Amy Reed is dropping by for a Psychtember interview! She's the author of the YA novels Beautiful, Clean, and the upcoming Crazy.
Here's the synopsis for the recently released Clean:
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. 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.
Amy Reed was born and raised in and around Seattle, where she attended a total of eight schools by the time she was eighteen. Constant moving taught her to be restless, and being an only child made her imagination do funny things. After a brief stint at Reed College (no relation), she moved to San Francisco and spent the next several years serving coffee and getting into trouble. She eventually graduated from film school, promptly decided she wanted nothing to do with filmmaking, returned to her original and impractical love of writing, and earned her MFA from New College of California. Amy currently lives in Oakland, California.
Her short work has been published in journals such as Kitchen Sink, Contrary, and Fiction. Her first Young Adult novel BEAUTIFUL was released in the Fall of 2009 (Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster). Her second YA novel CLEAN has been described as “The Breakfast Club in rehab,” and releases July 19, 2011.
And now the interview!
1.) Clean features 5 main characters, each with their own specific addictions and stories of their journey to rehab. What kind of research did you have to do to make each teen’s background believable? Do you have a personal connection to one character in particular?
Apart from some basic technical research about anorexia (for Olivia) and autism (for Kelly’s sisters), I didn’t have to do much research for the girls. I had a very deep personal connection to all three of them--their feelings were so familiar, it didn’t take much effort to really try to think like them and understand the motivations for their actions. The boys were much harder, however. I wouldn’t say they required research, but it was more of a challenge to try to understand where they came from and why they turned out the way they did. For Christopher, I really wanted to understand how such a stereotypically “good” kid could get turned on to drugs, and I realized quickly he had a big secret that was like poison to him, and he’d never start to recover until he came to terms with it. Jason was definitely the hardest character to write. I wanted to understand what made a sexist, homophobic bully; I wanted to find the humanity inside the kind of guy I always hated as a teenager. I came to understand that he was mirroring what he grew up seeing, that his concepts of strength and weakness were skewed by a very abusive home. None of this took research really. It’s just a matter of trying with all your heart to imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
2.) While the reader is exposed to all of the teens’ viewpoints through excerpts from items like personal essays, a good part of the story is told through two of the main characters’ perspectives: Kelly and Christopher. Why did you choose these two? How do you think the effect of Clean might have changed if, for instance, Jason and Olivia were telling the story instead?
You know, I’m not really sure why I picked Kelly and Christopher. At first, the five voices were going to be equal, but my agent and I decided it would make more sense to focus on one or two. I don’t remember the thought process that went into choosing. So much of writing is based on instinct rather than logic. In retrospect, I’m glad I picked them. I think they’re the most likeable characters out of the five, so it might have made it easier for the reader to relate to them despite the difficult and possibly alienating subject matter. If it had been Olivia and Jason, I don’t know if I could have kept the reader’s attention long enough to discover their redeeming qualities.
3.) Olivia’s problems are more complicated than just an addiction, yet she is at the rehab clinic for weeks before it becomes dramatically apparent that she needs more help than they can give. Why do you think this fact was able to slip by all of the staff working there? Would you say this is a common occurrence at a facility like the rehab clinic they attend? If so, what suggestions would you make to the staff so that cases like Olivia’s are caught more quickly?
That’s a tough question. Of course, I can’t speak for all rehab clinics or make any blanket statements about their successes and failures with things like this. But I do know that many, many addicts and alcoholics have a dual-diagnosis with depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, PTSD, and countless mental illnesses. Alcohol and drug abuse often start as a way to self-medicate untreated mental illness. I know many people for whom this is the case, and their struggle with addiction has always been, and will always be, intertwined with these other issues. My guess is that it’s common for both parents and professionals to only see the addiction at first. It is often the loudest problem, with the most obvious physical and social side-effects. Eating disorders and mental illnesses share so many of the same indicators with addiction; they may look identical to an outsider. A drug rehab counselor is trained to treat addiction, so that is what they’re looking for, and in the process of focusing on that, they may lose sight of other possible problems, although I think professionals in this area are becoming increasingly sensitive and knowledgeable about dual-diagnoses and treatments. In Olivia’s case, her deeper problems were both exacerbated and masked by her addiction--amphetamine use often comes with weight loss and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Withdrawal from alcohol and many drugs looks a lot like depression, so counselors may only see a low mood as a temporary side-effect. The key, I think, is long-term treatment. After the initial phase of acute withdrawal, professionals will be better able to determine what behavior is temporary and what is longer lasting and needs its own treatment.
4.) Shirley, their group counselor, is another significant character, but we don’t see any sections from her perspective. If Shirley had to write a “personal essay” too, what do you think one of the excerpts would say?
Shirley has battled her own demons, for sure, and she had to suffer far more years of hell than the kids she treats. That’s part of why she’s so tough on them, I think. She doesn’t want them to take their treatment for granted because she lost so many years of her own life to her alcoholism. She didn’t grow up in a family that had the money to send her to rehab, or even cared enough to notice that anything was wrong. This may be surprising, but when I think of her as a teenager, I think of her as being a lot like Kelly. I think she was beautiful and sad and wild, and she had no one to set boundaries for her.
5.) For some reason, Jason’s dad, Christopher’s mom, Shirley, and “Compulsive Liar” are all coming over to your place for dinner. What happens?
Oh wow, what a nightmare! Well, I think Compulsive Liar would be going through everyone’s purses and coat pockets when the adults aren’t looking. Christopher’s mom would be very uncomfortable and nervous. She’d be asking for Christopher, wanting desperately to go back home to the comfort of her familiar surroundings. But the drama would really be centered on Jason’s dad and Shirley. He would be trying to bully everyone, making offensive remarks about Christopher’s mom, trying to hold court and intimidate everyone. But Shirley wouldn’t let him, of course. She’d fight right back. Outside of the professional environment, she wouldn’t have to be as diplomatic as she was on Family Day, so she’d probably take great pleasure in belittling him in front of everyone.
6.) I see you’re now working on Crazy, another YA book involving mental health issues. How have the writing experiences of these three books differed? Has it become easier to write these kinds of stories as you’ve progressed?
Yes, CRAZY is actually totally done and scheduled to release next summer. This book definitely took a lot more research than BEAUTIFUL and CLEAN. I did a lot of reading about bipolar disorder symptoms and treatment, some of it very clinical and academic, some of it very personal. I talked to friends with bipolar disorder. I talked to friends who had been to psych wards. Research was a huge part of this book, while it wasn’t so much with the other two. They were all very different writing experiences. I wrote much of Beautiful while in an MFA program; it was half raw emotion, half meticulous workshop revision. Clean was like writing a collage, and I often used scissors and tape to physically find the structure. Crazy was part research project, part character study, and part love letter.
Thanks so much for these thoughtful answers, Amy! I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for Crazy when it hits stores :)