Forever ago I interviewed Carrie Mesrobian about her fabulous debut (released October 2013), and I’m thrilled to report that both readers and critics are gaga over Sex and Violence. Now go buy it.
Thanks to Carrie, I had the chance to gab with another fantastic debut author this week. Christa Desir’s novel Fault Line (which just came out this month, too!) tells the story of Ben and Ani, two teens struggling to hold it together in the aftermath of a sexual assault.
The circumstances surrounding the assault are unclear. Desir uses this situation to explore how we ascribe blame and fault when the person who was raped wasn’t held at knifepoint in an alley by a stranger.
Fault Line raises contentious questions, like: Is non-consensual sex ever not rape? What about if the person doesn’t put up a fight? Does the way a person behaves or dresses matter?
Get ready. This book takes you difficult places and makes you question your own beliefs—as the best books do!
Seriously. I LOVED Fault Line. So buy this one, too.
Thanks, Christa, for sharing your excellence.
MM: Aside from the prologue, the book begins like a contemporary YA romance. Then it takes a serious turn. When did you realize the book was going to be about more difficult subject matter?
CD: I knew from the start. Even in my really raw 20,000-word rough draft, I knew it was a sexual assault book. However, it’s critical that readers hurt with the two main characters. That means you first have to see the relationship between Ben and Ani. You have to feel it. You have to fall in love with them as a couple. And you have to understand why Ben stays. That’s the only way the story works.
Some people have criticized the prologue, but I didn’t want people to think they were reading a romance. I wanted to be fair to the reader. The prologue was a more honest way to begin. Readers know that something horrible is going to happen and they’re invested in figuring out how this couple got to that place. That opening was my way of letting them know that this is a hard book.
MM: Ani’s character at the start of the book personifies what many of us at that age wanted to be: confident, attractive, independent, and unafraid of sexuality. How did you arrive at the character of Ani?
CD: I believe in “enthusiastic consent” when it comes to sex, versus deciding to just “get it over with.” I want this modeled for more girls. I wanted to portray a strong and confident female character. A girl who owned her sexual choices and decided to have sex on her own terms. And I wanted positive sex in the first part of the book as a point of comparison to violent sex, or later the sex Ani engages in when she’s lost her sexual autonomy. Confident women are no more immune to rape than any other women, and rape can take the confidence away.
MM: The change that happens in Ani after the assault is heartbreaking. How did you develop the Ani we get to know after the sexual assault?
CD: The character of Ani is an interesting amalgamation of survivor experiences—both my own personal story and the stories I have heard from hundreds of other rape survivors.
I served rape survivors as a crisis worker for almost a decade in hospital ERs, and in the last ten years while volunteering with the Voices and Faces Project, I’ve had the opportunity to hear stories from survivors many years after the rape.
Frequently I’ve heard—either immediately after or later—that rape survivors went through an incredibly promiscuous period. They lost their sexual identity. They would let anyone do anything to their bodies.
I was that person too. I experienced that, too, as a rape survivor. I had a time when I felt like I had no control over my body—that I was just a vessel for guys. Numbing is common in trauma survivors, substance abuse, cutting, eating disorders, promiscuity, these issues often come up after experiencing sexual violence. For Ani, the uncertainty of the night, the slut-shaming, the rumors, it all led her down this path of self-destruction.
MM: Writing about Ani from her boyfriend Ben’s perspective was genius. Talk a bit about what that allowed you to do as a writer and how that was a challenge.
CD: There are so many people impacted by rape. We put our attention—and rightly so—on the survivors. But who’s checking in on those other people? Part of this story grew out of conversations with two very dear friends of mine—who are survivors—and their partners. There are resources available to the partners, though much less than for victims. The partners wrote about their own healing. This is a voice we don’t hear as often. I understand from my work as an advocate what it’s like from the outside—not being able to do anything when someone’s hurting so bad. How frustrating it is. Ben’s perspective seemed a very logical one for me.
Also I wanted boys to be able to read this story. To identify with Ben. The things Ben cares about need to be the things a boy would actually care about. Getting the authenticity of Ben’s character right was tough. I wanted to get that right. And I wasn’t interested in casting him as a hero because I don’t think that’s real, even for the best boyfriends or partners of survivors. I asked questions of teen boys. Luckily, I know a lot of them. Ani was Ben’s first REAL girlfriend. I wanted to capture the vulnerability of a boy who really likes a girl. I see that so much with boys—the part of them that tries so hard to get a girlfriend.
MM: You’re brave to take on the topic of sexual assault, especially one in which the circumstances are so unclear.
CD: I intentionally wrote a book with gray areas. People want a clear a perpetrator—a knife-to-throat crime that’s easy to prosecute. But that’s very few cases. Most people still see rape as “stranger rape,” but almost 85% of victims know their perpetrators.
I wanted to take on the gray areas of rape, because that’s much more real. During my experience working with rape survivors, I heard things that stuck with me. Questions police would ask survivors, like, “What WERE you doing in that neighborhood?” What does that have to do with the criminal nature of rape? Sometimes people try to make rape the fault of the victim. They think by blaming the victim—maybe it was something she did or said or the way she looked—they can keep it from happening to them. This book was about starting conversations, opening the door about what we really think about rape, and seeing how that shapes us as a culture.
MM: Books that take on a tough topic, especially one so infused with shame and cultural baggage, can bring out ugly reactions in people. Have you had to deal with any backlash?
CD: Yes, but I’ve had way more enthusiastic responses than negative ones. I know the topic can be polarizing, but what’s harder for me is hearing, “I’m not sure if I’d recommend this.” We all get really careful about judging for others what we think they can handle. As a parent, I am very conscious of this. But when we make these blanket statements for everyone, that limits readership. When we feel we need to keep people from reading certain things that make them uncomfortable, we don’t allow the conversation to happen. We are closing doors to a discussion that we need to be having.
It’s huge for me when people say I’m giving this to my daughter or to a friend. I feel grateful. I want to say, “Thank you for being willing to have the conversation.”
MM: Last month Steph Sinclair wrote a fantastic review in which she calls Fault Line “The Book That Divides.” What do you think she means by that?
Some reviewers have called Ani to task for her “culpability” and have asked the question, Was this really rape? I think Sinclair is referring to the divide between people who only see rape when it’s clear cut versus seeing rape as rape regardless of if the victim was drinking or dressed provocatively. She’s basically saying this book is polarizing because it calls into question what people believe constitutes rape. True rape. Real rape.
For me, rape is rape. Rape is sex without consent. Consent can’t legally be given if a person is impaired, intoxicated, drugged, underage, mentally challenged, unconscious, or asleep. That is part of the legal definition.
But even if we put the legal question aside, I feel like the more important issue is, Are we okay with this? What I mean is, are we all okay with what happened to Ani happening in the lives of teenagers? Now we are in a place that we can have this conversation. We can ask the question, “At what point are we not okay with allowing this to happen and if we’re not okay with it, what are we going to do about it?”
Anyone at the party could have done something. Nobody stepped in, even though there were many bystanders who could have. It ends up being a conversation not only about the definition of rape and consent, but also what we, as a society, are okay with.
MM: In that same review Sinclair writes,
Sometimes when I hear of professional critics or other authors looking down on the YA genre, I can’t help but to shake my head and pity them. “The Young Adult genre is for kids!” they cry. “There’s no depth!” they exclaim. And then I read a book like Fault Line and it’s clear that those people have no idea what they’re talking about.
How do you think Fault Line helps to define YA as something more than the label “books for kids,” a label typically meant as pejorative (for both the books and the kids)?
CD: That’s a really good question. Part of me is like, I just wrote a book, I’m not trying to tackle preconceived notions about a genre. I’m simply adding to a cannon of incredibly good books that already challenge obtuse commentary about kid lit, already make us question what we believe and change where we stand on things. YA is very good at this.
I’ve heard from guy readers who have said things about Ben keeping Ani from healing by his trying to fix her. That’s a great conversation to have. These are problems that can’t be “fixed” in conventional ways.
Teens are on the precipice…they are works in progress. But so are adults. I wrote a book about rape, we as adults have to re-open our values on these issues and re-examine them. YA is a great platform for these discussions. And it’s a great platform to talk about difficult things with our kids. There are a lot of jumping off points into fabulous conversations. That’s why I love this genre.
Every day we are given chances to be our best self and our worse self. YA as a genre is really good at focusing on these moments. We let teens mess up. But we’re not DONE as adults. We still mess up. There are still defining moments in our lives when we say, this is what I think about this and this is how I feel and this is what I’m willing to do about it.
Kids are just trying to figure themselves out. Grown-ups are still trying to figure themselves out, too. That’s why this genre is important for lots of us.
Christa Desir’s young adult novel Fault Line was released on October 15, 2013. Find out more at www.christaramblesandwrites.blogspot.com
Also find more great author interviews on Christa’s blog here: http://www.christaramblesandwrites.blogspot.com/p/author-interviews.html