There is a novel that has long been on my “Books I Love” list—a stunning debut novel by Amy Reed. I fell in love with Beautiful, it absolutely spoke to me, and when I heard that Amy had a new book coming out this summer I gathered up my courage and emailed her to ask for an interview. Not only did she say yes, she was able to get me an egalley of Clean to read beforehand, and I was blown away by this book. Now, to celebrate the launch of her new book I have a writer-to-writer interview with Amy Reed to share today—and we’re giving away a signed hardcover of Clean! At the end of the interview, I’ll tell you how you can enter this giveaway.
Clean is out in stores as of just yesterday, and believe me you will want to read this book. Some of you may need to read it.
Here’s more about Clean, from the book’s summary:
You’re probably wondering how I ended up here. I’m still wondering the same thing.
Olivia, Kelly, Christopher, Jason, and Eva have one thing in common: They’re addicts. Addicts who have hit rock bottom and been stuck together in rehab to face their problems, face sobriety, and face themselves. None of them wants to be there. None of them wants to confront the truths about their pasts. And they certainly don’t want to share their darkest secrets and most desperate fears with a room of strangers. But they’ll all have to deal with themselves and one another if they want to learn how to live. Because when you get that high, there’s nowhere to go but down, down, down.
And now here’s my interview with the immensely talented Amy Reed, where I ask her about her first book, her new book, and all writing things in between—and keep on reading for a chance to win a signed copy!
When I first read your debut novel BEAUTIFUL, I felt like I’d found the novel I should have read when I was a teenager. I wish that book had existed when I was fifteen* because goddamn I think my whole life would be different if I’d read it then. Where did this story come from? Do you think you, too, would have been changed if you’d had a book like BEAUTIFUL when you were fifteen? (*Fifteen was a turning-point year for me, full of regrets, but for someone else it could be another number.)
Amy: I think most of us have those turning point years, and most of the time they probably center around the loss of innocence. In many cultures, there are coming-of-age rituals to honor this transition; in ours, it seems, we’re often just thrown into a pool of sharks and told to sink or swim. My turning point year was thirteen, and BEAUTIFUL was partly based on events from that time in my life. I very much identify with Cassie—her loneliness, confusion, fear, her desperate and self-destructive need to fit in. One of the best things I hear YA authors say is that we aim to write the books we wish existed when we were teens. That is definitely the case with BEAUTIFUL and CLEAN. I always loved reading, but I remember not finding much I identified with at that age. I think Go Ask Alice, Girl, Interrupted, and the poetry of Anne Sexton got the closest. But none of those stories ended very well. Maybe if I had found more I could relate to, it would have given me a better perspective on the choices I was faced with. Sometimes it’s hard to see all sides of something when we’re stuck inside it. It often takes stepping back and seeing it from another angle. I hope my books can help readers do that.
I remember—somewhere I saw this—that BEAUTIFUL originally stemmed from a short story, and this intrigued and excited me because that’s how IMAGINARY GIRLS first surfaced for me. Mine was a short story that changed, very drastically, by the time it turned into the novel. So what was the spark from the short story that expanded itself into the novel for you? What about the story made you know there was more that needed to be told?
Under the Wall, the short story BEAUTIFUL was based on (which you can read here) is very different than the final novel. It is told in short non-linear chunks and is much more stylized and experimental. The narrator (who is twelve, not thirteen) is extremely cold and dissociated from her emotions. I did not have a teen audience in mind when I wrote it. I didn’t have a teen audience in mind when I started writing BEAUTIFUL either, but I was definitely thinking of a larger world than the small literary journal community I was writing short stories for. I think the story was always supposed to be a novel for me, but it made sense at the time to approach it as a short story first. I think trying to write a novel first would have overwhelmed me.
I’m writing these questions after just minutes ago finishing your new novel CLEAN, which captivated me, spoke to me, and made me cry on multiple occasions in public cafés even though I tried to hold myself together. It’s the story of a group of teens battling addiction in a rehab center. They’re each so distinct, and addicted to different things. I was so impressed by your use of voice in this book, how voices sometimes flashed from one to the next, paragraph after paragraph, and also how you focused, alternately, on two contrasting main characters, Kelly and Christopher. Why did you choose to tell this story in multiple voices? I imagine that was a daring and intimidating choice to face as a writer—and, wow, was it successful. Did one character come to you before the others did? Do you feel a deeper connection to any one voice?
The characters’ voices were really the most important thing to me. I knew from the beginning that the book would only work if the voices were absolutely distinct. I remember something a writing teacher told me about writing good dialogue—that the reader should always be able to tell who’s speaking without being told who it is. I approached the narration with that always in mind. After I wrote a draft, I went through each character’s narrations separately, often speaking them out loud to make sure their voices stayed consistent. I think writing in first person is very similar to method acting—the writer must BE the character to truly understand and communicate them.
I always knew I was going to tell this story in multiple voices. From the beginning, I really saw addiction as the main character in this book, and I wanted to explore all of its various incarnations. Each character has a distinct arc, but there is also a collective group arc. The nature of addiction is that it isolates people, while recovery requires community—my goal was to tell the story of the building of that community.
Originally, I planned on all five main characters—Olivia, Kelly, Christopher, Eva, and Jason—to be narrators, not just Kelly and Christopher. My agent (the lovely and brilliant Amy Tipton) convinced me to try focusing on two, so I picked Kelly and Christopher. I’m not exactly sure why I chose those two. I’d say it was a decision based on instinct rather than logic. But I think part of it was that they’re so different and represent a pretty wide range of people; they show that anyone’s capable of becoming an addict, not just the stereotypes we’re used to. In some ways, I think the three girls—Kelly, Olivia, and Eva—represent different parts of me at that age, different identities I tried on or were sometimes forced upon me. Christopher was kind of a mash-up of a few people from my past who I had loved very much. By far, the most difficult character for me to write was Jason, and I think he was also the most rewarding. I wanted to challenge myself to write the kind of boy I always blindly hated as a teenager, but I wanted to get beyond the stereotype to ultimately find compassion and love for him.
CLEAN feels so raw and honest. And also hopeful. I’ve seen it compared to GO ASK ALICE, which you should know was a favorite of mine when I was thirteen and fourteen and I probably read it dozens of times, but CLEAN is so much more than that to me. It shines a light on addiction and what comes after and could truly be the book a teen struggling with addition most needs to read. What made you want to tell this story?
I wanted to explore the complexities of addiction and shed light on a subject many people think they understand, but don’t. People often talk about addiction in terms of good and bad, as if it is only a moral issue—like the D.A.R.E. police officers I remember visiting my elementary school classrooms. I remember them saying “Just Say No,” but I don’t remember them ever really telling us why. Even at that young age, I remember not trusting a word they said. In CLEAN, I wanted to show what can really happen when alcohol and drug use get out of hand, how easy it is for kids to become addicts, how quickly lives can fall apart, but also how it’s never too early (or too late) to make the decision to change. I don’t ever want to tell anyone not to do something because it’s “bad.” Maybe that’s enough for some people, but it never worked for me. I want to tell the stories of what can happen, let my readers figure out the cause and effect, and then trust them to make the choices on their own.
When did you first decide you wanted to write YA novels? Have you ever considered writing for adults or did you before this? (I ask, personally curious, because I didn’t start off wanting to write YA; I’d intended to write literary fiction for adults, but reading YA novels changed all that.) So I wonder, what drew you to YA?
I definitely started out writing for an adult literary audience, first with short stories. I’ve said this in other interviews, but I didn’t even know the YA genre existed until after I wrote a pretty final draft of BEAUTIFUL and was actively looking for an agent. I always wanted to write about teens, but I never even considered that I could choose to write specifically for them as well. I was thinking about BEAUTIFUL as belonging in the world of my favorite novels about teens that were written for adults: The Lovely Bones, White Oleander, Push, Bastard Out of Carolina, etc. It wasn’t until an agent I queried actually told me my book was YA that I even knew about this world. Then it was like a lightbulb went on. I started obsessively researching the genre and reading all the best contemporary YA I could find. These were my people. This was my home. Ever since, the stories and voices that I’ve been most passionate about have all been YA. These are the stories that want me to tell them.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is one I’m sure you know, by Madeline L’Engle: “You have to write the book that want to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” I don’t remember the exact quote, but I remember reading an interview with Sherman Alexie a couple years ago where he said something like “Writing for teens is just like writing for adults, except without all the bullshit.” I feel like I get to be honest in writing for teens in a way I couldn’t be writing for adults. I know I will want to write adult fiction again someday, but I’m pretty damn happy with what I’m doing right now.
Your novels never stray from reality, and in the best way possible. This reality is a searing view into things I remember facing as a teenager and seeing my friends face. So many YA authors are slipping out of reality and writing paranormal, or dystopian, etc. (I know I’ve slipped myself.) What keeps you grounded in the real? What do you love most about writing contemporary realistic novels?
Quite simply, I guess it’s because this is the world I know, the world I live in; these are my stories and the stories of people I love. I don’t know that I picked contemporary YA as my genre; I think it picked me. I just don’t think in paranormal terms; that world doesn’t exist in my head. Realistic dystopian, however, I could see myself writing (and maybe I am already…) My favorite dystopian novels (The Road, The Parable of the Sower, The Hunger Games trilogy, anything by Margaret Atwood) still rely on character more than anything, and when they rely on plot, it is with concepts firmly rooted in a deep understanding of the human condition, not just gimmicks and lazy science.
Having read both CLEAN and BEAUTIFUL, I’m a gigantic fan of yours and hope to read many more Amy Reed novels to come. What can we expect from you in the future? Can you talk a bit about upcoming novels?
My third YA novel, CRAZY, is finished and scheduled to release next summer, and I’ve seen a draft of the cover already. I love this book so much, I can’t even tell you. It’s a love story (yes, I actually wrote a love story) between two teens, told in emails they write to each other over the course of a few months. One of the characters suffers from bi-polar disorder, and the story is about them trying to make sense of her increasingly erratic and self-destructive behavior, in addition to everything else going on in their lives. What I’m working on now is kind of a secret at the moment, but it may have something to do with your last question…
Thank you, Amy, for answering all my long and rambling questions—and for writing such beautiful, important books. As a fan of yours, it’s an honor to have you here on my blog.
And now for you… want to win a signed hardcover of Amy Reed’s new novel CLEAN? To enter, just leave a comment on this post answering this question:
What is an obstacle that you’re proud to have overcome?
Leave your answer to this question below, and you’re entered to win! (US only, sorry.)
(I’m closing this giveaway on Monday, July 25 at 9:00 p.m. EST and I’ll reveal the winner soon after!)