A Conversation with Brandy Colbert

Brandy Colbert's debut novel Pointe is the story of Theo, an ambitious young ballet dancer whose life is upended when her childhood best friend, abducted four years earlier, suddenly returns. Theo is a rich and complicated character, both wise beyond her years and desperately naive, but it's her meticulously crafted and vivid voice that really sets Pointe apart. Brandy Colbert talked to me about ballet, books, and finding her own voice as a writer.

Theo has a complicated relationship with ballet throughout the book--on the one hand, her ambition and her talent give her life a defining focus, and she loves ballet more than anything else; on the other, it's a world that emphasizes her difference and implicitly supports a lot of her unhealthy behaviors (her eating disorder in particular). Was that tension something you were thinking about consciously as you worked on the book? Why ballet?

The ballet came first and then as I kept writing, I worked to weave it purposefully into the narrative. Like, yes, Theo is a serious dancer, so her focus is going to be dance first and foremost, but it would be impossible to ignore the various ways it filters into her life. The recurrence of her anorexia is definitely related to the world she aspires to enter professionally, but I never wanted it to appear clich├ęd, as obviously not all dancers suffer from eating disorders and not all people with eating disorders are drawn to the dance world. She wasn't pressured by her dance teacher or ballet friends to lose weight, but I felt it was in line with Theo's personality that she'd do whatever it took to be the best and take that to the extreme. And then it was a way for her to gain some control, as she was blindsided by so many things at once--her former best friend being alive and being returned after four years in captivity, along with realizing her connection to his abduction.

It's also a dream to have a book about a black teenage ballet dancer published. I danced for a long time growing up, and although I didn't take many ballet lessons as a child, I was obsessed with ballet books and there were none featuring people who looked like me back then. I labored for a long time over the passage in my book where Theo talks about wanting to be the best and how there are very few black ballet dancers out there, but she won't let that stop her. I never want to be too heavy-handed with a "message," as I think readers should and will take what they want from a book. But it was important to me to acknowledge that Theo knows exactly how far black woman dancers have (or have not) gotten in the professional world, and that she wants people to see her as being at the top of her game, whether or not they factor in her skin tone.

I loved how ambiguous so many of Theo's relationships are throughout the book, and for me so much of Pointe is about her struggle to decide which relationships in her life are healthy and which are damaging. You worked on Pointe for a long time--did those relationships grow more complex as you revised the book?

Oh, they definitely did! I remember after working on it for (what I thought was) a very long time, feeling like the supporting characters were fully fleshed out and becoming real people and my editor was like, "Ha ha ha, no." Well, she was much nicer than that, but she did push me to keep working harder on characterization through each draft. Those revisions were tough and somewhat tedious, but it really helped me see that the characters needed to serve a purpose in Theo's life, whether in her past or present interpretation of how she views the world. I'd say that Hosea and Ruthie probably changed the most from first to final draft, and both ended up taking on roles that surprised me.

You've said elsewhere that you found your voice once you "stopped worrying what people would think of me for writing dark books about complicated topics." Was there one thing that pushed that shift, or was that evolution more gradual?

The impetus was Courtney Summers' debut novel, Cracked Up to Be [IT'S REALLY GOOD --ed.], which I read shortly after it was released in 2009, and that changed the whole writing game for me. I've always been interested in learning a lot about dark stories (maybe best not to mention how many hours I've logged reading up on serial killers and abductions), and when I first started writing YA, I was focused on tackling tough topics but I was holding back. Censoring myself, if you will. It's sort of tragic to look back on all those stifled storylines but all writing is good practice, and thank god for Cracked Up to Be. It was a tough book to get through--Summers' books are some of my absolute favorites, even if they give me serious anxiety while reading--but as soon as I finished, I knew: This is what I want to write.

It still took a while after that, to be a truly honest writer. The characters I wanted to create said and did "unlikable" things and I was worried that no one would want to read about girls with strong opinions who made unpopular decisions and went after what they wanted, even if it wasn't the right choice. I kept reading--books like Living Dead Girl and Wintergirls and Such a Pretty Girl (hmm, there seems to be a theme with those titles, no?--and learned there were many dark, dark books out there for teens that beautifully and realistically covered difficult topics without being preachy, and that maybe there could be a place for books like that written by me. Theo's voice came to me very clearly and I knew right away that I wanted to hang out with her--create impossible scenarios to see how she did (or didn't) handle them.

Can you talk about what you're working on now?

I am the vaguest when it comes to this answer (partly because I am superstitious about discussing my incomplete work, and partly because I'm really bad at talking about any of my work), but I will say it's another YA. It's about a blended family and relationships and and vices and judgment, and how a black teenage girl is dealing with all of that in Los Angeles.

What have you read lately that you've loved?

Some of these were read toward the end of 2013, as I sadly haven't had as much time to read for pleasure as I'd like to this year (though the towering piles of books in my house would lead one to think otherwise), but I'd say: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt [IT'S SO GOOD. --ed.], Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn [IT'S SO GOOD. --ed.], The Color Master by Aimee Bender, and Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour.

Brandy Colbert grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and has worked as an editor for several national magazines. She lives and writes in Los Angeles. Pointe is her first novel.