Author Spotlight: Heather Demetrios talks LITTLE UNIVERSES
I'm so happy to welcome Heather Demetrios on today's blog! Heather is a critically acclaimed author, writing coach, and certified meditation teacher. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her novels include Little Universes, I’ll Meet You There, Bad Romance, as well as the Dark Caravan fantasy series: Exquisite Captive, Blood Passage, and Freedom’s Slave. Her non-fiction includes the Virginia Hall biography Code Name Badass and she is the editor of Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love. Her honors include books that have been named Bank Street Best Children’s Books, YALSA Best Fiction For Young Adults selections, a Goodreads Choice Nominee, a Kirkus Best Book, and a Barnes and Noble Best Book. Her work has appeared in LA Review of Books, Bustle, School Library Journal, and other fine outlets..
LITTLE UNIVERSES is Heather's latest novel, out now with Henry Holt & Co. Check out the synopsis and full interview below.
Heather Demetrios's Little Universes is a book about the powerful bond between sisters, the kinds of love that never die, and the journey we all must make through the baffling cruelty and unexpected beauty of human life in an incomprehensible universe.
One wave: that’s all it takes for the rest of Mae and Hannah Winters’ lives to change.
When a tsunami strikes the island where their parents are vacationing, it soon becomes clear that their mom and dad are never coming home. Forced to move to Boston from sunny California for the rest of their senior year, each girl struggles with secrets their parents’ death has brought to light, and with their uncertainty about the future. Instead of bringing them closer, it feels like the wave has torn the sisters apart.
Hannah is a secret poet who wants to be seen, but only knows how to hide. The pain pills she stole from her dead father hurl her onto the shores of an addiction she can’t shake and a dealer who turns her heart upside down. When it’s clear Hannah’s drowning, Mae, a budding astronaut suddenly launched into an existential crisis―and unexpected love―must choose between herself and the only family she has left.
Hi, Heather! Welcome and congrats on Little Universes. Can you share a little about the story and what inspired you?
Little Universes is a love story about sisters (but, never fear, there’s also loads of romance). I feel like the relationship between sisters is one of the greatest love stories never told. So this one’s about Hannah and Mae, two girls who lose their parents in a tsunami. Hannah is a poet struggling with an opioid addiction. Mae is a literal genius who wants to be an astronaut. Both struggle with secrets that come up as a result of their parents’ deaths. And so the real question is: Will this wave be the thing that drowns them, or will it carry them to the shore of themselves, launch them onto the path of becoming the women they long to be? It asks a lot of Big Questions (it really is about the universe) and was pretty much borne out of my own obsession with why we’re here on this rock and what we’re supposed to do with this one life we’ve got.
I could never have predicted COVID19, but I’m grateful that out of all my books this was the one that was published during this time. The stuff Hannah and Mae go through, this crisis and all the questions and challenges it brings up, really speaks to what we’re all dealing with collectively right now. We’re staring into the abyss together. I like to think of Little Universes as a bit of word medicine for our times. I draw a lot on my spiritual journey, which has landed me solidly in being a meditator. There’s so much to hear in the silence that can heal us and connect us to ourselves and each other. We just have to get quiet. Reading, as Ursula LeGuin said, is a way of listening. A way of being quiet to learn what we need to so that we can show up for our lives.
You have a talent for writing incredibly distinct POVs (as evidenced by Hannah and Mae!). What are your tips for making a character’s voice stand out?
I always say the book is the boss. So I don’t make the story what * I * want it to be – I don’t impose my will on it. I listen really, really hard to my characters. I go deep into journaling, creating tarot spreads for them, doing writing on the side to explore what makes them tick. (I, like many writers, am a fan of Story Genius). I’m willing to let them take me wherever they want to go, no matter how dark the place. I love getting to know them, their quirks and ticks, what makes them them.
And I think, at the end of the day, writing good characters is about being curious. About them, about the world, about the creative process. I have a theatre background, so I think being a trained actor and director helps a lot in terms of getting into the skin of my characters, really becoming them. The key is being clear on what they want, why they want it. What stories and misbeliefs are running them? How do they want to do right by the miracle of having this one ride, this one go at life?
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writer something new, so what did writing Little Universes teach you?
I am too! I always tell the writers I work with that the book you’re working on is in your life to be your teacher.
Little Universes taught me self regard. I get all weird about the term “self love” so I’ve hit on self regard. I wrote this book during a major depression and Hannah was going through one herself, so there’s a lot of my own arc of healing in there, going from that place of wanting to obliterate yourself to realizing that you matter. Realizing I am enough, just as I am, this was the lesson. Basically, all my years of searching and learning and growing all came together in this one book. It feels like an existential mic drop.
What was thrilling for me, on a more story based note, was the deep dive I got to do with astrophysics and cosmology. I was never into science until I got older and didn’t have people telling me I wasn’t good at science. I love physics and it was so much fun to teach myself – and find good teachers – about the things Mae knows all about. Since she’s a genius who is going to be an astronaut someday, I really had to step up. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, as a writer because rocket science is no picnic. It also really helped me understand my place in the universe more.
Little Universes is a very heavy book. Were there times when you found it difficult to write, or too emotionally taxing? If so, how did you deal with this?
Ha! See above. But, you know, this is the thing: While the topic and emotions get heavy (like water, like waves), the story ultimately lifts you up. The lessons in here are earned, very hard won. But once you learn them – THE RELEASE FEELS SO GOOD. This is what the ancient Greeks were all about: catharsis. If I did my job, you got a good cry and you also came home to yourself a bit more. You have a better sense of where you fit in with the universe, and of the universe inside you. I mean, we’re made of the stuff of stars.
I’d also like to mention that this book has a lot of really yummy good feels too. I love the boys in the book, the family. I love the little ways these sisters have each other’s backs and how they find one another in the darkness. There is so much sweetness here to be had. I think that’s just life: it’s a mixed bag and you just have to be here for all of it.
What supported me while I wrote the book was meditation. I was also writing it in England, and the home I was in had a little English garden and that was so lovely. Nature takes good care of you. The playlist I made and wrote the whole book to was also medicine.
And finally, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your writing/publishing career?
I am enough. Full stop.
It’s very easy to start having your self worth wrapped up in where you’re at in the pecking order of the book world. The biggest lesson I learned is that the book deals or star reviews or sales numbers don’t fill me up. It’s writing something with my whole heart, being all in, leaving it on the page that makes me a true writer. Writing is how I do right by the miracle. It’s how I contribute to the world in the hopes that my words will by a light in someone’s darkness, be a map to understanding their inner world, give them a chance to escape to explore different feelings, to learn, to grow. That’s my only job. However the book “performs” isn’t my job. Once I finally got that, I felt a lot better. The key is to figure out why you write. To be devoted to the writing itself. To show up and be intentional. Then: let them chips fall where they may.
Many thanks go out to Heather for taking the time to tell us more about the work that went into LITTLE UNIVERSES, as well as for sharing some of the lessons she's learned along the way in her publishing journey. Be to sure to add LITTLE UNIVERSES o your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy (WRITE) NOW from retail sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or request it at your library, or local independent bookstore!
And, as always,