How long have you been writing?
I have been writing ever since I can remember. It's as much a part of me as my freckles or my terrible eyesight.
My sister is almost four years younger than me, and I remember telling her stories when she was too young to read. I loved fairy tales, so a lot of my early stories featured princess sisters and evil witches and trolls. As I got older, I wrote short stories about girls my age and how they handled problems ranging from racial discrimination to life after an apocalypse.
I started submitting my stories and poems to magazines like Seventeen and Mademoiselle when I was in middle school. Every one came back with a rejection. I did win a local contest sponsored by the local library, and one of my stories was bound in a book. I'll never forget the feeling of holding that book in my hands—I think that was the moment I first felt like a "real" writer.
What were you like in high school?
I was what is euphemistically called a "late bloomer." I felt ungainly and unattractive and clumsy. I was in the orchestra, did not play sports, excelled at things like math and spelling and found it nearly impossible to understand, much less navigate, the complex social hierarchy at school. I didn't date, and I started working at part-time jobs when I was fourteen so I didn't participate in any after-school activities.
I now understand that I had some serious attention issues, and it was very difficult for me to focus in class. I remember school as excruciating, alternating between deathly boredom and an overwhelming sense that I would never fit in. My parents went through a difficult divorce, which added to my sense of isolation.
One of the gifts of my adult friendships has been to find out that everyone struggled in high school. I frequently felt like I was the only person who hated the way I was, who wished for a fairy godmother who would change not only my circumstances but who I was at the very core. I thought that the cheerleaders and class presidents and football players were all confident and happy, but my adult friends who were in that group in high school tell me they had plenty of their own problems. Growing up is a momentous and difficult job for everyone.
Did you model the main character in BANISHED after yourself?
In some ways, Hailey is very much like I was at sixteen. She also feels socially isolated and is unable to form friendships with the kids at school, although in her case there are other forces at work related to her dark legacy and the powers she doesn't realize she has.
Hailey has a lot of responsibilities since her grandmother expects her to care for the four-year-old boy they foster in order to get money from the state. To some extent this is a reflection of the challenges I faced as a teenager as my parents divorced and dealt with the challenges of starting over. My siblings and I were expected to get ourselves where we needed to go, and to pitch in with household chores. We cooked meals, cleaned (not very well, as my dad can attest) and learned to stretch our allowance as far as possible.
Like me at that age, Hailey is unaware of the gifts and talents she possesses, but the events of the book force her to act with more confidence than she feels.
There's a fair amount of violence in the book, as well as other dark themes. Why did you make the choice to include these?
I write for a mature young adult reader so I don't worry about exposing kids to themes or situations they aren't ready for. I trust my readers to know if the book is to their taste and put it aside if it takes them where they don't want to go.
The dark sexual undertones in my book are deliberate. I believe very strongly that sexualizing kids at a young age is a prevalent and damaging practice of our society, but I also believe that ignoring the problem is stupid and unhelpful. Fiction is a safe place to explore how inappropriate sexualization feels and to help girls understand that they have the power to reject it. I remember how frightening it was to suddenly look like a woman before I felt like a woman, and how uncomfortable it felt to receive attention from adult men. In particular, some of the Banished men in the book represent that predatory theme.
As for violence: it's tough to write a paranormal book without including frightening imagery—and frankly, I wouldn't want to. I love a good scare. I was a huge fan of horror movies, and I don't believe that violent imagery damages a person especially if it illustrates a redemptive theme. There is a reason that zombies have so much appeal: they represent a wide variety of fears in a tangible, visual way. Vanquishing zombies is very satisfying!
What advice do you have for kids who want to write?
Write your heart out.
It's the same advice I have for adults who want to write: sit your ass in the chair and do it. You will never make yourself a worse writer by practicing your craft, and your skills have a way of increasing without you noticing it. As a dear friend says, every story teaches you. I guarantee that if you write a little every day or even every week, you will be a better writer next year than you are today.
For kids, I have one other bit of advice: do not listen to criticism. That includes criticism from your friends, your parents, even—perhaps most especially—your teachers. Write what works for you, and then do it some more. When it feels like you are taking a risk, you are on the right path. Trust me, and trust yourself, that your writing is not "too" anything: it's not too weird, or too edgy, or too long or too short or too simple or too wordy.
I wonder what would have become of Stephen King or Neil Gaiman or Suzanne Collins if they had listened to those who told them their stories were too disturbing—we would have been denied some incredible books.
By the way, I'm not suggesting that everyone should write paranormal stories. No matter what you want to write—whether it's love stories, cat stories, or babysitting stories—go for it!
BANISHED was followed by UNFORSAKEN in the fall of 2011. After that, we'll see....