Boston Book Club: The Possibilities of Sainthood
Boston University assistant professor Donna Freitas’ The Possibilities of Sainthood is a young adult novel about Antonia Lucia Labella, a 15-year-old girl who wants to become the first living saint. While the dead saints cover a lot of her adolescent tribulations, she petitions the Vatican to name her the much-needed saint of First Kiss and Kissing.
We talked to Freitas about whether her research into college hookup culture for her book Sex and the Soul influenced the novel, why Rhode Island makes a great place to set a story, and Gossip Girl’s effect on young adult literature.
Boston Daily: There are a lot of parallels between your life and Antonia’s life. How much of the novel is autobiographical?
Donna Freitas: I would say there are certainly a lot of elements in the novel inspired by parts of my life—the high school I went to, the uniform violations I used to commit. The part about the fig trees in the backyard was inspired by my mom. My Mom grew up above an Italian market my family still owns in Bristol, Rhode Island. She used to tell me all these stories about how hard it was to keep these fig trees alive through a Rhode Island winter. Those are my favorite stories she told when I was a kid.
BD: I like that the book walked a fine line where it’s innocent, but not naive. Lots of young adult literature has a lot of super-sexy Gossip Girl stuff going on.
DF: It’s definitely not Gossip Girl. Antonia goes to parochial school, so it’s not a fancy boarding school. It’s not even a fancy private Catholic school. Going to parochial school is like going to public school in a uniform. I had a pretty normal teenage life growing up. It was nothing flashy, but I had a lot of fun. Italians and Catholics are kind of made for comedy. And Rhode Island too. It’s such a quirky place.
BD: I’m a Rhode Islander myself, so I was excited that you showed Rhode Island some love. Did you ever consider setting the novel elsewhere?
DF: It was kind of a surprise when I started writing this novel. Rhode Island was just such a quirky, wacky place to grow up. It’s also a diverse place to grow up, in terms of ethnicity. It seemed to alive to me, so it seemed like the perfect place to set a novel.
BD: Did you ever meet Buddy Cianici? I lived too far south, so he didn’t care about us.
DF: I’ve been working on a sequel to The Possibilities of Sainthood, and there’s a two-time felon mayor. I couldn’t help that. You can’t make that up.
BD: I didn’t grow up Catholic, so bear with me. How does Antonia keep all those saints straight? Did she learn it by osmosis, or did she have an extraordinary interest?
DF: In her case, you could say it’s both. In her family, the saints are certainly important. And though she takes her interest in saints to a new level, it’s her new obsession. Some teenagers collect designer handbags, and Antonia collects knowledge of the saints.
When I started writing about a girl who wanted to be a saint, part of me was thinking about all these princess books that are out. I thought if Catholics have royalty, it’s the saints. So it’s a strange way of becoming a princess.
That’s one of the quirky aspects of Catholicism. There are almost 6,000 saints, and they’re so specific. Some of the specializations are so big. St. Jude is the saint of desperate causes and you pray to him when things are really dire. And then there are saints for spelunking.
BD: How did you keep them all straight when you were writing the book?
DF: I got these books that basically catalog all of the saints. It’s not like I have this encyclopedic knowledge, but I could imagine this teenage protagonist who was constantly looking them up and seeing what they were good for. It’s just become part of her life.
I was joking that I should have made Antonia a vampire since that’s the new YA trend. Then I was thinking to myself, “Wait a minute. Antonia talks to dead people all the time.”
BD: How did Sex and the Soul influence The Possibilities of Sainthood?
DF: The students I interviewed for Sex and the Soul helped me get a sense of teenagers today, but if there’s any relationship between that and The Possibilities of Sainthood it was unconscious. I almost feel like The Possibilities of Sainthood is almost the opposite of Sex and the Soul, in that it’s extremely innocent.
One of the things I kept hearing from students I interviewed for Sex and the Soul was that their understanding of romance was about talking. Just talking. They were very sad they weren’t living anything romantic because they’re stuck in hookup culture in college. I was writing The Possibilities of Sainthood while I was doing this study, but it wasn’t at all related. Maybe the irony is that I sort of wrote a novel that almost speaks to the students’ idea of romance.
BD: I think you gave the more physical aspect of teenagers’ lives a tip of the hat when her crush feels her up.
DF: Everybody keeps asking me if that’s autobiographical, which makes me horrified and I turn beet red. I think I was beet red when I was writing that scene. I don’t know where it came from—it just popped out. She has such a sense of what her first kiss is going to be like, and how wonderful and romantic it’s going to be. She had to have some sort of over-the-top disaster in the kissing department.
BD: When I was reading this book, the Gloucester teenagers were in the news. Since you’ve studied young people’s ideas about sex and romance, what do you think of that?
DF: I can speak better about hookup culture when I did my study. It seemed that all the students I talked to, both men and women who are in college and who are immersed in a very sexual hookup culture, don’t really like it. It’s like they’ve been thrown into an extremely sexually explicit culture before they even think about it. It takes them a while before they wake up and and realize it isn’t what they wanted out of their relationships.
More and more in young adult literature, you find sex being ubiquitous. Kids having sex, oral sex. It used to be rather taboo, and now it’s not, especially with Gossip Girl and the Gossip Girl-like series that have come out. I really think it’s important that there are young adult novels where there are protagonists who are still longing for that first kiss. Not everybody is Gossip Girl. Your average teenager girl and guy are not living it up in New York City in a private boarding school.
When I was working on the book, someone told me that while they really loved the novel, I should really make the protagonist 12-years-old because it was really unrealistic to have a 15-year-old girl who had never been kissed. And I don’t think that’s true. In fact, it make me more committed to having a 15-year-old girl who’s never been kissed. There needs to be literature out there that supports these kids.
BD: This makes me never want to have children.
DF: I’m on my way now to give a lecture about Sex and the Soul to college students. People have come out of the woodwork to have me talk to students about this culture. One of the things I tell college students right off the bat is that hookup culture is a lie. They think everybody loves it, but when I get them behind closed doors, both men and women tell me they don’t like it. They’re all participating in something none of them likes.
BD: How did everybody buy into this?
DF: A lot of it is perception. There are a few very influential people who really do love this culture. They sort of run the social scene, or at least appear to set the bar for how social interaction should go. Because they are the popular clique, everybody else feels they have to go along with it.
BD: So Antonia won’t be taking New York by storm in the sequel?
DF: No. She’s having a great life. She’s got two cute boys, she’s got an awesome best friend, she’s got enough drama and gossip in her high school. That’s your average high school experience. I think there are lots of Antonias out there who are happy to aspire to their first kiss. You don’t need to be Gossip Girl to be happy.
The Possibilities of Sainthood is in bookstores now.