“Why didn’t she say something?” That’s what a reader asked me back in 2013, angered that Wendy suffered in silence after an assault. My YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, grapples with a survivor’s dilemma: speak up and risk not being believed—or worse, being destroyed by the perp and the public.
And listen to the same chorus ringing out today.
When a woman speaks out shouldn’t be the point, but watch it become the subject. Trust that Wendy’s silence is complicated, as is her eventual speaking out.
The simple truth is what Jessica Goldstein said so well recently in McSweeney’s: “As young girls, we feel like maybe now is a good time to just throw something out there. See if it sticks. A PSA to all grown men on the face of the Earth: We do not want to have sex with you.”
Let’s try this again: Why didn’t she say something?
Because what happened is too horrible to put into words.
Because reliving it might make you faint or vomit. Or kill yourself.
Because he’s older.
Because Mom is overwhelmed by her life and always upset about something.
Because he’s Mom’s boyfriend.
Because he knows a ton of people in this town.
Because you won’t be believed.
Because everyone will talk about you.
Because now you’ll be That Girl.
Because everyone else is living a simpler, happier life and your trauma will interrupt theirs.
Because you’ll be asked why–about the outfit, about the time, about the situation. About the relationship.
Because you must have done something to encourage him.
Because smart girls should know better.
Because the candy store at the mall uses girl bodies to sell sugar.
Because someone near you just made a joke about sluts.
Because you’re busy looking over your shoulder in the parking lot.
Because close to 50% of Alabama electorate just voted for a pedophile.
Us writers, we have wa-a-a-a-a-y too much to say. Just like teachers, just like teens. All of whom I’ll find a way to mention in this post.
One time when I was teaching English, I took a group of 10th graders on a walk. We were reading Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, who risked his life in the wilderness of Alaska instead of embracing a mainstream lifestyle. We took a meditative walk on a trail through the woods in a local park and preserve. “15 minutes of quiet,” I told my class. “That’s all you have to do. Walk. Breathe. Think.”
“Jeremy!” I called as gently as I could. “Please, be quiet!”
“Okay, Ms. Fairchild.” And yet he kept talking.
“Jeremy!” I raised my voice. “I mean it!”
We had quiet for a brief respite. Then: more chatter.
“Jeremy!” I’d had it. “Why can’t you meditate for a minute? Close. Your. Mouth!!!”
“But Ms. Fairchild!” he called back. “I just have so much to say!”
He’s a musician now. I’m so glad I couldn’t shut him up.
I was that talkative kid, and am that kid still. Many people who become teachers are the highly verbal souls, storytellers enamored of narrative and lovers of wordplay. We love the stage, the drama, the moment when the right words fall into the right order.
Minerva Mae Christopoulos is that girl brimming with opinion, and synonym, and late-breaking tickers of news. She wants to be Christine Amanpour. She wants to expose corruption and be a journalist in a world where people are a bit fuzzy on what constitutes honest news. Her hashtag? #truthwillout.
Robin Follet found a way to bring her character to visual life in our collaboration, Minerda, and visualize the writerly kid who keeps jabbering when one no one wants to listen. Robin’s amazing illustrations do the talking, in a way my novel couldn’t. I tried a prologue. I tried weaving in back story, so people could empathize with Minerva and understand why she’s so angry at certain girls when she hits high school. The solution was a prequel in the form of a graphic novella–and it became a rewarding collaboration.
If you know my work, you know that bullying threads through all my books: How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought; in my forthcoming novel, How Minerva Mae Christopoulos Set the Record Straight; and in my short-story collection, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future. Wherever people indulge what Dr. King called “the drum major instinct,” dividing us up by race, religion, sexual orientation, and every other label, there’s a story to tell about the power plays. I want to explore how we can rise above the meanness.
Bullying is a case of “too much to say” in all the wrong ways. It’s viral now because the Internet lets us wag our tongues all day and night. Anonymously. And what’s the most fascinating thing to wag your tongue about? Conflict. Fear. Hate. We love drama. Our culture is obsessed with spectating pain. We’ve got Twitter wars, we’ve got trolls, and all kinds of new phrases for today’s ways of hating on one another.
As a person with so much to say, and as fallible as anyone else, I have to ask: How can I expose what’s happening? How can I help change the dialogue?
We handed our kids something with more computing power than our first rockets into space–the smartphone–and then we walked away, saying, Good luck out there, kids. Godspeed in the biggest and most unsupervised library/public park/cage fight you could ever imagine.
Art helps us stop and ask why. I write because I figure it’s a way to reach a kid who needs the hotline at the end of the book and get her asking for help. It’s a way to help the parent, teacher, or counselor ask a teen how his day was. This book is for any of us haunted by someone’s words, still rattling our bones and shaking our confidence in grown-up situations, reminding us to change the dialogue in our heads. Maybe because of art, we’re sometimes a little softer, gentler with each other, for having walked momentarily in memory or someone else’s shoes.
Art allows exposure. My books out the dark, ugly scrawl of what we text, post, and tweet, unable to see the face of the recipient but still so sure those words need to be said. All my stories are grounded in the technology of the time and show how we and our kids navigate the wilds of things such as Twitter, Tumblr, ask.fm, and Snapchat. Once you see it in black and white, not so ephemeral, it might hit you in the gut and wonder if you should pass this book along to a teen. That’s some ugly stuff Lyn just printed. Then check a teen’s phone and then you might just pass this along. Because my books celebrate the youth who question this, who want the verbal violence to stop, and who will actually take some kind of action to stop it.
A side note about Snapchat, known as the sexting app: it’s now known for “stories.” One blogger recently shared how and why Snapchat is popular with the under-25 set because of the ability to a) share a tale and b) live in the now, just like physical interaction. You send your series of snaps (stories), the in-the-moment life you’re leading. No filters, no edits, no lies. No comments, no likes.
Less scrutiny means less chance for bullying.
If the epidemic of verbal violence today were a viral or bacterial outbreak, we’d take immediate and forceful action. We’d find the sources of transmission and intervene. Quarantine, clean, remove what’s necessary. We’d wash our hands of the ubiquitous technology–i.e., turn it off, monitor better, say it’s time for a break now–and rest in the moment without comments. My generation wasn’t haunted by tormentors during the ABC Afterschool Specials, because we could turn off school when we got home. We didn’t have to pick up the phone or go outside. We silenced the exchange for a time. We got a break, but kids today do not.
Let’s fill the airwaves and the wifi with whatever is pure, good, right. And whenever we can, stop, disconnect from the drama, and tell the truth.
As Minerva might say, fist in the air: #truthwillout.
Writers don’t talk about how we’re constantly living with a couple lovers in our heads.
You know I mean characters, right? The figments we create, the protagonists and antagonists, Frankensteins we piece together to make a walking, talking body so readers will believe the very aliveness.
As I’ve slogged through my second novel in the Gifted, Weird, Wise Girl series, I’ve pursued Minerva, my teen narrator, trying to understand her heart and soul. The obsession is not unlike crushes I had on guys when I was a teen, the ones I only caught glimpses of in the halls. I’d overhear a conversation, get an accidental glance, then make a feature film out of those details. I crush on every one of my characters, dying to get to know them.
When you fall for someone, you see that person everywhere. Minerva haunts my commute to work and songs on the radio, she comes to mind when I’m reading a seemingly unrelated NPR story, she flickers through the pop culture drivel of the E Channel updates. Minerva, Minerva, Minerva—how can I help people see all your beauty?
Just like a crush out of reach, a character is that unfathomable mystery you hope to crack by the book’s end. And after you paint the glowing portrait, much like a propaganda dance in that first draft, you find good friends to bring you up short with a reality check. Thank God for beta readers. They’ll help you back off the obsession, put your stalkerish needs in perspective, and start editing to make the character more than a Sleeping Beauty or a Prince Charming—a real-life, flawed kid that makes the reader flip a page.
Minerva wants to take over the world as a journalist and be Christine Amanpour. She is disheveled with wild curly hair, and whenever she speaks, abrasive and always spouting big words. She challenges her teachers and her peers. And she wants to exact revenge on her bullies since childhood: girls whom she’s named The Bitches on Behalf of Carli. Minerva adores her best friend, Diana, the one who saved Minerva from lonely misery in seventh grade. Now it’s ninth grade and Minerva is poised to remedy the past by making a mark on the school with her words—and fighting back should the Bitches dare mess with her again.
Because I was so obsessed and somewhat blind while writing the first draft, I missed the fact my girl was too vengeful in the first act, never mind somewhat cold. I forgot to show depth and range of her loyalty and passions. Funny how devotion can look hard as metal and passion, dark and ugly. As I’ve walked with my character through the second phase of life, my love has deepened to something more mature, a relationship where I still adore despite the flaws, and still fight to the end for her rights.
I realized my deep love for Wendy Redbird Dancing when after three years, this hot mess of a girl and I were still friends and she, stronger in fiction than I’ve ever been in real life. She’s made bigger mistakes, taken greater chances, and survived more trauma than I. My heroine, my touchstone, my pal.
There are many strategies out there to get to know your character, and I’m a fan of list-making brainstorms and also Elizabeth George’s methods of character building (see her book Write Away). I think one truism that writers don’t want to admit when starting a novel is, It takes time. Lots of it. Just as you don’t really know a friend or a a spouse until it’s been a year or so—and even then, that’s truly just the beginning!—you don’t know your character till you’ve wandered in the woods with this person a good nine months. Of course I chose that symbolic gestation time; we can now switch to metaphors of birth and such.
Sorry, Relentless Era of Instant Gratification: you can’t know a character till you take that time. We may wish we could author books just like machines, but the laws of writing physics don’t move. There must be the ups and downs as there always are in the relationship rollercoaster, and ugly truth must surface as much as pretty epiphany.
The fact is, I’m in a relationship, and I’ve committed to this girl for life.
Do you believe in spirits? I do, and Wendy Redbird Dancing does. Someday soon Minerva Mae, my next gifted, weird, wise girl in progress, will realize that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in her facts-only philosophy. I’m thrilled to have mystery author C. Hope Clark pay a visit to my blog to talk spirits and some of life’s mysteries.
Halloween was a candy holiday for me as a child. Few tricks made me jump. I never was one much for haunted houses or graveyard treks, either, except for the time I volunteered to be Frankenstein for the school’s fundraiser, and a scared boy almost broke my hand kicking me.
I don’t mean the macabre sort of being that scares people then hacks their heads off. I’m talking about the essence of humans who have died but not moved on. I choose to believe their presence can be true. It makes a sort of sense. That energy has to go somewhere; why not amongst us?
We all have our What If stories, where we aren’t sure if something we heard, saw or felt was a ghost. Most of us are too afraid to mention them for fear of being taunted, but in close circles of friends we trust, we bring them up.
For instance, the year after my grandmother died, she appeared to me in a dream, led me through the sky to a church on a hill, and pointed to a cross. The message I read was that she now knows that religion is real. I recall my mother turning pale when I described the experience.
Fast forward to my adulthood. I built my current home on the site of a small, hand-built house we had torn down. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Christmus, died in their eighties. He loved the place, having done most of the building. It faced the lake, and even when he couldn’t walk much, he rode a riding lawnmower to check out his garden and get the mail. He died there. She left a year later to an assisted living facility and died shortly thereafter. Before we tore down the house, I spent many days in it trying to envision how this family lived, wondering how I could respect their memories. I could sense them unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Picking through the personal items, I saved doilies, a Depression glass platter, a butterbean bowl, a velvet rocking chair, and several other mementos that seemed too precious to dispose of. That was nine years ago.
Almost every night now when I’m in my recliner, watching my token mystery show, I smell cigarette smoke between ten and eleven P.M. Some evenings it can make me cough. Keep in mind that nobody has ever smoked in my home. However, Mr. Christmus smoked. I often wonder if he’s making himself at home, and if he approves of his new digs. If he ever appeared, I don’t know what I’d do. Thus far, he honors my wishes of keeping things aromatic.
Some late night evenings, my dachshunds walk to the doorway and look into the next room, toward where we used to keep a dog bed that belonged to two other dogs that are passed on. Those two older dogs were precious to us, and I often wonder if they stroll around enjoying their old lives as my current puppies study those that occupied this home before them. My husband used to jest. It’s happened enough now that he no longer laughs.
Sometimes he smells the cigarette smoke, too.
I run all my experiences by a close friend of mine on Edisto Beach who is visited by spirits on auspicious days like birth and death days. She can name which relative appears on which day. Her jewelry gets moved, water comes on, lights flip off, the usual. Occasionally a waft of cologne blows across the air. A tissue flutters when there is no air. I used to chuckle at her stories. Today I grab a drink and listen.
I no longer discount the presence of spirits. While I have no proof they are there, I also have no proof they aren’t. To me, there’s something comforting about the idea we will be able to see people left behind once we pass on to the next life.
I’m a Southern author, and a couple of my books hint about haunts, or haints as they’re called in many places in the South. That’s what my grandfather called them. Ain’t with an H.
In my first mystery series, Tidewater Murder incorporated the Gullah culture that exists on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. They practice a voodoo of sorts, deeply entrenched in the actions of spirits. In addition to hexes and conjure bags, my protagonist also talks about the ghost of an old man who used to live in the house torn down near a lake. Imagine that.
In my second mystery series, Murder on Edisto takes place on gorgeous, secluded Edisto Island. A secondary character I created happens to look like my friend who happens to sage her home to rid it of bad spirits, and she takes time to entertain the good.
For future Edisto books, I’m researching the abundance of ghost stories in the region. The island owns a wealth of tales to include a love lost in a stormy sea, a bride murdered on her wedding day, and a child buried alive in a mausoleum. My spirit-loving character will have a chance to move front and center in those tales, and we’ll see just how much the spirits really love her. I can’t wait.
No, I’m not a fan of Halloween and all its silliness. Dracula, werewolves, zombies, they’re not real. But when it comes to spirits of people who’ve once been on this earth, people who had a story and seem to still want to relive it, I sit up and take notice. They receive a nod from me, and maybe a place in my next book. Hopefully that will give them something to take back to Spirit Central, on the days they aren’t kicking up their heels on Earth.
Hope Clark still smells cigarettes at night and gives her spirit his distance. She’s written the award-winning Carolina Slade Mysteries and the newly-released Murder on Edisto, the first in The Edisto Island Mysteries. She lives on the banks of Lake Murray most of the time, with frequent trips to Edisto Beach. Learn more at www.chopeclark.com.
Note: Some of this post is adapted from “How Much Reality Can I Take,” posted originally on April 16, 2011.
“Time for another sweeping generalization: YA novels will end with more connections (new ones or healed ones) than disconnections. And most certainly, the book’s major relationships will not be left disconnected.….that teen reader is delivered to an emotionally safe landing place. The assurance that there will be such a landing place represents the line between YA and adult literary fiction.”
By page 24 of the YA novel Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters, we learn that the protagonist, Johanna, has lost her mother, has been abandoned by her sister, has been assaulted by a mentally disabled boy at school, and has a crush on a decidedly violent girl named Reeve. Oh, and did I mention that Johanna works for hospice?
When I pick up novels, I need a coherent story woven to produce meaning. I don’t turn to narrative for a “here’s what’s happening” reflection of reality, the fact that life is terrible sometimes or all the time. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, abandonment, and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. She also shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on either fear and lust.
This doesn’t mean Johanna won’t find parts of her best self beyond page 24. I just wasn’t willing to wait around for a sign.
By page 24 of my YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, we’ve seen Wendy at age 15 ripped from her home to a new state, furious with her narcissistic mother, and bullied by a Mean Girl. Enough bad things happen that a writing partner told me at one point during the drafting process, “I just want to see Wendy happy.”
I understood what she meant. I answered this concern by showing Wendy passionate about something, which led to new chapter where Wendy struts down a school hallway with her life soundtrack blaring, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Wendy’s not doing cartwheels of delight, but she’s empowered and she’s inspired, enough to take on the Mean Girl. I also revised to introduce two other teens, Tanay and Andrew, who reach out to Wendy and show an interest. It’s not happy-happy-joy-joy portrayal of life, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.
Is that enough light to balance the darkness? I like to think so.
I’m a huge fan of The Wire, The Killing, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and House of Cards. I willingly follow gruesome mafia killings, sociopathic politicians, and desperate drug deals. I do avert my eyes, I do gasp in horror, and I do think about these situations long after the credits roll. Why? In each of these stories, someone has hope, faith, or ambition to change something. The characters grow, they face consequences of their actions, and they struggle to find meaning. Even the sociopaths get their due; no one escapes unscathed.
Officer McNulty of The Wire strives to be “natural police,” and Bunk and other cops rise to the occasion alongside him. In Episode 4 of Season 1, McNulty and Bunk return to an old murder scene, and while cussing colorfully with gruesome images of the murder victim splayed out on kitchen linoleum, garner enough evidence that sloppy police work didn’t recover before. They go back to do a job right, and amidst the graphic horror of things, there is renewal and hope.
Weeds, on the other hand, I had to stop watching. Tell me if you love it and found a moment of redemption; I couldn’t stick around with the careless, flippant, and nihilist lifestyles.
I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. There are sociopaths, and there are pedophiles. But as I present shades of various hells on earth, I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess. I need my Wendys to find a reason to keep dancing.
Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no journey towards Good or Right, just photographic rendering of actions, habits, and tendencies, then those readers like me who believe there’s a purpose to our lives may not stay for the rest of the show.
At the end of the movie Immortal Beloved, the young Beethoven races away from home in the middle of the night, having been beaten horribly by his father–so badly, he will one day lose his hearing. The movie imagines young Ludwig diving into a pond and floating, a smile lighting his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, often called “Ode to Joy.” In the midst of great sorrow is respite and healing peace. While his ears ring with pain, the boy still hears the strains of a melody in his head, beauty he will one day create.
We all seek joy, that “bright spark of divinity” Schiller wrote of in his poem “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven set to music. Literature can give us that safe landing space where happiness thrives. Stories can let us trust for at least a moment, perhaps only in our heads, that all is well.
How much reality is too much reality in a young adult novel? Let me know your thoughts.
Ask these questions of your favorite YA novel: