Wednesday, February 21, 2007

SUCH A PRETTY GIRL by Laura Wiess





This week, we welcome author Laura Wiess, author of the recently released and already highly acclaimed Such a Pretty Girl (MTV Books, 2007,) an unflinchingly honest portrayal of sexual abuse, summed up in a starred Kirkus review as “Tough, darkly humorous, yet achingly vulnerable. A nail-biter of an ending." Author Luanne Rice says of the novel “Brilliance comes in a small package." But it is nurtured by a great heart. We think you’ll agree as you take a few minutes to meet Laura here at the CafĂ©.
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Melissa W: Such a Pretty Girl is evoking powerful responses from readers and reviewers. Tell us a little about the story:

Laura W: Meredith Shale’s father is a pedophile. Thanks in large part to her white-knuckle testimony when she was twelve, he was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison for molesting her and other kids in the community. Meredith though she had time to grow up, move out and start a life of her own before her father was released.

Instead, at fifteen, Meredith’s time has run out. Her father’s being released after serving only three years in prison. Her mother still loves him, insists the rape was a mistake and that he’s learned his lesson, and is bringing him home. Terrified and desperate, Meredith is determined not to let him hurt her or anyone else, ever again.

Such a Pretty Girl begins on Friday, with Meredith’s father’s homecoming, and pretty much ends on the following Monday. What happens over that long weekend is a nightmare no one, especially a kid, should ever have to endure.

Melissa W: Your story involves a powerful and painful subject matter. What kind of research did you have to do for this story?

Laura W: The most intense research I did was speaking with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, who very generously shared their personal stories, and watching James Ronald Whitney’s documentary Just Melvin: Just Evil which I highly recommend to anyone adamant that no parent would ever leave their child in harm’s way, or who would dismiss the life-altering after effects of childhood sexual abuse.

I also spoke with law enforcement, researched Megan’s Law, sex offender registries, recidivism rates, pedophilia, incest, crossover offending (molesting both boys and girls, instead of just one sex), sentencing, read firsthand accounts, and more.

I’ve received a lot of emails from adult abuse survivors since the book came out in January, saying things like, ‘Wow, I felt just like Meredith did,’ or ‘That’s exactly what happened to me.’ These readers go on to share moments from their childhood abuse and while these stories are very private, I will say that at least 90% of them say they did tell an adult, usually their mothers, only to be hushed, shushed and still expected to function within the family unit alongside the abuser, as if nothing had happened, or was continuing to happen. I’m not kidding. I wish I was.

Melissa W: What is your favorite line, passage, chapter from this book? (I have my favorite. We’ll compare notes!)

Laura W: Definitely the climax chapter. My adrenalin spikes just thinking about it. My favorite line is the last line in that same chapter. I was feeling it all as I was writing, sitting there desperate, crying, frantic, not knowing what was going to happen, and when we got right to the edge (don’t want to say what, and ruin it) there was this incredibly pure moment where time stopped – truly – and I knew what came next, and it was just overwhelming. That last line still sends chills up my spine whenever I think of it.

Melissa W: Yes! That was my favorite, too. Terrifying, courageous and utterly satisfying. Was there any part of the story that you struggled with or avoided writing?

Laura W: When Meredith first brought me her story, I actually considered changing her abuser from her father to her stepfather, or even making him her mother’s boyfriend. I didn’t know if I could stretch far or deep enough to do Meredith’s circumstances justice. In addition, walking with her through the nightmare of sexual abuse by an outsider was terrifying enough, but having to be there – fully there – when one of the two people in the world who were supposed to love and protect her above all else betrayed her, well, I knew that was really going to be raw and rough.

The thing is, if I’d turned away and rewrote her history to make it easier for me as an author, I would have done what every other adult in her life did, and that was unthinkable. Once I listened to survivor stories, heard how many kids were silenced so as not to ‘upset the family’ and desperately wished it had been otherwise, well, it was a done deal, with no going back.

Childhood sexual abuse happens. The kids are not the ones who ‘upset the family’; the adult predator has already done that by his/her deliberate, chosen act. Ignoring sexual abuse will not make it stop. On the contrary; it only smooths the path for the abuser to continue unchallenged.

Melissa W: Your commitment to the hard truth of Meredith’s situation is evident in every word of this novel. I’m sure everyone who has read it is wondering what you are working on now.

Laura W: I just received my editor’s notes on my next MTV book tentatively titled Leftovers, which is the story of what causes two good-hearted girls to commit an unforgivable act in the name of love, and justice. I’m very much looking forward to digging in and working on revisions.

And thanks so much to you, Marlene and Mary for hosting me, and for making the Cafe such an inviting place to hang out. It's been a real pleasure.

Melissa W: You’re welcome any time. Thank you for creating such a fabulous book!

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~~Cafe Note~~ As a regular part of our interviews, featured authors will pop back in for one week after their interview is posted to answer any other questions blog readers may leave for them. So if you have any questions, fire away! Laura will answer as many as she possibly can. Congrats and confetti are always welcome, too!

13 comments:

Andrew Karre said...

Congratulations Laura! I had a chance to meet Laura at a conference in Delaware where we both presented. She was delightful and very generously gave me and the other presenters rides to and from the hotel. Her driving was, like her fiction, an intense experience.

MaryP said...

Congratulations, Laura! I can't wait to read SUCH A PRETTY GIRL. And wow, what a cover!

I was wondering, you mentioned, "when Meredith brought you her story" and I assume that means you heard your character speaking to you? Did you know immediately what her problem was, or did you have to discover it?

SAH said...

I really like your cover. I think it is perfect. Were you asked for any input into the design?

Congratulations on the publication! I look forward to your next book.

Laura Wiess said...

Hey, Andrew! Thanks so much for the congratulations on Pretty Girl. I have fond memories of The Conference Ride of Terror, and very much look forward to presenting with you (and other intrepid panelists) again someday.

Thank you, Mary and Shirley, for the cover compliments.

Shirley, I knew MTV was cooking up something striking but never expected anything as perfectly ominous as this. My editor sent it over, asking for my opinion but that was easy, because I loved it from the moment I saw it and didn't want to change a thing.

I'm also eager to see what S&S UK is going to do with the new cover when it's released in the Commonwealth come August 2007.

And Mary yes, Meredith did speak to me. I had just watched a news story about sexual predators being released from prison, and was busy fuming to myself about three or four infuriating aspects of the report.

One was how overused the language describing the crimes seemed to be, and how, because the language had become so bland, that didn't seem to bode well for the abuse survivors.

All of a sudden this girl's voice, who would later become Meredith, said, "Well, if the phrase child molestor doesn't freak you out anymore, then maybe the details of what happened will. I won't mince words, if you won't turn away. Don't you dare, because I can't."

I didn't know the details of her story right at that moment, but she sounded angry, desperate and scared, so I knew it was going to be intense. And I knew I couldn't turn away, and leave her stuck in it alone.

That's how Meredith and I met, and Pretty Girl was born.

Debby G. said...

Congratulations!

Didn't this take a while to find a publisher? And now it's doing really well? Do you send emails to publishers that say, "Nanny nanny booboo?" Just kidding. But why do you think it took a while to find a publisher? Did editors worry that it was too dark?

Marlene Perez said...

Laura,

Congratulations on your book's debut. I love the cover and have a copy in my hands. Well, actually, it immediately went into my daughter's hands, but I'll get it back eventually.

Were you ever scared to tell Meredith's story? Did you ever think/worry that it would take too big of an emotional toll on you? I think sometimes that the story I'm scared of is the scary I should write.

Lisa Yee said...

Great interview!

I was going to ask about how writing the book affected you, but Marlene asked it first.

Laura W said...

Hi Debby G, and thanks for the congrats. It's nice to meet you!

You asked why I thought it took Pretty Girl a while to find a publisher, and if editors worried that it was too dark.

I need to back up a step in order to answer this, so bear with me.

When I was watching the news story and thinking about the convicted pedophiles being released and going home, all of a sudden it hit me: home where? Whose home? Home town or home house with wife and family? Would someone actually stay married to a convicted pedophile, especially if they had children? And if so, why?

It seemed like such an unbelievable thing, and yet these men (and for the sake of argument, let's just use a guy as an example in this) don't exist in a vacuum. They have parents, siblings, families, wives and kids.

Kids.

The more I thought about where home was, the more it freaked me out, thinking about the children in the home and what it would mean for them if their father was also a registered sex offender. Because I'd bet money on the fact a lot of them DO have kids.

When I wrote Pretty Girl, I wasn't thinking of YA or adult markets, or editors or school libraries or anything but Meredith, the fifteen year-old daughter of a child molester, and the woman who loved him and wanted him back. As inconceivable as that was to me, the survivors I spoke with said oh yes, it happened a lot more than anyone wanted to believe.

The interesting thing is that I remember one editor -- have no idea who -- say flatly, "No mother would ever choose a man over her own child." For her, that was reality and even considering the possibility that reality could be otherwise was too abhorrent a thought for her to contemplate.

In retrospect -- and with a hug to my agent Barry Goldblatt, whose belief in Pretty Girl never faltered, and a nod to a benevolent universe -- I think Pretty Girl ended up exactly where it was meant to be, with an editor who absolutely gets it, at a house that supports it, and in a perfect publishing time frame.

Anything sooner, any editor less enthusiastic, any house less supportive, and things would have been very different for Pretty Girl than they are now.

And the funny part is that ever since I started writing (and getting rejected ;) I've heard editors say, "It's not right for us," or other authors saying, "The manuscript just has to find the right editor," and thanks to experience, I can now say that is absolutely true.

Thanks for asking, Debby!

Little Willow said...

Yay, Laura! :) So glad to see your novel receiving even more recognition!

Laura W said...

Thank you, Marlene and Lisa, for the congratulations, and Marlene, for hosting me this week. Lisa, it's nice to meet you!

You guys asked if I was ever scared or worried about the emotional toll telling Meredith's story might exact, and how writing it affected me.

I remember sitting in front of the computer staring at the blank Word document before I started, trying to deal with the trepidation and having my husband Chet walk in to ask me something. I turned and said, "I have to write this," and he (being a very easy-going guy) said, "Okay."

I said, "No, you don't understand." (and now I'm leaning forward and getting very intense.) "This is the child molester story, where the girl is abused by her own father. To write it, I not only have to get inside of Meredith and be there with her through it all, but I have to get inside everyone else, too. Including her father."

Chet was like, "Okay, see you!" and zoom, was gone. Smart man.

Stepping into Meredith's father was rough, scary and just plain gross. Skin-crawlingly gross. Her mom was no picnic, either. I spent a lot of time in dark, frustrating and mind-bending point-of-views, just trying to understand them.

I had some mental fail-safes in place which helped alot, the first being that Meredith's father is somewhere in the vicinity of my age, maybe younger, so stepping into him was like thinking from the brain of one of my own classmates. The second was that Meredith's parents are very different than my parents, which I think provided the comfort barrier or insulation necessary to step out of my life and into hers.

The worst part was that no matter what I was imagining and feeling, or how I was struggling to survive in Meredith's life, I knew that real kids were enduring much worse than I could ever write, and they had no insulating barrier between them and the nightmare. This knowledge kept me very angry through the entire manuscript. For me, I guess fear + rage = good writer fuel.

On the bright side -- and I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying this -- readers have called Meredith an inspiration, someone who provides hope to others, and I got to be there with her during those moments, too.

Can't beat that. :)

Laura W said...

Hi Allie, thanks so much for the congratulations! (You started this whole Pretty Girl interview journey, you know.;) Thanks again for that, too!

Amanda said...

Was there ever a time when you walked away from the ms and stopped working on it? If so, why, and how did you feel when you went back to it?

Laura W said...

Hi Amanda,

Thanks for asking if there'd ever been a time when I'd walked away from the Pretty Girl manuscript and stopped working on it.

I remember pushing the chair away from the desk and walking away from the computer plenty of times, especially when being in the middle of the story got overwhelming, but that was usually to take a breather, pace away fear and frustration, or wait to see what happened next.

It was such an intense story that the first draft was written fairly quickly, and then set aside a while to cool. There were several rewrites after that, along with trying to make myself back off and let it sit some more, so I could approach it again with distance and a critical eye.

So no, once I knew Meredith and what was going on, the first draft was pretty much written at a dead run, with no extended absences. Thanks for asking!