Cheryl is one of the authors I might not know if it weren’t for the literary corner of the Twitterverse. As it is, I feel as though we’re old friends, trading books and dog pictures and keeping up on each other’s career. And there’s always the retweet, that simple click of a button that authors can—and do—use in support of one another.
I first became interested in Cheryl’s groundbreaking YA novel SCARS when I clicked through a Twitter link and watched Cheryl in a TV interview. That’s when I learned that Cheryl was herself a victim of unimaginable ritual abuse as a child, and was…as the old writers’ saw goes…writing what she knows. That’s even her arm on the cover. I’ve always been deeply impressed by all forms of emotional honesty and emotional courage (often one and the same) and I knew this was a book I had to read. I’m also halfway through Cheryl’s new paranormal YA novel HUNTED, which seems to be getting another great reception from her readers and fans. So nice to see success come to authors who deserve it!
Me: Not sure why this feels like a jumping-in place, but let’s talk for a moment about censorship. For those who don’t know, your book SCARS was prominently named in that infamous Wall Street Journal article “Darkness Too Visible,” criticizing YA fiction. And I know of at least one other instance where someone attempted to have it removed from a library. Authors who have not been banned often say, “Hey, that’s great. That’s just want I want. More publicity. Sells copies.” Those who have been banned say, “No. You don’t want this. You won’t like it when it happens to you.” Will you tell us first hand how it made you feel?
Cheryl: Having someone try to remove SCARS from a library or tell parents it would hurt their children (in “Darkness Too Visible”) was incredibly painful for me. I put a lot of my own experiences, pain, and emotional truths into SCARS. I felt like I put bits of my soul. So it was hard not to have it hurt. And even though it was different, it reminded me of my abusers telling me to keep quiet, and telling me no one would ever listen to me or believe me if I did talk. It hurt, and it triggered a lot of the old hurts. I felt silenced, shut down, the way I was as an abused, tortured child.
It felt silencing and hurtful on so many levels—trying to prevent teens from having a book that could help many of them feel understood, less alone, or help them understand someone else. I remember how much pain I felt as a teen thinking I was alone with my self-harm, the incest and ritual abuse, and being queer. It makes everything harder to be in pain and to think you’re the only one who feels, thinks, or acts a certain way. Books can help you feel understood, less alone. They’re healing. I want any teen who needs SCARS to have access to it, so it upset me for that reason as well. And while the censorship or attempted censorship might have made some people more aware of SCARS, I’m not sure it increased sales. I also think a lot of quiet censorship goes on where schools or libraries simply remove the books. Authors don’t usually hear about that—I was lucky that I did, that the library contacted me when this happened. But SCARS has probably been removed many times without my hearing about it—and I think that only hurts teens who need books like SCARS.
So there’s a lot of emotion for me around people trying to remove SCARS or keep teens from reading it. Thankfully, I had incredible, amazing support from the writing and book community both times when it happened, especially through Twitter and the YASaves movement, but also through my blog. It helped me change something very negative into something very positive and healing, and I am so grateful I had the support.
Me: In each case, someone used the weak and faulty (in my opinion) excuse that it might encourage cutting, or be a trigger for teens to cut. Even though it’s clearly not pro-cutting, never glorifies it, is never gratuitous. Am I crazy to make a connection with LGBT rights, or do you see it, too? The rallying cry seems to be, “If you tell kids there’s such a thing as gay, they might want to be.” Well, obviously they already know there is such a thing, and they already either are or aren’t. And if they are, I feel they need to see their identity, their struggles, in literature. But I’m hogging the stage here. Will you please say, in your own words, why these topics are so valuable to readers?
Cheryl: I have to address the whole “a book on self-harm will make you cut” thing first. It really upset, angered, and offended me, because they were suggesting that SCARS would make readers who used self-harm cut. I used self-harm for years to cope with trauma, and I had many survivor friends who cut or burned themselves. I saw open wounds, bandaged wounds, scars, heard details, and never once did it make me want to cut myself. What did make me want to cut myself was my own abuse trauma, the overwhelming emotions, the sometimes wanting to die.
Almost two years after SCARS has been published, I still receive reader letters every week. And in so many of the letters, readers tell me that SCARS actually helped them to stop cutting or to want to stop, to get therapy, or to talk to someone about their self-harm or abuse or being queer for the very first time. A few have even told me that it helped them keep from killing themselves. So what actually happens for readers is the opposite of what those two people accused SCARS of doing. I also hear from readers who haven’t been though any of those experiences who tell me SCARS helped them have greater compassion and understanding.
I think when things aren’t talked about, when they’re kept silent and hidden, they have so much more power to hurt us. This is especially true when there’s social prejudice around the issues (as there is around self-harm, being queer, and even sometimes being a sexual abuse survivor). Getting it out in the open, helping people know they’re not alone, helps other people understand. I see it as a very positive, healing thing. And I intentionally put hope and healing into SCARS. Kendra doesn’t struggle alone, and she heals.
And yes, I think there’s a link, Catherine. Some homophobic people do make that argument—reading that book, listening to that music, made someone gay. That’s absurd. More than absurd, it’s incredibly hurtful and isolating. It is SO important that we, as LGBTQ people, have positive reflections of ourselves in the world around us—in books, in movies, in the media—when there’s so much homophobia and oppression that can affect how we feel about ourselves, or even how we live our lives, how open we are about who we are. And it’s especially important for teens, who are vulnerable about their identity and sexual orientation, and may be experiencing peer pressure, as well as for anyone who lives in a highly homophobic area or is isolated. Again, pain is so much worse when we think we’re the only one, or when we receive negative messages and prejudice about who we are. And people wonder why there are so many LGBTQ suicides?
Reading a book about cutting will not make you cut. It may make you understand how much emotional pain there is to make someone cut, though, or if you cut, it may help you know you’re not alone. Reading a book about a queer character will not make you queer. If you’re queer, though, it may help you feel less alone, more understood, more okay in who you are. If you’re straight, it may help you be more sensitive, or just remind you that the open majority is not the only way.
I think we need many, many more books with LGBTQ characters, especially where it’s normal, just an aspect of who they are, and many, many more books that talk openly about painful issues and help encourage more healing and compassion.
Me: Without breaking any confidences, can you tell us a few of your best reader responses, especially in terms of readers gaining strength from your book that they can then apply to their own struggles?
Cheryl: I get a lot of reader letters telling me how SCARS helped them stop cutting or want to try to stop, or get help for their self-harm or abuse. So many of them tell me it’s the first time they felt really understood, like someone got what it’s like, or that I wrote about them. Many tell me that they shared SCARS with a parent or a friend to help them really understand. Those letters mean so much to me. I also love the letters where the reader tells me they’ve never been abused or used self-harm and they’re not queer, but now they have more compassion for people who do or are—that they might have been insensitive or even a bully sometimes before but now they get how hard it can be for someone else. I love those letters, too; I really wanted both kinds of responses—I wanted people who’ve been through those experiences to know they’re not alone, and people who haven’t to gain more compassion. Of course, I also love the letters that tell me that SCARS is the best, most powerful book they’ve read, or the book that got them to love reading, or the book that they read over and over and over again. I love all the reader letters, and I’m grateful for them all.
Me: I think/hope you are enough of a animal lover to not be offended by this comparison. When I adopt or rescue a dog, I give the dog a new name. Even if I know their old name. Even if I like their old name. My late beloved Jessie was called Annie when I got her at the pound, and Ella’s old name was Luna. Both good names. But I didn’t want them to have a name from their abusive and neglectful former homes. I wanted their lives to start over. I recently learned that you chose the name Rainfield for yourself. Will you tell us how, why, and why it was a positive act?
Cheryl: (laughing) I am definitely an animal lover, Catherine—I could never be offended by that question. I think it makes so much sense why you renamed your dogs, and was psychologically smart. That’s some of what I did by creating my own last name.
I created Rainfield as my last name because I didn’t want to have the same last name as my abusers—both because of the abuse history and what it triggers for me, and also for my personal safety (I ran away and didn’t want them to find me), and to be able to talk openly about my experiences. I am not like my abusers in any way—I decided as a very young child that I would be the opposite of everything they stood for, that I would put goodness and compassion in the world and not hurt others, never abuse or torture or murder the way they did. Creating my own last name was like a symbolic reclaiming of myself—I belong to me. I am my own person. My parents and other abusers have no claim on me.
I chose “rain” because I love rain—the sound of it (pouring on the pavement, dripping on leaves, dancing on rooftops), the feel, smell, and even how it looks. And I chose “field” because fields feel wide and open and free.
Creating my own last name felt like an act of healing, a way to keep myself safe, and a way to remind the child me that I am safe now, and that I have nothing to do with my abusers.
Me: I’m enjoying HUNTED very much, even though I almost never read anything but contemporary. But good genre fiction transcends its genre. HUNTED seems to have a lot to say about prejudice, and the way we marginalize each other. Can you elaborate on how much of that was conscious and intended?
Cheryl: I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying HUNTED, Catherine; thank you! (beaming) I intentionally put a lot in HUNTED about prejudice and oppression—about cults and cult-like groups oppressing, even torturing and using mind control and conditioning, and about homophobia and racism and bullying. It’s all important to me, and it also comes naturally to me, since I lived so much of my life under great oppression, and fought so much against it and my abusers. I wanted people to understand a bit of what it’s like, and I wanted people to see that you can fight back and change or overcome oppression, make things better for yourself and others. There’s hope.
Me: Talk to me about the word queer. You embrace the word, and identify. Which is fine. It’s probably an age difference, because I’m decades older than you. I still think of that word as a stinging epithet. I don’t object to your (or anyone’s) use of it, and I understand that the word has been reclaimed. But I still can’t get fully comfortable. Will you share some of your thoughts on queerness?
Cheryl: I love the word “queer” now. But I didn’t at first. I, too, have experienced homophobia and had insults thrown at me. I first become open to the word when another feminist lesbian kept saying “queer” to me, and I asked her about it and to explain why she used it.
For me, “queer” embraces all LGBTQ people. I like “lesbian” to describe me as well, but “gay” has never worked for me because to me it seems so male-oriented and to mostly be about gay men, even within the queer community—leaving out lesbians and everyone else. “Queer” covers us all.
I also see it as a taking back of the word—making it our own, a word that we can use to celebrate us, to say “Yes, I’m queer, and I feel good about it; it’s who I am.” It means that, for me at least, there’s no more pain in the word; it isn’t an insult. It’s just a part of who I am.
Me: I can’t go a moment longer without a dog question. This is a very doggy (and kitty) blog. Will you tell my readers about the late beloved Willow, the feisty and funny new Petal, and your kitty Amazon? Will you try to find words for how much comfort and love they bring to your life?
Cheryl: I love my animals so much. They are my family to me, and they give me such pure, unconditional love. Dogs, especially.
Amazon, my feisty warrior cat, passed this December. She was 22, almost 23, and lived a good long life. I had her with me all those years, so she went through a lot with me. I had her when I was still being abused (but didn’t know I was being abused; I dissociated from it). Amazon was very sensitive to emotion, tuned into me—and she was such a feisty and stubborn cat, and yet also such a sweetheart. She had the biggest, greenest eyes, and her purr was beautiful and loud; she sounded like a pigeon cooing. And sometimes her snore was very loud, too, so that I could hear it even from another room; it made me laugh. I loved that Amazon would come greet me when I came home. I loved Amazon!
Willow, my little dog, my beautiful Chinese Crested, was my first dog, and was for me my first animal baby. I loved her like she was my child; I guess she was in some ways like a substitute child. She also fit me perfectly. When I got her at age three, Willow was scared in the world—and so was I. We made a good match—neither of us liked to go outside much or to be around a lot of people. We both loved to cuddle and play. Willow let me carry her around in a pouch out in the world; I think we both found it comforting. She had congestive heart failure for the last four years of her life, so it became important not to overtax her heart (hence the pouch)—but it was also a closeness between us. I got so much delight from Willow’s incredible, unfailing, unconditional love for me, and in her twirling around in circles and wagging her tail like crazy and licking my face when I’d come home. She’d lick and lick my face, eyes, and ears, and it felt like a reassuring, I-love-you thing. She would sit on my lap or next to me for hours and hours as I worked. She was also the sweetest, kindest, most loving little dog, happy to be around me and with me, more shy around others (we were a lot alike). Over time, she grew to feel safer and happier in the world, more outgoing, and so did I. I miss her a lot still, and it’s been more than a year.
Petal is my newest little dog-child—another Chinese Crested like Willow. Petal is incredibly happy, outgoing, playful, and so full of energy. She loves everyone and expects everyone will love her, and yet I can see she loves me best and never wants to be too far away from me. She’s so sweet and cute and funny. She regularly makes me laugh with her antics—chasing leaves in the wind, “catching” (eating) soap bubbles, climbing all over me and plopping herself and a toy in my lap whenever I’ve been working too long, twirling and pouncing on the snow. Like Willow, she follows me everywhere I go and won’t let me out of her sight. I feel her unconditional love for me, and it feels so good. I love her back just as fiercely. Willow was perfect for me and exactly what I needed when I got her, and Petal is perfect for me for how I am now. I am happier, more outgoing, and ready to welcome people into my world, and so is Petal. It’s another perfect fit. And the unconditional love is a balm, something I never got growing up, that I’ve only gotten from my dogs and two people in my life. I treasure Petal, Willow, and Amazon.
Me: I was going to ask you if you write exclusively. If you make your living at it. Then I recently saw a tweet in which you said you made a living as a writer, though not a lavish one. How much of this success do you attribute to your own knack for networking and building personal bonds with readers? How much does it feel like the good reviews and word of mouth lifted the books without your having to push?
Cheryl: It’s incredible to be making a living as a writer! It’s sometimes pretty tight, but I had so many people tell me that I could never do it (including my abusers) and here I am! It is my dream. I work very hard at book promotion and take it seriously. I want my books to keep reaching people and moving them, and I want to make a living at what I love. I read many articles on book promotion before I was even published, and I knew it was something I needed to do, even if I didn’t want to, because it would help keep my books alive. I didn’t want my books that I poured my soul into to sit on shelves for a month or so and then disappear (as I read could happen). So I try to do book promotion every day, in the ways that I’m comfortable with. The majority of that is online.
My wonderful book publicist, Julie Schoerke, has told me that my book promotion efforts make a tremendous difference, and that’s felt good and affirming to hear. Though she also did things I couldn’t have done alone, like get me TV interviews, radio interviews, etc. But I work at book promotion every day. I also reach out to online reviewers and book bloggers to do reviews of my books. I bought many copies of SCARS and mailed them out myself (which gets really expensive in Canada) and kept doing that. I also try to be part of a community and help others—other writers, readers, survivors, people—and to connect with people, to not just talk about my books. That matters a lot to me, and I also think it’s good etiquette. I don’t like only being sold to; I don’t think anyone does.
I think it’s a combination of my work on book promotion, as well as my books talking about things people need to talk about, and hopefully also my skill as a writer, that has made a difference for me. I know there’s a lot of good writers who can’t make a living at their writing, but from some of them I hear that they don’t have the time or the energy to do book promotion or they just don’t want to, while I see it as a necessity. I need to make a living as a writer—it’s who I am, and a 9-5 job would deaden me—and I need and want my books to reach people, to make a positive difference in the world. I feel incredibly grateful and fortunate to make a living as a writer!
Me: Please write your own question, and answer it.
Cheryl: Thanks, Catherine! First I have to say thank you so much for all your incredibly thoughtful, beautiful questions. I’ve loved them!
I did draw on my trauma experiences to write HUNTED, the way I did for SCARS. For HUNTED, I wanted to show people a lot of what cults are like—how oppressive they are, how powerful, the deep ways they can affect us, how they torture and threaten and kill—but I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t overwhelming for readers, and that readers could hear. So I made sure to only put fragments of my experience into the book, and I made HUNTED a fantasy. I think often we can hear more about painful things if they’re told to us within fantasy, especially, or fiction. Like Caitlyn, my main character in HUNTED, I know what it’s like to have my life be threatened, to be tortured, and to have to decide whether to hide who I really am or to be myself when it could mean putting myself in danger. You can probably guess that I chose to be myself even though it meant more torture. I hope you’ll read Caitlyn’s story to see what she decided.
My next book, out in 2013 from Harcourt, tentatively titled STAINED, is about Sarah, a girl with a port wine stain who’s abducted and who must find the inner strength and resources to rescue herself. I’m really excited about STAINED, just as I am still about HUNTED and SCARS; like I did with my first two books, I drew on a lot of my abuse experience to write it, and I again feel like I poured bits of my soul into the book.
Thank you so much, Cheryl. That's amazing and I'm really happy to be able to feature it. Please visit Cheryl on her website, her blog, Twitter, her Facebook profile, her Facebook author page, and on Google+. She also has Facebook fan pages for both SCARS and HUNTED. So that should help you catch the author in cyberspace!
Next Friday is going to be a real treat for me, and I hope you'll agree with my assessment. I'm hosting an interview with mega-bestselling author Barry Eisler, and it's just a little bit shorter than your average novel. This one takes in-depth to a new level. Barry talks with me about the state of modern publishing, high dudgeon, political correctness and the lack of same, Amazon, and a chihuahua named Lola, just to scratch the surface. Someone will be offended, I guarantee. Yes, worth reading.