I had the pleasure of meeting Karen Fortunati a few years ago at a writer’s retreat in Avalon NJ. We shared critiques and bonded over writing, the beach and sharing life stories. Her brilliant writing stood out then and has only gotten better. Karen’s debut YA, THE WEIGHT OF ZERO (Delacorte Press), will be out this fall and has already gotten raves and literary recognition. It is with great pleasure that I feature her on today’s post. Here’s Karen:
What’s In A Name? by Karen Fortunati
How do writers come up with their characters’ names? Divine inspiration? Subconscious memories intersecting with imagination? Focused creativity? Or just flat out making it up as we go along? For me, it’s a combo of all these methods. Here’s a little insight on the naming of some of my characters in The Weight of Zero.
Catherine Pulaski: The main character popped into my head with her first name firmly established. She was Catherine and there were no bones about it. Since writing her story, I’ve asked myself why “Catherine?” I’m guessing it’s because of my aunt/godmother, Catherine Lonski. Like my mother, she’s been a constant, positive and inspirational influence in my life. In addition, my mom has been interchanging my name with her sister’s for so long, the name feels like mine.
My mother, Margaret Angelo, Aunt Catherine (Lonski), Aunt Marilyn (Librizzi) (l to r) and little Emmy
Now my fictional Catherine didn’t come with a last name so I had to choose one. Having gone through an American Revolution obsession several years ago, I decided to use a general’s name. I choose Casimir Pulaski, a Polish citizen who became enamored with the cause for independence. Once he got to America, he turned out to be a brilliant tactician and has been called the “Father of the American Cavalry.”
So why him? First off, I’m part Polish. Second, the Pulaski name is familiar to me. I grew up in New Jersey and worked most summers at my father’s pharmacy in Newark. My favorite landmarks for the commute to the store were Newark Airport and the Pulaski Skyway, a huge elevated structure always hulking in the distance.
Coincidentally, my dad owned a pharmacy on Pulaski Street in Newark prior to buying the one I worked in for most of my childhood. After writing the story, I feel like I see the Pulaski name everywhere. During a summer trip, we passed signs for the Pulaski Highway in Maryland and it gave me a little thrill. On a visit to the University of Scranton, my alma mater, I discovered a statue of Pulaski in town. I don’t think I had ever noticed it before.
Me at the General Pulaski Monument in Scranton, Pennsylvania
Now, in writing this blog post, I’ve learned of another personal connection to General Pulaski. The general died on October 11th which also happens to be the release date of The Weight of Zero. In fact, October 11th is officially General Pulaski Memorial Day. I think the coincidence is weird but in a good way, like I made the right choice in choosing “Pulask
Jody Pulaski: Another name I purposely choose was Catherine’s mother, Jody. Originally, the mother’s name was Caroline (after one of my close friends) but due to the similarity of the two names, my editor thought something different might work better. This time the name jumped out at me – Jody – after one of my oldest and dearest friends. When I needed another name, I had to choose Stephanie, after another oldest and dearest and the remaining third of our friend triumvirate.
Jody Tole, Stephanie Hadley and me (l to r)
Jane Talmadge: I knew I would be naming one of my most favorite characters after my maternal grandmother, Jane. But my grandmother’s last name didn’t feel right so I used an old author pseudonym trick my younger brother Steven had told me about well before I even considered trying to write a book: Use your middle name and street name of house you grew up in. So I choose my grandmother’s first name and the street she raised my mother and her siblings on in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Aunt Darlene: Again, this was an easy one. I choose Darlene after Darlene Beck-Jacobson. I met Darlene at one of Kathy Temean’s Avalon Full Manuscript Writers Retreats a few months before the release of Darlene’s first book, the wonderful Wheels of Change. From the very start, she’s been a continually supportive and encouraging writing ally and I’m so grateful to have met her.
It’s funny just how much your own experiences inform your writing. In The Weight of Zero, it’s the relationships between the women in the story – mother, daughter, grandmother, aunt, friend – that help build a supportive network for Catherine. Looking back on the names I choose, I’m thinking that maybe my writing (and naming) was one way to honor these relationships in my own life.
The Weight of Zero: Contemporary Young Adult, Delacorte Press
Release Date: October 11, 2016
Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disease, has almost triumphed once, propelling Catherine to her first suicide attempt. With Zero only temporarily restrained by the latest med du jour, time is running out. In an old ballet shoebox, Catherine stockpiles medications, preparing to take her own life before Zero can inflict its own living death on her again.
But Zero’s return is delayed due to unexpected and meaningful relationships that lessen Catherine’s sense of isolation. These relationships along with the care of a gifted psychiatrist alter Catherine’s perception of her diagnosis as a death sentence. This is a story of loss and grief and hope and how some of the many shapes of love – maternal, romantic and platonic – impact a young woman’s struggle with mental illness.
A SUMMER/FALL 2016 INDIES INTRODUCE SELECTION
A SHELF AWARENESS BEA2016 YA BUZZ BOOK
A BARNES AND NOBLE 2016 MOST ANTICIPATED DEBUT
Kirkus: “Catherine’s acerbically witty narrative voice is razor sharp and often raw, and the confessional tone of her present-tense narration makes clear how overwhelming her pain is…. An honest, informative, and ultimately optimistic novel about living with mental illness.”
Darlene’s Review of THE WEIGHT OF ZERO:
Catherine – Cat – Pulaski is a high school junior navigating the ups and downs of adolescent friendships and relationships. She’s also preparing herself for the dreaded appearance of Zero by stockpiling medicine for its inevitable return. Cat is bipolar and Zero is the crippling depression that makes it impossible to live a normal life. A life that isn’t defined by her mother’s constant monitoring, therapy sessions, and a mood rating scale from 0-10. Zero found her once right after her grandmother died. Cat is determined not to let it get her again without a plan.
This amazing YA debut gives an honest and true voice to the silent and often un talked about world of mental illness. It is a story with humor, heart and hope. A story that will stay with you for a long time. It should be required reading for all high school students.