The Innate Appeal of Freaking Yourself Out: Talking to Lisa Selin Davis about Hüsker Dü and Unlikeable Characters

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“I didn’t realize I’d tapped into various zeitgeists and memes,” says Lisa Selin Davis. Like a lot of what the journalist, author (of the 2005 novel Belly), and longtime Park Slope resident says, it’s an effortlessly clever quip with a hint of self-deprecation. And this one-liner is particularly apt—Davis hadn’t read many recent YA novels, yet Lost Stars (out yesterday), a love story with a stubborn, intellectual, and effortlessly cool protagonist, has already earned comparisons to genre favorites like Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park.

Such comparisons come as a pleasant surprise to Davis, whose idea for Lost Stars traced back to a five-minute tale of manual labor and first love she shared at a Moth StorySLAM hosted by the Bell House in Gowanus.

“About ten years ago, I went to [a StorySLAM] not really knowing what it was, thinking, ‘This is the coolest. I want to do this someday,’” she says. When “someday” came around, the assigned theme of the night was dirt—not the most resonant subject for Davis. Eventually, though, she settled on a story from the summer of her sixteenth year, when she joined Saratoga Spa State Park’s youth conservation corps at the behest of her father and stepmother.

“It wasn’t a story I told a lot,” says Davis. “It wasn’t on my roster.” But dirt—physical dirt, that is—played a part in the narrative of that summer; much of her time on the job was spent building footbridges and weeding. Hearing the story now, it’s remarkable that this wasn’t a memory Davis revisited often; it’s an innately relatable, painfully funny story with a conclusion that’s downright swoon-worthy.

As a teen, Davis interpreted the job as a kind of punishment for her adolescent misbehavior. “I thought, ‘Now no one will ever like me because I have to ride my bike and wear this hard hat and these work boots,’” she says. And yet, she still caught the attention of someone she’d had a crush on for some time, a boy who noticed her because of the bike, hard hat, and boots she so loathed. It all sounds so much like the best John Hughes movies that the built-in soundtrack—Davis admits she adopted the musical tastes of boys she liked, so the Replacements and Hüsker Dü were in heavy rotation then—is almost too cinematic. Naturally, the StorySLAM presentation was a hit.

It took time for Davis to fully understand the potential of the story. In 2014, she retooled it for the New York Times Modern Love column. After it was published and Davis was able to cross both “Tell a story at The Moth” and “Write an NYT Modern Love essay” off her bucket list, a friend and fellow novelist read the essay and posed a simple question: “You know that’s a young adult novel, right?” Davis couldn’t help but agree, and thus Lost Stars was born.

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As the novel came together, she gifted her protagonist, sixteen-year-old Carrie, with a love for astrophysics. It’s a passion of Davis’s, but she’s the first to admit it’s never been her strong suit.

“The only subject I truly sucked [in school] at was science,” she says. “I couldn’t think abstractly in the way it required.” Even so, she’s never gotten over what she describes as “the innate appeal of freaking yourself out” with how much she, and even the most brilliant, prodigious thinkers in the history of physics (Nobel winner Richard Feynman is a favorite of hers), will never truly know about the universe. Davis chose to incorporate that idea by having Carrie study the arrival of a comet—appropriate, given that Halley’s comet had come around mere months before Davis fell in love that one summer—and since Halley’s didn’t line up quite right chronologically, she invented an astronomical event of her own. But she had help, seeking aid from Dr. Federica Bianco at NYU’s Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics. After consulting with Davis about when and where Lost Stars was set, Bianco set a course for their creation: the Vira comet, one of the (for lack of a better word) stars of the novel.

Davis never intended to contribute to YA’s pantheon of quirky-yet-cool girl characters when she stepped onstage at the Bell Houser. Given the (well-deserved) buzz surrounding Lost Stars, it appears as though she’s done it anyway. The world can always use more of what Davis calls “cool nerdy science girls,” and she’s happy to provide.

Photos via Amazon

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