On Writing: Dianne Touchell on “Difficult” Subjects

To say I am a fan of “gritty” subjects would be an understatement.

It would also be an understatement to say I am a fan of “difficult” subjects, “intense” subjects, “controversial” subjects, “dark” subjects.

It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say I’m a fan of the “quotation marks” but this is because I’m trying to step lightly… because the subject of “difficult subjects” in YA fiction is, in itself, a difficult subject.

Situations are getting grittier. Teenagers are getting up to all sorts of nefarious deeds. YA fiction is getting darker. Won’t somebody think of the children?!?!

It’s all been said before and no doubt it will be said again… and again…and again.

As a reader, I am and will always be a unfaltering advocate for writers who aren’t afraid to toe the line of “safe” and “not safe”. But as a writer? Am I brave enough to plunge into the deep end?

What does happen when you’re writing YA fiction and the subject matter is… well… “difficult”? Surely you can’t always make your story full of rainbows, silver linings and happy endings where the only problems a main character has is whether their fancy boy/girl likes them back? But will people buy it if there isn’t an element of light heartedness in it? Should you shoe-horn that aspect into your story? What happens if agents/editors/publishers don’t want your book and the reason is because it’s too dark?
How do you find the balance?

Creepy + Maud by Dianne Touchell is up there in my Top Ten books that I read this year. I loved, loved, loved how Ms Touchell explored the “dark” side of growing up with all the messy, realistic feelings and situations that are, for some reason, often overlooked in YA fiction.  (I won’t witter on about it, but if you want you can read my review. )So of course I was going to ask her to help me out with this one.

So today I’m playing Devil’s Advocate and with the expert help of Ms Touchell, I’m going to delve in deep with how to go about writing those “controversial” subject matters….

Warning: May contain over use of “quotation marks”….

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So I know I promised that these questions were solely going to be about writing books and not the actual specific books, but I just have to ask two questions. In my defence, when I was reading Creepy + Maud I thought of these as a writer whose current WIP is about a “difficult subject”…

So what inspired you to write a book like Creepy + Maud and the subject matters it covered?

I wanted to write a love story. The inspiration was reading a lot of bad love stories. Too often people think love is very big and passionate and accommodating when I suspect we really fall in love with the way we ourselves feel in the presence of the object of our affection. Isn’t the love affair, especially initially, a little bit more to do with ourselves rather than the other? So I wanted to explore the idea of a love much quieter – one that dealt with the realities of individual experience. One that acknowledged the messiness of two lives finding that resonance between them. Rather than the usual story of two young people feeling the crush and setting out to impress one another I wondered how things would develop if impressing one another was not an option. Creepy likes the way he feels watching Maud. Maud likes the way she feels being watched. The result, sans self-conscious ruminating (“What does he think of me? How’s my hair? Is she noticing the pimple on my chin?), is something very tender. A real interest outside of the self develops. This is more difficult for Creepy because his dependence upon the way the watching makes him feel is quite visceral. However they both get to a place of non-intrusive dependence upon the other for relief from their daily grinds and that is one of the measures of real love. Having that safe place to fall.

Was the fact that the issues could be classed as “uncomfortable” ever in the back of your mind?

Not once. I was writing about love and acceptance. The protagonists are ordinary teens with extraordinary ways of dealing with their own anxieties. That makes them either bizarre or remarkable depending upon your point of view. And I respect individual readers’ points of views so gratefully welcome all interpretations of the story. If people feel “uncomfortable” I would say discomfort is not a bad thing. Discomfort makes you shift a little – that’s its nature. And any shift changes perspective.
I understand that in using the word “issues” you are referring to trichotillomania, voyeurism and obsessive-compulsion in general, however these are, to me, simple character traits rather than “issues”. When two young adults living in self-created emotional isolation find a true outlet and a true understanding in another person, that is astonishingly comfortable, for both of them. Perhaps one of the only external comforts they have had in a long time. So in writing about love, acceptance and the comforting nature of these things, the concept of “uncomfortable” was never in the back of my mind.

Now YA fiction is becoming darker and darker and the subject matters are becoming broader, do you think there is such a thing as taboo in Young Adult fiction?

I love the word “taboo”. It’s so loaded. So what we’re really talking about is censorship? There are certainly no prohibitive legal directives in relation to YA writing, so I would say there are no taboos – taboos being simply social and cultural. Is YA becoming darker? I’d need a definition of “dark”. I write where my characters take me. Subject matters should be broad – they should be as broad and knotty as reality. That doesn’t make them dark. It just makes them reflective.

Who do you think deems a subject “difficult”, “uncomfortable”, “taboo”? Is it the reader or the writer or someone else?

Well, it’s not this writer, that’s for goddamn sure. People are strange fish. And by strange I mean wonderfully weird and diverse. I wouldn’t presume to know who would judge subject matter “difficult, uncomfortable or taboo”. Nor would I judge them for their presumption. We are all the product of our very personal, convoluted and sometimes inherited belief systems. People come to things – literature, art, other people – with the best judgement they have based upon what they know at the time. And none of that is my problem. I just write stories.

Are you ever worried what the parents, teachers, librarians, adults will think of your way of portraying these issues? Does what they think register when you’re writing?

No, I don’t worry. And no it doesn’t register. I never write with the audience in mind. To do so, I imagine, would be terribly limiting. There is a bubble. I get in that. In that bubble is my novel-world. As with any created world it exists within, and because of, its own internal ethical configuration. My characters lead that. I was writing a love story in that bubble. I was not portraying issues. I just wanted to write a compelling story using good words.

How do you resist the temptation to sensationalise these subjects in order to make a more easy-to-read (or, actually shocking-for-shock’s-sake) story?

The temptation was never there. I actually think sensationalism can have the effect of trivializing topics, and characters. It’s very easy to be deliberately controversial but there is no substitute for the slow burn when telling a story. Unfurling things within context is just a better read for people than slapping them upside the head with an agenda laden cricket bat. Sensationalism is counterintuitive to creating characters that are memorable and stories that sing a bit. I feel the minute you trade honesty of voice for glorification of the peculiar you are creating caricatures rather than lovely people on paper that readers remember.

Difficult subjects are very rarely neat and tidy. Are you ever scared that once you’ve committed to including it in your story that it will completely change the direction of your writing? Would that always be a bad thing?

What is a difficult subject? Are there any? I can’t think of one. My ideas come from having lived in the world for…some years. And people are often at their most interesting when challenged, even when defeated. So I feel no fear in writing stories that include the stuff of challenge and defeat. Does that change the direction of my writing? A lot of things regularly change the direction of my writing. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. I never second guess myself. Or regret things. I recently deleted about 20,000 words because I had a “great idea” for a different direction one morning and then realised my great idea was pretty fucked really and my original idea was better. Oh, well. Back into the memory banks to recreate that 20,000. Nothing is ever neat and tidy – be it a “difficult subject” or a description of a toothache. Life is not neat and tidy. And I’m not a great believer in commitment either (ergo the quick deletes). I don’t “commit” to anything when I start a story. Anything could change at any time.

It could be argued that things like mental illness and obsessive-compulsive disorders (like Trichotillomania) are subjective. One person might be affected by it (whether they are a sufferer or know someone who is suffering from them) in one way, and someone the other. With such a broad umbrella of issues and perspectives, is it difficult to rein it in?

I would say that mental illness is not subjective. It is a physiological illness. No one tells someone with diabetes to “get over it”. Having said that what begins for one reason can continue for another. For example Maud’s Trichotillomania has, after some time, gained the element of habit. This is why these sorts of mental illnesses (obsessive-compulsive disorder specifically) respond so well to both medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Responses to symptoms of mental illness are surprisingly uniform. Maud pulls for comfort. People cut for comfort. People starve themselves for comfort. People drink too much for comfort. People deny the pain of others for comfort. We are a strange species – we do an awful lot of self-destructive things for comfort. When I write about things like this the way to rein it in is to treat these character traits with kindness. Things approached with compassion rarely get out of control.

Writing stories about these “difficult subjects” must get kind of overwhelming, especially with all the research you obviously do. How do you distance yourself from these stories? Do you think it’s important for a writer to maintain this distance?

No distance. I like to be knee deep. Choosing the right words for someone means I have to live with them in the midst of their stuff. Otherwise it’d be a bit like trying to describe the taste of a pie without having a slice. So there is research, but I find that enjoyable. I did try pulling my own hair for the description of Creepy pulling his. Which does not mean if my next protagonist is a snake-handler I’ll be trying that! If I want readers to be absorbed in the story I don’t think I could pull it off by maintaining my own distance.

How do you make it clear within your writing that you’re portraying a “difficult subject” because you want to and not because you’re trying to be edgy and different?

I love “edgy and different”! It’s what I’m attracted to in my own reading. I definitely wanted this to be edgy, toes on the precipice stuff. Love is an edgy, toes on the precipice thing. I never thought about trying to convince readers that my intention was honest and not manipulative (fiction being manipulative by its very nature). I wrote the best story I could with the best words I could think of and that’s all I can do. If I started censoring or self-consciously modifying characters, topics and outcomes with audience reaction in mind I’d drive myself, and the reader, nuts. I just get knee deep and write the thing and hope for the best.

And finally, what are your Top Tips for writing difficult subjects and doing them well?

Yikes – don’t believe I’m qualified to give any advice whatsoever on this. And if I were someone reading this I sure as hell wouldn’t follow my tips. But I’ll give it a crack:
1. Love your delete key. It is your friend.
2. Listen to the voices in your head (except for that one they’re medicating you for).
3. Don’t continue writing after the third glass of wine (you’ll segue into descriptions of people who ticked you off that day).
4. Don’t ever take tip lists from other writers seriously. There is no formula.

Stalk Dianne!
Her blog

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So what do you reckon? How do you feel about writing these “difficult” subjects? Do you think there’s such thing as one in YA fiction? Do you agree that YA fiction is getting darker? Is this a bad thing? Are you ever scared of being too controversial with your subject matters?  

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14 thoughts on “On Writing: Dianne Touchell on “Difficult” Subjects

  1. Great post, Jo & Dianne! I received C&M this week, can’t wait to read it.

    I think that for every so-called dark YA book there are a dozen more about kissing, so I don’t think it’s getting any darker :)

    • I really hope you love C&M, Mandee!
      Haha, you have an excellent point. I think that’s the great thing about YA. As a genre, it’s so diverse. If you know you don’t like books that are “dark” then there are other books you can read. Same goes with kissing books. You can always find a book that suits you and your reading tastes.

      But it’s good stretching your comfort zones every now and again. ;)

  2. Okay, I’m going to write this comment, then I’m going to go back and read the whole post again:) I. Love. This.

    Creepy & Maud is definitely one of my favourite books of the year and I think it’s going to be a Rey Cult Classic. I really admire Dianne Touchell’s perspective too, I feel like she writes in such an honest way about “uncomfortable” things. I love that she doesn’t worry about whether or not to “go there”, she just tells the characters’ stories.

    Now I’m thinking about Creepy and Maud again. I love those kids.

    p.s. I slipped in some quotation marks just for you :)

    • :-D
      Rey, your comment made me grin like a “loon”. I’m so glad you loved this interview and for recommending this book to me.
      I know exactly what you mean. I think that’s the issue with some books, or at least the issues I have with some books. When authors try and shoe horn “different” and “uncomfortable” subjects into their stories, without thinking it through/researching then it just comes across as so fake.
      I think even people who don’t like C&M will find the way Ms Touchell wrote the story refreshing because you can tell the characters came first and the story is what was right for them.

  3. Holy cow, this is wonderful. I’ve been dying to read this book since you and Rey reviewed it and loved it. I’ll join you in the quotation mark addiction and dark topic addiction clubs, just let me know the meetup details.

    I really like that she doesn’t write to any audience nor does she avoid any topics. I loved this–>”Subject matters should be broad – they should be as broad and knotty as reality. That doesn’t make them dark. It just makes them reflective.”

    • Thanks Flann! I really, really hope you read it soon. I wonder if you’ll be Team Creepy? I hope so. :)

      And yes, there are so many quotable “quotes” in this that I’ve copied and pasted into a word document for when I’m writing.

  4. It seems like the best “issues” books are the ones where the issues aren’t the main focus, but merely another aspect of the characters, like this one. I also loved how she said the temptation to sensationalize was never there because that’s when you create caricatures instead of “lovely people on paper.”

    While I mostly read YA fantasy and tend to avoid more gritty contemporary YA, I like how honest Dianne Touchell comes off in this interview, so I’m sure her book would be really good. Might give it a try…great interview!

    • Yes, I loved that bit. I really hate it when “issues” are introduced just for the sake of it… and not because it’s part of the character. You can always tell which authors do this.

      Thank you! I think I’m determined to get you to join the dark side…. YA Contemporary. *cackles* ;)

  5. Pingback: Time for the monthly wrap-up « Mystic Cooking

  6. Pingback: Review: A Small Madness by Dianne Touchell | weartheoldcoat

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