Courtney Summers, whose books for teen readers include Cracked Up to Be, This Is Not a Test, and All the Rage, is best known for her unflinching stories and unlikeable female protagonists. Her new YA novel, Sadie, tells the story of two sisters, one brutally murdered, and incorporates transcripts from a true crime podcast covering the story. Summers spoke with PW about true crime, the podcast based on the book, complex and difficult main characters, and using social media to connect with readers.
Sadie is your sixth published novel and is garnering a lot of advance buzz. Why do you think this book has captured the attention of readers?
Sadie is a girl who is easy to root for. She’s someone who’s on a quest to avenge her little sister’s murder; she’s determined to right a wrong. I also think the format is appealing. We’re experiencing a boom of true crime podcasts; the category is just becoming super consumable and bingeable. These stories are reaching more people than ever before, I think. Sadie is timely in that sense.
Were you a true crime enthusiast when you started this project?
I’ve always liked true crime. Serial had just ended or was winding down when I started writing Sadie. I was thinking about how true crime is a genre devoted to justice, to the search for truth, but at the same time, it’s hard not to wonder how well we’re serving the narratives of people who aren’t around to speak for themselves. On top of that, so many true crime stories feature violence against women and girls. That’s the heart of those stories. We’re tuning in regularly to be witness to this pain and these brutal atrocities against women. So, I wondered, what is the impact? What does it mean when these kinds of stories are so consumable? What does it mean to tell these stories? What are the potential consequences and impact? I do love true crime and true crime podcasts, so this is not an indictment, but [Sadie] is an exploration of the way we interact with and consume media, especially when it centers around violence against women and girls.
Is Sadie and Maddie’s story inspired by real-life events?
I pulled it from my head, but there’s no shortage of horrific crimes and I wouldn’t be surprised if it matched some sad story somewhere in real life. It’s a dark world out there. I just really wanted to explore the sister bond and the lengths they would go to for each other —or one of them, at least.
Did you find it difficult to write a story like this?
It’s a hard question to answer because, if I say no, people will wonder what’s wrong with me and why I’m not perpetually upset all the time. There are obviously points where it’s difficult to stay in that headspace, but I compartmentalize. The need to tell the story is greater [than the difficulty]; I want to explore these topics and make people think and consider their own role. That’s a more pressing need than how upset I am. I also counterbalance, making sure that I have proper outlets to handle and manage the stress.
Did you always plan to incorporate podcast transcripts into the book?
The podcast came first. It sounds funny to say it just appeared, but it did! It always started there and with Wes’s voice. He was the gateway to Sadie. I had to build the initial questions with him and there she was, the answer.
Have you been involved in the making of the podcast, which brings the episodes from novel to life?
I had absolutely nothing to do with it, I just get to enjoy it, which is incredible. I did get to hear samples of the voice actors beforehand. It blew me away when I got to hear the podcast because the actors were spot on. The podcast scripts are pulled from the book, but have been slightly tweaked for the podcast to make the episodes more rounded out and to create the tension of a weekly, serialized story.
It’s been a cool thing to experience because it allowed me to see my book as a whole new story. I could babble about it forever because I’m so impressed by it. I had to wait to hear it and I have been listening to the episodes with everyone else. I’ve never experienced my book like a reader might. I know what happens to Sadie, but [Macmillan Audio] executes it in a way that’s unique.
Sadie, like many of your previous characters, might be considered an unlikable female protagonist. How do you feel about this label and its connotation?
I think people are quick to label complex, difficult, challenging female protagonists as unlikeable. So far, I think I’ve had success with readers liking my unlikeable female protagonists and, if they like them, are they actually unlikeable? On the one hand, they don’t make likeable choices, but I don’t think they’re inherently unlikeable. They’re pushing against expectations and standards we have for girls. We often encourage girls to be nice, to defer to others at the expense of themselves, to not hurt anyone’s feelings even if it means hurting their own. As soon as a girl resists that, she’s considered wrong or bad, but it’s just human. I’m always going to write girls like that because girls are complex, difficult, challenging, rewarding, and amazing.
Parker [from Cracked Up to Be] went through hell, so when people ask, couldn’t she have been a little nicer, it’s like: no, she couldn’t. She doesn’t care what you think of her and her priority shouldn’t be your opinion, she’s just trying to survive. Girls who are trying to survive are at the heart of my books. They’re going through intense trauma, so why should their focus be outward? There’s a complete lack of grace that we extend to girls who are going through difficult times, girls who can only focus on what’s in front of them and not what’s around them because they’re just trying to get through the next minute.
At 14, you dropped out of school to pursue your education independently. Can you share more information about this choice and your entry into novel writing?
Yeah, I’m a high school dropout. I would go to school every day and I hated it and felt that I wasn’t in the place that I needed to be. I had the full blessing of my parents; I was very privileged to be able to make that decision for myself. From that point on, during the time that I would have been in high school, I decided I would figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to tell stories, so I played around with different mediums. I wrote screenplays, I took pictures, I joined the local theater. I thought for sure I was going to be an actor, but thankfully that didn’t happen. When I was about 18, I wrote my first novel, which didn’t get published, thankfully, but it was then that I realized, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” It all clicked into place.
You’re quite active on social media and often answer reader questions about your books and writing via Instagram stories. How has this interaction with readers affected you, as a writer and—as a person?
Well, social media always keeps me from writing. So, there’s that. Cracked Up to Be was a quiet release, but readers embraced it. I joined Twitter in 2008. It was a direct line to my readers. I wouldn’t have a career without them. Readers have been so receptive, enthusiastic, and supportive, it’s incredible and hard to quantify. I like to be available and accessible (within reason) and, if there are questions I can answer about the writing process, I’m happy to answer. I also love hearing reactions to my books, how I’ve destroyed their lives. There’s something gratifying about that. I feel very lucky to be able to experience that.
Whose work has influenced you? Were there books you loved as a child or teen that continue to be important to you as either models or inspiration for the work you do now?
I love Robert Cormier. I found his books late in my teens, but they’ve been so influential for me. When I read The Chocolate War, I was drawn in by how defeated the characters are by the end. It’s dark. Everyone has been beaten by the system and you just wonder, what was it for? And that’s the point. It’s perfect. All his books are intense and wonderful. It’s not that I dislike happy endings, I just like books that don’t compromise.
What are you working on now? Do you have another YA novel scheduled for publication?
I can’t go into specifics, but I’m always working on something that will cause my readers devastation.
Are you interested in writing for an audience other than young adults? Do you feel like this is the audiences you’re meant to write for?
I think I’ll always be writing young adult books. It’s hard to imagine not. But I can’t say I’ll never write anything else. I hope I get to keep doing this for a long time. And there’s so many potential stories to tell. I’ll never close myself off to a story I feel I’m meant to tell.
Sadie by Courtney Summers. Wednesday Books, $17.99 Sept. 4 ISBN 978-1-250-10571-4