Alumna Brittany Cavallaro explores the mystery of writing

Today, a writer can be anyone with access to a computer—on Tumblr, in a blog, even in 140 characters on Twitter, it’s possible to tell a story to the masses in as little or as much detail as the writer likes. And as self-publishing grows, anyone with a story to tell can tell it, provided they have the tools and discipline to get it done.

That doesn’t always mean it will be a good story, of course. For that you need practice, study, and a foundation in writing skills. A foundation that author Brittany Cavallaro (IAA 02-04), who was at Interlochen Arts Academy the year the Writing House was built, says students received here—and then some.

“We wrote so much when we were there. I remember having our foundation workshop—it was poetry or fiction—and all of these elective classes ... There were times when I was working on three or four things at the same time,” she said. “And turning them around really quickly. And honestly that's just made a huge difference in my life.

“I never had the time to be really precious about my work—it was always like, ‘I need to sit down, I need to get this done and if it's terrible that's fine, I'll make it better, or I'll start something else.’ And that really allowed me to be fearless in a lot of ways,” she said. “So I was always working on something that scared me or that was outside of my comfort zone, but there was never time for me to really think about (that fear and be distracted by it)—and that's something that I rely on pretty constantly now.”

It’s a philosophy that has shown results: Cavallaro is a published poet, author and editor, and her first novel, A Study in Charlotte, debuted on March 1. The first of a trilogy, A Study in Charlotte is set at a private boarding school and features the descendents of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Kirkus Reviews said of the book, “Cavallaro’s crackling dialogue, well-drawn characters, and complicated relationships make this feel like a seamless and sharp renewal of Doyle’s series. An explosive mystery featuring a dynamic duo.”

Cavallaro, whose uncle is author and writing teacher Mort Castle, says she always knew she wanted to write—even as a child she wrote stories and read them to her family. But it wasn’t until she heard about the then-unnamed Virginia Ball scholarship competition that she thought about coming to Interlochen.

“I applied for the very first creative writing scholarship at Interlochen, and I didn't win. But it drew my attention to the school,” she said—and it didn’t hurt that Castle knew of Interlochen and had good things to say about it.

“I’d been writing pretty seriously and decided it was what I wanted to live and breathe, you know? And my parents were very supportive of that. So I came for my junior and senior years. It was enough time for me to realize that normal high school is fine, but it isn't really for me in the end.”

It turned out that Interlochen was the perfect place for someone who had loved writing her whole life, Cavallaro said.

“I was always writing—poems, a lot of terrible poems—and I was always reading, too. And then I started writing stories when I got a little bit older. I wrote a novel about a bottomless pit in the sixth grade—I think I had a kid who had to solve riddles to get out of the bottomless pit, which made sense to me at the time! (laughs) But when I was 14 or 15 it was all I wanted to do. It was all I thought about, and I wanted time to work on longer projects. Interlochen really gave me the opportunity to do that.”

Cavallaro recently got her own chance to help Interlochen students grow—she visited campus in early May to give a reading from A Study in Charlotte and talk with creative writing majors.

“I think it's really great to get to talk to somebody outside of the the faculty. The faculty is always so wonderful and they have so many different approaches and specializations, but it's fun to have someone come in who does something a little bit different,” she said. “Coming in to talk about my young adult novel is fun—it's really great to be able to work with students who are the perfect readers of that work, but who also someday might become practitioners of that work.”

Cavallaro remembers being one of those students and experiencing that connection with authors who inspired her.

“I remember hearing Yusef Komunyakaa read while I was there, and that was tremendous—but actually my keenest memory was the semester after I graduated,” she said. “They brought in the poet Stephen Dunn. I loved him! I loved him so much that a friend of mine and I drove seven hours to hear him read, and that was just amazing. I still think about that—his poems meant so much to me as a young writer, and that Interlochen brought him there—that was pretty fantastic.”

One of the things Cavallaro thinks is important for young writers to understand is that the writing should always come first.

“There are a lot of people who will say you should go out into the world, live really hard and do absolutely everything you can and you'll get back to the writing, and I think that's definitely one school of thought. But I always put the writing first as much as possible, and found myself time and space after college to keep writing—in graduate programs or supporting myself however I could. I think it's possible to be a serious writer without traipsing around Europe or being a rancher in Montana or living off your sailboat. I've lived a pretty quiet life, but I'm really proud of the work I've done and I think it's because I tried to put that first.

“I wish someone had told me that when I was younger, because I used to think, ‘What if I don't want to go backpacking in Thailand? Can I still be a writer?’”

With a three-book deal and a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for poetry under Cavallaro’s belt, the answer is definitely yes.

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