Interview: February 2010
Julie Anne Peters is the author of over a dozen books that often deal with “controversial” issues faced by children and teens regarding sexual identity, abuse, destructive relationships and problematic family dynamics. Her latest teen novel, BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, I’LL BE DEAD, follows a suicidal high school student who has been the victim of peer bullying for years. In this interview with Teenreads.com’s Norah Piehl, Peters explains what prompted her to tackle this difficult and timely topic, and reflects on the negative effects of the Internet Age on “bullycide.” She also shares advice for young people in similar situations to her main character, Daelyn, and addresses her reputation for writing about challenging subject matter.
Julie Anne Peters: Both. In October of 2006, I was invited to speak at the ALAN Workshops. ALAN is the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, an offshoot of the National Council of Teachers of English. C. J. Bott, a former educator and strong voice in the field of bullying, had assembled a panel of authors to address the issue of bullying in literature. A few months before the conference, she sent me the presentation title: Don’t Look and It Will Go Away: YA Books --- A Key to Uncovering the Invisible Problem of Bullying.
I spent a long time with that title. For my part I planned to read letters from young readers who described the harassment they’d been subjected to at school and at home for coming out as gay. I had no shortage of material. Bullying ranged from years of taunting and verbal abuse, to physical assault, to family disownment. Self-injury is high among gay youth, and suicide is mentioned so often in the letters I receive that it’s agonizing to know gay youth feel it’s their only way out.
Around the same time, there was a special report on TV about kids who’d been so severely bullied in school from kindergarten on that they’d either dropped out or were forced into homeschooling. Even if they’d pleaded for help, they’d received little or no adult intervention to stop the abuse. You could see the hopelessness in their eyes. Several parents talked about their bullied kids who, in the end, committed suicide. Later, I’d learn the term for it: bullycide.
JAP: The website in my book (www.through-the-light.com) is one of my own inventions, but it was a compilation of all the information I found on the Web about how to commit suicide. Easily accessed information can be the downside of the Internet. In addition, the Web allows bullies to attack via cyberbullying, which can be a powerful form of psychological abuse. Being able to talk to others in chat rooms about their suicide attempts builds a sort of weird community. I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not, but online suicide chatrooms do exist.
JAP: I wasn’t because, again, that information is at your fingertips any time you want it. It actually seemed safer to put it in the context of a human being, or an empathetic character such as Daelyn. I can’t answer for my publisher, except to say I think Hyperion was extremely courageous to take on this book. And the discussion guide at the end allows readers, teachers, guidance counselors and others who work with young people to use the information in a responsible way, as far as initiating discussions about suicide and bullying.
JAP: Most importantly, I think people need to take bullying seriously. When I hear adults say, “Oh, teasing is just a part of growing up,” I want to challenge them. Why does it have to be? Can’t we teach our children respect? Do taunters and teasers, name-callers and back-stabbers even know the harm they’re causing? I’m only a writer, and there are professionals in this field with better answers to the question of how to prevent bullying, or create less hostile environments in schools and homes. All I wish is that people would care enough to move beyond accepting bullying as human nature in our culture.
JAP: Bullycide isn’t an issue of sexuality or gender. It’s about our youth dealing with life in self-destructive ways. It’s about identifying every young person who doesn’t have the self-esteem or coping skills to feel their lives are valuable, that they’re loved and treasured for who they are.
JAP: I wanted to give Daelyn every reason to reconsider her decision: loving parents, a therapist, God, a new friend and the prospect of romantic love. Santana represented that chance at love. He was a heroic figure for me. He chose to reach out and help Daelyn, even when his advances were scorned. (Maybe that just made him a typical egocentric male :) ) But he tried and tried; he wouldn’t give up on Daelyn or himself. Santana symbolized the parts of ourselves that grow with hope --- goodness, compassion, humor and unselfish love.
JAP: It never crossed my mind that Daelyn was mute throughout the novel until someone mentioned it. Duh. I wonder why I made her mute. Maybe I wanted to say to readers who are being bullied, “Speak up. Tell people what’s going on. Ask for help if you feel desperate enough to take your own life.”
JAP: To kids who feel you’re being targeted, report bullies to your teachers and/or school authorities. A lot of times teachers don’t know you’re being bullied because it’s happening in the restrooms or hallways or outside of school. Find a trusted teacher and tell them. If you don’t feel you’re being heard, speak louder. Don’t be afraid of retaliation. You deserve respect and safety at school. Tell your parents. Tell guidance counselors. Call bullying hotlines to get advice on how to deal with harassment. Just don’t give up on yourself.
Bullies themselves oftentimes don’t realize they’re being bullies. They need to know how their words or actions affect others. They need to be called on it by peers and adults. And they have to take responsibility for the hurtful things they say and do.
Bullying behavior starts at home. Parents need to intervene as soon as they see their children exhibiting unacceptable behaviors, such as hitting or biting or pushing others around. Kids bring these behaviors to school, and they’ll only escalate if there are no consequences. Again, I’m not a professional, but I do think we can teach kindness and compassion from a very early age.
JAP: People say I tackle controversial issues, but I don’t think I do. I write contemporary, realistic fiction, and these are the issues young people are dealing with today. I still write about love, laughter, joy, friendship, family --- everything that gets us through the tough times. There’s nothing controversial in finding yourself and living your truth.
JAP: I got burned out. One day I just walked into my boss’s office and quit. When my partner got home from work, I told her, “Sherri, I quit my job today. I’m going to be a writer.”
She took a step backward (she may have stumbled), and said, “Okaaaay. Have you ever written anything?”
“No,” I said. “But how hard can it be?”
Ha, ha, ha. Ignorance is bliss.
It took me years to learn how to write, because I was starting from scratch. My focus in college had been on math and computer science, and I don’t think I’d ever taken a creative writing course. The upside was that I didn’t have to unlearn any bad habits.
I do think my logical left-braininess allows me to plot more easily. And who’d have thought 20 years ago that computer knowledge would be so crucial today to the creative arts?
JAP: If I’m working on a first draft, I’ll write during the morning hours, from around 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. I can only project myself into the world of my book for three or four hours tops before my brain turns to goo. I never start a book until I’ve thought the story through and know how it ends, which doesn’t mean I won’t change the path it takes to get there, but having a clear direction saves me the wasted time of unfinished manuscripts. I learned that early on. So I always write the ending first.
My characters, their arc, the theme and story arc develop and deepen as I write and revise. And revise, and revise. I’ll revise a novel over the course of a year to 18 months before taking it to my critique group for their savage brutalizing. I say that in a loving way. If I didn’t have honest, astute readers who weren’t afraid to let me know where my work falls short, I’d still be slogging through my first book.
I used to outline, sketchily, but I don’t anymore. I can hold a novel in my head. I write in longhand on Big Chief paper, which is going to become a problem very soon because Big Chief has ceased production. Woe is I. After that first draft, I’ll key the manuscript into my computer and begin the lengthy process of revision. My revision process is: let a manuscript sit for a month, read and revise, sit for a month, read and revise, sit for a month, etc., until the only revisions I’m making are punctuation and grammar. Then I gird my loins to present the work to my critique group.
JAP: I love contemporary fiction that’s more character driven than plot. There are too many books to mention, but a few of my favorite authors --- and these are a very few --- include Alex Sanchez, David Levithan, Patricia McCormick, Ellen Hopkins, Dyan Sheldon, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Ellen Wittlinger, Carl Deuker, Rachel Cohn, Adam Rapp, Sharon Creech, James Howe, Adele Griffin, Ron Koertge and Catherine Gilbert Murdock.
JAP: I have a young adult novel coming out in 2011 titled SHE LOVES YOU, SHE LOVES YOU NOT…? I just finished a manuscript that I hope will be sold and released in 2012. On my desk is a middle grade novel I wrote over the summer, and at some point I need to read it to see if it has bones. I haven’t written middle grade for quite a while, but I still love reading it, and if I’m ever going to win the Newbery, I have to master that genre :)