Susanne Dunlap

Writing What’s Real

In Books I have read, The writing industry, Writing Craft, YA, MG, Kids on September 6, 2010 at 11:37 am

Last night I lay awake for a long time before falling asleep, even after finishing a good book (Matched, by Ally Condie). I was full of anxiety about everything going on in my life. Mostly I worried about money, since I’m behind with almost everything. But I also worried about all the projects I have going, writing and otherwise: Have I said the right things to the novelists I’m editing? What can I do for the non-profit whose board I just joined, and was it right to do that when I’m in such a perilous financial state myself? What’s going to happen next to one of the main characters in The Academie, the YA historical I’m writing now? The startup I’m working on—what if we’re wrong about everything?

And then, I turn to darker thoughts. What if my daughter’s terrible accident had turned out differently? I relive the phone call to the hospital and hear the ICU nurse’s voice telling me something no mother would ever want to hear. I can’t help it. It’s the scab I keep picking.

This morning I woke up predictably late after anxious nightmares where my sweet dog continually went missing and I was dancing around avoiding bill collectors, my obligations augmented to ten times their size in the distorted world of a dream. It’s all just a dream, I thought. I have the power to fix and deal with 99% of what’s going on in my life.

Then I thought about something I read recently on the TeenLitAuthors email loop. A group of authors who write contemporary teen fiction have started a blog devoted just to that. It’s called The Contemps, and as they say on their About Us page,

Our goal is to help teens, booksellers, and librarians connect with and celebrate books that feature true-to-life settings, characters, and situations…

I must say, I completely understand why they would want to do this. The teen book world is overwhelmed with dystopian fantasy, vampires, werewolves, etc. (But not so much historical, which is what I write.) Given some of the huge successes out there, I can see why publishers are tempted to believe that it’s all young readers are interested in.

I read widely, both YA and adult. I recently decided that my own skepticism about the fantasy and futuristic, post-apocalyptic novels that have been very popular was holding me back from learning something about my own writing and about readers in general, so I started reading the Twilight series and The Hunger Games trilogy.

Twilight is about longing for something so alluring it’s deadly. Powerful stuff.

The Hunger Games is about what happens when individuals lose control of their own lives, and society becomes the extremest of haves vs. have-nots.

Surprising to me (although perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me, because Suzanne Collins is many times the writer that Stephenie Meyer is in my opinion) it was The Hunger Games that really gripped my soul. It surprised me because I’ve always been a secret fan of vampires, ever since I terrified myself at about the age of 12 reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula in what we all called “the reading chair” at home—a huge wing chair that was in my great-grandfather’s office, big enough for a teen to curl up in completely.

There is much to say about The Hunger Games, and I’m well into the second book in the trilogy. But that’s not my point here. My point concerns the entire spectrum: historical, fantasy, futuristic, and contemporary, and what themes they serve up that engage a reader.

Just as an experiment, I tried to imagine what realistic, contemporary books on the two themes addressed by the Twilight books and The Hunger Games trilogy would look like:

Twilight could deal with the siren song of drugs, the longing for the state of sweet oblivion they promise to teens who feel they don’t fit in anywhere.

The Hunger Games could take place in Alaska, say, where a young teen discovers she really doesn’t have an option when she gets pregnant, but is forced by pressure from her ultra-religious family to have a baby she doesn’t want and must give up all hope of the life she dreamed for herself as a consequence.

Of course, those are just silly examples. But I wondered if The Contemps write books that deal with such gritty, painful realities in teen life. The answer is both yes and no. As promised, the group of writers is amazingly diverse: everything from high-school prom traumas to gripping thrillers and mysteries; ADD and eating disorders; Bullying and other serious issues today’s teens face.

Good stuff, all of it. So why is it that contemporary and real has taken a backseat to fantasy and couldn’t-possibly-ever-be-real?

I don’t know if there’s a definitive answer to that, so I’ll just give my opinion. I think maybe some concepts are harder to take if they’re presented as real, as too close to actual life. I couldn’t really imagine The Hunger Games and the themes it handles taking place in the present. I don’t think I could bear to read it.

There’s an escapist quality to reading. I want books that take me away from here and now. Perhaps that’s why so many adults are enjoying reading young adult fiction, reliving the way they felt at that crucial, exciting time in their lives. For many adults it was a golden time. For many, it was searingly painful. Going back and seeing it through someone else’s eyes can be both affirming and cathartic.

I try not to read books that will give me nightmares (real life gives me enough of those), and yet no matter where or when a book takes place, for me it has to be real. I have to believe what the characters are going through, and recognize their emotions and responses.

And I suppose that’s what I mean by all this. There’s room on the cosmic bookshelf for all kinds of fiction, but the books that stay with us are the ones that resonate with something deep inside, whether they’re historical, contemporary, fantasy, or futuristic. Longing. Injustice. Loss of control. Love. Passion. Helplessness. Strength. Hope.

So I applaud The Contemps for their initiative. I think I’ll have to push my comfort zone yet again and read some of the books they have written.

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  1. Yeah, I like to read about another place or time – that’s why I prefer historical fiction & fantasy to realistic comtemporary fiction (which, I can’t help it, I get bored reading…). I live in the modern, realistic world already, so I’d rather read about something else!

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