The Making of a Young Adult Novel: Individual Interviews

Pictured above: Marita, Michelle, and Charline. Three of the girls I interviewed. 

In this and prior/subsequent posts I am going to show how my young adult novel, The Halls of Abaddon, came to be. Hopefully in the process, I will be able to share with you the joys (and sometimes frustrations) of working directly with teens in the development of a young adult novel. For Step 1 click here.

Step 3:

In the previous post (Step 2) I outlined how I conducted a student survey to identify the important issues facing teens today. From this survey I concluded that the following five issues were most salient in my target audience:

  • The influence of explicit lyrics (specifically in Reggaetón) on teen sexuality
  • Self-image and Self-esteem
  • Bullying/Cyber Bulling
  • Teen Rebellion and Parental Problems
  • Suicide

These five issues will all be addressed, to varying degrees, in The Halls of Abaddon.

At the end of the survey, I asked if any of the students would be interested in being interviewed by me, and if so, which of the identified issues they would be willing to talk to me about. Each student who volunteered to be interviewed had identified a topic from the issues outlined in the survey. But I did not want to jump right into talking about the issues, some of which were highly intense and personal (especially for those who agreed to talk about relational issues and suicidal ideation). I felt like I needed to build trust first. So I came up with some fairly easy initial questions. Here are some of the early interview questions I asked.

  • Can you describe yourself, first as you see yourself, and then as you think others see you?
  • What is your favorite book and why?
  • What is your favorite movie and why?
  • If you could live one day as another person, who would that person be and why?
  • What’s the last song you listened to from your music library?

After some structured “small talk,” I transitioned into more specific questions about what it is like to be a teenager in Puerto Rico. I asked the following questions, which are important for me to understand as The Halls of Abaddon is set partially in Puerto Rico.

  • What has it been like for your growing up in Puerto Rico?
  • Do you prefer to read in English or Spanish?
  • What are some of the challenges you face as a young adult growing up in Puerto Rico?

In my next post, I will talk about how I transitioned from these relatively easy questions to the harder ones that delved into the core of the five identified teen issues.

 

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The Making of a Young Adult Novel: Teen Issues Survey

In this and subsequent posts I am going to show how my young adult novel, The Halls of Abaddon, came to be. Hopefully in the process, I will be able to share with you the joys (and sometimes frustrations) of working directly with teens in the development of a young adult novel. For Step 1 click here http://susannadathur.com/2017/04/04/the-making-of-a-young-adult-novel/

 

Step 2:

Because The Halls of Abaddon was going to be written around teen issues, I wanted to make sure I was focusing on the issues that were most important to the young people who comprised my initial reading audience. So before I even began to write, I put together a survey and conducted it in several selected classrooms. Here is a short version of the survey I used.

Teen Issues Survey

Your Gender male    female

Your Age 15    16   17    18

 

  1. Which of the following internal issues do you think most concerns teens in your community?

self-image/self-esteem

eating disorders

depression

smoking/drugs/alcohol

diet/fitness/exercise

learning/educational issues

other (please specify)

 

  1. Which of the following external issues do you think most concerns teens in your community?

bullying (cyber of physical)

abusive relationships

sexual activity

teen pregnancy

gangs

school violence

cliques

poverty

other (please specify)

 

  1. Which of the following issues involving adults do you think most concerns teens in your community?

poor communication between adults and teens

teen rebellion against adults

physical abuse

verbal abuse

affects on teens in single parent households

affects on teens of divorce of parents

independence of teens from parents

other (please specify)

 

  1. Which of the following issues regarding media do you think most concerns teens in your community?

online predators

online availability of and exposure to material of mature content

influence of television and movies on youth

influence of video games on youth

influence of music with explicit or suggestive lyrics on youth

other (please specify)

From this survey I concluded that the following five issues were most salient in my target audience:

  • The influence of explicit lyrics (specifically in Reggaetón) on teen sexuality
  • Self-image and Self-esteem
  • Bullying/Cyber Bulling
  • Teen Rebellion and Parental Problems
  • Suicide

These five issues will all be addressed, to varying degrees, in The Halls of Abaddon. The most troubling one, suicide, is the one I am still struggling with as I develop the novel.

At the end of the survey, I asked if the student would be interested in being interviewed by me, and if so, which of the survey issues would that student like to talk to me about. In the next post, we will explore the dynamics of these student interviews

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The Making of a Young Adult Novel: Finding Your Place

In this and subsequent posts I am going to show how my young adult novel, The Halls of Abaddon, came to be. Hopefully in the process, I will be able to share with you the joys (and sometimes frustrations) of working directly with teens in the development of a young adult novel.

Step #1

Identify a school with an open door policy that welcomes non-teaching staff to work directly with students.

Meeting with the students; Establishing relationships

In 2012, I found that school in Leonides Morales Rodriguez, the local high school in Lajas, Puerto Rico. Not without some trepidation, I made an appointment with the director and requested permission to interview students for my not-as-yet started young adult novel, Dante’s Kiss. Mr. Molina, the principal, welcomed me with open arms. Immediately after hearing about my project, he introduced me to the 12th grade advanced English teacher, Mrs. Cynthia Delgado. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have been working with Mrs. Delgado and her students for five years now.

Sharing our mutual love of literature, me and Mrs. Delgado.

That first year, I talked to dozens of students. I needed to. I was seventeen + (++) years away from my own high school experience. Also, I was writing a book set in a Puerto Rican high school, which—as I have seen over the last five years—is light years away from my experience in Wethersfield High School. If I had gone to high school in Lajas Puerto Rico instead of Wethersfield Connecticut, I probably wouldn’t be a writer now. Not because writing support is limited in the Lajas public school district—it is—but because I would not have been bullied. Kids are actually tolerant here. Chubby nerds like me are not made to feel inferior or odd—all the makings of a writer, in my particular case.

Why do I start so far back in my journey to the making of the Halls of Abaddon, my second YA book? Because five years ago, I was starting the groundwork for what I have today. An open door to the school, an enthusiastic, supportive teacher, and a wonderful student body that has come to trust me through the experiences of their older siblings. My work over the last five years has formed the building block to a dynamic, creative relationship with the students of Leonides Morales Rodriguez today. And that relationship has given authenticity, urgency, and plenty of teen angst to my creative process.

How many of you have found creativity and inspiration through the young people you work with?

For Step Two Click Here: The Making of a Young Adult Novel: Teen Issues Survey

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Imperfect People

Have you ever noticed how boring perfect people are? We all know one or two of these super perfect, super boring individuals. They are the people who never seem to make a mistake, who go through life without any major mishaps or idiotic indiscretions. While sometimes—when our own lives are chaotic or out-of-control—we may want to be like these people. Most times, the saner times, we’re too busy being stupid, impulsive, clearly imperfect, and definitely not boring.

Boy GeorgeOne of the least “not boring” people to scandalize the tabloids since his rise to fame in the early 1980’s is the British singer/song writer Boy George.

From his flamboyant dress to his heavy makeup, George O’Dowd has done almost everything in his power to insure that he is not—and never will be—mindlessly boring. So why then, I wonder, is his second book, Straight, at times so … okay, I have to say it: boring. Not all parts, some were quite intriguing. But, whereas Take it Like a Man (George’s first book published in 1995) was true to its title, Straight (his second book published in 2005) was not. In Take it Like a Man, George O’Dowd took the failures and mistakes of his youth and narrated them with adult introspection. In Straight, he talked bluntly about other people, about his own and others’ sexuality, about his work, but there was very little straight talk about the impact of his now middle-age choices on his adult life. Yes, there was some spiritual seeking, some insight and reflection, but I felt that most of the book was a holding back of what was really going on behind the make-up and the mask.

From the disappointments and frustrations of Taboo to life beyond Culture Club, Jon Moss, and addiction recovery, this book covered a lot of ground. But maybe it was the constant stream of new people on the page—names and faces many of us would never recognize—that detracted from the one story we were interested in reading: George’s.

Straight

That being said, one intriguing thing this book did for me was pique my interest in George’s semi-autobiographical musical Taboo. Through low resolution videos posted to You Tube, I was able to piece together the emotion of a life both flamboyant and painfully personal. It was the painfully personal that resonated with me. In one of the more poignant songs, “Stranger in this World,” I could hear the emotion pour through the lyrics “You always knew, didn’t you mother … I was a stranger in this world.” And the beauty and immediacy of the song “Petrified” that asks “when you’re alone, at night, do you run and hide? Are you strong, inside, are you full of pride, or just petrified?” is strikingly raw.  Why? Because the human being behind these songs was gloriously, creatively imperfect.

George, when you are ready to write the book about the emotions that inspired “Petrified,” “Stranger in this World,” and “Talk Amongst Yourselves,” you will have the book the world is waiting to read.

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Take it Like a Man

The Autobiography of Boy George (Book Review)

take_it_like_a_manFrom the title to the cover to the content, this book intrigues. As an author I can appreciate the power of a good cover and the hook of a clever title. As one who identifies with the pain and isolation of being an outsider, I can sympathize with the heart-wrenching struggle that led to the writing of this book. From the first page to the last I was engaged in a journey that seemed sure to lead to inevitable destruction. But instead of self-annihilation, George’s journey led to the rebirth of a troubled spirit. The narrative is raw and compelling. The story a familiar one of an individual who feels different from his friends and family but finds the courage to become unique.

At times I got lost in the endless string of names and people that came in and out of George’s life. It was amazing how one name flowed into a different one from one paragraph to another and yet I was able to keep on reading. More so, I wanted to keep reading to see where this journey would end. The endless names were only an external indicator of the confusion and inconsistency in George’s life, of the constant search for love and friendship, for acceptance—even if he had to buy it. People came and went. Friends changed loyalties. Lovers were inconsistent. And through it all, George remained on the edge of himself, still an outsider, forbidden by fame to be honest about who he really was. From the drama to the drugs, his was a life out of control.

Boy George B & W

The fun part of reading this book was that I could read it side by side with You Tube and the Internet to visualize what I was reading. The narrative was vivid and painted a colorful canvas, but to be able to search the internet and see a video of the Top of the Pops performance of “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” while watching drummer Jon Moss beat out the rhythm to a song written about him was intriguing. To see George stoned was horrifying, to see him happy gratifying. His story became real both through his words and his videos. And unlike in some of the interviews, where he was not being honest, in this book Boy George did finally “take it like a man.” In many unflattering passages, he assumed responsibility for his arrogance, his self-centeredness, and his outsized ego. I could feel the pain of his shame, the sting of media cruelty, the blows to his self-esteem when the press called him Junkie George or a fat cow, relentlessly focusing on his weight losses and gains in a way that would have made a weaker man (or woman) fold under the pressure.

His struggles were extreme, but painfully real. I admire George for having the courage to live his life on his terms. But more importantly, I admire the strength he found to fight his demons and struggle his way back to a better place. TAKE IT LIKE A MAN is a fascinating story about an outsider gone mainstream and then his journey back home to the unique individual he was meant to be.

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Transformative Creativity

vincent-van-gogh-famous-quote

Over several weeks during the spring and summer of 2015, I saw a group of high school students from Puerto Rico embrace Van Gogh’s message. But instead of painting, they acted. Not one of them had any previous training or experience. They had no money for costumes, props, or sets. All they had was some inspiration from a book they had read in their AP English class, a talented young director, and an enthusiastic cast. Meeting several days after school, early mornings in the summer (I’m talking really early, like 6 am) they created art: a theatrical trailer for the young adult book DANTE’S KISS. The result is what some might call “Transformative Art.”

According to the experts, Transformative Art uses creativity and art to create a shift in the way an individual or a community views and experiences an issue or themselves. I am not a counselor or therapist, but I am a story teller and the story I see in these before and after pictures of the young actors who wrote, performed, and produced “Dante’s Kiss, the Trailer” is like a coming-of-age tale. Formerly shy young people find their confidence and their esteem through the characters they assume.

Anthony becomes Adriel
Anthony becomes Adriel

 

Bobby becomes Armando
Bobby becomes Armando
Jossiel becomes Dante
Jossiel becomes Dante
Tamika becomes Gia
Tamika becomes Gia
Kenisha becomes Kiriela
Kenisha becomes Kiriela
Roberto becomes Malakiy
Roberto becomes Malakiy
Ivan becomes Pedro
Ivan becomes Pedro

Has art either inspired or transformed you? If so, share your story.

 

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Death and Dante

“In the middle of life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” –Inferno, Canto 1

DivineComedyFresco

Dante’s “La Divina Commedia” speaks profoundly to the human condition. It is a chronicle of a deep psychological crisis and how that crisis is resolved. Much like Dante (the protagonist of the poem, not its author) Diego, the protagonist of CITY OF SORROWS, starts his journey to healing by slogging through the chaos of his soul and the desperation of his muddled mind.

Early on in his life journey, Diego finds himself in a forest of seemingly impenetrable darkness. After losing his wife and newborn baby in a senseless tragedy, he is angry, self-absorbed, confused, and lost. He is in the depths of his own personal hell—the lowest and darkest of places. In CITY OF SORROWS we descend with Diego into the black pit of death, follow him on his tortuous journey through grief, and ascend with him into the light of healing—understanding along with him the ultimate mysteries of love, life, and heart-wrenching loss.

Dante and Books

Dante’s “Inferno” mirrors Diego’s journey as he travels through the self-absorption of Hell, through the Purgatory of forgiveness, and into the acceptance of responsibility that is the gateway to Heaven and the only sure foundation for healthy relationships. For Diego, profound grief turns into measured healing and finally, the rediscovery of love.

As Joseph Luzzi wrote in his book IN A DARK WOOD, “Every grief story is a love story.”

If you are grieving now it is because you have loved. There is no greater nor more painful gift than one born out of love.

To follow Diego on his traumatic but redemptive journey, read his story in my debut novel CITY OF SORROWS.

For a poignant study on what Dante the poet taught a broken man about grief, healing, and the mysteries of love, read Joseph Luzzi’s mesmerizing memoir IN A DARK WOOD.

Mr. Luzzi’s memoir of grief after the tragic loss of his wife when she was nine months pregnant with their first child is striking in its honesty and bold in its reflection of the emotional needs of a man who has lost his partner to tragedy. But as Mr. Luzzi finally came to understand, it was this incredibly difficult event in his life that finally led him back to the man he always wanted to be: a writer for the masses rather than the elite; a father and family man rather than a bachelor.

Where are you now in your own life story? If in Hell I promise you, the chaos you are living there is only the beginning—not the end of your final journey.

 

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Creative Inspiration

As writers, we often work long hours for what seems like almost non-existent rewards. But then one day something wonderful happens: we see people inspired by our words and we thank our lucky stars that God made us writers. I had one of those moments when I watched a group of high school students from Leonides Morales Rodriguez in Lajas, Puerto Rico practice for a live trailer they are making inspired by my novel, Dante’s Kiss.

DANTE'S KISS: a supernatural love story set in a painfully real world
DANTE’S KISS: a supernatural love story set in a painfully real world

A group of students wrote, performed, and produced an original adapted screenplay–with zero budget. Imagine what they could do with a little more …

 

Jossiel as Dante and Tamika as Gia listen to instructions from the director
Jossiel as Dante and Tamika as Gia listen to instructions from the director
Luis Torres as Jadiel
Luis Torres as Jadiel

 

 Kenisha García as Kiriela
Kenisha García as Kiriela

 

Two boys want the same girl
Two boys want the same girl

 

Only one can have her
Only one can have her

I’m glad I’m a writer. How about you?

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India’s Festival of Lights

 

DiwaliOctober is one of my favorite months of the year. There’s a chill in the air, the leaves start turning, and the days grow short. Halloween adds a touch of fun, and the Hindu festival of Diwali adds light and color to the darker days of autumn.

 

Diwali is India’s festival of lights. It falls on the darkest night of the darkest day, yet it is a celebration of light. Like Diwali, CITY OF SORROWS is the story of the triumph of good over evil, of faith and friendship and of how the teachings and philosophies of Mahatma Ghandi can still bring a troubled soul out of the darkness and into the light.

 

Because one of the protagonists of this novel—Rajiv Kumaran—is a Hindu, I would like to dedicate this post to the Hindu celebration of Diwali.

 

According to Swami Chidanand Saraswati in this article The Meaning of Diwali,” there are three main aspects of this holiday. The first is the celebration of light. Indians line their homes and streets with oil lamps; they explode fireworks; children play with sparklers. The lamps signify God’s light, penetrating through the ignorance and sin or our daily lives. In the words of Swami Saraswati, “A home bathed in light is a home in which anger, pain, and ignorance are being dispelled; it is a home that is calling to God.” Diwali is a festival of the light which dispels the darkness of our ignorance; it is a festival of the light which shows us the way on our journey through life. The purpose is not to glorify the light of the candle, or the light of the firecracker. The purpose is to glorify the light of God. For it is He who bestows the real light, the everlasting light upon the darkness of this world.

 

Diwali also marks the start of a new year. In the joyous mood of this season, Indians clean their homes, their offices, their rooms, letting the light of Diwali enter all the corners of their lives. They begin new checkbooks, diaries and calendars. It is a day of “starting fresh.” Along with this physical cleaning, people are encouraged to shake out their hearts, ridding them of darkness and bitterness, making them clean and sparkling places for God to live.

The third aspect of Diwali is the worship of Maha Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.

Celebrate Diwali this year with a book that honors the tradition. Sorrow. Loss. Restoration. Redemption. CITY OF SORROWS is a thought provoking story perfect for the festival season.

Click to enter a Goodreads Giveaway and the chance to win a free copy of CITY OF SORROWS.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

City of Sorrows by Susan Nadathur

City of Sorrows

by Susan Nadathur

Giveaway ends October 23, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

 

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It’s Cool to be a Nerd

johnnydepp reading croppedWe all know that reading is amazing, right? Those of us who love books already know how awesome reading is. But, did you know that reading is now the new “cool?” Thanks to a growing number of celebrity bookworms being photographed reading a book–either between scenes on a movie set, in the locker room, or in private libraries full of vintage collections–reading is no longer the exclusive territory of our much loved but too often maligned “nerds” or “geeks.” Here’re some of the celebrities who are making reading look incredibly cool:

Johnny Depp loves to read and collects rare first editions of his favorite books.

Jennifer Lawrence Reading

Jennifer Lawrence enjoys reading on set between takes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Le Bron James readingLe Bron James says, “reading strengthens my mind and instills in me a pre-game calm.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Channing Tatem and Emma Watson are never with out a good book.

emma watson readingchanning tatum reading

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then there’s Robert Pattinson, who has famously said, “When you find a girl who reads, keep her close. When you find her up at 2:00 a.m. clutching a book and weeping, make her a cup of tea and hold her. You may lose her for a couple of hours [as she’s immersed in her story] but she’ll always come back to you.”

Robert Pattinson reading

“Date a girl who reads because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who can give you the most colorful life imaginable. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads.” Robert Pattinson

Robert Pattinson 2

So young readers, nerds and geeks, enjoy your wonderful, colorful life.

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