After graduating from Willamette University with a degree in English and Psychology, author, book-designer and illustrator Rebecca A. Demarest attended Emerson College, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing and, for her thesis, wrote the first draft of what would become her debut novel, Undeliverable. The story of a broken man and his heart-rending search for his lost son, Undeliverable was published in March of 2014. Demarest has since followed it up with The Scholar and the Farmer’s Daughter, a short fairy tale about courtship, and Thea of Oz, in which readers are transported back to the world of Oz for a magical tale of adventure featuring a descendent of the legendary Dorothy.
Demarest has also had stories published in several journals, including Origami and Far Off Places, and on NPR. In her free time, she reads, writes, crochets, gardens, and goes rock climbing with her boyfriend.
For more information about Demarest and her works, visit her online at www.rebeccademarest.com.
What was your upbringing like, and how did it shape who you are today?
Well, for one thing, my family moved a LOT. I was born in Texas, moved to Northern California, then to Illinois, Southern California, then to New Jersey, once inside New Jersey, then to Washington state where I graduated high school. I then went to college in Oregon while my family moved oversees to England. And we still haven’t stopped, obviously, since I’m now in Boston and my parents are now in Pittsburgh and my brother is in New York.
For a while, it was hard to make friends, and I spent most of my time reading, which put me ahead of my grade book-wise, but behind the curve in social skills. I caught up in high school and college, and social media has made it infinitely easier to stay connected to the people I end up leaving behind, which is very nice. But suffice to say, I became a writer because I spent so much time with books. They were how I learned about the world, what it means to be human.
My family is also incredibly close-knit because of all the moving. No matter who else we might have at any given time, our family was always going to be there. I am more and more grateful for that fact the more I interact with the world and my friends and see just how many people grow apart from their families.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
It’s quite a long list, actually, but here we go: Terry Pratchett, Patricia C. Wrede, Tamora Pierce, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Jim Butcher, Bruce Coville, Scott Nadelson, Michael Strelow, Steve Yarbrough… I know there are more, but those are the ones that jump into my head right now.
How did you first become aware of and interested in the Lost Letters Office, which plays a central role in the story of Undeliverable?
I found an old article that circulated in some back corner of the internet when I was in college. It talked about some of the weirdest things that had been lost over the years, and which can be seen at the National Postal Museum in D.C. I know, riveting, right? Well, the museum is a lot more interesting than you might think, and the center itself is fascinating. So much mail goes through on any given day, and they make thousands upon thousands of dollars auctioning off the stuff that is lost.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during the writing of Undeliverable?
Well…I almost got arrested. No joke. I had been having trouble getting in touch with anyone from the Mail Recover Center (nee The Lost Letters Office. It got rebranded a while back), and so I decided to just go down to Atlanta and knock on their door. Well, the very nice lady who opened the door informed me that it is illegal for them to talk to anyone about anything having to do with the center, but I could come to the auction the next day, which we were planning on doing anyway. So she shut the door, I took a couple pictures of the building for reference, and we went back to my uncle’s house.
The next day when we showed up for the auction, there were two police officers waiting for us and came over to confront us about taking pictures. We were then informed that taking pictures of government buildings was a felony, I had to delete them immediately, and I was not allowed to record ANYthing in ANY fashion when I was in the auction. We agreed, I lied about having recording devices in my bag, and sat petrified through the auction that I would be caught. But no joke, when you pick up your catalog at the auction, there’s a big ‘ol printed rule section which includes, “You may not take recordings of any kind, including picture and voice recordings.”
I’m not sure what the Center has to hide, but I can guarantee you I had to make almost everything about their operations up because I wasn’t allowed to actually DO any research besides read the few articles and chapters here or there on the Lost Letters Office. There really isn’t much at all, and some of it dates back to the turn of the LAST century, so I’m sure its a bit out of date.
What made you decide to write a story based in the world of Oz? What do you find most interesting and/or exciting about that universe?
Actually, it was a prompt for a journal. The Fairy Tale Review was doing an Oz themed issue, and I wanted to submit, so I sat for a couple months wracking my brains as to what I wanted to write before coming up with the concept for Thea of Oz. When all was said and done, it was just a bit too long for a journal story, and I had all these ideas for a series of small, illustrated novellas, so I decided to run with it. Thea is up for sale, the second one is being illustrated now, and I have the third one outlined already.
The most fun thing about the Oz universe is its malleability. I sat down and read all 14 Oz novels, made copious notes, and started trying to fit my own story into the Oz universe when I realized that I could do literally anything I wanted to with it. Baum had a bad habit of not keeping a “bible” for his universe; he didn’t keep track of details or things that he said were impossible, and so actually contradicted himself multiple times over the course of his publications. Which means that I had full license to make Oz what I needed it to be to bring Thea’s story to life. Not that I didn’t borrow liberally from the readily established rules and tropes, because there are some damn creepy ones in there (read the story about the Tin Man and Tin Soldier going off to find their love), but I was free to add or take out anything that was in the way of my story because Oz is literally whatever you make it to be.
How have you evolved as a writer over the years?
You know, the biggest evolution is probably in how I approach revision. I started off as any young, first-time writer does, thinking that I had to get it perfect the first time through, and would agonize over the work. Then, once I was through the first draft, I thought it was perfect and awesome and had no room for improvement. Obviously. Once I grew up a bit, I actually started to learn to enjoy editing and revising. It’s freeing once you tell yourself that it doesn’t matter what goes on the page the first time through, you just need to get the story and the ideas out, and you can always go back and make it better. And in revising, you’re given this wonderful opportunity to make something the absolute best it can be. There are not a lot of art forms or careers where this is the case, and I feel lucky that I can go back over my work as many times as I want and tweak it here or there so that it has the exact impact I want it to have.
What has been the happiest time or moment of your life?
I… umm… you know, there have been a LOT of those in my life. Most of them with my family and my boyfriend. And most of those have taken place in the out-of-doors. I’m always happier when I’m around a lot of trees, or on the water. But I don’t think I can pinpoint just one moment that I would call the happiest. I’m an eternal optimist, so I look back on my life and see quite a bit of happy.
What do you enjoy most about living in Boston?
A lot of things, actually. I’ve never been a big city person, but Boston has this fabulous neighborhood culture where each part of the town has its own distinct personality and flow. There are a ton of cultural experiences of the standard variety (museums, music, festivals) but there is also a huge geek culture here stemming from the presence of more colleges than are probably useful. Around MIT, there are a ton of nerd/geek-themed eateries and pubs, and PAX East is based out of Boston. So there are a lot of my kind of people around!
What’s the best meal you’ve eaten recently?
Oh my gosh, I just tried this new restaurant in our neighborhood that does Argentinian cuisine and they make the most divine empanadas ever. Those dipped in their homemade chimichurri sauce, with their garlic crusted deep fried thick potato slices (Tango fries they call them), and their salad is my new absolute favorite meal.
What was your favorite childhood cartoon?
Oh, THAT is the hardest question I have probably ever been asked. I would probably have to say that the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon held my loyalty for the longest time as a kid. The new stuff all sucks… they turned April from a bamf reporter who wasn’t afraid to take chances to a token set of mammary glands. I was also a huge fan of Reboot, and a lot of the old classic cartoons. Today, I am a huge fan of the Avatar series: Last Airbender and Book of Korra. Fabulous writing and art.
What are you working on next?
A whole host of things. I’m working on a sequel to Undeliverable that explores what happened to Benny after his abduction, the second and third novellas in The Ozite Cycle, I’ve got a fantasy novel I’m shopping around right now called Less Than Charming, and I’m working on the sequel to that, and I’m working on a series of short stories/novellas based in a sci-fi universe that I’ve tentatively titled Ask Corporate.
I’m also actively involved on the publishing side of two projects: The Seattle Play Series and a horror collection Dark Holidays. I’m handling design and marketing for both of these books, and have a play included in the Seattle Play Series, which is up for production this next year in Seattle. If you’re curious about any of these projects, check out my website!