Edgy? Clean? Writing Across Genre Divides

Y'all, y'all, y'all. I cannot tell you how excited I am to interview the fabulous Laurel Garver today! She's a longtime bloggy friend, incredibly talented, and she's in the middle of a blog tour (or ramble, as she likes to call it) to celebrate the release of her book Never Gone. (Not to be confused with the 2005 Backstreet Boys album)

When we were discussing what topic to cover, I jumped all over this one. Every writer I know whose faith is central in their life struggles with this issue at one time or another. I've known CBA writers who are frustrated because their work was deemed too secular, and general market writers who are frustrated because they have to sneak in any faith issues. Today, Laurel agreed to talk about her personal journey finding a balance. And I'm going to stop talking because she says it so much better than I can:

What is your novel Never Gone about?
A grieving teen believes her dead father has come back as a ghost to help her reconcile with her estranged mother.
That’s my most brief synopsis. My favorite synopsis is the trailer (Karen's note: mine, too):
How did this story lead you to cross genre boundaries?
This is a grief story that happens to involve a ghost. So there's a supernatural element, even though my overall approach is like most YA contemporary issue books, including a romantic subplot. As I wrote, I found it impossible not to address the spiritual questions that always come up when a person is grieving — about the nature of life and of a higher power. I also don’t shy away from the authentic emotional rawness of feeling bereft and furious about the loss. The trouble is, secular publishers want the ghosts and grit without God, while religious publishers want God without the grit and ghosts.

What has your experience been with genre divides?
Mash-ups have become the new trend in YA literature, according to this article in Publisher’s Weekly. Increasingly readers (and publishers) are interested in books that cross former genre divides, especially if it involves some fantastical element.
But there are some divides publishers will not yet cross. The secular vs. Christian market divide remains a huge one. The more I’ve researched, the more I see sides becoming polarized. It’s rare to see people of faith portrayed positively in secular books, or if they are, the spiritual content is downplayed. You might have a single mention of a character attending church, but little evidence that faith informs how they think or live the other six days of the week. On the other side, Christian publishers’ already-strict content guidelines are becoming even more rigid, as evidenced in this article from a Christianity Today blog.

How did the issue impact your publishing path?
I realized that a wide no-man’s land has opened in the publishing landscape — where works by authors like Charles Williams, Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy, Susan Howatch, and others used to be welcome. Their stories don’t shy away from the darker aspects of life, and because of that, the faith expressed is more profound because of its willingness to get dirty.
Today, this gap is largely being filled by small presses and self-published authors. Coming to grips with that reality was something of a grieving process for me. I concluded that walking away from both sides — essentially refusing to take sides — seemed for me the best way to be faithful to the kinds of stories I’m called to tell.

You call Never Gone’s genre “YA edgy inspirational.” What does that mean?
It means Christian in outlook, but with mature, challenging situations. “Edgy” here is not what mainstream publishers mean by the term — they’re generally talking content and language that would earn an R rating if it were a film. My story is “edgy” compared to other books in the Christian book market. It breaks a lot of their rules. My main character Danielle is Anglican, not nondenominational. Several chapters are set in an English pub, the hub of village life. The teen characters don’t imbibe alcohol, but the adults do.

Does that mean Never Gone is actually clean YA?
It depends on what you mean by “clean.” If you mean no foul language, graphic violence, drug use, underage drinking, or sex, then yes. By those standards, it’s cleaner than most mainstream contemporary YA, including Sarah Dessen’s books or even Sara Zarr’s.
But if by “clean,” you mean “Could I give it to a precocious eleven-year-old?” then I’d have to say maybe not (depends on the kid, and how protective the parents). The story is intended for ages 14 and up because it deals with difficult emotions, as well as tough situations in Danielle’s family. Dani also does some risky, foolish things and deals with predatory men. At its heart, the story encourages kids to understand their parents as complete people, with complex pasts that shape who they are now—an idea not quite developmentally appropriate for elementary-aged kids.

Laurel Garver is a magazine editor, professor’s wife and mom to an energetic fourth grader. An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she enjoys geeking out about Harry Potter and Dr. Who, playing word games, singing, and mentoring teens at her church.
Add Never Gone on Goodreads. Read a sample chapter.
It is available as an ebook and a paperback at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, CreateSpace.

18 comments:

  1. Thanks for hosting me, Karen! I hope this can open up discussion a little on a topic that seems to be privately grumbled about, but not let into the light much.

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    1. Agreed! And the thing is that I can understand the hesitance on the publisher's side, both CBA and general market. But that doesn't make it less frustrating.

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  2. Such an interesting topic. I've struggled with this as well--trying to figure out how my YA Christian fiction novel can present real-life issues, but in a way that can still be considered "Christian". There's not many authors who do this, yet I believe it can be a powerful way to minister to both believers and and non-believers alike.

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    1. It definitely seems to be a "taboo" subject. Most of the Christian authors I can think of who write for the non-CBA market do the "sneaky" approach...working elements and themes of faith into the story. One that comes to mind is Beth Revis. But then I wonder if I only pick up on those themes because I'm a fellow Christian?

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  3. I love this topic! I think art suffers when the ideal of safe is put above everything else. Also, I think it is disingenuous to kids when the real tough stuff they are going through is not in the books they are reading.

    Westley from Princess Bride said it best: "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."

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    1. Great comment, Megan. I agree wholeheartedly. When children are tiny, parents might want to prepare the road for them. But as they mature, they need to be prepared for the road--not just how to avoid destructive choices, but how to be proactive in places of pain and able to be compassionate friends to their peers and a force for good in the world.

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  4. 7 Bonus points to Meg for referencing The Princess Bride.

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  5. I think where I've ended up falling (for now) is writing "clean teen" within the general market--books that are light and hopeful and encouraging. One of the things I hear from Christian teen's parents over and over is a resounding cry for non-dark YA. BUT at the same time, even teens leading the squeaky-cleanyiest of high school existences is dealing with real and heavy issues. We can't ignore that either or sweep it under the rug. (Seriously, Laurel, such a timely post! Thank you!!)

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    1. I'm glad it's been encouraging discussing it. One thing that's my novel tries to demonstrate is the concept that no one is truly squeaky clean. My protagonist thinks she is, but she has to face her flawed ways of thinking and relating in order to have good relationships.

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  6. This was wonderful to read! *Runs off to share*.
    I think it's really prevalent, even outside of YA in the New Adult or Adult categories to pick your battles and not let your faith get lost...but at the same time not be preachy.

    I don't fit in the CBA world, but I don't want to cover up who I am or what I believe.

    Laurel, this was so helpful. I'm so glad I stopped by to read! Thanks Karen for hosting :)

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Kelsey! I really don't fit in the CBA world either. I read very little of it--trying occasionally and getting discouraged.

      The writers who do non-preachy well--I'm thinking most recently of Susan Howatch--succeed because the way faith deeply shapes how the characters think. It's not just pious actions or phrases thrown in here and there. Their whole way of viewing the world is shaped around the idea of rescue and redemption, of deeply needing help themselves (yet without the churchy theological lingo). They're broken but seeking healing, knocked down, only to be raised up. There's great humility there that is so very lovely to be around and it never feels preachy.

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    2. "I don't fit in the CBA world, but I don't want to cover up who I am or what I believe." <--- This! It's definitely a balance, figuring out where you and your writing fit, and trying to stay true to yourself and your characters.

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  7. Great post, and I think Laurel's book sounds amazing. The last Christian YA I read was from my friend Stephanie Morrill, and I think she did a great job with her Skylar Holt series of being completely real. It definitely had a message, but wouldn't scare off teens that weren't Christians. (Scare off probably wasn't the best phrase..LOL, but you know what I mean!) I agree with Tessa's thoughts regarding the matter. It's a shame the gap is widening, all teens need books that deal with the grittier aspects of life. The teen years involve so much pain and struggle. It's those situations where your faith is critical, and often most in peril.

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    1. Absolutely! We need a faith-based Ellen Hopkins. :) Laurel, why don't you get on that?

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    2. Thanks, Nicole! In places of great pain, any belief system will take a beating--even if it's a fairly secular belief in the power of friendship or family love. I think that aspect makes the novel a relatable story no matter where you are on the faith/doubt/indifference spectrum.

      I agree that the widening gap is very sad. The more anything-goes the wider culture gets, the more fearful and circle-the-wagons faith communities can be. I pray that more writers will step in to fill the gap and show kids a faith that's courageously compassionate rather than insular and self-protective.

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    3. "I pray that more writers will step in to fill the gap and show kids a faith that's courageously compassionate rather than insular and self-protective." <---Amen! :)

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  8. LOVED learning more about Laurel and her work, Karen! I'm so glad you posted this... she sounds absolutely fantastic... of course, anyone connected with you would be! ;)

    And do you really say, Y'al??? Love it. :D

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