Friday, September 14, 2012

For the Darkness Shows the Light: Interview with Brigid Kemmerer

Trigger warning: Discussion of bullying and rape. Spoiler warning for “Storm” and “Spark”

Hello book worms and apples!

Today, we have the great pleasure of welcoming Brigid Kemmerer, author of the Elemental series!

Before we begin, I think I should make something clear: I did not particularly like “Storm”, the first book of the series, and made a rather long review detailing the reasons why. Unbeknownst to me, that review gave Brigid some points of discussion with her critique partners. When my review of “Spark” came up, the two of us got to talk, and she agreed to do an interview for the Lantern.

However, this will be slightly different from the interviews I’ve done in the past, because I won’t be the only one asking the questions.

Brigid, welcome!

Well, first of all, thank you for agreeing to do this interview!

Due to the expansion and development of the Internet, on-line retailers and social media, the author/reader relationship is now closer than ever. It has been said that an author has nothing to gain from a negative review of his/her book, because they have no way of changing anything in an already published text. What is your opinion on that statement?

B: Well, I read all my reviews, and I've never read one and thought, "Oh, wow, yeah, I wish I could go back and change that." But I have read reviews (like yours) where it really made me think about how my characters were being perceived. By the time Storm came out, Spark was already written and through copy edits (and I might have even had ARCs by that point), so it didn't affect my writing of the second book, but now I feel like I have a broader sense of how my characters feel in my head versus how they're being received by the public, and that's very important to me -- definitely a gain. Hunter, for instance: people seem to have a very strong reaction to him, either positive or negative. (Which is interesting, because in Spirit, he's struggling so much with who he wants to be.)

Here's my question for you:

In your review of Storm, you say:

However, I am less impressed with the Merrick brothers. Early on in the book, Gabriel, one of Chris' older brothers, and who has a reputation as a player himself, tells Chris to stay away from Becca, because she has "played around the block", which is to imply that she's somehow evil. Michael, upon learning that Chris got into trouble after defending Becca from being sexually harrassed, tells him that she's not worth it.

Guys? This here? Don't do it!

This paragraph was probably the one to make me sit up straight in my chair and have detailed conversations with my crit partners and friends. When I wrote the scene between Gabriel and Chris (which I'll paste below for reference), my intent was for Gabriel to be warning Chris away from Becca because he knew his brother was younger and less experienced and he didn't want him to get burned by a girl who slept around. (Michael's later warnings to Chris were because he thought she was involved with the Elementals, and had nothing to do with her sexuality, so I apologize if that wasn't more clear.)

Chris stared out the window, watching rain sluice through the darkness, making silver streamers in the path of the headlights. Gabriel drove fast, but Chris didn’t worry about losing control. No matter how slick the roads got, the water would hold them.


Chris swung his head around. Gabriel was watching him, the humor gone from his expression now.

“Don’t tell me,”said Chris. “You changed your mind about the bomb thing.”

“You know that chick’s been around the block, right?”

Chris shrugged and looked out the window again. He hardly knew her.

She’d just saved his life.

He kept thinking of her eyes, dark and shining in the moonlight when she’d been kneeling in the parking lot.

“No, seriously,”said Gabriel. “Like half the soccer team, some of the lacrosse guys—”

“I get it. Thanks.” Rain beat at the truck, slapping at his hand where it hung outside the window.
Feeding on his irritation.

Gabriel looked at the road again. “I just thought you should know.”

Then something occurred to Chris. “You?”

“Please,” Gabriel scoffed. Then he glanced over. “I mean, no offense—”

“It’s fine.”

“She’s cute and all, but I like a little more to grab, if you get my—”

“It’s fine.” But Chris smiled.

I paraphrased your comments to my husband, and he said, "Well, hon, the way she read it is the way I read it, too." (And I've seen that echoed in other reviews, too.) I totally get it, but regardless of how it's read (protective older brother versus misogynist douchebag) it brought up a whole new point of discussion for me:
Is there a double standard in YA? For instance, if Becca and her best friend Quinn had been sitting at the dinner table, and Quinn said, "Hey, Becca, Chris Merrick's a total player who can barely keep his pants on," would that have been more acceptable? What do you think?
K: You know, you bring up an interesting point. I think, if that scene existed in Storm, I would have thought it was okay. I'm not sure how much of that is double standard and how much of it depends on the context, though.

First, YA books have a tendency to paint the female antagonists as sluts - cheerleaders with tiny skirts, tight tops, too much make-up on, and sexually active. It might not be all there is to it - that character may have tons of sympathetic backstory, but the reader is barely let in on it. Instead, as soon as the MC points out how provocatively dressed some girl is, that is the dog whistle to the reader that she's facing an antagonist.

Meanwhile, players are not nearly as stigmatized in YA - in fact, if a guy sleeps around, that's all the better, because when he falls for the (good, virginal) heroine, it's because he's really in love, and she heals him, and all that. If the best friend of the heroine tells her to stay away, they're always proven wrong by the turn of events, when the hero proves once and for all that he really, really, really loves his girl.

I don't want to speculate on what is objectively right (whether a character's sexual activity or lack thereof should determine their goodness or badness), because that's not really the point. Instead, the thing I ask myself when reading a book is: What does being sexually active (or presumably sexually active) add to this character? In Becca's case, it added tons, but that's not always the case with other YA books.

I also think that, in "Storm", there's also a matter of consistency to consider. The Merrick brothers are victims of rumours themselves - Gabriel ought to know that not everything people say is true. Given that, it seems odd to me that he should judge someone based on second-hand information.

Speaking of Gabriel...

His character is very dynamic. While he came accross as insufferable to me in "Storm", I really grew to like him in "Spark". How did you go about creating him?

B: This is one of those questions I get a lot, and I'm never entirely sure how to answer it. :-) But I'm going to give it a shot here.

I've said in other interviews that I actually came up with these four brothers back when I was in high school, so they've been living in my head for quite some time. When I got back around to rewriting them for Storm, I knew they were going to need strong personalities to stand out -- I mean, we're talking about five lead male characters, and that's a lot to keep track of. They needed strong personalities in my head so I could keep them all straight, so there would never be any question of who was who on the page. So Chris became the brooding loner, Nick the easygoing brainiac, Gabriel the aggressive hot-head, and Michael the overbearing leader. But those are just stereotypes, right? I needed to give each of them their own personalities, and I spent a lot of time letting them develop right on the pages. Sometimes I like to throw challenges at my characters just to see how they react, and the first few chapters are exactly that: the fight in the parking lot, the rescue, Michael's aggression, Gabriel's resentment and protectiveness of Chris leading to the idea of going after the bullies in the middle of the night -- which only led to more trouble. All of my characters know what they want, so it was just a matter of throwing obstacles in their way to see if they could overcome them. One of Gabriel's biggest obstacles is himself, so it was a lot of fun putting him in situations where he'd be a dick, only to learn that sometimes you need to act with a little more maturity and finesse.

I really appreciated that Gabriel was able to redeem himself in your eyes. What flipped the switch?

K: I think it was the fact that, in his book, he actually examines himself. The majority of his challenges are not the sort of thing he could solve with his fists (which was his go-to method in Storm), and he faced almost every challenge alone. Spark really rounded off my impression of his character - he's scared of losing control, so he needs his brothers to protect him, but he shows his fear by lashing out at others. When he drifts apart from his family, he's left on his own and that actually helps him gain the confidence he needs to grow as a character. It's something I can relate to, I think.

And then there's his relationship with Layne, which was really, really sweet. I loved how protective he was of her, and I felt that their relationship really progressed at a natural pace. (Also, I agree that "Your Guardian Angel" and "Love Bites" are two songs that fit them perfectly ;) They really helped each other grow.

One of the most prominent themes in your work is that of bullying. Each of your characters - Becca, Quinn, the Merrick Brothers, Layne and Simon - faces it in one form or another. Given how there's always a discussion about YA being "too dark", did you ever worry about going too far? Where do you think the line should be drawn?

B: This is a great question. I've often said that books are a safe way to explore pretty much anything: your imagination will never take you farther than you're ready to go. When I go back and re-read books that I read in high school, I'll discover all new themes and issues that I never noticed when I was younger and more naive. A book is different from a movie or a television show: that's visual and auditory, and you can definitely see something you're not ready for. Perfect example: when my son was three, we were watching YouTube clips about toy trains. We unfortunately clicked on one that had trains start fighting, and then the sun in the sky turned into an angry ball that started screaming at the trains. This happened in three seconds. My son was terrified. Of course I turned off the clip immediately, but for DAYS, he would ask me why the sun was so angry, or why those trains were fighting like that. If we'd read about angry trains in a picture book, it would never have had the same effect. Same with sensuality in YA novels: it's a lot different to read a line like, "He slid his hand under the edge of her bra" than to actually see characters start to undress each other on the screen. Reading about violence in The Hunger Games is far, far different from watching it play out in the movie. A friend asked if her daughter could go see the movie, because she'd enjoyed the book so much. Her daughter was ten. She loved the book -- was very upset by the movie. Even knowing what to expect!

So no, I don't think YA has gotten too dark, and I've never worried about going too far. When I get commentary about scenes being too much for YA (such as the attempted rape on the soccer field in Storm), it's always from adults. Teenagers can handle it. I had a guy try to bully me into sex in high school, and I had another boyfriend take things way too far before I was ready when I was nineteen. My fifteen year-old-stepson doesn't recognize the subtle epithet in Pink's song "(Blow Me) One Last Kiss," but he definitely understands things like rape and abuse and bullying. I think the biggest mistake in YA literature is talking down to kids, and I never, ever want to come across like that. I think that's why Christopher Pike was such a huge hit in the nineties, and I think that's why gritty YA is finding such a foothold now.

What do you think? I'm in the middle of finishing up Spirit, and there are some pretty racy scenes -- and some very violent ones, too. Far more of both than I've had in either Storm or Spark. Do you think YA has started taking it too far? Should authors have an obligation to shield their readers from harsh realities, or do they have an obligation to explore them?

K: I definitely think writers shouldn't shy away from harsh topics JUST because they're afraid of going too far. One of my favorite YA authors of all time is Laurie Halse Anderson, and she has written some of the most respectful and thought-provoking books I've seen.

There's that word, respectful, though. It's surprisingly abiguous, because every reader brings a new set of experiences to the table. Some readers will breeze past a scene completely unaffected, while other would be extremely upset by it. There's a lot of discussion going on about this, whether we should introduce a rating system or trigger tags and I don't think there's a solution everyone is completely sold on. How can you draw the line between censorship and looking out for readers, when every reader is different.

I think the best thing that authors can do is write honestly, and make themselves aware of the issues presented. People can't be completely PC in their books, but at least with knowledge about the things they write about, they can later talk about their choices openly and honestly with readers.

Speaking of readers, what has been the most surprising response you've gotten from one of your books? Alternatively, can you recommend some stories we can read while waiting for Spirit?

B: Most surprising response? At my book launch party, there was a girl in the early audience. When I asked if anyone had read Elemental yet, she raised her hand, and with a shaky voice, said, "Yes, and it was amazing." I almost burst into tears, I was so touched. Someone read my work! And they liked it! And they CAME TO A BOOKSTORE AND TOLD ME. It meant a lot. I'll never forget her.

Stories to read while you're waiting for Spirit?

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi -- I love the emotional weight in this fantasy/dystopian. And Perry is HOT.

Decked with Holly by Marni Bates (coming this October) -- This is super cute and fun and I couldn't put it down.

Sanctum by Sarah Fine (coming this October) -- This book examines suicide and redemption and loss in the most creative way imaginable, and it's just an amazing story set in a fantastic, horrible setting: hell.

Brigid, thank you!

Brigid Kemmerer is a YA author. Her books Storm and Spark are now available in Paperback and on the Kindle, as well as Elemental and Fearless, two novellas in the same universe.

Follow her on Twitter @BrigidKemmerer, or visit her website at

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