Flossmoor native Catie Disabato hit it big with her debut novel “The Ghost Network.”
Disabato, a 2004 graduate of Homewood-Flossmoor High School, talked to the H-F Chronicle about the teacher who inspired her, scenes she set in Flossmoor and what it’s like to write your first book — and find success.
1. You've said that H-F teacher Mort Castle was an early influence on your writing. Can you share any advice on being a writer that he might have passed along to you?
The most important thing that Mort Castle passed on to me wasn’t a single piece of advice or a snappy one-liner, it was an attitude. When I was at a very young age, he took my writing very seriously, which made me take the writing seriously. Mr. Castle taught me to change my idea of myself, from a girl who liked to write, to a girl who was a writer. That’s a huge distinction. I think that getting a head start on taking my work seriously was a major contributing factor in my ability to finish writing and publish a book at such a relatively young age.
2. How did you come up with the idea for "The Ghost Network”?
My first thought about the book was: I want to write a novel about a pop star who disappears at the apex of her career. That was the seed that ultimately grew into “The Ghost Network.” I’m also a huge fan of Haruki Murakami, who often writes novels about women who disappear and the men who search for them. I love his books, but I always wanted to read a story about a woman searching for someone who has disappeared, and from that idea, I developed the characters Caitlin Taer and Regina Nix, who are the ones primarily searching for the pop star Molly Metropolis. Or, they are the ones whose search we follow.
I also really like books-within-books, layers of narrative that speak to each other. From that little obsession of mine, I developed the fictional nonfiction structure of the book.
Basically, I took a lot of little ideas I had, a lot of little obsessions, and wove them into one (hopefully) harmonious whole.
3. The book deals, in part, with the Chicago train system, some of which has never been completed. Have you been to many (or all) of the locations in the book?
While I haven’t been to every single location in the book, I based many of them on places I’ve actually been. When I was in college, I spent a summer interning for a now-defunct feminist music magazine called “Venus Zine” and they had an office in this nondescript building on the corner of Armitage and Racine. That building became a key location in the book because I needed a building that seemed boring and normal from the outside.
Picking that building as a location, which I did off-handedly, actually turned out to dictate a lot of the little pieces of the book that make up the clues to help solve the mystery of what happened to Molly Metropolis.
There are also tons of Flossmoor locations in the book, all of which are completely based on my childhood! I wanted to include all the spaces in Flossmoor that meant the most to me.
Another major location, or series of locations, in the book are the trains themselves. I love trains, especially the public transit trains in Chicago. I started this book right after I first moved to Los Angeles, and one thing I really missed was having great public transit. Writing about the trains made me feel less homesick for them.
4. You have received very positive reviews on Slate and in the New York Times, as well as other media sites. What's it like to see that kind of reception for your first book?
The reception for “The Ghost Network” has been an absolute dream, an experience unlike anything I’ve ever felt or anything that will happen again. Even if my future novels get an equally good reception, it won’t be the first time, and I think the first time is special.
What really makes me happy isn’t just the fact that the reviews have been positive, but what that positivity means. I wanted the book to connect with people, to make them happy and excited. I wanted people to be excited and engrossed. It seems like that’s how people are responding, and that makes me happy beyond words.
5. Did you write the book for any specific audience in mind (such as mystery fans or the YA section or anything else)?
This is very clichéd, but I wrote the book because it was a book I would want to read. I wasn’t thinking about young adults or mystery fans or anyone like that while I was writing it. Once I finished it, I realized I wanted it to connect with mystery fans, and that I also wanted it to connect with teenage boys and girls. I think that when you’re in high school, connecting with one great book can turn someone into a reader for their whole life. I have a few books like that from my childhood, and I would be incredibly honored if my book becomes that important to anyone in their teens.
One thing that I was worried about before it was published was whether men would be interested in this book. Most of the characters are female and it’s about the world of a pop star – obviously, the book contains so much more than that, and I believe men would like the female characters and the pop star world. I was worried men wouldn’t get past the description to discover what was inside. I shouldn’t have worried! It seems like men and women are responding with equal excitement, which I’m so happy about.
6. The Ghost Network is published by Melville House, an extremely well-thought-of publisher. How did you find your publisher?
While I was writing the book, I started taking writing workshops from a writer and teacher in Los Angeles named Edan Lepucki (who wrote an amazing novel called “California”; everyone should read it). Edan gave me notes on this novel at every stage of writing. She became a mentor and a friend.
Edan knew an editor at Melville House named Kirsten Reach, and Edan thought Kirsten would love my book. A little bit behind my back, Edan started giving Kirsten updates on the progress I was making on my novel and once it was finished, Edan brought me up to speed and gave Kirsten my email address. Kirsten asked to read it, I sent it, and she liked it.
There were a few complications on the road to Melville House making the final decision to buy my book, some edits I had to make before they could take it on, but once those little bumps were smoothed out, the rest was kismet. All of Kirsten’s colleagues at the publishing house also liked my book, so they decided to go ahead and publish it.
7. How long did it take to write the book?
I wrote the very first words of the novel in December 2008 and I finished the last copy edit for Melville House in February 2015. So, about seven years all told.
8. Can you describe the process of working on the book — when did you write it, did you have a routine for working on it?
I wrote the first draft of the novel in about a year (2009). And at that time, I was writing new pages all the time, sometimes 10 in a week, sometimes less. After that, I never really had a regular routine. With my day job, I had an irregular schedule, so I never had a writing schedule like, “I’ll write every Monday.” I had specific goals I would set, like: this week I’m going to revise chapter one. And then, I would take as many days as necessary to complete that task. I didn’t always meet my goals! But I was always trying.
9. What are you working on now?
A new novel! It’s in the very earliest stages.
10. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
This is mostly for fiction writers: While you’re writing, don’t worry about publishing. Take your writing seriously and know that publishing is your ultimate goal, but don’t think through all the steps of getting a novel or a story published. Concentrate on creating something you are proud of, that you love even after you’ve gone through it a million times, something you feel really represents the best of you. The easiest way to get published is to have something good. Something good will find an audience and a home. Wait until you have that good thing, then figure out how to send it out into the world. This takes a lot of patience, I think, so my advice would also be to be patient. That was a hard lesson for me to learn, personally. But I’m glad I found my patience.
Contact Tom Houlihan at [email protected]
"The Ghost Network"