Five YA authors discussed writing realistic fiction, as well as the realities of their own writing struggles, during the "Reality Bites" panel on Saturday afternoon at BookCon. Topics included hard-to-write characters, romantic relationships, diversity in their fiction, and writing about topics that make parents uneasy. Melissa Cantor (Better Than Perfect) moderated the panel, which featured Ellen Hopkins (Traffick), Patrick Ness (The Rest of Us Just Live Here), Lauren Oliver (Vanishing Girls), and Jason Reynolds (The Boy in the Black Suit).
Early questions focused on specific elements of the authors’ latest books. Asked about how writing a sequel compares to working on a standalone novel, Hopkins said that the time she has spent with “sexual survivors” helped her understand the need for an “ending” and to “know what happens next” (both Trick and its forthcoming sequel, Traffick, center around human trafficking). “Can you put your life back together after being in that situation?” she asked.
Regarding the suit worn by protagonist Matt in The Boy in the Black Suit, who starts crashing funerals in his Brooklyn neighborhood to help his own grieving process, Reynolds described the suit as a defense mechanism or “protective layer.” Matt wears the suit “for the exact same reason superheroes have capes,” he said. “This is the thing that gives him the strength. This is the thing that makes him feel strong, that makes him feel necessary.”
Asked about the origins of The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Ness explained that it began partly as a joke about the ridiculousness about the names of certain YA characters (there may have been a “Katniss” mumbled into the mic). “What about Mike?” Ness asked. “Mike never gets a book.” He described his novel as a chance to play outside the “chosen one” trope in fiction, noting that he was partly inspired by background characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “What about all those other kids? They just want to have lunch without there being a giant snake trying to eat the school.”
However, Ness said he understood the popularity of “chosen one” narratives. “The M.O. of being a teenager, even if you’re a popular one, is that you feel different. YA is powerful because it gives you an explanation of why you’re different. Harry Potter said, ‘You are different because you are secretly a wizard.’ I always said you could hear a hundred million teenagers say, ‘I knew it!’ ”
Oliver said that while family is one of the central themes to Vanishing Girls, which is about the fraying relationship between two sisters after an accident, it shares common themes with previous titles like Before I Fall and her Delirium series. “The image of people locked in their own behaviors, patterns, and pain, and their inability to break out of that is a central theme in all my books,” she said. “On a deeper level, that’s the function of stories: to break yourself out of whatever bubble you’re in, to share a bit about your perspective and questions with someone else. It’s a function of art in general, and part of the reason I write in the first place.”
On the subject of characters, Hopkins said that Whitney in Trick and Traffick proved hardest for her to write, partly because of the character’s similarity to people she knows. “[Whitney] comes from a privileged background, and she made a choice—basically the worst choice ever. And it took her to the brink of death. It’s hurtful for a person you love to make choices you can’t stop. All my characters are my kids, in some ways.”
Asked about the Bed-Stuy setting of his fiction, Reynolds described the scene that he imagined was unfolding that very minute in the Brooklyn neighborhood, with old black men sitting in the park shouting about checkers, car speakers blaring, children playing in open fire hydrants, and a man selling jerk-spiced chicken and fish. “I write about [Bed-Stuy] a lot because it’s a very special neighborhood to me,” he said. “It’s the farthest thing from sterile. It’s a breathing, living entity at all times. That so many people have been so afraid of it for so long, I do everything I can to write it into my stories to expose what a beautiful place it is.”
As the conversation moved to romance in fiction, Oliver said that she’s proud that the relationships between her characters and their friends and siblings as “as important, if not more so” than any romantic relationships. “The single most powerful thing you can do for someone else is tell them, ‘I see you who are as a human being.’ I have the best-friend model of romance in all of my books, which I believe in for life, too.”
During the Q&A session with the audience, one attendee asked the panelists about their approach to diversity in their writing, and whether it was something they felt they had to include. “I spent a lot of years fighting against right-wing opinions about what teenage books should be or should contain,” said Ness, after joking about the “white man” on the panel answering the question first. “The story must come first. You cannot start with a lesson or a sermon.” However, he continued, that doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of the world around you. “If you don’t include diversity in a book, I don’t think you are telling the truth.”
Finally, on the subject of parental reactions to books they found objectionable, Hopkins said, “Every kid’s experience is different. I write issues that are in your child’s school, on the school bus, and around the corner – they are there. I can give outcomes to choices. Books are a safe place to explore things like the choice to do drugs or not to do drugs.” Reynolds agreed with the idea of books as “safe spaces” for exploring tough topics. “Does your child listen to the radio? Watch television?” With hundreds of pages to examine a topic, books have “depth, layers, and nuance,” he said. “A three-minute sound bite in a song is far more damaging.”