up your shoes and get outside; in fact, you start feeling off when you don’t. My advice would be to take it easy on yourself — be as consistent as possible, but don’t expect great things right away. Maybe you write for twenty minutes a day. Maybe that’s as long as you can last before you get squirrelly and self-loathing. That’s okay! Trust yourself. It’ll get easier. It’ll feel both more commonplace and more fun.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Besides the fact that grief can be unending — and that’s okay — I guess it’d be the way that joy and sadness are forever entwined. I think that’s what I spent most of my late adolescence trying to figure out: how I could cry and then, a few minutes later, be laughing so hard I cried again. Sometimes I felt weird about writing a grief book that has lots of banter and slapstick, but that’s how it goes, right?
I have to ask… do you have another novel in the works already? Can you give us any hints about your upcoming projects?
After writing an emotionally intense YA, I wanted to do something completely different, so I tried my hand at a ridiculous MG. I’m also currently working on a first-person YA about a feminist firebrand. I hope they’ll both see daylight someday!
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Off the top of my head, in no particular order: Ann Patchett, Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, Ovid, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Maggie Shipstead, Lauren Fox, Kate Racculia, Jose Saramago, Jane Austen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, J.K. Rowling, Tom Rachman, David Mitchell, Dodie Smith, E.M. Forster, Curtis Sittenfeld, Roald Dahl. The list, obviously, goes on.
What’s currently on your TBR list?
Here’s my hold list at the library right now: Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, Kate Racculia’s This Must Be the Place, Patricia Highwater’s The Price of Salt, Lindy West’s Shrill, and the Hamilton libretto, written and annotated by America’s resident genius. (Just typing out the list made me squeal in anticipation.)
Thank you so much for doing this interview!
Have you read The Land of 10,000 Madonnas yet? Which character did you identify most with? If you haven’t picked it up yet, why are you excited to?