Friday, September 30, 2011

Pitching Headlong Into Confrontation

This is my first post on YA Outside the Lines. So…hi! (Waves) I appreciate the invitation to be part of this site, and I hope we get to share a lot of ideas in the coming months.



My first post is inspired by the reader-generated question, “Do you find yourself trying to avoid confrontation in your novels?”



Short answer: No. But I doubt I’ll generate much discussion if I stick to short answers.



A personal theory of mine: As the author goes, so goes the work. There was a time in my life (before I was published, or even had the guts to open my work to feedback) when I’m sure I tried to avoid confrontation in my novels, because I avoided it at all costs in my life. I remember a time when my characters were shallow. Because I was shallow. They only cared about their relationships (“Capital R” relationships—the way we relate to others in our lives is perhaps the only thing we should care about, in my opinion) because I created them, and I could not yet see what else in life was important. In retrospect, I think it’s a good thing that I never finished those novels.



In other words—and I don’t want to make others uneasy with my theory, but neither do I want to avoid confrontation in this post—a novel is a clear reflection of its author. And when it finds its readership, it’s a clear reflection of its readers. This reminds me of the patient who goes in for therapy but doesn’t want the therapist to know anything about him. So he makes up a dream, not knowing that the dream he imagines says at least as much about him as the dream he dreams at night.



I no longer seek to avoid confrontation in my life. I don’t invite it, or force it, but when it’s called for, I hold my nose and march in. Because I’ve learned that I can’t build a better future while trying to hover safely within my comfort zone. And I feel strongly—very strongly—that my job as an author is not to help readers stay within their comfort zones. I feel my job is to ask them to try on something new. Fiction is a terrific proving ground for new ideas, because there are areas we’ll be willing to explore on a page that we might not be ready for in our lives.



My favorite application has always been asking the reader to know and understand a character they would likely avoid if he or she were flesh and blood. All characters are safe as words on a page. And if you can’t find some way to examine the inside of a new person’s being, how will you discover that magic connection of common humanity? And then how will you ever look at the people around you in a new way?



For example, in The Day I Killed James, I put you into the head of a girl who holds herself responsible for the suicide of a young man whose heart she carelessly broke. Not comfortable. But everybody’s had some kind of experience with guilt. Why not drag it out into the light, where it stands some chance of healing?



In Diary of a Witness I take things a step further and ask you to understand and empathize with a young man who’s so close to the breaking point that he’s pitching headlong into a school shooting of his own making. Sure, it’s easier to lock these people up, label them bad, and never think another thing about it. But I’d rather take a look at what went wrong. People are supposed to have outlets for their pain. Have we failed these kids in some way?



I want Jumpstart the World not to count. Because I don’t want the simple fact of a character happening to be transgender to be seen as a challenge. But I’m afraid to some readers it probably still is.



I realize not all readers care to be challenged, but I never kidded myself into thinking I was writing books for all readers.



I’m a fan of the André Gide quote, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” The length of time it takes to read a novel doesn’t seem like asking too much.



I consent. What about you? Your thoughts?

4 comments:

  1. So much good stuff here, Catherine! I really love your "dream" analogy...I think that's why criticism of a novel can often be quite painful to a writer--even though it's fiction, and none of the events happened to the author personally, that book is still very much a reflection of who that author is.

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  2. Thank you, Catherine. I was the reader who submitted the question - and this is the kind of answer I was looking for!

    My earlier writing feels shallow to me now when I read it also. Self-absorbed, shallow, things are too easy. Then I got older and realized that life is actually REALLY hard. Relationships are hard. Things don't happen that easily. That stuff is fantasy. I wanted my books to be real. So, my writing has changed along with me.

    Thanks! I'll be sure to buy your books. They look great.

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  3. As a reader, I want to be pulled into an uncomfortable story, and find I have sympathy for a character I might've dismissed or judged in real life. Thanks for writing stories like that.

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  4. Great post. I love being shown the "guts" of characters!

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