Recently, a fellow writer, Caleb Tyler, interviewed me regarding the new book, “Broken.” He had a ton of questions; though they were all excellent questions, these are the ones that stood out. The interview took place via telephone; with his permission and prior approval to ensure I did so correctly, the questions have been paraphrased for the purposes of documenting them in writing. You can read excerpts from the novel here, here and here.
Teenage suicide is a sensitive issue scarcely fictionalized like in Broken. What made you choose this as a topic?
I don’t feel like I really choose the stories. I do know that it’s a topic I considered on more than one occasion prior to writing Broken. Anyone who glances at the statistics behind teenage suicide would be scared. 1 in 6 high schoolers in the United States has seriously considered suicide, says a recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 1 in 12 have attempted suicide. 13% of students aged 14-16 years of age admitted to having created a suicide plan. In research for this book, I interviewed several teenagers between 14-16 years of age. None of them seem particularly afraid of dying; in fact, death seems almost a logical alternative to suffering through bullying of either the traditional kind or through cyberspace. These are our teens. These are vulnerable, impressionable, precious beating hearts that feel they are being ignored, underappreciated or flat-out targeted by media stereotypes, their peers and/or their parents. They are hurting. And that hurts me.
Still, I am very much character-driven. I would not have been able to write this story without Taya.
Do you think Taya bought the bullying upon herself? Do you think she went too far in trying to gain the affection of her peers?
I think Taya was a normal fifteen-year-old. Even adults want the admiration and respect of our peers; teenagers need that affirmation. If they are denied peer relationships, they instinctively believe it’s because they lack beauty or intelligence or athleticism—whatever it is they admire most in others. They internalize criticism from their peers in a way healthy adults simply don’t. Right now, there is a challenge being circulated amongst teenagers called the Cinnamon Challenge. Basically, they are dared to gulp down a tablespoon of ground cinnamon without water in sixty seconds or less. But cinnamon is caustic and is not easily broken down. This challenge has resulted in dozens of hospitalizations over the past year. It can make the lungs collapse. And yet, there remain dozens of youtube videos depicting teens attempting the challenge. In these videos, you can hear their friends laughing as orange fie-like breath is expelled from the challenger’s mouth. Many teens, particularly those with previously established low self-esteem, crave attention and praise from their peers more than they care about physical safety. So no, I don’t think Taya went too far or bought the bullying upon herself. I think she reacted to bullying in a realistic and sadly common way.
How much of the book is autobiographical? Did you ever have a suicide plan?
No I did not. Like most hurting teenagers, I never consciously, truly wanted to die. But I wrote Last Wills and Testaments out almost nightly. And I deliberately denied myself food to the point where all I could think about was food. I took hair brushes and repeatedly hit my arms until bruises appeared. Like Taya, my father spent mine and my sister’s childhoods running from the police for things like writing fraudulent checks and fraud. As a result, we were transient and attended multiple schools a year. Like Taya, I was sexually abused on and off from around age five to age sixteen and, also like Taya, I suffered silently. Like Taya, I am fortunate to have a mother who completely devoted herself to my sister and I, taught us how to pray and the importance of maintaining close immediate familial relationships. My mother anointed my forehead with oil and sang songs to me too. But unlike Taya, I was doubly blessed in the form of a younger sister. I am convinced that the two of them supported and taught me invaluable lessons on love and hope that helped me survive.
What made you finally break your silence and tell others about the abuse?”
My daughter. I was pregnant with my oldest and my father was about to be released from prison, just like Taya’s dad. My father hadn’t been home in about seven years but I was still very much afraid. I was unable to accept the idea that he would be allowed near my little girl. I wasn’t strong enough to ask for help for myself but I was inspired to seek protection for my daughter. And that’s an important thing to note for any teen who may feel like there’s no hope. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastically living life. I did not have a wellspring of hope or optimism. Indeed, I was scared to death of the idea of my dad living under the same room as I again. But love for someone else, an innocent little girl who depended on me for protection, lit a fuse in my heart. Being pregnant surprised me greatly—I had not planned it. No matter how mundane life seems, you never really know what tomorrow brings until you live it.
What does the title, Broken, mean to you?
There are some types of pain from which we never completely heal. If the only thing Taya had to combat was the bullying, I believe the power of her caring mother would have gotten her through it alive. Although wrong and tragic, the bullying wasn’t really what caused Taya to do what she did. She could have healed from those wounds. But there were other scars, deeper ones, from which she could not simply walk away.
Taya self-harms by cutting. Why was this included in the book, and is it really that common?
It was included because that’s what Taya’s coping mechanism was. Good or bad, we all have one. Taya’s was cutting. And it provided a way to shine a light on the issue. 50% of teens who are sexually abused will go on to self-harm. It is common. 1 in 5 girls self-harm; 1 in 7 boys. 90% of those who self-harm start doing so between the ages of 14 and 18. Taya chose cutting. Cutting does provide temporary relief from pain, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on it. It works because, when you get physically hurt, whether it be through cutting or stumping your toe, your body releases endorphins. The job of endorphins is pain relief. So if you cut, then your body knows you’re hurt and sends endorphins to help. Those endorphins temporarily make you feel a stronger sense of relief and control, thus the reason why self-harm is common. Eventually, however, your body will grow used to having so many endorphins around and they will stop being so effective.
You mentioned we all have coping mechanisms. What was yours?
Writing, thank God. I truly believe God gave me the gift of writing as a way of carrying me through violent storms. I couldn’t talk about any of it, but I could write about it. And through writing, I healed. Also, volunteerism. I started volunteering at age 18 with several different organizations. Volunteerism changed my life by reminding me tangibly that we are all in need.
You drew and designed the cover. What is the story behind it?
I love the final cover but I initially struggled with choosing between two concepts. The other choice was no picture, just the title against the black cover. I would look at one, then look at the other, and throw my hands up in abject despair. Finally, I showed both versions to my sister and asked her to tell me in one word what each option made her think or feel. For the first choice, the stark black with nothing but the title, her word was “sadness.” For the current version, the published one, her word was “fragile.”
That sold me.
While Taya’s story is sad, what I most want readers to think about is how fragile we all are and how little it takes to damage us emotionally. And the pearls added the human touch, the one tangible possession Taya was unable to give away, the one thing that could have been a reason to hope. It is perfect for the book.
Do you draw a lot?
No. Only for the books and only when I have to.
Did Taya ever do anything that surprised you?
Oh, absolutely. I had no idea she was capable of picking up a phone at all, much less arranging it. That surprised and delighted me. I also had no idea of the game or her behavior when I started the book. All of that is very atypical of my female characters, so it took me very much by surprise. To tell you the truth, Taya is the most complex character I’ve ever written. If I sound proud, it’s because I am.
Was there a scene or line from the book that resonated with you, maybe crossed your mind more than once after it was already written?
Yes. After cutting once, Taya counted her scars and said that the scars were “proof I was hurt.” That breaks my heart. No one should feel the need to justify or prove pain.
What do you hope people take away from your books?
I hope it lingers in their minds, makes them see someone they might otherwise have overlooked. I hope it makes them cognizant of the people around them and to the presence of hope.
Broken is out ten months after Holding Home. Does that mean we can look forward to another book in ten months?
Hm, I don’t know. I write very late at night and only when a character inspires a story. I will wait until I have another piercing character before starting a new novel. What I do know is that writing is in my blood; it’s a part of who I am. In order to be completely happy or whole, my life has to include writing. So there will be another story—I just don’t know when! Until then, I will write my blogs and speak in public and at schools. And I will continue to treat each day as precious, to think creatively and to teach my girls to live passionately.