an interview with C.K. Kelly Martin

courtneybooks, interviews, young adult lit

I have become one of those people that waves a book in another person’s face while loudly proclaiming, “THIS BOOK IS IMPORTANT!”

But that is what happens when someone writes an Important Book, which is exactly what C.K. Kelly Martin did when she wrote I Know It’s Over, which is the book I have been waving in everyone’s face and calling important, so technically it is all her fault.


Now stay with me. I know calling a book ‘important’ immediately causes eyebrows to raise, especially if you are a cynical reader like me. It is likely that, at least once in your life, you have been led astray by this declaration and ended up reading something that scarred you for life. For me, that book was Heaven by V.C. Andrews when I was like, 11. I don’t believe anyone should have to go through what I went through, so now you know that when I say a book is important, I AM NOT MESSING AROUND. I don’t call just any book important. I bring the word out selectively. I bring it out for edgy, honest debuts like C.K.’s.

After a warning from another review, I picked up an advance copy of I Know It’s Over prepared to be totally heartbroken. I might have even been looking forward to it. As much as I thought I was prepared for this book, I totally wasn’t. It doesn’t just break your heart–that’s putting it too mildly–this book will rip your heart out of your chest and then dry ice it and then smash it into smithereens and then direct you to the cupboard where the glue is so you can then begin the process of pasting the pieces of your old heart into a NEW heart.

The good news: it’s so worth it.

I Know It’s Over is a book about a teenager named Nick and his intense, all-consuming relationship with a girl named Sasha. The two are so full of each other they can hardly breathe. When they break up, Sasha citing a need for space, Nick is devastated. It’s not what he wants and he struggles to understand how it’s something she could. And then Sasha comes back–not to tell Nick she wants to get back together… but to tell him she’s pregnant. Together but not, they must figure out what to do, how to cope and how to continue after the decision is made.

This is one YA novel that really impressed me. It tackles some big issues–teen pregnancy, sex, sexuality–but never once feels like an Issue Book. Martin never once goes for a melodramatic or heavy-handed approach, nor does she have an agenda, which is sure to make people on either side of the fence mad.

Nick is one of the most memorable male protagonists I’ve read in a long time. His observations are candid and devastating. He’s a frustrated, 16-year-old guy, struggling with his own perceptions of himself and other people’s perceptions of him. Martin drives home the fact that it’s tough just to be a teenager, let alone one that is about to go through the things that Nick goes through. She’s also excellent at taking down walls between characters and reader. If you don’t know these people, you will. I think that familiarity is especially important, considering the book’s subject matter. The writing is frank, brutal, beautiful and emotionally confrontational. I’m sure it’ll force people to ask questions they don’t want to ask. After reading I Know It’s Over, I’m convinced there’s nothing Martin won’t say and that’s good. That’s what I want on my YA shelf. That’s what I want on EVERY YA shelf.

As you can see, I Know It’s Over blew me away and I expect good things for this book. C.K., who tackles the tough issues on her blog as fearlessly as she tackles them in her book, agreed to do an interview with me a bit ago and I’m totally thrilled and honoured to have her here. So check it out–her answers are worth it–and scroll down to find out how YOU can win a copy of I Know It’s Over. You know you wanna.


Can you tell us about I Know It’s Over’s journey to publication?

It’s been a long one. I finished the book in April 2003 and sent it on to my agent at the time, who was underwhelmed by it. The agent’s ideas for fixing the novel were incompatible with what I wanted for I Know It’s Over and I just felt so strongly about it that I knew I couldn’t follow through. We did some emailing back and forth on the topic but the bottom line was that the agent also felt strongly so we parted ways. I finished a couple other books while looking for a new agent and at one point entered both I Know It’s Over and One Lonely Degree in the Delacorte Press Contest. I received rejections for them both on the same day at the end of April which felt devastating at the time.

By then I was working on yet another young adult novel, and sending out queries for the various books, but it was I Know It’s Over that landed me my current agent in England. She’s absolutely fantastic and seemed to take the rejections the novel garnered in the U.K. as personally as I did. In the end it seemed my writing was a little “too North American” for the British market, at least for an unknown writer (I certainly hope that’s not always the case!). But my agent was so determined that she teamed up with a U.S. agent to shop it in the States and that agent found my book the perfect home with Random House. My editor and I were totally on the same wavelength as far as I Know It’s Over goes so it was entirely worth the wait to get the right agents and editor involved. I really felt that everything my editor suggested made I Know It’s Over a stronger version of the book I’d wanted to write.

Now that’s a happy ending. Many people are willing to compromise their work and don’t come out better for it. It takes guts to stick with your vision. What is your writing process like?

This is probably backwards from the way lots of writers do it but I always start with a title that intrigues me and then begin to fill in the character and plot details. At first I just let ideas and the voices of potential characters percolate (usually while lying in bed at night). After I have a better idea of who the main character is and what he or she is dealing with I start to make notes here and there and do research. When I’m satisfied that I know who and what I’m dealing with I begin to outline. That outline is subject to change once I’m actually writing and know the characters still better but I usually don’t veer away from it too far.

Nick has a fantastic voice; it’s very raw, very real. People can sometimes be critical of female authors writing male characters. At any point–before writing, while writing, or after writing I Know It’s Over–did you worry about that? Especially in light of the subject matter?

I think anytime an author’s writing about someone who isn’t an exact replica of themselves they have to worry about authenticity but I never specifically worried about writing from the point of view of a male character. It was just really important that I got Nick’s specific voice right…so thank you! Personally, I think the sexes share more similarities than differences but that society does its best to cram us into male and female moulds. So I think as a writer you have to, on some level at least, understand the various societal expectations inflicting themselves on diverse personalities. For instance, because Nick is male society will generally try to discourage him from outwardly displaying as wide a range of emotions (vulnerability, sadness, fear etc. are still emotions society isn’t as accepting of in males as in females) as if he was a girl. (As an aside, C. J. Pascoe wrote a really great book called Dude, You’re a Fag about how high school guys police masculinity amongst their peers.) Of course, gender is only one thing that exerts an influence on a person – there’s also race, class, nationality, family, friends, religion, personal history etc., etc. and your own basic personality.

I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on female points of view just because I’m female. I don’t even consider myself an automatic expert on the point of view of a late thirties, Canadian woman with a film school background who lived in Ireland for several years. A character like that, while sharing my basic profile info, could potentially be as unlike me as Nick is.

VERY well said. I liked Sasha a lot. Sometimes she frustrated me, as she did Nick, but she also kept pulling me in–as she did with Nick. It was truly excellent. Nick knows Sasha better than anyone else does and definitely knows her more intimately than anyone else does, but still struggles to get a handle on her at times. What was it like writing Sasha through Nick’s eyes? Did she end up surprising you, or did you know more about her than you ever let Nick know?

I think Nick and I know the same things about Sasha but that I just realized a lot of them before he did, like when they have the condom accident. He doesn’t guess she’s upset about it but once he finds out I think on some level he’s not really surprised. One of the things my editor had me concentrate on when revising was making sure Sasha was a likeable character. In some ways she’s more mature than Nick and I guess at times that could make her (along with the difficult situation that she’s going through) seem impatient with him but the relationship is just as intense for her as it is for Nick. Hopefully that comes across.

I think it definitely does. There is no way people are going to feel indifferently about I Know It’s Over. You approached a sensitive topic very frankly and the book lacks an agenda–one of my favourite things about it–because it’s too busy being honest. I suspect this will inevitably make someone on either side of the fence angry. How do you prepare yourself for that, if at all?

So far I’ve been tremendously lucky and everyone I’ve heard from has really liked the book but I’m very conscious of the fact that inevitably some people won’t enjoy it (whether because of views they hold or other reasons) and have been more or less repeating that fact to myself in preparation. Having said that, I don’t think I’m really prepared at all! I feel very protective of the characters in the sense that I don’t want people to judge them harshly for some of the things they do.

It’s scary having characters out there, being read and judged, when you’ve been with them so long! You live in Canada (Canada represent!) and I Know It’s Over is set in Canada. Was there ever any question of setting the book in Canada? Did you hesitate to do so at all?

I always knew Nick was a Canadian guy and I imagined Courtland (his fictional hometown) as being similar in size and character to Barrie about a decade ago. Most of my books are set in southern Ontario suburbs; I guess because I’m very familiar with what it’s like to live in a southern Ontario suburb. It never even occurred to me to set I Know It’s Over someplace else.

I loved the narrative time leaps. Present, past, present. What made you decide to structure the book that way?

I Know It’s Over initially started out as a short story. Basically the first chapter was the entire story and after sending it out to one or two places I realized there was virtually no market for YA stories. I didn’t want to give up on the story and I started wondering what would happen after Nick learns Sasha is pregnant but also what the story of them pre-pregnancy was. So it seemed to make sense to get Sasha’s revelation out there, then explain the back story and finally catch up with the present. I’m not sure if it would’ve occurred to me to go with that structure if I didn’t have that first chapter already completed.

I mentioned before that I Know It’s Over doesn’t have an agenda, which I love, but what I find really spectacular about it is that this book features no shortage options, which is important. The characters consider them all: Plan B, counseling, talking to parents, abortion, carrying to term, school day care–it’s all there and even better, it’s not there in a Public Service Announcement type way. Were you ever worried about giving off the PSA vibe?

It’s definitely something I worried about because any public service announcement feel would really mess with the authenticity. Any time I was in the neighbourhood of a PSA vibe my editor pointed it out to me, which was invaluable and really helped with the books I’ve written since too. It’s an easy trap to fall into (because we’ve all seen it so many times) and I think I’m a lot more conscious of where those borders are now. I don’t want to write morality tales; I want to write about real life, which is way more complicated.

Very true. What is one YA book you think everyone should have on their shelves?

This is a tough question and I’ve been running through titles repeatedly in my head… Because I’m only naming one I feel like it has to be important and speak to everyone so I’m going to say Life is Funny by E.R. Frank. She captures such a wide range of character voices in that book. It’s incredibly honest and bursting with energy. It has so much to say, in such a raw way, that I think it would impact anyone who reads it.

I will definitely keep my eye out for it in the bookstore. Okay, super serious question time: you have been BITTEN BY A ZOMBIE. What is the last thing you want to do before you turn into a walking corpse?

This is indeed a grave question. I love zombie movies but at the same time am totally freaked out by zombies (especially the ones who run instead of lumber) so I’m pretty sure during an outbreak I’d be amongst the first to get bitten. I just know I’d panic! But afterwards, realizing my time as a human is limited, the zombie fear wouldn’t be quite as acute so I think I’d fight, with everything I had, on the side of whatever humans are left. If there was no way left to fight and I was with family and friends I’d probably sit around with them and babble about how much I love them all. Either way I’d be looking for a way to off myself before the zombie transformation. I don’t want to be a zombie!

A+ Answer. Me neither. I just want to run from them while looking awesome. In your acknowledgments, you thank your brother ‘for sharing his knowledge of Canada’s favorite sport.’ So is he the Leafs fan, or are you?

I’m really not much of a sports fan but my brother and my dad are huge Habs fans. I think my brother (who at one point was an assistant couch for a hockey team of fourteen and fifteen year olds) would bristle at the mere suggestion that he could be a Leafs fan! I can’t remember how this came about but somehow even I have a Montreal Canadiens jersey. When I wore it while living in Dublin it was like a magnet for other Canadians.

Aaah! I am a Habs fan too!!! Yay! No disrespect to your brother meant. ;) If you could see I Know It’s Over unleashed on the world in another medium–film, graphic novel, television series, play, musical etc. which one would you choose and why?

I love graphic novels so that would be cool but since I was a film major and am addicted to good movies I have to pick film. It would be amazing to see an indie movie adaptation of I Know It’s Over with somebody like Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) or John Carney (Once) directing. Movies are so immediate; I’d love to see the book brought to life like that. While watching In Treatment I have to confess that I kept thinking about how great Mia Wasikowska would be as Sasha. She blew me away.

Ooh, good picks. I imagine when you sit down to write a book about teen pregnancy, there are a million things you know you DON’T want to do. What didn’t you want this story to be? What cliches did you try to avoid?

Like we talked about earlier, I didn’t want it to be some kind of morality tale. I don’t want readers to feel like I’m punishing Nick and Sasha for having sex in the first place (sometimes things go wrong, even when you’re careful) and I didn’t want the book to force Sasha toward certain options; I wanted her to have a genuine choice. Also sex can be messy and awkward, especially when you’re new to it so I wanted to be true to that and not have Nick and Sasha be perfect at it from the beginning, even though they’re crazy about each other. It was important to me that Sasha and Nick’s parents reacted to the pregnancy in realistic ways, not just by being disappointed and/or angry.

I loved how you portrayed the parents. Later in the book, when Nick is in the car with his father, talking about Sasha’s decision, he says: “That wasn’t my choice.” It ripped my heart right out of my chest. The whole story is so heartbreaking and reading it was hard, but, as I said, worth it. I can only imagine how it was to write it. Did you ever waver or feel the siren call of a happier ending while penning the most difficult parts? (Curse those evil, siren-calling happy endings!)

I really don’t see how the book could’ve gone any other way and still been true to the characters. So while I felt emotionally drained towards the end of it I never felt a pull to take the story in another direction. I think an unrealistic happy ending would feel much less satisfying than a realistic but not as happy one. However, after writing another emotionally tough book with One Lonely Degree, I did feel compelled to write something lighter in tone. Hence, The Lighter Side of Life and Death.

Speaking of your next books, can you tell us a little about your upcoming releases, One Lonely Degree and The Lighter Side of Life and Death, coming out May 2009 and 2010, respectively? I am totally camping outside the bookstore on their release dates, by the way.

One Lonely Degree is about a fifteen year old girl named Finn who feels like an outsider in a world of pack animals. That feeling intensifies when something bad happens to her at a party. She withdraws further, leaning heavily on her best friend, Audrey, who is the only one aside from Finn who knows what happened that night. Then an old childhood friend of Finn’s reappears. Finn is drawn to him but not ready to have those kinds of feelings. Eventually he starts going out with Audrey, which isn’t such a bad situation for Finn because he becomes like a second best friend to her. But then Audrey gets sent away for the summer, leaving Finn to watch her parents’ marriage fall apart and still struggling with her feelings about what happened at the party. Finn automatically turns to her old friend, which makes things even more complicated because she still has feelings for him.

The Lighter Side of Life and Death is about a sixteen year old guy who is having the best night of his life when the book opens. Mason’s just delivered an incredible performance in the school play, basked in celebratory afterglow vibes at the party of the year and lost his virginity to one of his best friends, who he’s had a crush on for years. He’s sure this will mean good things for them in the future but when he sees her next she’s embarrassed about the drunken incident and just wants to forget and move on. It soon becomes clear their friendship is shot, as is his friendship with his other best friend who has a thing for the same girl. Meanwhile Mason’s future stepmom moves into the house with her kids and one of them absolutely can’t stand him. It seems like he’s specializing in collecting enemies until he hits it off with a twenty-four year old woman at his future stepmom’s engagement shower. She’s involved with someone else and he still has feelings for his former best friend but that doesn’t stop them from getting tangled up together.

Okay, I’m camping outside the bookstore now. Thank you for the interview, C.K. I loved your book and appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions!

Thanks so much for having me, Courtney. I’ve been looking forward to this interview with you for months!

I Know It’s Over comes out in about 15 days. 15 DAYS. Pre-order the book from your local indie today and anticipate its arrival. And then read it and then lean back in your seat when you’re done and murmur quietly to yourself, “That Courtney sure wasn’t fooling when she said this was an Important Book. I will never doubt her again.” I mean, if you did doubt me, which you shouldn’t. And then tell me about it because I love feeling smug. But before you do all that, visit C.K.’s website for a wealth of info about her and her books, because it’s awesome.

Now, as promised, here’s the part where I tell you how you can win a copy of I Know It’s Over for yourself.

C.K. is holding a contest over on her website and entering is super painless. Give it a go because not only will you get a SIGNED copy of I Know It’s Over if you win, you’ll also get an IKIO poster, a canvas or tote bag (your choice), a Magic 8 Ball and an advance copy of One Lonely Degree when it’s available. In the interest of full disclosure and my journalistic integrity, it sort of pained me to tell you all that because I totally entered and if you do it to will just decrease my odds of winning, but since I was lucky enough to get an early read on IKIO, I GUESS it’s not fair that I should have it all.


Congrats on your debut, C.K.! You’re an author I’m keeping my eye on.

jacket photograph copyright © 2008 by Ali Smith