It’s hard to find the right words to to describe what reading Amy Reed’s YA novel, Beautiful, was like. It’s an incredibly intense story about a thirteen-year-old girl named Cassie, who makes the decision to sit with wild and troubled outsider Alex, at lunch. From that moment on, the life Cassie had slowly unravels and twists and turns into something much darker, something much less certain from there.
A life–as the back of the book says–of, “drugs, sex, secrets and cruelty.”
Still, telling you that much about the book does not tell you what it was like to read it. At times it felt like drowning, other times like spinning around on one of those dizzying rides at the fair for so long you’re not so sure of yourself or the world around you when it finally stops.
It’s like sitting in a dark room with a cracks all in the walls.
Which is perfect, because, as Leonard Cohen said: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
This is a stunning debut. A novel about a girl falling down the rabbit hole. In her Book Chick recommendation of this novel, Daisy Whitney remarked that Beautiful read like a memoir, and I agree. It does and that makes it almost unnerving at times. It’s almost like a memoir you don’t have permission to read–that’s how personal it is. Amy Reed has tapped into a voice that will haunt you. You will ache for Cassie, you will want to help her, you will hold your breath while you wait to see if she makes it out alive. It is nearly impossible to put this book down once you start.
I have NEVER wanted a character to be okay as badly as I did Cassie.
As soon as I finished Beautiful, I knew I had to interview Amy for my blog. I wanted to know about Beautiful’s journey to publication, her inspiration for the story, her thoughts on the YA genre. And lucky, lucky me, Amy kindly agreed, and so, I present to you awesome readers…
Congratulations on the release of Beautiful! Can you tell us about your road to publication?
I think my road to publication was rather painless compared to most people’s experiences. I finished a large chunk of Beautiful while in my MFA writing program, so I had the support of a wonderful group of writers and mentors to help me shape it. Then I was lucky enough to have a thesis advisor who was willing to read and critique the final version after I graduated. When I finally felt the manuscript was ready (about 2 years from start to finish), I started researching and submitting to agents that represented books I thought were comparable to mine. At this point, I didn’t really know the YA genre existed, so I was submitting it as an adult novel. I had a few bites, but no takers. This process lasted a couple of months, and I was starting to get discouraged.
Then an amazing thing happened. A very famous agent contacted me after reading my short story “Under the Wall” in Fiction Magazine, asking if I was working on anything book-length. So I crossed my fingers and sent him the manuscript. He wrote me a very kind email that said he enjoyed it very much, but that it was Young Adult fiction and he only represents Adult fiction. He was very supportive in suggesting I submit it to agents who specialize in YA, and assured me it would find publication. I did some research and was amazed to find such an amazing, vibrant genre full of the kind of books I wish were around when I was a teen. I submitted to two YA agents and within a few weeks had an offer of representation. After a month or so, I had offers from two publishers. I still can’t really believe it all.
What made you decide to write Beautiful?
I think I had wanted to write a story like Beautiful since I was young. In a lot of ways, it is my story. Much of it is based on my own life. I think if you did a survey of first novels, you’d find that a huge percentage of them are highly autobiographical. As a writing student, I was told to write what I know. The period of my life that Beautiful portrays was undoubtedly one of the most formative in my life, and I guess I was ready to dive into it, to let it out.
Beautiful is a jarring, raw and devastating portrayal of a thirteen-year-old girl who falls down the rabbit hole, no holds barred. Did you find it an emotionally draining book to write? If so, how did you see the book through to its last page and when you were finished, did you need to regroup?
My experience writing Beautiful was actually kind of the opposite of what you’re describing. While it was a very emotional process and I cried often while writing certain scenes, it felt more empowering than draining, like an emotional release, a liberation. Writing the last chapter was probably the most profound experience I had during the process. By giving Cassie a little hope, a little spark of redemption, I felt somehow healed myself.
That’s fantastic; that it was so empowering for you. One thing I most enjoyed about Beautiful was that you didn’t villanize Alex, who is really the catalyst for the self-destructive path Cassie takes. She seems just as lost and confused in her own way. Was it important to you as you wrote?
Absolutely. I don’t believe in a black & white idea of good & evil. People are formed by many factors, and Alex was basically doomed by her upbringing to behave badly. As a writer, I feel it’s important to have compassion for all my characters. Same goes for being a human.
I wrote in my review that Beautiful will scare the hell out of parents who don’t know any better. Are you afraid of the reception Beautiful will get from those types of parents and have you found yourself preparing for a potential onslaught from them? (I think Beautiful should be required reading for those parents–it’s so powerful and brutal and honest).
I should be preparing better for the inevitable backlash, because I have a thin skin and my feelings get hurt very easily. What I have to remind myself is that I’m writing this for teens, for people like me at that age who desperately needed someone to be honest and open about all the confusing things I saw going on around me.
I understand a parents’ desire to protect their kids from these things, and I know it comes from a place of love and good intentions. But parents need to understand that the world their kids are living in is a completely different place than where they grew up. Being a teenager is scary, and it’s absolutely terrifying if you feel like you can’t communicate openly with your parents, the people who are supposed to love and protect you unconditionally. I don’t want anyone to feel as alone and lost and unsupported as Cassie. I don’t want any parent to be as oblivious and self-absorbed as her parents. So much pain can be avoided when a kid feels safe within his or her own family.
Well said. What was the editorial process like?
It was actually very simple. Because I had workshopped Beautiful so much before submitting it, there was very little editing that needed to be done. My agent had a few suggestions for changes. Then my editor and copy-editor at Simon Pulse had a few more. But there was nothing too substantial.
In your GoodReads review of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, you wrote, “My goal is to write the books I wish existed when I was a kid, books that can help someone know they’re not alone, books that respect the reader enough to tell the truth.” I feel you certainly achieved this and that Cassie’s story will resonate with many young girls. Are there any books you have recently read that accomplish this as well? And what are some books that made you feel less alone as a teen?
I think the YA writers I admire most for their honesty are Laurie Halse Anderson and Julie Anne Peters. Wintergirls and Luna are probably my top two favorite YA novels so far (but I have a lot more to read!) There wasn’t a whole lot around when I was a teen, but the books I kept re-reading over and over were Go Ask Alice; Girl, Interrupted; and the poetry of Anne Sexton. They all spoke to my feelings of isolation and of being misunderstood, of desperately wanting someone to understand what I was going through.
When the deal announcement for Beautiful came out, it was untitled. How long was it before you arrived at Beautiful as the title? What was the titling process like?
I forget when exactly the title was born. My agent and editor and I emailed back and forth for a few days with ideas, then one of them (I think my editor) thought of Beautiful. We were all like “perfect!” and went with it.
It is definitely perfect. Beautiful has a (forgive me) BEAUTIFUL cover. It’s gritty and evocative, just like the text on the inside pages. Can you tell us how the cover came to be? What was your reaction when you first saw it?
Oh my god, I know! It’s an amazing cover (thanks to the brilliant designer Russell Gordon). When my editor told me they were auditioning models, I was like “Wow, models? Really? For my book? Awesome!” Apparently they went through quite a few before they found the right one. When I saw the first draft of the cover, I’m pretty sure I cried. The make up, the clothes, the look on the girl’s face, her posture on the back cover, is absolutely perfect. You can see her innocence and fear behind the tough-girl facade and it’s heartbreaking.
What do you wish you had known when you were thirteen?
I often imagine my adult self going back in time and telling the young me that things will get better, that someday I will find people just like me, I will find love and real community, I will not have to be so scared, I will find ways to heal, I will finally be able to express exactly who I am, and I will be able to choose my path in life. Life is long and being a teenager takes only a few years of it. But those few years are grewling and often painful. But then they’re done. You don’t have to do them again. Just hang in there–it gets better, I swear.
What are you working on now?
A YA novel that takes place in an adolescent drug & alcohol treatment facility.
Where can readers find you on the net?
www.amyreedfiction.com is my website. I also have pages on Facebook, MySpace, GoodReads, and Red Room. Also check out my author page on Simon & Schuster’s website.
Thank you so much for your time and for such a great interview, Amy!
And for all you guys reading, as I said above, Beautiful is a powerful novel that will scare the hell out of parents who don’t know any better–and speak to girls who know all too well. Reading it is definitely an Experience. On that note, I’m very happy to report you don’t have to wait to experience it yourselves because it’s out in bookstores TODAY! So get yerselves a copy.
Trust me: you need to check this one out.