Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Author Interview: Rachel Wilson

by Cordelia Jensen

This month on our blog, Cordelia Jensen interviewed Rachel Wilson, author of Don’t Touch.

Here's a summary of Rachel's book:

Step on a crack, break your mother's back,
Touch another person's skin, and Dad's gone for good...

Caddie has a history of magical thinking—of playing games in her head to cope with her surroundings—but it's never been this bad before.

When her parents split up, Don't touch becomes Caddie's mantra. Maybe if she keeps from touching another person's skin, Dad will come home. She knows it doesn't make sense, but her games have never been logical. Soon, despite Alabama's humidity, she's covering every inch of her skin and wearing evening gloves to school.

And that's where things get tricky. Even though Caddie's the new girl, it's hard to pass off her compulsions as artistic quirks. Friends notice things. Her drama class is all about interacting with her scene partners, especially Peter, who's auditioning for the role of Hamlet. Caddie desperately wants to play Ophelia, but if she does, she'll have to touch Peter . . . and kiss him. Part of Caddie would love nothing more than to kiss Peter—but the other part isn't sure she's brave enough to let herself fall.

From rising star Rachel M. Wilson comes a powerful, moving debut novel of the friendship and love that are there for us, if only we'll let them in.

Hi Rachel! I really loved your book. So, first question, I know you are an actress. Have you ever been in a production of Hamlet? The story is so expertly woven into your novel; you must know the play inside and out. Did the idea of writing a girl playing Ophelia come to you first or did Caddie as a character?

Thank you, Cordelia! I haven’t! The only times I’ve gotten to perform Shakespeare were for classes. In college acting class, I played Helena from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (on a playground, which was super fun), Lady Anne in Richard III, and Macbeth—not the Lady, regular Macbeth. In high school, I almost got to play Juliet, but most of the actor guys played basketball, and we ended up doing a courtroom drama instead. Le sigh.

I have seen many stage and screen productions of Hamlet, including some inventive explorations of the play (like the Neo-Futurists’ Daredevils: Hamlet in which five guys explore masculinity and perform risky stunts while trying to perfect Hamlet), and I’ve studied it from a literary angle.

Caddie came way before Ophelia. In an early draft, she was actually a ballet dancer rather than an actress, and later on, she was performing in The Glass Menagerie. I changed things up because I wanted to use a play that I could pull text from without trouble. There’s a lot of water imagery and swimming pool scenes in Don’t Touch, so I’d been considering having Caddie play Ophelia when one of my writing advisors suggested it. I thought, this is some kind of kismet, and ran with it.

I was curious about Caddie’s relationship with her brother. Although he does not appear very often in the book, he is actually the person who helps her see her own irrational thinking. Did you do much free-writing on the relationship between these two? I almost felt like he could’ve had his own book, he felt so three-dimensional even though he has so few scenes.

That is lovely to hear. Thank you! The Jordan who appears in his first scene—his angry, acting-out self—showed up as is. I always saw him as someone Caddie would feel responsible to and be able to bounce ideas off of without fear of judgment, and I saw him as a foil to Caddie in that he’s acting out while she’s containing her feelings. Siblings are often in a unique position to give us feedback—they’re very close to us but not necessarily an authority or peer, and are pretty much contractually obligated to love us unconditionally. Or that’s what I tell my sister, anyway.

In revision with my editors, I brought out more of the positive relationship between Jordan and Caddie. In my mind, Jordan and Caddie were loving, but I didn’t show that much in early drafts. I’d cut an important scene between them for length that made its way back in—the one where they’re cooking together. I’m really glad my editors pushed me to soften Jordan’s edges and find the sibling love between the two.

Caddie’s gloves are a huge part of the story. Without giving too much away, did you always know you would use the gloves as a vehicle for Caddie’s OCD?

Not always, but very early. The novel used to open with a much younger Caddie on a road trip with her family, and the gloves were something she got away with wearing because she was a child. Later on, when I decided to cut those flashback scenes, I realized that it might be even more interesting for a teen to suddenly start wearing gloves. It’s more of a challenge for an older Caddie to explain.

Peter and Mandy both challenge and support Caddie and, really, see her through even as she pushes them away. Was it hard as an author to write a character who keeps pushing people away? Was it hard to prolong her suffering?

Well, I don’t know that it was hard. I can be pretty mean to my characters, and I think that came pretty naturally since that’s so true to my own experience with OCD as a kid. I had perceptive, involved parents and several close friends, and I still managed to hide what was going on with me for years. It is a frustrating part of Caddie’s character—frustrating to her and to her friends. The challenge was less about writing that aspect of Caddie and more about writing it without alienating and totally frustrating readers. I’ll leave it to individual readers to decide whether I’ve managed that. 

I haven’t read any other YA books on OCD; it seems like a really important topic to tackle in teen fiction. Have you read any other books that address this topic so directly?

Yes! Corey Ann Haydu’s OCD Love Story is wonderful and captures how odd and sometimes scary compulsions can be, and it spends time in group therapy sessions, which is really interesting. E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver series starting with The Boyfriend List doesn’t deal with OCD but has a great treatment of anxiety and panic attacks. Those are the ones I think of offhand, but I know there are some great ones I haven’t yet read.

What other projects are you working on currently?

About a month after Don’t Touch comes out, I’ll have an e-short story out with HarperTeen Impulse—“The Game of Boys and Monsters.” It’s a spooky, suspenseful story, and I’m working on a novel that’s spooky and suspenseful as well, but it’s still deep in the oven.

Is there anything else about the novel you would like us to know?

I guess I’d like people to know that while this book goes to some dark places, it does have humor. Life is funny, and humor breaks our guard down—it’s often the best entry point to difficult subjects.

And now for our “3 for 3” book-related questions:

1. What are three of your favorite books from childhood/teen years?
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E. L. Konigsburg.

2. What are three books you’ve read recently that surprised you?
The Circle by Dave Eggers, Trent Reedy’s Divided We Fall, and Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

3. What are three books that influence/d your writing?
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Looking for Alaska by John Green, and All Rivers Flow to the Sea by Alison McGhee.

Rachel M. Wilson received her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Don't Touch is her first novel. Originally from Alabama, she now writes, acts, and teaches in Chicago, Illinois.

And more about the book here: 

If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to order Don't Touch. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.


Anonymous said...

This book sounds wonderful! I've been eagerly awaiting its release and will enjoy knowing some inside information about how the story and characters evolved when I get to read it soon! Thanks, Cordelia and Rachel, for a great interview!

LinWash said...

Awesome interview! So glad to hear more about Rachel's book. (Love the cover by the way.) I don't think I've seen a YA book on OCD. I'm excited to read this one.

Jessica Leader said...

Yayhoo! Great questions; great answers! My favorite: "Not Lady Macbeth. Real Macbeth."