This is Matt Lattanzi here for Jenny sitting down with author Colleen Clayton. Her debut novel What Happens Next has been recently published by Poppy (an imprint of Little, Brown and Company). She currently lives with her family in Ohio and recently graduated from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Program. Thank you for coming.
I think I’ll just start off with a pretty easy one. Could you please describe the plot of your novel What Happens Next?
Sure. The story’s about a girl who is a sixteen-year-old high school junior who goes on a ski trip with her school and ends up meeting a very charming, yet very evil man. She has a lot of issues physically with the way she looks and she’s never really had a boyfriend. She’s a little insecure and he hones right in on that and takes advantage of her in a way that ends with her getting date raped. The rest of the book is about how she deals with that. She has some missteps along the way and she doesn’t really deal with it in the best way that she could probably deal with it, but it’s her way of dealing with it and it’s about her coming through the other side of that.
What Happens Next is considered a Young Adult novel. For those unfamiliar with the genre, how would you define a YA novel?
Young Adult is a story told from the point of view of a teenager while they are a teenager. “Coming of age” would be more of an adult looking back on childhood.
What are some advantages of doing Young Adult as opposed to a coming of age story? What are some of the differences between how they are told?
I think the urgency and the rawness of feeling the way you felt at that time, rather than having the perspective and the wisdom that comes with age. You don’t have it all figured out. I mean, nobody really has anything figured out, but as an adult you can look back and say, “Hey…” —having a better perspective—“this is what was going on and now I see that.” Whereas you have blinders on at that age [teen years]. It’s also a genre that…while I try not to say it’s a genre…it’s a point of view rather than a genre, but that point in time is something that anyone can relate to. No matter your age. Because everyone went through that as a teen. And I can’t imagine anyone came out of their teen years unscathed (laughs).
What are some the stigmas attached to YA? Why do certain types have a tendency to look down on it?
That it’s a reading level. That it’s somehow less layered, or that it’s somehow written down. That it’s less literary, I guess. That it must be all about zits or prom night. So I would just tell those people they need to get better read. You know? (laughs).
Like your book, for instance, deals with a lot of dark thematic stuff that you wouldn’t immediately think of in “a book just for teens.” It’s a pretty horrible situation. And it seems like the way she deals with it is similar to how an adult might. So do you consciously go into writing a novel thinking it’s going to be YA or is it something that just ends up happening?
I think I write as I am, but somehow my voice just always ends up in the—quote, unquote—Young Adult voice. I think I’m emotionally stunted at that age (laughs) because mine was so horrible. My experience was…it left an impact on me that has resonated through my whole life. I would suspect that people who like to write this sort of thing probably had a traumatic experience too. That’s just a guess, but it’s the way I parse out why I write it. It was traumatic for me and, I don’t know, I love the young people (laughs). I worked with teens my whole life.
You’ve spent a lot of years working with teens as a social worker and with Big Brothers Big Sisters. How has that experience played into the writing of your novel?
In Big Brothers Big Sisters, I worked with kids of all ages. Being around kids and being in the schools all the time keeps you in touch with your inner youth. And you see a lot of things in the field. Big Brothers Big Sisters was kind of the sunnier spot of social work because it’s very upbeat and positive. One of the jobs that affected me more deeply, as far as seeing what these kids suffer, was a couple of the jobs I had up in Cleveland working at a residential treatment center. That was a lot harder to watch because you see addiction and have parents that don’t want these kids and these kids have nowhere to go. That was really tough. You see a lot of negative things, so your heart just…you’re never the same.
Is that why you chose a darker toned story?
I don’t know if that’s why I chose it. I don’t think that I’m pulling anything directly from my work with teens. I think I’m just in tune with that. I was a teen, I went to college, and then right after that I started working with teens, so I never left that realm. And now I have a teenage daughter, so…(laughs).
Do you see a big difference between what you experienced as a teenager and what you see teens going through now?
I think the curmudgeon in me probably goes, “Oh, things are so much worse now!” (laughs) but when I really look at it—are they really that much worse? I don’t know that they are. Maybe we’re all just bombarded with media everyday about these things, so we’re more aware of everything that goes on. I think that the problems are essentially the same.
Lakewood, Ohio plays a prominent role in your novel? Did you grow up there?
No, but I spent a lot of time there. I grew up in Olmstead Falls which is more rural. It’s fairly suburban now, but it used to be more country-suburban.
Why did you choose to set your story in Lakewood? And does your setting have an impact on the way you write and your comfort level with the story and its characters?
Oh, yeah. I mean I fudged some of the Lakewood setting, but I think most of its correct. I try not to get bogged down in, “Oh, is there really a drug store at the corner of…” that doesn’t concern me. Like that bakery I write about, that doesn’t exist in Lakewood, but a couple of the other businesses that I mention do. I mainly tried to capture the spirit of the city and Cleveland and winter in Ohio. There’s something about a Northeast Ohio winter that is just brutal (laughs). And I’m a Cleveland girl originally, so I wanted to write about that.
On your acknowledgements page, you say you’re a “rust belt girl through and through”, referring to your life spent around the cities of Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio. What does it mean to be a Rust Belt writer and are there any defining traits or ideologies? How does that mindset influence the subjects you write about and the way you deal with them?
Definitely setting. I come from a working-class background. My dad was an autoworker for thirty-five years. And all my family are GM workers, or coal miners going down a bit in the Appalachian region, but I was the first one to go to college in my whole extended family. My comfort zone lies in writing about working-class to lower middle-class. That’s just where I’m comfortable. I grew up here and I’m really proud of Cleveland. Cleveland and Youngstown have this quality where you can be kicked and knocked over, but you keep getting back up. It’s like, “OK, I gotta get back up again.” You don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself.
I see that quality coming through a lot in Sid Murphy from your novel.
Exactly. I feel like she embodies the spirit of getting up after you’ve been kicked down. I mean, the Cleveland Browns? Hello? It’s just what you do. When you get buried in snow in Ohio, you dig it out and go to work. You don’t take a snow day.
Is this quality something you consciously imbue your characters with or is it something that happens naturally during the writing process?
I think it’s very natural because I’m like that. I mean it took me how long to get published? This manuscript was rejected by every big name agent. It has come across the desk of everyone. I finally got the attention of a young, bright “newb.” You just have to keep going. I don’t know if I could write a character that I wouldn’t end up loathing at the end of the day who was anything less than a fighter. And your fight can manifest itself in different ways, but everybody knows a weakling when they smell one. Who wants to write about a weakling? Maybe some people do, but I don’t want to live inside a weakling’s head for a year. I think that’s a Rust Belt mentality.
We talked before about the time you spent as a social worker, and I know you’ve spent a few years doing various other things, but what made you get serious about becoming a writer?
Because I came from a working-class background and it was such a privilege for me to go to college, it was unheard of that anyone in my family would go to college, let alone go to a dormitory and have the whole college experience. So it never occurred to me to major in anything that didn’t have a J-O-B at the end of it. My parents are from West Virginia and grew up dirt poor, so to spend that kind of money on school was crazy. There were no artists in my family, back then especially. Now, they’ve come along way and they want me to do what makes me happy. That’s why I was never able to entertain that part of my brain to even try to be a writer.
So did you write throughout your life?
No, I never wrote a thing until I was about 35. I mean…I wrote in high school. You know you have to write poems and whatnot. And then there were the initial writing classes that you have to take in college…and then in my various jobs I would write correspondence: professional writing for grants and press releases. Everyone would always say, “Hey, have Colleen write it because she’ll make it sound good.” (laughs).
What got you interested in being a writer then?
Well, I had my second child and social work just doesn’t pay, so it was a wash to go to work and pay for daycare. I just became a stay at home mom. I stayed home for eight years. When my son was four and he went to preschool, there just came this period in my life where it became: “Okay, now what am I going to do?” I didn’t want to go back to social work. I always felt like I was out of step with what I was supposed to be doing.
Then I would start going to my kids’ schools. I would smell the glue and then all this stuff from my childhood just came back on me. Because I had…not a good time in school. I would see those yellow buses and it would just make me sick. And I didn’t want to ruin my kids’ school experience by making it about me and my baggage from twenty years ago. So what is wrong with me? Every September, I would just see myself, in my mind’s eye, going to school with those big, thick glasses and just getting beat up every week because I was in fights. I had to get it out of me. And I’ve been told my entire life, “Hey, you should write!” And I was just like, “Nah, I don’t know who does that, but it’s not me.”
Anyway, so the picture of myself as a child haunted me and I knew I had to get it out. I remember writing the first page and it was basically me as a child waiting at the bus stop. And then, after the first page, I realized I didn’t want to write what really happened. I wanted to give this girl who’s me, but not me, a different story. Then I just became addicted to this story in my brain and before you knew it, I had a manuscript. And I was like, “what do I do now?” So I got a subscription to Writer’s Digest and figured things out. I knew there was probably a legitimate way to do things, but I wasn’t sure. I started to research how to get a book published and got a lot of interest in that first manuscript. But it was very flawed: I was new, I hadn’t written anything, and I didn’t know anything about writing. Usually your first manuscript is terrible anyway. You’re basically just exorcising your demons and working out all your clichés. But it did get attention, so I thought I must be good, or at least good enough to get attention from agents. So I beat that manuscript to death for two years trying to get an agent for it, but now I’m glad I didn’t (laughs) because it was bad. After I had a pity party for myself—I was about 38 then—I was like, “Alright, I need to move on now. I need to write something else.” So, I wrote this book [What Happens Next]. I couldn’t go back to doing anything else and I was very sensible about have a “Plan B.” That’s the working class person in me. So I went to get an MFA in order to at least teach writing, even if I never get published.
You mentioned before that you like to work through some of your own “issues” through fiction? What are the advantages of filtering personal stories through fiction rather than writing non-fictional accounts of them?
I’ll be honest; I don’t like to write non-fiction. It’s not where I want to be. I want to live in a fantasy. I feel so self-conscious when I write about my own life. I’m like, “Eh, who wants to listen to me?” I mean apparently people do, but… (laughs). I don’t know that there are any benefits to that. It’s just what I prefer. I prefer to live in La-La land where I make up the rules. I mean I can make a story out of anything—you’ve seen my Facebook statuses (laughs). I’ll make a trip to Wal-Mart interesting, but anything I’m going to invest a whole book in…I just can’t see it being about me. Also, research! You got to do research in non-fiction. No way! (laughs). That is my Achilles’ heel. I hate research so much. It’s like going into battle for me. I don’t want to get something wrong. I just wrote a new manuscript where a girl has Type-I diabetes and I learned a lot. Obviously, you want to get that sort of thing right. You don’t want to be wrong with a medical issue because that would just be really, really tacky. It’s such a personal thing for a lot of people and you don’t want to be winging it. But with setting like we mentioned before with Lakewood, I mean…I got most of it right. Hopefully you can look past the things I didn’t get right. I’m writing a story right now about a girl whose mom is a medium and I ordered a bunch of books from the library and I’m going to try to dig in. I’m hoping that will be interesting.
I’m going to wrap things up with one final question. What Happens Next is, thematically, a very dark story and it introduces a very traumatic, disturbing element early on. This element pervades the entirety of the novel, yet it’s not a depressing story. At least not as depressing as it could be. It’s very funny, sarcastic, romantic, and hopeful. How did you go about dealing with the disparate tones of the novel? Is it something that happened naturally or did you consciously need to balance elements of the story to prevent one aspect from overpowering the other.
I think it’s natural. I have a tendency to be comedic a lot. Also, I think a lot of people deal with their problems through humor. That’s human nature and a Rust Belt thing. I mean, if you can’t laugh at the Browns and still love them, then I don’t know what to tell you (laughs). You got to get out of bed and try to find some joy. I don’t want to read a book that’s all depressing. I mean, it’s been done to death. I was like, “OK I’m going to write a rape recovery story.”
Yeah, you didn’t want to make a Lifetime movie.
Exactly. I didn’t want her rocking in the shower. I made a point of addressing that in my novel. I said, “I’m not going to have her in the shower.” I think the line was…I open a chapter with, “I’ve showered and that’s all I’m going to say about that.” It’s been done, and it’s been done well, but I needed to bring something different to this theme. So I tried to make a point of not making it too heavy page after page. And then I’m naturally kind of a twisted person, so I try to find the humor even in the darkest of situations. I felt that for my characters too.
Sure. Even the relationship Sid has with the character of Corey Livingston is a very sweet and innocent relationship that comes off the tail of something incredibly dark. Were there any points where you needed to darken or lighten the tone because you felt it was going too toward one particular direction?
No, no. That was one thing that I was like, “I don’t want to show a girl who’s having flashbacks every time her boyfriend touches her.” Because I don’t think that’s the way it is in life. I think people are sane enough that no matter what happens to them, they don’t go around blaming every male that walks near them. While she might be a little more cautious, she’s someone who comes through on the other side and can feel desire again—a healthy, sexual desire. And while it will affect you the rest of your life, it doesn’t mean you have to stop feeling desire. I wanted to show a healthy relationship and I definitely wanted to write about a boy who wasn’t a jerk. A lot of times in fiction—period—the bad boy means he’s a jerk. And I never wanted to date a jerk. Maybe I have a couple times when I was younger (laughs), but I wanted someone who is romantic, and sensitive, and sweet, but is still masculine.
He has the charisma of a bad boy, but isn’t a bad boy.
Right. And someone who is respectful and doesn’t assume everything. Who is respectful when he goes out with a girl and there’s actual dates and dating. What a novel idea, right? (laughs).
It felt more like a traditional romance. There’s a lot of build-up to their kiss.
And that’s another thing I wanted to do. That insta-love? It works well in a lot of novels, but I wanted to show someone who is your friend first and then is like, “Hey, wait a minute!”
OK. Well, that should finish us up. Thanks for coming.