Stephanie Elliot recently interviewed Amber Smith, author of the YA Contemporary novel THE WAY I USED TO BE, which was published March 22, 2106 by Margaret K. McElderry Books / Simon & Schuster.
About the Book:
In the tradition of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, this extraordinary debut novel shares the unforgettable story of a young woman as she struggles to find strength in the aftermath of an assault.
Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes.
What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.
Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.
About the Author:
Amber Smith is a writer and artist who grew up in Buffalo, NY and now lives in Charlotte, NC with her two dogs. After graduating from art school with a BFA in Painting, she earned her MA in Art History. When she’s not writing, she is working as a curator and freelance art consultant. She has also written on the topics of art history and modern and contemporary art. The Way I Used to Be is her first novel.
Stephanie: Amber, you’ve written a very important book in THE WAY I USED TO BE and you’ve tackled a really sensitive and tough issue, but it’s a topic that needs to be discussed so thank you for writing this wonderful novel! What was the catalyst for writing about sexual assault?
Amber: Well, I’ve wanted to write about sexual violence for a long time—it’s an issue that I care about deeply and one that holds a lot of personal significance to me. When I began writing this book, I was just writing it for myself, as a place to work through my own thoughts and feelings surrounding this issue. But when I finished and began sharing it with others, I realized that it had evolved into something else—a story that could hopefully contribute to the important dialogue about sexual assault and abuse that we see happening right now.
Stephanie: In your writing, how did you make sure to stay honest to your characters? Did you interview people who had been affected? You seem to be right on target with your portrayal of Edy, it’s just amazing.
Amber: Thanks, Stephanie! For me, the true core of the story is the emotional journey, and for that I really just looked inward, reflecting my own experiences, as well as those of others I’ve known who have been affected by trauma. I think the best way for me to stay true to my characters is by making sure I’m staying honest with myself, first and foremost.
Stephanie: Why did you decide to follow Edy’s transformation from freshman year through senior year? That seems like it was a huge undertaking! Was that your original plan as you started writing? How do you think the story would have been different had you only captured part of her high school years?
Amber: Great question! Yes, from the beginning this book was meant to encompass all four years of high school. I wanted to use the element of time to show just how deep and lasting the wounds of violence can be. I also wanted the reader to be able to see the person Eden was before she was raped in order to better understand how and why she evolves into the person she becomes by the end of the book. The other main reason I structured the story in this way was to show how, with the passage of time, silence itself can become a force of violence. But more importantly, what I hoped to reveal along the way is how difficult it can be to stand up to abuse, why speaking out is not always as simple or easy as some might assume. I don’t think I could have told that part of the story in a more condensed timeframe.
Stephanie: What was the hardest part to write? I’m guessing it was the sexual assault itself, which you kind of sprinkled throughout the story, told it in bits and pieces rather than sharing it all in one big moment in the story. Why did you choose to do it this way?
Amber: Ironically, the sexual assault itself was the first thing I wrote. I wrote it quickly and all at once, originally appearing as one scene at the very beginning of the book. In an early revision of the manuscript I was advised (very wisely) by my agent to break that first scene up into passages that appear throughout the book because it was rather harsh for the opening pages. And I think it works so much better this way, unfolding in pieces, as Eden’s character is developed and revealed along with it. But this really wasn’t the hardest part to write; it was actually the aftermath, the emotional turmoil and the fractured relationships were more difficult for me, emotionally.
Stephanie: What is the big message you want readers to take away from reading THE WAY I USED TO BE?
Amber: The big message is all about self-worth, which is something everyone can relate to, regardless if one has shared in Eden’s particular experience. Self-worth means that it’s okay to stand up to abuse, in all its forms. It’s okay to find your voice and learn to use it, to demand to be seen and heard. It’s okay to ask for help. And, most importantly, you are not alone.
Stephanie: Are you afraid/concerned that people might assume that girls who are sexually assaulted become the “bad girl” – head into sexually promiscuous behavior and drug use? Did you discover this in research or is that just how you wanted to portray Edy?
Amber: Thanks for this question—this topic has come up in conversation with a few of my early readers, and I think it’s an important one. The transformation of Edy’s character formed pretty organically as I was writing, so it was not necessarily based on any type of research; it was just where the story naturally went. To answer your question…no, I’m not concerned about readers making generalizations because, after all, Edy’s story remains the story of only one girl. I don’t think this book (or any book) can or should stand in for a lived experience, and certainly can’t represent the differing realities of a whole group of people. We do see Edy’s methods of coping escalate over time, but I don’t perceive her behaviors and actions as bad or wrong, just human—a part of her individual journey. One hope I have for this book is that Edy’s story can, in some ways, expand on our notions of what it means to be a survivor. That there’s no one right way to heal, that having flaws and fears, weaknesses and pain, doesn’t mean that someone is not strong, or not just as much of a survivor as another who, facing a similar situation, might take a very different path.
Stephanie: What was the editing process like for you? Were there a lot of changes from how your initial story was when you sold?
Amber: I did a lot of editing with my agent before my book sold. So when it came time to begin working with my editor, the process was pretty painless. There weren’t too many major changes at all; it was mostly a matter of cutting and trimming. After working on something for so long it’s easy to lose perspective, so it was truly a gift to have my editor be able to step in and pinpoint elements of the book that weren’t working, weren’t absolutely necessary, or didn’t serve to move the story forward. Trimming those portions was so liberating and also made for a much tighter, more focused story!
Stephanie: What’s up for you next?
Amber: I have another contemporary YA in the works (slated for summer 2017). It deals with domestic violence, telling the story of three siblings as they cope with the death of their abusive father at the hands of their mother.
Favorite late-night snack?
Savory: Lately, I’ve been hooked on wasabi peas (I LOVE all things spicy). And sweet: anything dark chocolate-covered.
Early bird or night owl?
Strangely, both. I’m most productive very early in the morning or very late at night—it’s the middle of the day I’ve never quite been able to master!
Best live music?
Intimate indie-rock shows have been among the best live music performances I’ve ever seen.
If you could be stranded on a deserted island with one person, famous or otherwise, who and why?
Hmm…tough one (and btw, I’ve spent way too much time thinking about this answer, as if it’s actually going to happen or something!). But I think I’ve finally landed on Jane Goodall, not only because I’m a huge animal lover, but also because she has such an inspiring vision for the entire world—for animals, humans, and the planet as a whole. Either Jane Goodall or all of the dogs I’ve ever had, living and not, all together at once. Or Jane Goodall and all the dogs—now, that would be the best!
One non-electronic item you can’t live without?
Sneakers, so I can take long walks with my dogs.
E-reader or paperback? Why?
Definitely physical books—you just can’t beat the feeling of holding a book in your hands and turning the pages with your fingers. I especially love that distinct old book scent that hits you when you enter a library or used bookstore, or alternately, that crisp freshly bound paper and ink smell when you crack open a brand new book hot off the press!
Oh, I hate when I get this question…but only because there are just too many favorites to name! Though I can probably safely say that Laurie Halse Anderson and Ellen Hopkins tie for number one—I so admire the fact that they both consistently deal with tough, complex topics and have such distinctive, gorgeous writing styles.
Pretty much any coffee drink from Spot Coffee in Buffalo, NY (my hometown!).
Biggest accomplishment other than publishing:
Aside from writing and publishing, I would have to say my career in the art world—I’ve been an artist myself, a museum curator, and I now do freelance consulting—it’s an area of my life that’s challenged me, forced me out of my comfort zone time and again, and helped me to grow as a creative person.
Justin’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups
About the Interviewer:
Stephanie Elliot hates writing bios and revises this each time she sees it. She loves to read and write, and naps and does yin yoga, but not at the same time. She’s been married for a long while and has three teenagers. She’s lived in Florida, Illinois (twice!), Pennsylvania, and now Arizona, but to her, “home” is family and a page-turner. Her debut young adult novel, Sad Perfect (FSG/February 2017) is based on a unique eating disorder her daughter has – ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder). Visit stephanieelliot.com for more info.