Friday, September 20, 2013

Author Interview and GIVEAWAY: (Part One) Cheryl Rainfield on STAINED and Why She Writes

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I am honored to host PART ONE of a two part Author Interview with the very candid and down to earth Young Adult Author, Cheryl Rainfield. PART TWO can be found here. The last time I was so honored to speak with Cheryl about her first two books, SCARS and HUNTED, I focused on the writing process. If you didn't have a chance to read that interview yet, check it out here.

Today, I focused on Cheryl's most recent release, STAINED, and the topics Cheryl often writes about. I guess I did too good of a job with these questions, since we are dividing the interview in half, but so much of what Cheryl says is so very important, I believe it will be worthy of two posts.

Now to welcome our guest, Cheryl Rainfield!

Thank you for your incredibly thoughtful, in depth questions! I love them.

You've covered self-harm/cutting and sexual abuse in SCARS, brainwashing and prejudice in HUNTED, Domestic violence and suicide in PARALLEL VISIONS, and now kidnapping, rape and self image in STAINED. Why are these topics so important to you, and why are these the topics central to your writing?

I love that you’ve read all my books, Don, and that you know the issues I’ve covered in them! (smiling at you)

All the issues I've covered—various forms of bullying, sexual abuse, trauma, and oppression, including homophobia, and the ways we’re affected by them and cope with them—are important to me because: I’ve experienced them myself and I know how much deep pain they cause; there’s so much silence and often shame around them; and I think we need to talk about them—as individuals and as a society—to bring greater healing and hopefully to prevent further abuse and oppression from happening.

I think that when we talk about painful issues from an honest place, and when we talk about them in a way people can hear, which fiction is ideal for, we can help others who haven’t been through similar experiences really understand and come away with greater compassion, and we can help people who have gone through similar experiences to feel less alone and to know that it can and does get better. Feeling alone makes pain so much worse. I’ve always had a strong desire to break silence, and to heal and encourage healing in others. My books are my way to do that.

I felt so alone and in so much pain as a child and teen; a lot of the time I wanted to die. I never want anyone else to go through that—and so I try to help others with my books. Books helped me so much—they helped me survive the abuse and torture; I really think they saved me. So it’s an incredible, wonderful thing to help do that for others through my books. It is healing to hear from readers how much my books help them.

In STAINED, Sarah is a girl with a facial blemish, a port wine stain that covers most of her cheek, and she is obsessed by her concept of self image. For so many young girls, the media is a significant influence on such negative self concepts that are so strong, they often lead to defining a young girl's identity if allowed to go unchecked. How do these ideas impact Sarah as a main character, and why is it so important to tell Sarah's story for your readers, many of whom are young girls?

Sarah is deeply affected by the media’s definition of what beauty is and all the photo-shopped models she sees in ads—just as I think so many girls and women are, and boys now, too. Sarah becomes obsessed with looking perfect, and her desperation is increased by the bullying she receives from her peers about her port-wine stain and all the frequent negative reactions to her birthmark that she receives out in the world. I think that sometimes people don’t realize how much a stare or an unthinking comment can hurt.

Teens—and adults, too—are exposed to ads that see girls and women as only bodies or sexual beings (and boys are getting some of that treatment, too). It’s so unhealthy for us all. The ads target insecurities in girls—and boys—and show impossible standards of “perfect” beauty—instead of showing bodies the way they really are and appreciating them.

So many people struggle with negative body image—hating their bodies, wanting to be different—and the constant barrage of ads makes it worse. If you mix abuse into that, especially sexual abuse or harassment—which about 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys have been through—it’s so much worse. We’re seeing increasing numbers of eating disorders in teens—both girls and boys—and self-harm, and there is so much body hatred out there, as well as some girls thinking that their only worth is as a sexual being. It’s very disturbing. I struggle with body image issues myself as an incest and ritual abuse survivor, as a lesbian, and as a woman in this society. It’s another level of pain that people carry around—and we don’t need to. It shouldn’t be happening, all these distorted images being put out there.

I want us all to love and appreciate our bodies and feel good in them. And I think that one way to encourage that is to increase awareness of the way ads and bullying and rape can affect our body image, and try to find ways to take the positive messages in that we get, and see our own beauty and strength. So that’s a theme I explored in STAINED. I think fiction is one of the most powerful ways we have of exploring issues in a safe way, finding out we’re not alone, and healing.

In STAINED, I was thrilled to discover you've written loosely in alternating point of view. Sarah is the main character, but there are times we get to read from Nick's perspective, a boy who's heavy, and teased for his body shape. What made you decide to write in this format, and can you elaborate on the time stamp also found at the beginning of each chapter. How did your story structure affect mood, pacing, and tension?

I think having both Sarah and Nick’s perspectives helps to alleviate some of the pain from the trauma that Sarah endures, and give the reader breathing room, while still keeping up the tension of the story. It also helps fill in some of the things that Sarah doesn’t know about. And the time stamps help the reader see that more time is passing than Sarah realizes, since she only has her inner clock and the foil balls to judge time by.
I didn’t have the alternate viewpoints in early versions of STAINED; at first I only had Sarah’s perspective. Adding Nick’s viewpoint in came out of discussions with my editor, who helped me make STAINED even stronger. I’d read a few books told in alternate viewpoints that worked really well and that I’d loved, and also some that had time stamps—which I also added later in the editing process.
I think the alternate viewpoints helps readers discover more about both characters—things they might not tell us themselves or with the same perspectives. And I wanted readers to see how differently Nick saw Sarah—as beautiful and brave and strong—than she saw herself, even before she managed to escape her abductor. The way we see ourselves is not always the way others see us. I think many of us would find it helpful to hear how the people who love us really see us. Sometimes we can be our own harshest critics.

Sarah and Nick both love comics. Sarah writes story and dialogue, Nick is an artist. I was immediately reminded of THE ASTONISHING ADVENTURES OF FANBOY AND GOTH GIRL by the brilliant Barry Lyga. I imagine this was either a reference for STAINED, or possibly a comp (comparison) title for your initial pitch of STAINED. What other titles spring to mind for you in capturing some quality of your story, and what other comp titles did you use if any?

I haven’t read Lyga’s FANBOY AND GOTH GIRL yet (blushing) but it’s on my to-read list. I don’t usually pitch an idea to an editor or have my agent do that—I like to wait until I have a manuscript written, edited, and polished to where I think it’s publishable before I submit it. That means less stress for me. I don’t want to work under the stress of a deadline, where I might not make my work as good as I can make it because I don’t have the time or I work so crazy hard that I hurt my health. I want to feel good about my work before I submit it. 
Some authors whose work mine has been compared to, who also deal with painful issues, are Ellen Hopkins, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jennifer Brown, Laura Wiess, and for STAINED I’d add April Henry with her books on abduction.

SCARS references art, and STAINED references creating comic books. Why are the arts a great vehicle for your characters as therapy for surviving so many horrific ordeals, and why do you include this in your stories? What other arts haven't you used yet, and do you have plans to incorporate other therapeutic methods for your characters in the future? What message does this send to your readers, especially those who are struggling with the issues referenced above in question 1?

I think art is a wonderful way to heal and to help us cope when things are hard—it can help us get out emotion and traumatic memories, help us say things we might not be able to aloud, help us have a voice and be heard. It can be a safe way to face or talk about things that we’re not ready to deal with in any other way yet. If we keep pain or sadness or hard things locked up inside, they only get stronger and more unbearable. Letting it out in a safe way, through art or writing or dance or some creative expression, can give necessary relief. It can also be a powerful way to talk to others about painful things. 
I’ve used art and writing to deal with trauma all my life. Sometimes when I write or create art I feel as if I’m bleeding out my pain onto the paper, canvas, clay, whatever material I’m using. Because I love art (and writing) so much and know how much they help, I have my characters use it. I think it can help us to read about a character using art as a way to cope or tell—it reminds us of positive ways of dealing with trauma or pain, ways that don’t hurt us. It can help us think—hm, maybe I can do that, too—or it can affirm for us—yes, this works, it’s healthy, it’s good for me. When you’re in really deep pain or the effects of trauma or crisis, it can be hard to remember healthy ways of coping to use. So sometimes seeing it modeled for us in books can help us remember it’s what we want to do.

There are many art forms I haven’t yet had my characters use in books. I’d like to use sculpture, photography, poetry, video, cartooning/caricatures, mosaics, stained glass work, and songwriting. Perhaps dance and theatre, too, though since I am awkward with those in my life, I’d have to learn a lot more about them before I write about them. And various forms of crafts also appeal to me for my characters, things I’ve dabbled in, such as crocheting, sewing, quilting, paper crafts, etc. In a manuscript I’m working on now, a character uses collage—layers of cut-up magazine photos—to help her face the things she’s too afraid to face. It’s an art form I used a lot when I was a teen.

You have shared some of the traumatic experiences you've drawn upon as a survivor of abuse, and how you've used these as focal or reference points to inform the truths your characters face and struggle through in your books. Why make yourself so vulnerable? Why get so personal? Why not write romance and happy stories that avoid these tougher, harsher, more gritty of topics and issues? Why is this so important for you?

I felt so alone and in so much pain as a child and teen being abused and tortured, and bullied at school, and growing up queer. I often wanted to die and thought seriously about suicide, even attempted it. My pain was made so much worse thinking I was the only one who’d been through those experiences. Books were my safety, and they helped me know in small ways that I wasn’t alone—but I still always searched for that knowledge that I wasn’t the only one who’d been through those things or felt that way. I think there are teens (and adults) now who are desperate for books that let them know that they’re not alone in their pain or the harsh realities they’re living in—that someone else really, truly understands on a deep gut level—and that they can get through it. 
I want to help ease pain and heartache and that feeling of aloneness for others in the way I can most effectively and powerfully—through my books and the honesty and compassion in them. And I want people who haven’t been through some of the things we’ve been through to have a little more compassion.
Books save lives. I know that from my own experience—if I hadn’t had books that helped me know that others felt unloved or were bullied or abused, and also books that helped me escape that life, I’m not sure I could have survived. And I know that from the reader letters I get, telling me that they felt like I was writing their story, or that after reading my book they talked to someone for the first time about their experiences, or stopped hurting themselves, or it helped them not kill themselves. We need both realistic fiction and fantasy, hard-hitting books that open darkness up to the light, and light-hearted books that bring laughter. There’s room for them all. I write what I need to write—for myself and for others. 

My abuse experience and my determination to make positive, healing difference in the world drive me to write the books I do. I’ve been through such extreme abuse and torture, and my abusers tried to silence me so frequently with threats of death and with torture and mind control, that I have such a strong need to speak out, to break silence, to let others know they’re not alone, to have the world be a kinder place than the one I’ve known for most of my life. 
I think talking about trauma or painful experiences from an honest, personal level helps others connect more—helps them really feel and understand. And when people understand, there’s greater compassion—for themselves or for others. I want readers to know that if they’ve been through some of the same or similar things to Sarah in the book or to me that they can get safe if they’re not already, they can heal, they can find happiness and it will get better. So much better. 
And I want people who haven’t been through any of those things to be moved—to know that yes, these things really happen and they may even know someone it happened to. Sexual abuse, rape, abduction, bullying—they’re not just headlines in the news (which we know happen but can feel very removed). I think if readers love a book, they also connect to the author, and when they find out that I’ve drawn on my own trauma to write the book, it makes it a little more real for them. Makes them more aware. Maybe they’ll have a little more compassion for a survivor they know. Maybe they’ll notice the silent screaming of a child or teen or woman being abused and try to help. Maybe they’ll just be a little bit kinder in the world, or a little more grateful for the good they have.
I think books are really powerful ways to help increase empathy and compassion, encourage greater awareness and healing, all in an enjoyable way—through story. With books, we can get inside another person’s experience and soul and really feel what something’s like. And I want people to feel and to care. That’s why I write the books I do.

I've seen your website, and one of my favorite quotes of yours is, "I write the books I needed as a teen and couldn't find." Could you elaborate on this quote?

Abused teens, teens who are going through trauma or oppression, often don’t have people who will talk openly about the things they’re going through, or offer them safety. People don’t like to talk about painful things—but that leaves those of us in pain feeling even more alone. Sometimes the only place a teen can turn to is books. That was true for me. I was always looking in books for ways to know that I wasn’t alone—that I wasn’t the only one being raped by my parents, or tortured, that I wasn’t the only one who loved another girl, or cut to cope with the trauma of being abused. I found small bits of validation of my experiences, mostly on an emotional level, like the bullying in Blubber or the life and death experiences a lot of the characters face in Dick Francis’ books—but I never found enough that spoke to me about my own experiences, that told me I wasn’t the only one being abused and tortured, or the only one who coped by cutting myself, that I wasn’t crazy the way my abusers said I was, and that loving another girl was a positive thing. And feeling alone made the pain so much worse. 
So now I write the books I couldn’t find as a teen. I address a few of the things I’ve been through in every book, the things I needed to read about—usually trauma based—and I try to put queer characters in every book, whether they are the main character or secondary characters. I think it’s so important to see ourselves reflected back in positive ways. 
In a way I’m writing for the abused teen I was. But I’m also writing for survivors and queer teens, and people who know pain and trauma, who need to know they’re not alone. And I’m writing for the people who love and support us—and for the people who don’t yet understand but might want to. And always, always, I try to tell a gripping story that grabs readers’ interests and hearts.

In STAINED, Sarah is abducted by someone known. I found this so true to what often occurs regarding a kidnapping. In fact, without giving anything away, you and I had a conversation as I was reading where I knew who the kidnapper was before he was revealed. As a sexual abuse survivor myself, I felt a kind of preternatural instinct to identifying him early, and I was rewarded as a reader when I was right. In many ways, I identified strongly with Sarah, and I understood her struggles. As an abuse survivor yourself, what have you learned that Sarah needed to learn to break free of your abuse history?

That’s a good point, Don—that often people who abduct—and who abuse—are people who we know, family or friends of the family, or an adult who is in a power position who we see often.

Like Sarah, I needed many things to escape the abuse and get safe. I needed to trust my gut instincts (and my memories). I needed to learn to love myself, to treat myself gently, to stop hurting myself, hating myself, and blaming myself for what my abusers did. I needed to stop internalizing the voices of my abusers, and to address those messages when they came up. I needed to find safe ways to tell others about the abuse and to get out the pain. I needed to trust and accept the help and support of people who truly loved me or who had compassion, and I needed to take in and try to believe the good things they said about me.
Like Sarah, I had to protect my soul and who I really was inside and not let my abusers twist me. And I needed to learn that I had to be the one to save myself. That might be one of the biggest things I had to learn. How I longed for someone to save me! But like Sarah, no one else did. I had to be the one to find a way to save myself, over and over, until I was truly safe. I had to follow my own courage and strength, and my own wisdom. I had to be dogged, like Sarah, in fighting back and trying to escape. I had to never give up. And I had to allow some part of me to believe that I would get safe and things would get better, even when it seemed they never could—just the way Sarah somehow believed.


As part of the official STAINED month long Blog Tour Cheryl has offered readers an eBook Copy of HUNTED, as well as another opportunity to post a blog comment here for one entry into the GRAND PRIZE giveaway of an eReader of your choice. More information is on Cheryl's Blog.

Also, be sure to come back here to catch PART TWO of Cheryl's interview. It's going to be epic!

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  1. Great interview! Cheryl you are a voice that, unfortunately, too many teens need to hear today. Thank you for sharing your story for so many that feel they can't.

  2. Incredible interview. Wow, Cheryl is such an amazing person for writing these books.

    1. Kelly, thank you. (smiling at you) It felt good to read your comment. I'm glad you found the interview moving. Glad you read it. :)

  3. Wondrful interview. I haven't read your books but plan to do so now. As a former teacher I know how self-image can destroy a child. I agree that books are powerful ways to reach kids and help them see that are important and not feel worthless because of their body shape or too curly hair (I had a student once that hated her lovely curls) or other differences that set them apart (they believe.) Congrats on yuor books.

    1. Beverly, thank you; I love that you'll read my books! (beaming) And oh, yes, self-image, low self-esteem, abuse and other effects from the abuse can hurt a child/teen so deeply. And I love that you know how important books are.

  4. Thank you so much, Sarah. (smiling at you) I appreciate your saying that! It's so important to me to break silence and let others know they're not alone.