You said, "I write the books I needed as a teen and couldn't find." Can you elaborate that?
When I was a teen, I desperately needed to know that I wasn’t the only one who was being raped, abused, and tortured by my parents and the cult they were part of, or who was cutting myself to cope with the abuse, or who was also queer. I held so much pain that most of the time I wanted to die. And there was so much silence and shame about those things—both forced on me by my abusers, who told me they’d kill me if I spoke (and I saw them murder other children so I knew they could), but also by society, where people did not want to hear or believe about child rape, torture, and abuse. I did speak out about all those things as a teen, trying to find safety and healing, but the pain ran deep in my soul, wounds that are still healing. And there is so much homophobia in our society, which encourages silence. I think that my pain was made worse because I felt so alone in what I’d been through.
I read every novel I could get my hands on, reading both to escape the horror I was enduring, and also to find validation that someone else understood and I wasn’t alone. I found that in small ways—like that I wasn’t the only one who felt unloved and needed a good family (Anne of Green Gables), or who was bullied (Blubber), or who rightfully didn’t trust the people who were supposed to care for me (Down A Dark Hall). But I never found validation and comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone for the core of what I was enduring. So those are the things I write about now, to help other teens (and adults) who’ve been through similar things to know that they’re not alone, as well as to help those who’ve never experienced them have greater compassion and understanding.
Have important parts of yourself gone explored in your writing?
Every time I write a novel, I put a small slice of what I’ve experienced into that book—one issue, or a group of issues—and write from the heart—such as sexual abuse, self-harm, being queer, and using art to cope in Scars, or being bullied, body hatred and shame, being held captive, being withheld food and water, and using comics to survive in Stained. I draw deeply on both my trauma and healing experiences when I write, and on my emotion. I relive those experiences every time I edit the manuscript (for Scars, I did more than 50 edits before it was published), and as I do, I find myself working those issues through more fully, letting go of some of the pain.
What social concerns come across in your novels?
I deal a lot with multiple forms of oppression—and overcoming that oppression—in my novels, since I’ve experienced many of them, and I think it’s important to address inequality, abuse, and misuse of power, and try to make the world a kinder place. My book Scars deals with sexism, homophobia, happy queer relationships, our rape culture, and child sexual abuse; Stained deals with bullying, abduction, rape, sizeism, and body image. In Hunted, my dystopian fantasy novel, I thought of as an analogy for much of the oppression that exists in our world: sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, sizeism, etc., as well as, for me, the oppression that cults create. In every novel I try to have at least one queer character, one character of color, and one character who’s experienced abuse, trauma, or oppression and/or deals with mental health issues, whether they’re the main character, love interest, or walk-on character. I always write strong-girl characters who save themselves (as well as emotionally strong boy characters). I had to rescue myself many times over before I finally got safe, and I want to remind readers that they can, too, and that they’re also strong, even if they don’t feel that way. It’s important to me to help others feel seen, to reflect back emotional strength even during oppression, and also to encourage greater compassion—for ourselves and for others—while gripping readers with suspense!
Is your life in some way expressed through your work?
I draw heavily on my trauma and healing experiences when I write. I put a piece of my soul in every book. My books are fiction, but they have a lot of me or things I’ve been through in them.
Can someone who reads your work get a glimmer of who you are as a person?
I think so. In all my novels, I write strong-girl characters who are surviving or recovering from some form of oppression, abuse, or torture, and find a way to overcome it and heal, and often help others along the way. That is like me and what I’ve been through. I also write queer characters, characters of color, characters with mental health issues as a direct result of abuse or trauma, and have characters who learn greater compassion and empathy—for themselves and/or for others—also like me and/or things I believe in. I put a lot of my heart and soul into my books. I am openly queer, feminist, and an incest, rape, torture, and cult survivor who focuses on healing, and I think that shows in my books. The pain and compassion. The trying to learn happiness, to reach out to others, to heal and to help others heal. That’s me. (smiling)
Name one book that you read and thanked the writer for writing it. And why?
I’ve written a number of authors! If a book moves me or I really love it, I also try to let others know online so they can find it, too. One of the authors I wrote to, thanking her for the books she wrote, was Wendy Orr for Peeling The Onion. I so identified with her character and the pain she was going through, and the need for healing, and it was so vivid and powerfully written. You might also know Wendy Orr from her delightful Nim’s Island, which was made into a movie starring Jodie Foster, or many of the other books she’s written.