Wednesday, February 1, 2017

0 Writing the Unfixable: Abigail Johnson on real and relatable teen/parent relationships

First things first, I'm Kelly deVos and I am so delighted to be a new addition to the AYAP crew. Each week, I'll be chatting with a different author about various writerly topics. Today, we're discussing dead parents in YA literature.

When I worked as an intern for Kate Brauning, Senior Acquisitions Editor at Entangled Publishing, one extremely common element of unrequested YA manuscript submissions was teens with dead parents. While many teens do face the loss of a parent early in life (some studies estimate around 10% of people lose a parent before the age of 25), most real life teens do have some amount of contact with one or both of their parents on a regular basis.

In YA, there are stories of teens dealing with grief and there are also mystery/thrillers which follow the convention of kicking off the action with a life changing loss. But there’s also just a lot of dead parents, driven, I believe by the fact that teen/parent relationships are difficult to write and even more difficult to write well.

To learn more about writing nuanced parental relationships, I turned to Abigail Johnson whose book, IF I FIX YOU, handles these kinds of relationships with real richness and nuance.

Kelly deVos: So, in IF I FIX YOU, your main character, Jill Whitaker, has relationships with her parents that are both positive and negative. Starting with the positive relationship first, Jill is really kind of a daddy’s girl. What inspired this and how did you make sure that their relationship was developed throughout the book?
Abigail Johnson: I’ve always loved stories that highlighted positive father/daughter relationships, from Laura Ingalls Wilder and Pa in the Little House books to Veronica and Keith Mars in the Veronica Mars TV show. I like seeing how girls, in particular, develop strength and independence in response to unfailing paternal love. Jill has that support in IF I FIX YOU, but she and her dad aren’t perfect. They make mistakes and learning that her father is fallible is a big part of the book. I think a lot of us go through that stage when we begin to see flaws in our parents, some greater than others, and how that new awareness shifts our perceptions of them. I didn’t shy away from some of those painful but very real emotions; I let Jill and her dad feel them, and hopefully, the reader too.

KD: As much as Jill, gets along great with her father, she still doesn’t tell him everything or use him a confidant for many of her feelings. She winds up being very independent but also retains a realistic relationship with her parents. I think one of the reasons there are so many dead parents in YA is because we need these characters to be solo operators for the sake of compelling storytelling. It’s hard to show situations where, on one hand, a teen has day-to-day involvement with authority figures but, on the other, still has high levels of agency as a character. How did you pull this off?

KD: Moving on to the tougher relationship, Jill is abandoned by her mother pretty early on in the story and spends some time in the book processing her emotions. I was especially curious here because, from seeing you in real life, I think you have a very positive relationship with your mother. What was your process in writing and developing this relationship?
AJ: I have an amazing relationship with both my parents, so I really had to look outside my own experiences when it came to developing Jill’s relationship with her mom. With any character, I have to think about them from the ground up, as individuals not just as supporting characters in my protagonist’s life. For Jill’s mom, I dug into her whole life before she got married and became a mother. I also spent time writing chapters from her POV that were never going to be in the book but helped me understand what was going through her head in certain scenes. She’s not always a likeable character, but it was important for me that she be a believable character so that the reader understands her even if they disagree—sometimes vehemently as Jill does—with her actions.

KD: In IF I FIX YOU, Jill essentially experiences the loss of her mother. From a writer’s perspective, I feel that loss from abandonment is more difficult to write than loss from death (at least for me). In these situations, personal grief is usually compounded by betrayal and a real lack of emotional closure. Yet, there are way more absent parents than dead ones. Any thoughts on writing those kinds of emotions?
AJ: I think that you hit it exactly. The death of a parent is often dominated by sorrow, but abandonment adds anger and a whole mix of intriguingly complicated emotions that rarely play well together. I don’t know that’s it’s more difficult to write abandonment over death, but for me, I was very much drawn to multidimensional anger that I got to explore with Jill’s character. She tries to focus on her anger over her mother’s desertion to the exclusion of her other equally real emotions. Sorrow and guilt and even relief are there too, but they are harder for Jill to acknowledge and deal with. It was challenging, but really rewarding, to layer her feelings in any given scene and show how she started to process each one along with her ever-present anger as the story went on.

KD: I don’t want to give away any spoilers but speaking generally, by the end of the book, I felt that Jill had the realization that neither of her parents were completely perfect. Was this your message to readers?
AJ: Yes. Going back to what I said earlier about Jill and her dad, she did go though that process of realizing her dad wasn’t perfect. She was never deluded on that point where her mother was concerned, but by the end of the book, neither of her parents were as black and white as she once thought they were.  It’s a big step toward adulthood, being able to see and understand the flaws in others and either try to love them anyway or be okay with letting them go.

KD: Last question before we go, any tips for writers wanting to improve their depictions of teen/parent relationships?
AJ: It helped me to do a lot of behind the scenes work developing the parents and spending time in their heads, thinking about—and often writing—scenes from their POV. Think about what they are doing when they aren’t in a scene, and make them full, autonomous characters regardless of how much page time they get.  Once the characters are real, the relationships will follow.

When sixteen-year-old Jill Whitaker’s mom walks out—with a sticky note as a goodbye—only Jill knows the real reason she’s gone. But how can she tell her father? Jill can hardly believe the truth herself.

Suddenly, the girl who likes to fix things—cars, relationships, romances, people—is all broken up. Used to be, her best friend, tall, blond and hot flirt Sean Addison, could make her smile in seconds. But not anymore. They don’t even talk.
With nothing making sense, Jill tries to pick up the pieces of her life. But when a new guy moves in next door, intense, seriously cute, but with scars—on the inside and out—that he thinks don’t show, Jill finds herself trying to make things better for Daniel. But over one long, hot Arizona summer, she realizes she can’t fix anyone’s life until she fixes her own. And she knows just where to start . . . 

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About Abigail Johnson
Abigail was born in Pennsylvania. When she was twelve, her family traded in snow storms for year round summers, and moved to Arizona. Abigail chronicled the entire cross-country road trip (in a purple spiral bound notebook that she still has) and has been writing ever since. She became a tetraplegic after breaking her neck in a car accident when she was seventeen, but hasn’t let that stop her from bodysurfing in Mexico, writing and directing a high school production of Cinderella, and publishing her first novel. 

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