Julie Anne Peters is known for controversial novels, including Luna, about a trangendered teen; and Rage, which examines a lesbian relationship destroyed by dating violence. In Peters' latest book, By the Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead, she tackles another provoking topic: bullycide. Peters spoke with Bookshelf about the book's genesis, how emotionally draining it was to write, and the effect she hopes it has.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
There was this special report on TV about kids who had been so severely bullied in school, from kindergarten on, that they either dropped out or were forced into homeschool. Even if these children had pleaded for help, they’d received little or no adult intervention. Several of the parents on the show talked about their bullied kids who in the end committed suicide. They actually had a term for what had happened; they called it “bullycide.” It was the first time that I’d actually heard that word. The helplessness those kids felt, that inability to deal and cope, really resonated with me.
Around that same time, in October 2006, C. J. Bott, who is a writer and strong advocate against bulling, invited me to join a panel of writers to discuss the issue of bullying in literature at an Assembly of Literature for Adolescents workshop. For my part, I planned to read letters I’ve received from young readers describing the harassment that they’ve been subjected to at school and at home for coming out as gay. And for them, bullying ranged from years of taunting and verbal abuse to physical assault at school, to having their families disown them. Of course self-injury is high among gay youth and suicide is mentioned so often in the letters that I receive.
How did Daelyn's story evolve from there?
I came home from that conference thinking: Are we born with this overarching sense of self-preservation? Are we given free will at birth and how and when do we begin to exercise free will in such destructive ways? If a really hypersensitive child is bullied and teased, with no relief, how long does it take before he or she loses hope? And how can we be so indifferent to or unaware of our children hurting themselves that we just turn a blind eye to it?
Once I started to research suicide it was just extremely easy to retrieve all the graphic details about how to accomplish it. All you have to do is Google “suicide,” and everything is there. There are lots of suicide chat rooms, believe it or not, where people go to talk about it. It’s maybe the only time these kids get to talk to anyone. The Web site for suicide completers in my book was one of my own invention, but it certainly wasn’t difficult to imagine.
Both the suicide theme, and the Web site for completers, are rather controversial. What kind of reaction are you expecting to get from parents and readers?
I’ll probably get the kind of letters from young people that I get now, letters in which they share their own experiences and maybe thank me for writing about controversial subjects. And I know they’ll share their feelings the way they always do. It’s hard to speculate about what I’ll get from adults because I am sure many of them will feel that this is dangerous literature, and some kind of manual for suicide. But literature is such a safe and powerful way to initiate conversation, and bullycide is such an epidemic that we need to be talking about it. I do hope that my book is a springboard for discussion.
I think teachers and adults need to help victims develop more coping skills so they can deal with bullies. And they need to talk to kids about being bullies. I think a lot of times kids don’t realize the effect they have, just by saying something mean. I can almost remember every mean thing any person ever said to me as a child. These things stay with you.
Your main character doesn’t speak, and reveals a great deal of her story through chat board posts Was it hard to tell her story this way?
I never felt she was silent. She has this active inner life. I always felt that she was speaking to herself, to readers and to the people on the board that she could relate to. She certainly was speaking to me. But of course a book like this is so emotionally draining. The hard part was dealing with the helplessness of her parents to effect change. Because by the time Daelyn begins this journey, she’s already at the point of no return, she’s already at the edge. I tried to throw everything I could think of to save her—gave her this potential love interest and maybe some religion, something she could believe in, some hope in life, and maybe a new friend and a new start. Then I just left it up to her to make her decision.
How do you think the open-ended conclusion will resonate with readers?
I think a lot of people like everything all wrapped up. They are not going to like it at all. They want to know what happens and I would rather people decide for themselves.
So there won’t be a part two then?
I never do sequels. I live with these characters for so long that by the time I get done with the book, I feel their story has been told. Daelyn’s story was tough, and I am ready to move on to somebody else. She really gets to you. I hope she had some real dimension. It wasn’t all that she was a victim. She didn’t just give up on herself. I would like to say that she fought for herself, with whatever coping skill she had.
Your book Rage, about a lesbian teen in a violent relationship, was also published recently. Can you talk about how the landscape continues to change for gay characters?
My books are taking on a different kind of tone. I find that my characters are more openly gay or lesbian or transgender because the culture has changed so much. It is a challenge for me as a contemporary realistic writer to keep up with how fast everything is changing. First of all, young people are coming out at an earlier age. I am hearing from kids at 11, 12, 13, and 14. I think this is a healthy thing, although it’s tough to do that with families and with school. Also the national dialogue is contributing to cultural evolution, like the passage of gay marriage laws and hate crime legislation. I think young gay people feel like actual human beings, and that they are part of society and have a role. I think coming-out stories will always be a crucial issue and the foundation of who we are, and we shouldn’t diminish that. But I like to think that my books deal with more than just being gay and coming out, whether they are about relationship abuse, or just falling in love and finding yourself.
What’s next for you?
I have another book coming out in 2011 called She Loves You/She Loves You Not, which is kind of a lesbian love story—that book is much more lighthearted. I like to publish a book a year, because kids write to me and say, “When’s your next book coming out? I can’t wait, I can’t wait.” But it takes me a good 18 months to two years to do a book, so I am usually working on two or three at a time. Although, not when I am writing a rough draft—I can only write one draft at a time. Then I am in the head of those characters, and really living that story.
By the Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters. Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 ISBN 978-1-4231-1618-9 (Jan.)