By Leslie Lindsay
You may know her from the award-winning YA fiction she’s churned out. You may know her from her 2013 psychological suspense debut for adults, HE’S GONE [excerpt and more information here], or you just may know Deb Caletti because she’s been a judge for the National Book Awards. In her “spare” time, she loves to paint, travel and spend time with her kids. And maybe mosey around in some lovely pink cowboy boots. Simply put, this gal is busy. I’m honored to welcome Deb back to the blog. So, grab a Moscow Mule. Or coffee, depending on what time of day you’re reading, and come along with a journey to the 1950s “Divorce Ranches” of Reno, Nevada.
L.L.: Deb, thanks so much for popping back over to the blog couch. I’m honored to have . I just finished reading THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS and promptly had to run out and order a Mule. Not the kind that is a cross between a horse and a donkey, but the kind with ginger beer and a few other tasty things. That’s what I call “immersive fiction.” What other fun foods did you get a—let’s say, hankerin’ for—while writing SECRETS?
Deb Caletti: I have to admit, I had to get the copper mugs so I could make Mules at home. They are so delicious and refreshing! The ladies knew how to do it right. But I did crave other foods from the book, too, and not just from the storyline of the past. My main character, Callie, and her sister, Shaye, are at the ranch of today, struggling with their own issues of marriage, family, and the passage of time. While there, they reminisce about the lost things from their childhood, and Shaye starts cooking all the food of their youth. So, yes – veal cutlets (from the time when we forgot to think about what veal was)! The frying of them in the novel made me both remember them and crave them. The sisters also do quite a lot of snacking, and once they started in on those Fritos, I needed to start in on some Fritos.
L.L.: Okay, in all honesty, that was kind of a silly question. Here’s a more serious one: what sparked your interest for the setting of this book?
Deb Caletti: A few years before I started writing the novel, I’d come across a single line in a book that mentioned the term, “divorce ranch.” Having never heard it before, I looked it up. Divorce ranches operated in the 1930’s to early 1950’s in Nevada. High-society women and Hollywood celebs stayed at such ranches for six weeks to establish residency in the state, in order to secure divorces that were impossible to get elsewhere. Often, this was called, “The Six-Week Cure,” or, alternately, “Getting Reno-vated.”
After learning about the ranches and the transformative experiences that were had when women gathered together there, I was intrigued. But when I realized how little there was about them in the popular culture, I had one of those writer-moments where your heart beats fast and you think: This. Here was all of my favorite stuff in one beautiful, dusty, desert locale: marriage, heartbreak, women of varying ages supporting each other and attempting to understand themselves and their relationships. The setting – the ranch itself (in today’s time and in its glamorous past) and the sweeping vistas of its locale were a place I wanted to spend some time in.
[To read an excerpt from THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS and find out more about the ranches, click here.]
L.L.: So these “Divorce Ranches” were actual places women would travel, become residents for the six-weeks required before they could legally procure a divorce, head back to wherever their lives were, and sort of “wash their hands” of the man who sent them there. What happened to the ranches? Are they part of the Wild West “ghost towns” we hear so much about?
L.L.: THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS is a bifurcated novel in which you weave together two women’s lives, two different time periods, similar secrets, failing marriages, and an overarching camaraderie of women. Was this your plan all along, or did it sort of evolve as you wrote?Deb Caletti: No, they aren’t a part of ghost towns. Most are in the Reno vicinity. Some have become working ranches again, or have remained in the families who owned them. Many began as working ranches, but when the divorce business boomed, they became divorce ranches for this brief period of nearly-forgotten history. Of course, as divorce laws changed in other parts of the country, ranches for soon-to-be divorcees were no longer necessary.
Deb Caletti: It was my plan all along. What seemed most important thematically, as well as what was most important to my main character, Callie, who is struggling with a marriage of many years, was how timeless our struggles are in terms of love. The dual time periods underscore this. Divorce laws have changed, and so have the daily pieces of our lives – the food, the music, the mores, the openness, the technology, our understanding of the land around us – yet the big pieces remain the same. How do we manage our relationships to the people we love over the years? How do we make good decisions about love and partnership? How do we weigh what’s best for ourselves and other people? How do we sisters and friends support one another through the hard stuff? How do we deal with our grief over the passage of time and how life marches forward? Love, marriage, family, sisterhood, the ticking clock – they are all ageless struggles.
Deb Caletti: Every character has a bit of the author in them, I think, even the villainous ones. But I was most looking forward to exploring Callie’s issues of longtime marriage. Her children have just left home. When her youngest daughter gets on a plane, she says, “For a second, I wasn’t sure what to do. I was at a total loss. Thomas and I just stood there together like we were college freshman just dropped off by their parents and assigned to room together.” There’s this whole piece of a marriage that comes as children grow older, when a couple mourns what was and then must figure out what comes next.
L.L.: What kind of writer are you? Do you outline, or follow the pen?
Deb Caletti: I call it “free falling.” I generally know where I’m starting and where I’m ending up. The trip along the way is a process of discovery. This method is much like life itself, and I like that. There are surprises and pitfalls, but, for me, the story has a natural evolution this way. Don’t you sometimes wish you could outline life and have it follow that plan, though? It might be pretty dull, but it also sounds awesome.
L.L.: What are you working on next?
Deb Caletti: I’ve just finished my next novel for young adults called Essential Maps for the Lost, coming in April of next year. My fingers have started tap-tapping on my next novel for adults (coming 2017).
L.L.: Is there anything obsessing you now?
Deb Caletti: Since reading Hampton Sides’ fantastic In the Kingdom of Ice I’ve been on a huge polar exploration/disaster-at-sea book binge. After KINGDOM came Erik Larson’s DEAD WAKE, books on Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions (ENDURANCE, and others), various Titanic reads, and then PIRATE HUNTERS. You never know what will sweep you up. The stacks of books in my office grow while I sleep, I’m sure.
L.L.: What do you hope others take away from THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS? I’ll tell you my take-away, and it’s kind of silly one, but it resonated nonetheless: “Daily life snatched things from a couple. Mattress sales stole intrigue; shirts ruined by that damn spot of bleach grabbed desire and wrung its scrawny neck.”
Deb Caletti: I guess I can answer that with my own quote, my intended take-away:
“No life was ever ordinary, and no story of love was, either, not even mine. Whether tragic or commonplace, each attempt at the damn thing, each shot at love and life itself was brave. Every effort at it was flawed and messy, complicated, oh yes, occasionally triumphant, often painful, because how else could it be? Look at the mission we were given, look at the stunning, impossible mission – imperfect love in the face of loss. Any sane person with the facts would turn their back on a mission like that. And yet we loved, of course we did… The courage that took – there was nothing ordinary about that.”
L.L.: Ahh…thanks for being with us, Deb! We so enjoyed it.
Deb Caletti: Thanks for having me, Leslie!
Bio: Deb Caletti is an award-winning author and a National Book Award finalist whose books—He’s Gone; Honey, Baby, Sweetheart; The Queen of Everything; The Secret Life of Prince Charming—are published and translated worldwide. She lives with her family in Seattle.
Facebook: Deb Caletti
Read Deb’s essay on divorce ranches/The 6-week Cure via Random House here.