Book Talk at To Be Continued … Bookstore in Metuchen
First I want to thank you all for coming to hear me talk a little about LOVE and CANDY by Elizabeth Famous
Love and Candy is not a sweet and wholesome love story. It's been called edgy and too real and raw … but I call it Jane Eyre romance mixed with the teenaged angst of the Catcher in the Rye.
The main character, Samantha Montclare is a studious high school freshman who falls for a total player named Delaney (Troy). He is the star of her high school soccer team, who doesn't believe in dating one person at a time. [if he tried, he'd end up a cheater like his dad … so it's better never to try 'a relationship' because he can't maintain it.] At the same time Samantha is struggling with her unexpected (out of character) obsessive desire for Delaney (before Delaney, she had no interest in any of the guys in her classes), she's learns a secret about her parentage that rocks her to the core.
This story is "out and out" drama: about the agonies of being a romantic young woman growing up in the midst of contemporary culture (including casual sex or hooking up, sexual harassment in schools, bullying and taunts as you walk down the street or in the halls at school) and struggling with obsessive desire for Delaney.
Considering my background is in classical philosophy, it makes sense that I might be accused of corrupting the youth – as Socrates was. Love and Candy has what might be considered young characters for an explicit love story (dealing with "grown up" topics). Teens falling in love in not actually unheard of. The greatest love story in western literature includes teens and sex – and, no, I'm not talking about Twilight – I'm talking about a pair of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.
Given the fact that putting teenagers in this kind of story might be controversial, I thought I'd list of four reasons I used a teenaged protagonist:
1) I wrote an early draft when I was younger, close to a teenager
2) A high schooler provides me with a realistic, inexperience girl, unworldly like Jane Eyre – an ingénue. – wasn't going to take the easy way out and write a story about a 23 year old college grade living a large metropolitan area who's a total innocent – we're talking a ten year old here (as in Fifty Shades of Grey).
Why did I want my protagonist to be an innocent girl? To portray her as overpowered by her interactions with a charismatic, older guy (as obsessive, overwrought and hypersensitive). She latches onto him with an intensity for which a serious amount of hormones are required … like in teenagers. I wanted to write about feelings which she will never matched in the whole course of her life … first love … powerful feelings with maximum dramatic impact … maximum crisis and vulnerability and conflict in the story.
3) High school provides for a hierarchical subculture so I can mimic the social barriers between upper and lower class in Pride and Prejudice. Great social divide keeping the hero and heroine apart: Samantha is looking up at him as unattainable to Samantha (out of her league) and he is looking down on her as not good enough to hang out with him and the popular crowd.
4) She goes through a child's identity crisis involving her parentage – and her parents' past and the secret scandal involving her paternity is a major subplot in the story. This requires a young person, on the cusp of adulthood, transitioning to adulthood, who's vulnerable to such a disclosure in a way that an adult wouldn't be. A teen will feel a disruption to her sense of stability that an adult might not feel … it's a profound experience for a teenager. She questions everything about herself:
LOVE and CANDY creates maximum drama by using a sixteen year old experiencing firsts and questioning everything about herself.
Given her age and the fact that she's dealing with adult issues and adult situations but without having reached full adulthood [I'm not going to list them. Just leave you hanging as a teaser. Peaking your interest so you have to read the book to find out.] …
When making the decision to publish this story (not just continue to keep it for only myself to read) I was aware that this book had the potential to stir up controversy. I thought I'd be called out about for the topics addressed in the novel some issues (like date rape, birth control) definitely not suitable for some younger teens, at least according to their parents.
My seventy-something dad told me the story was good but too racy to show anybody he knows back in the rural farming community where he lives. But my whole life I've felt compelled to do things my own way, so I went for it. Wanting to share the story that I was so obsessed with.
Now close to a 1000 readers (although only a small percentage leave feedback, comments, ratings or reviews) I was surprised that I got very few comments about what I thought would be controversial (one review did say if brought up issues to discuss with your kids but couldn't be recommended for teens).
• I expected comments about the age of the characters but instead I got complaints like, Why would she get back together with him after he treats her so poorly? They quoted him and complained about particular things he did: she should have dumped his ass when he didn't talk to her at school when he was hanging with his senior friends. This story is upsetting and unsettling: I was thinking about the way he did X at the end and it bummed me out for days. I couldn't stop thinking about your book.
I loved these complaints. They were talking about my characters like they were real people, like I thought of them as alive in my head. [Love and Candy is a character driven story: I can't force that characters to behave a certain way; I can only put them in a setting and see what they do – even though they were initially my creation. Like Frankenstein, THEY'RE ALIVE.]
But as feedback kept flooding in I clearly got a sense that some readers felt that "The book would be improved if you made him a nicer guy." You write well and you'd get 5 stars if he wasn't such a jerk to her.
Huh? This confounded me.
• That's like telling me to take away the drama of the story: the conflicts that take 300 pages for Samantha to deal with. Without Delaney's flaws (arrogance, lack of commitment) and her judgmental attitudes, malleability, naivety, it's a twenty page story about nice people falling in love ... this would not be provocative or memorable. I want to write about extreme emotions. Genuine, authentic human emotions. Why would I want to write about nice, well-adjusted people falling in love … as if such people existed?
When they said, "I was so upset with what he put her through." That's what I was going for: drama. And the seemed to be rejecting it.
• Didn't want to cheat and create drama by leaving the realm of realism and by using external obstacles instead of internal character flaws that the characters need to mitigate or changed in order to find happiness (a character arch that involves overcoming these character flaws and the obstacles they cause and changing in the process):
• Checking out the Bestsellers in my genre and category, one had two nice people kept apart by his cancer: they struggled with his illness and the possibility that he might die. Finally, as the end of the story, the author throws in a ghost who comes to cure his cancer and they live happily ever after. Sure the author throws in a façade of a bad reputation: In the first few chapters of the book we hear about how he's a troublemaking frat boy who sleeps around, but he stops dead in his tracks when he meets her and wants to take things slow. These are really good kids: Look at me I'm Sandra Dee! As Jane Austen said "pictures of perfection make me cross and wicked."
o [In a novel I loved, two 18 year olds and the author build up amazing chemistry and I was so rooting for them and in the end he becomes successful in a rock band and she strikes out and lives on her own, but then there's this cop out: a few sentences at the end explaining that they agreed to put off any physical relationship for a few years.]
o Or like another current bestseller where the heroine meets this guy she likes then discovers on the first day of school that he's her drama teacher and this external obstacles is all that really keeps them apart.
Contrived, misdirection, manufactured drama, Like two sweethearts separated by world war: when the Treaty of Paris is signed, all their problems disappear. In LOVE and CANDY the drama is based on internal qualities, involving character and personality, creating conflict and keeping them apart. In Greek tragedy your own faults lead to your downfall – it wasn't the size of the invading army but the warriors selfishness that lead to his army's defeat. (In a love story, your own faults cause you to have to struggle to build a solid, healthy relationship with long term potential.)
• As part of the complaints about Delaney doesn’t treat Samantha well enough (complaints about the characters being overly flawed), was this anti-feminist gem: he's using her. Sure she seems to like being with him but she's giving herself away with nothing in return (no commitment from him). He's using her for sex.
o The implication being that she can't really enjoy their initial fling: commitment-free (casual sex) is bad for women, especially teens. She can't really want that. Sex outside a loving, stable relationship is not good for young women; a virtuous woman doesn't fool around based on lust (That's shameful!) Indulging in a superficial attraction is wrong … unhealthy, couldn't possibly be something she enjoyed as an end its itself, something that she chooses for her happiness, makes her happy, wants. (assumes traditional concept of what a virtuous young women who only have sex as a means to something else: stability, family …
• LOVE and CANDY doesn't endorse this traditional, conventional world view (as do most Young Adult Romances: Twilight). It's something different from the standard, approved type of teen relationship in fiction. Samantha isn't punished for the risk she takes emotionally or physically by getting involved with him –in a lot of teen novels (popular, well written YA novels) where there's an overt message promoting abstinence message – any teen girl who had sex ends up regretting it. Character put off on having a physical relationship until they're older.
o LOVE and CANDY couldn't be more different from what I call this preachy stuff written about and for teens: It's about radical self-determination: she gets to decide what to do with her body, her life. It's anti shaming women for their sexuality. Nobody should be judging her.
o This is a novel, an entertainment, in the grand tradition of Jane Austen and the first modern novels. It's not a nonfiction book entitled A Teenaged Girls Guide to Dating. But this is not relationship advice, just like Westerns don't offer good advice on how to uphold law and order. Don't go to a Western movie expecting good examples of state building and establishment of just political institutions.
o LOVE and CANDY is unlike most teen novels her recklessness pays off in the end. It a romantic vision in which the main characters help bring out the best in each other and help each other change: she accepts her parents for who they really are and not the idealized version of them from her childhood and he allows himself to set a new course, not follow in his dad's footsteps.
I like the challenge of bringing real flawed people together in my writing.
Flawed people, like most all of us are, falling in love despite their problems: building a relationship that brings out the best in them.
Samantha's romantic vision that draws her to someone who might seem impossible in some lights but has something special that she falls in love with.
LOVE and CANDY is a romantic vision of what is possible through love.