Hello Everyone *waves*
Today I am lucky enough to have an interview with Summer Walden, author of Hoodie, Honeysuckle and her latest novel Going Under.
Hi Summer, firstly, I’d like to ask some background questions about you…
Place of Birth: Fayetteville, North Carolina, USA
Place of Residence: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Marital Status: Married
Do You Have Children? : I’m terrified of them and will always be, so no.
Favourite Food: Cake. Delicate, velvety cake with swirly-twirly icing.
Favourite Film: I go through stages. In high school it was Sense and Sensibility (1995). Now? The Painted Veil. (Hated the book, by the way. First that’s ever happened, that I preferred the screenplay to the book.)
Favourite Singer/Band: Toss up: Yes and Genesis (two bands who made it big before I was even born)
Favourite Book: Yikes. Really? Let me go with three that really affected me. Maybe that’s the same thing as favorite. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, and Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.
Favourite Author: I really and truly do not have one. And I can’t list all of the ones I like here, or this interview would never end.
Favourite Quote (book or film): How about a book quote in a film? Sense and Sensibility (1995). Marianne quoting Shakespeare: “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove. Oh no! It is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests, and is never shaken.” But then you have to whisper at the end: “Willoughby . . . Willoughby.”
Now onto the more in-depth questions…
1) Did you always know you wanted to be an author?
Yes, though I thought it was impossible. When you’re 14 and just starting to take your writing seriously, the idea of completing a full-length novel seems daunting. At least for me it was. I started about a bazillion drafts before actually finishing one . . . at 30 years old!
2) What age did you decide to become an author?
Well, I got serious last August, so age 31. I taught before that, but I was so all over the place with teaching. I didn’t know where I fit in until I realized that I didn’t fit in anywhere! Then I had an existential crisis about the purpose of my life before I decided to stop being so freaking scared and start doing what I always wanted to do. Write!
3) If you couldn’t be an author, what do you think you would like to be?
Well, I hope to be an innkeeper some day. I want to own and operate my own beachside inn. Hmm, I say “operate,” but my ultimate plan is to leave that in the capable hands of my husband while I write on the beach every day! I figure that’s fair: I wrote the business plan, after all. J
4) Who are your writing influences?
Writers: Stephen King, David Sedaris, Diana Gabaldon, J. K. Rowling, Faulkner. Non-writers: Every person I come into contact with.
5) What was the first book you read and how old were you?
I think it was One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss, but I’m not sure. (I remember that as my favorite, though.) And I don’t know how old I was, but I know I wasn’t some child genius reading one week after I was born. I think it’s amazing, those kids who are reading when they’re one week old. J
6) How old were you when you first wrote something, be it a poem or a short/full-length novel?
Oh man. I know I was writing at a very young age, though I cannot remember the first piece. And I know I probably shared a lot of that writing in school, but I cannot remember. At least not before seventh grade. I do, however, distinctly remember my experience sharing in seventh grade. I didn’t want to read my piece, but my teacher made me. Let me preface this by saying that, yeah, I was a pretty deep 12-year-old. I was not suicidal; however, I wrote a lyrical story of a woman who takes her life by throwing herself off a cliff into the sea. Very dramatic. (Roll your eyes.) Now for the mortifying part. My teacher forced me to read it to the entire class (after she’d read it herself!). I think she did it on purpose to punish me for writing a story with such a taboo topic . . . oh my God, I just realized why I like to write stories with taboo topics!
7) What was your first published piece of writing?
I was featured in Elizabeth Ervin’s book, Public Literacy. I co-wrote a grant for my university, and she used it as an example in her grant writing chapter. Ask me to write a grant for you today and I’d reply, “What’s a grant?”
8) How many articles/books have you subsequently published?
Two books. Hoodie and Honeysuckle Love. And they don’t sound anything like Going Under. In fact, none of my books sound like they were written by the same person. I realize I have to change that. Readers like authors to stick with a certain style and a certain genre. So now I’ve got to figure out how to keep from rehashing the same stories and characters over and over and still give my readers what they want.
9) Does writing come naturally to you?
Yes, though I’m constantly working to hone my skills and to write more succinctly. Writing is a job like any other. If you want to stay sharp, if you want to continue writing clear, fluid descriptions and dialogue, then you have to practice, practice, practice. No different from teachers completing continuing education training courses to keep their certifications current or doctors taking classes to stay current with their licenses.
10) How did you become published? Did you ever self-publish or were you picked up by a publishing house right away?
I’m self-published. I only received three rejection letters from literary agencies before I decided to go the self-publishing route. I admit I was hesitant at first mostly because I didn’t know what in the world I was doing, but also because of the stigma attached to self-published work. But it seems to be the way to go now. As an author, you almost have to prove your worth in the sales rankings before anyone will even take notice. Very different from the way things were before these self-publishing platforms came on the scene. I’ve seen so many self-published authors picked up by agents and publishing houses as a result of their successes in the marketplace. I’m hoping for the same in the future.
Now for questions specifically related to Going Under…
11) What was your inspiration behind Going Under?
I was inspired to write this story based on a newspaper article about a high school in the US that got busted for a secret sex club. The boys (all members of various varsity sports teams) drafted girls and rated them on their sexual acts. Some girls knew about the league and willingly participated while others knew nothing. None of the boys were charged with sex crimes. It wasn’t like that; just a seedy club run by horny teens. And when I did more research I learned that these clubs have been discovered in high schools and college campuses all over the US. But many people are unaware of them.
So this article sparked the idea of a story about a sex club with a much darker, sinister side. One where boys prey on girls and take advantage of their ignorance and vulnerability. I actually worked out the details of the club first before developing the overarching revenge theme of the book.
12) Why did you choose to write about such a taboo subject?
Because the story demanded it. Once I read that article I thought, No one has yet to write a story like this?? Impossible! It was just too juicy, too over-the-top, too scandalous to be true. But it was true. At least the part about the club. My storyline for Going Under is completely fictitious. Nothing about the inner workings of the sex league, rape, depression, or revenge plot are part of that newspaper article.
My editor doesn’t believe me one bit when I say that I never set out to write a story with the intention of teaching a lesson, but I swear that’s the truth. I don’t think it’s my job to teach a lesson in my books. It’s my job to tell a good story and let readers decide what they want to learn from it. So really it comes down to this: I chose to write this story because it’s a good one.
13) What was it that made you decide how you should go about writing around such a taboo subject?
I never think to myself, Is this going to be too offensive for my readers? I always include disclaimers in my book descriptions to let people know exactly what they’re getting into. I hate to say it’s my “Get out of jail free” card because I know I’ll still receive reviews from people complaining about the offensive language and ideas in my books. However, those disclaimers do lift the burden of responsibility (that sounds so bad!). I can just point to them and say, “I warned you. What are you complaining about?” Instead of trying to figure out how to tread lightly with a taboo topic, I just commit to staying true to the voices of my characters and their stories. Brooke burst onto the page as a complete mess. She’s irreverent, silly, clumsy, beautiful, and flawed. And that’s how the story goes. I knew it would never be neat and tidy. It’s raw and offensive and graphic. How on earth could I write a story about rape and a Fantasy Slut League any other way?
14) How did the idea for the ‘Fantasy Slut League’ come about?
The newspaper article. It didn’t go into specifics about how the league mirrored Fantasy Football, so I had to learn all about that myself and create my own classification and scoring system. My brother-in-law, who’s an avid Fantasy Football player, helped me with the details. Okay, so I know that the theme of the book is ultra heavy, but I’m going light here for a minute. I wish wish wish I had recorded that conversation in his living room last November during Thanksgiving. It was so ludicrous. Here’s a taste:
“Okay, so we can’t score a blow job from a virgin the same as a blow job from a ho, right?” I ask.
“No, see, you’ve gotta put the girls into classifications and then cross-reference scores based on their sexual experience,” Burt replies.
“Ohhh, that totally makes sense. So, a score sheet that gives all the scores based on the type of girl, and then a separate sheet that labels each girl,” I say.
He nods. “Now if you wanna get really crazy with it, we can talk frequency.”
“Additional points for repeat offenders?” I ask.
He nods again. “If a virgin gives the same guy three blow jobs over the course of two weeks, shouldn’t she get something extra in the way of points? I mean, that blows sex with a ho completely out of the water.”
I stare at him waiting for the inevitable chuckle. He punned, and he knew it.
“That might be too hard to explain in the book,” I say.
My mother walks into the room.
“What are you guys discussing?” she asks.
“Blow jobs,” we say in unison.
“Is this for your next book, Summer?” she asks, trying hard to seem intrigued when she’s completely mortified.
I nod. She turns right around and leaves the room.
15) During the writing process, a lot of authors say that their characters talk to them and beg to be written. Did this happen with Beth? Did her story beg to be written?
Actually no. I didn’t hear Beth at all. I heard Brooke. In fact, the first flashback in the novel with Brooke and Finn was the very first scene I wrote. I knew afterwards that I had created a main character that people were either going to really love or really hate because she’s just so flawed. Some readers have a hard time with that. They want their main characters to be pretty close to perfect. Brooke isn’t that one bit.
Beth only spoke to me once I started writing her specific scenes. I saw her as the central idea the story revolved around, but not so much as a lead voice in the story. She was more ideal than concrete.
16) You wrote about not one but two taboo subjects really, rape and suicide. What made you choose to have Beth commit suicide as a result of her rape?
I needed a reason for Brooke’s revenge plot. This might sound harsh, but if Beth lived, there would have been no story. And while the story does focus on revenge, I really tried my hardest to highlight the theme of friendship among girls—how important girlfriends are. How special they are and how much we need them. I thought a lot about my own best friend as I wrote Going Under. All of our adventures. All the times she took care of me in college when I was drunk off my ass. The boys. The fights. The flat-out truth that we sometimes didn’t want to hear. The make-ups. Growing together. It’s an incredible thing: a best friend. And I wanted to show Brooke’s utter devastation, give her a reason to be so absolutely crazy with her plan for revenge. She failed at being loyal to Beth before Beth died, so she’s determined to be loyal to her in death. It’s powerful, that female connection. It is both a beautiful and frightening thing.
17) Would you say that you can relate to Brooke and what she decided to do as recompense for what happened to Beth?
Well, I’ll put it this way: I think Brooke’s plan actually resonates with all of us because we all have people in our lives to which we are insanely loyal. People we love fiercely and forever. People we would die for. That kind of love for another human being compels all kinds of actions, and when it’s mixed with guilt, those actions become ones of desperation.
18) Did you ever consider writing the book from Beth’s POV instead of Brooke’s?
No. Again, Beth was more of the central idea that the sex club and revenge plot revolved around. But I wanted the reader to know Beth, at least a little, and that’s why I wrote flashback scenes. Maybe I didn’t give enough of a taste, but I didn’t want to do the whole “I’m dead and narrating this story” thing. I think it can work in some books, but it could definitely not work in this one.
19) How long did it take to come up with the first draft of Going Under?
Two months. I wrote nonstop, at least 8-hour days. Sometimes longer. And the original title was Slut. Everyone apart from my editor said, “No way! You can’t market that!” So after lots of brainstorming, cutting, revising, and throwing away, the title was changed to Going Under. And I dig it.
20) How many subsequent drafts were there before you had the polished finished draft?
A bazillion. No, scratch that. A trillion-bazillion. And I’m not even joking. I’ve never revised a manuscript so much. I took out half the curse words. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. I know Brooke has a mouth on her. That’s the only trait she and I share. My husband likes to ask me, “Why do you cuss as a writer when you know so many words?” to which I reply, “Because sometimes it just feels good to say ‘f**k’.”
21) Was there ever a scene that you wrote and then found yourself deleting and leaving out of the final draft?
Sure. Scenes with Brooke and Finn (as Beth’s older brother, not boyfriend.) That was the original plan, but then I thought, Why would Beth care that Brooke is dating her older brother? She wouldn’t. Even if they sneaked around, I couldn’t see Beth getting so upset about it. She’d be like, “What the hell, Brooke? My brother? Gross.” But she wouldn’t have felt deeply betrayed. So Finn went from brother to boyfriend. And that last sentence sounds kind of gross.
22) Was there anything you cut but later replaced or wish that you had after the book’s publication?
I’m pretty happy with the outcome. I think I cut all the unimportant scenes I wrote in the early stages of the story, but I do wish I would have included a few more Ryan scenes (without them going at it!). That’s a hard one for me because I like them going at it. It’s almost comical because Brooke is so silly with her sexuality. I kind of like the idea of readers shouting at Brooke, “Girl, get yourself together! You’re acting like a ho!” every time they get to a Ryan scene. But I hope I conveyed that they had a relationship that went beyond the physical. I imagined them hanging out a lot painting, playing video games, going to the movies . . . all those things teenagers do when they’re dating. And so I didn’t include additional scenes like that because, again, I thought it was understood.
23) Do you think or hope that your book will touch young women and maybe make them come forward about their own experiences?
It’s humbling to think that a book can have such a profound effect on someone, and I do hope that mine will. I hesitate to encourage rape victims to read the book, but that’s mostly because I don’t want to imagine that I’ve made them relive their experiences through reading Brooke’s story. I hate the idea of making someone cry over her past pain. That being said, I probably need to give victims more credit, and my hope is that Going Under can be some sort of catalyst in changing how we approach and discuss rape in our society.
24) Do you like it when people write you fan-mail about their experience with your book?
Hell yeah! My goal is to be inundated with emails until one day I have a nervous breakdown over them because I can’t possibly answer them all. I LOVE replying to my fans. It was actually funny when one of them wrote me back and said, “I didn’t expect you to reply to me!” I should have told her, “Well, I’m keeping track, and you’re my fifth fan. So you see, I’ve got time.” J
Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to answer my questions Summer, the answers are very enlightening.
Having read Going Under for myself and reviewed it on this blog, I hope that girls or women who have similar experiences will be more forthcoming. I believe it is high time society did away with such constrictions and made these kinds of subjects easier for people to talk about – making these things less ‘taboo’.
Thank you to everyone who came by today. I hope that you will read Going Under for yourselves.
I said in my review - I am a victim of rape and this books is just the tonic I needed. It turned out to be the first chapter in the story of the rest of my life - this chapter is aptly entitled "Closure".
When I first picked up this book, I knew that I was possibly letting myself in for a world of hurt but actually, the underlying messages as well as those at the forefront are more helpful than hurtful.
So my last message to you is, be warned that the book contains elements that some may find upsetting. But please, give this book a chance.
PS: If you would like the chance to win a 'Going Under' Prize Pack, enter here: (it's open for the month of April)