Every fall, I teach a Young Adult writing class. One of the fun things about the course is that I get to choose three or four contemporary YA novels for my students to read and discuss and use as writing models. I always pick at least one book I know and love, one new book and one critical prize winner or classic. Next fall, I have opted to teach Split by Swati Avasthi. Swati’s novel seems to fulfill all three of my categories. It was released this March from Knopf and has been an instant hit with its readers and with me.
Swati is also a member of the group of debut YA and MG writers called the Class of 2K10. 2K10 is the beloved sister group of those of us who started this blog. Swati agreed to visit and chat with us. Here are some of the questions I asked and here also, are Swati’s thoughtful and insightful answers.
Before I start asking questions about the riveting storyline of Split, I’m curious about something more general. I wonder at what part of the process of drafting the novel did you discover that what you were writing was YA? Was this something you imagined all along? Or something you discovered later? Have you been aware of many adults reading the book? what was their response?
Split was always a YA novel. I started reading YA almost 15 years ago and I fell in love with the genre. It was not the YA I had as a kid, growing up. It was far more complex and, I thought, far more honest in its presentation of issues. I've heard that we write what we love and that was true for me. As soon as the story of Split came to me, I never doubted that it should be YA. I started writing Split before YA was the hot genre and before many adults started discovering it. So their response when I began writing it in 2006 was a lot more of the pat-you-on-the-head, how-nice-that-you-write-for-children response. Now, I get a lot more of adults guiltily admitting that they read and like the genre. I'm waiting for the time when the academy and general public opinion no longer feels the need to "admit" that teen books are for adults in the same way that adult books are for teens.
Many adults are reading Split and, honestly, because of the intensity of the book, I'm glad about that. The reception has been wonderful, particularly because it is a book that can be shared in the family, which in turn, can generate good discussions.
Yes! That’s definitely why I want to teach it. Can I get even more insight into potential audiences, because domestic violence is, as you say, such an intense issues. Do you think young women will benefit from this literary look into the mind of a dangerous boy? Or do you see your best potential reader as a boy who might need to discover himself in your words? What writing strategies did you take to speak to a particular audience?
I can't pick one kind of reader. I'm a writer with delusions of grandeur and I want everyone to read it. :-) I see it as a book with multiple audiences: boys, men, girls, and women because every one of these groups is affected by domestic violence. But I am really interested in getting this to teens. Teens are usually better than adults at reframing issues. They aren't going to see things, abuse included, the same way their parents do, and since so many teens are victims of dating violence (estimated at 1 of 4), I wanted to write about teens and for teens.
Wow—that’s a serious statistic. And yet you made an interesting and risky choice in telling the story from the point of view of a boy who is not purely someone we always see as a victim. Jace is an extremely compelling character. How did you make this happen? What did you feel you had to tell us about him? and what misconceptions about boys like Jace do you want to remedy?
I was interested in trying to create a character who was complicated: endearing and repulsive, sympathetic and damnable, and most significantly, a whole person. I wanted readers to think of him as more than a role: (victim, witness, etc). So, I spent a lot of time and did a lot of character development of Jace outside of the house. I concentrated on soccer, photography, friends and girlfriends, things that defined him besides his role within an abuse cycle.
The misconception I find most disturbing is about abuse in general. I coordinated a domestic violence legal clinic for three years and, after listening to thousands of abuse stories, I became increasingly disturbed about how our society frames domestic violence as a women's issue. Most of the abusers are men, after all. Abusers are the ones with the clearest line of sight to stopping abuse, to figure out how to make sure the cycle isn't passed down through the generations. If a victim gets out, that is wonderful and I admire the strength it takes and she can probably go on to live well. But abusers just move on to the next victim. The responsibility needs to fall on the abusers, and so we need to think of abuse differently - as a men's issue, as something men can choose to stop.
**SPOILER ALERT** I structured the book so that we would fall in love with Jace first and then learn of his violent tendencies because that is the experience of victims. Their abusers are charming and funny and interesting, but they have this one, terrible flaw that victims don't learn about until they are already invested in their relationships.
I admire that. Split has a lot of texture, maybe because Jace himself is Split. Can you describe how you broke down his personality? how the pieces, his 'bastard' and his "bastard no-more' self evolved?
Thanks! I think what really freed me up was that Jace is smart, self-aware, and imaginative. This gave me license to let him wrestle with complicated problems, like how he blames, protects, and loves his mother. It also gave him a lot of survival techniques and defenses including humor. He is able to articulate, often using humor, how his feelings are never simple, which opened up a host of options for him.
**SPOILER ALERT** I'd say I got the best handle on Jace in the "garage scene." This is where I started to understand how Jace was even more terrified of being broken down as a victim than he was of becoming an abuser himself and why he would chose his father as a role model over his mother. Like every kid, Jace wanted to grow up to be a man, didn't want to be weak. But because of who his role model was, he conflated strength with anger and manhood with control. For me, this was how his "bastard" self evolved.
His 'bastard-no-more' self evolved because he is imaginative, and can see his life in different ways. Because he is smart, he understands that he chooses his future.
I really loved that he had this kind of intelligent perspective. Teens are often confronted (in social media and television) with pretty pictures of how their life should look. These images may jar with how their life actually is. How might Jace, too, be a victim of double self-perception?
Jace and his family are wealthy and well-respected. Part of the media look for that is happy and healthy. The media does not present domestic violence as a problem for the rich, rather it is presented as a problem for the poor. In fact, there are some studies that suggest that underreporting is higher in wealthy communities and I think that this stake in looking good is why. I think that is part of why Jace has been forced into a position of silence.
I've known people whose houses had domestic violence and they looked like everyone else. That's the eerie part, really. Everyone thinks that it can't be true of their neighbor, their classmate, their friend. But when you think about the statistics (1 in 3 women in their lifetimes, to say nothing of the men who are victims as well) then it's very likely that domestic violence exists around us.
I had this sense that Jace was in hiding. And yet, Jace's relationship with his brother is at the center of this novel and the two seem to come together after quite a bit of shared suffering. How much, in your opinion is this book also about how Jace copes and redefines himself in relationship to others? Do you think he has a higher comfort level with the opposite sex by the end of the book? what part of Jace's story is left untold?
The importance of one plot line over another is more about the reader than the writer. That is to say, for one reader Jace's relationship with women will be very important and to another, not so much. So I want to start with the disclaimer that my read on the book is as valid as anyone else's. In my view, Jace's relationship to his brother and his relationship to women are intertwined. His brother is his role model and provides him with a different way to approach a romantic relationship and women in general. He has always tried to use his brother's model for how to treat women: he followed Christian's model about how to treat their mom to a T.
I think he does have a better view of women by the end of the book: Caitlyn is no longer shallow; Mirriam is no longer nosy; and Dakota is no longer unable to make her own decisions. Truth is, Caitlyn was never shallow, Mirriam was never nosy (just helpful; she was, after all, the one who got Christian to let Jace stay), and Dakota has always been able to make her own decisions, but now Jace *sees* those things. His perspective has changed, not the women themselves.
I love how you describe this change of perspective, because as a reader I felt this part of the story arc unfolded in a truthful way and I was very moved by it. Did telling this story from the potential abuser's point of view make it more or less difficult to find resolution and closure at the end of the novel? If Jace were less flawed as a main character, how would it have changed the story?
If Jace were less flawed, the story would have been far easier but also, I think, less interesting. As a writer, I'm not that interested in presenting simplified solutions to complex problems. Rather, I think I enjoy examining a problem from multiple angles to really appreciate how a problem affects not only the people caught directly in it, but also all those around them. I think that better reflects how interconnected we are.
A clear cut ending would have been a more serious possibility for Jace if he were less flawed only because his problems would have been more simple as well, but unlearning years, and formative years, is a difficult and long process. The book tries to reflect the idea that, while it might be extremely difficult to alter our patterns of thinking and actions, it's also possible. And for me, that is hopeful.
I agree. I think it’s the complexity of Jace and his struggles that make this book a valuable teaching tool. My students, many of whom are writing majors, might want to know about how it all came together. I know you are in the process of getting an MFA, so I am assuming that much of this novel was written in a workshop setting. How did this help or hinder you in your process? Do you have a YA focus in your studies, or is your MFA program one that students attend to write fiction mostly for adults?
Oh, now you've uncovered a secret. I did not write much of this novel in my MFA workshops; I had a full first draft when I came into the program and so I was revising by the time I started the program. I only workshopped around 4 chapters with my MFA colleagues. Most of my workshopping of this novel came from my writers' groups, and I found those essential. Writers' groups are, by their nature, a lot different than MFA workshops in that writers' groups select their own members.
One of my groups is comprised of children's writers only, which is very useful, because they are up to speed on the genre. So, I have less explaining to do and they have more models to suggest for me. YA has changed so much that the genre is frequently dismissed by the academy as genre fiction, instead of understanding that the YA genre is highly varied and is comprised of both literary and genre fiction. (Books like Twilight don't help that image either so I can understand why the impression remains.) The other writers' group has both writers for adult and YA fiction, which I also find very useful because good writing is good writing and so people who deeply understand the craft are always helpful.
I had two professors at the U -- Mary Logue (adjunct) and Julie Schumacher (professor) -- who contributed greatly Split. Both read the whole thing. Mary read most of it twice, actually. They had wonderful feedback. So, I'd say that while the workshop experience was not highly influential, the MFA program was. But if you want to see if workshopping in an MFA program has helped or hurt my writing, I'd say look at my second book. About one third of that novel was workshopped.
Okay, now I’m completely curious. Can you give us a sneak peek into your next project?
I am working on BIDDEN (working title). Holly, Corey, and Savitri are looking forward to their post-graduation summer of free running and comic book reading, when a shooting changes everything. Now, Corey is dead, Savitri is seeking revenge, and Holly is descending into a place where no one -- not even Savitri -- can reach her. BIDDEN is about how far we will stretch for our friends.
Wow! I can’t wait.
Thanks again. Great questions.
JD: Thank you Swati. It’s been an honor to speak with you. If you are interested in hearing Swati read the first chapter of Split--check out the link below.