Who was your favorite character to write about and why?
Aside from my primary protagonist, Alyx Atlas, who will always have a special place in my heart, the character who made me laugh was Alyx’s quirky, quasi-mentor, Uncle Grizzly. Despite his enormous tattooed girth, his Harley riding rough side, and the fact that he raises piranhas in the basement, he is a living example of self-acceptance. He continually, gently, encourages Alyx to accept herself and thus to find her personal power. He is also the quintessential working-class character of Polish descent from Milwaukee’s Southside, the city where I grew up, a place and a people that seem to come through me and will always be part of me.
You say that Alyx Atlas will always have a special place in your heart, what is it about Alyx that makes her so special?
Alyx is a character that everyone, especially every teen can relate to, no matter how they define themselves, straight, gay, or anything in between. Alyx simply wants to “fit in.” She doesn’t necessarily need to be the most popular kid in high school or the best basketball player on the girl’s varsity basketball team, she simply wants to make a few friends and be part of something: she longs to belong.
Yet, as with any teen who might be different, for whatever reason, Alyx becomes a target for bullying. This further isolates her from her peers and convinces her that if the world knew who she really was, she would be annihilated. Alyx, like most intersex individuals doesn’t want to be identified by her atypical genitalia, she wants to be just the “normal” girl she believes herself to be, even though she was born with a gender-bending body.
In spite of the beatings, humiliation, and her own mountain of self-doubt and shame, Alyx finds the strength within herself to stand in the truth of who she is, and without giving away the end of the book, it’s obvious in her final interactions with Pepper Pitmani that Alyx takes the high road with a spectacular twist. Alyx’s choices illustrate her growing self-respect, courage, strength, and her compassion even for the team bully, a girl like Alyx, who ultimately wants the same thing: to be loved and accepted.
What was the spark that ignited this book?
My own experience of not quite fitting into cultural and social gender boxes, along with an explosion of “trans” identifying friends and the true stories of parents I’ve encountered whose children were born with an intersex condition. Then when a young family member took his life due to years of anti-gay bullying, I knew the time was right to put the push on to get this book out into the world.
It is estimated that 2 % of children born today are gender variant, meaning they cannot be immediately identified as either a male or female. In the past many of these children were surgically adjusted or declared girls because medical professionals believed their lives would be easier.
Today, young people in increasing numbers are challenging our societal gender boxes bringing the complex issue of gender variance out into the open. While an intersex condition is different from the issues surrounding individuals who identify as ‘transgender” they share many of the same roadblocks and societal struggles.
Do you write in silence? If not, what is your soundtrack?
With every book I’ve written I have a song that plays over and over in my brain. The song generally matches a feeling about the book, a kind of mood, or a vibration that my character carries. In the case of Double Exposure that song was Superman by Five for Fighting. While I was writing this book I downloaded it on my iphone and listened to it over and over again. When I get stuck or need to get back into the rhythm of my story I find that music works wonders. I do this with visual art as well.
What’s the weirdest thing you ever googled as research for your writing?
When I was researching intersex athletes, I came across a story: “Who Was Stella Walsh?” And my heart almost broke when I read about this amazing woman runner who spent most of her life wondering if “God was punishing her” by giving her the body she was given at birth. So I wouldn’t use the word weird, though that’s what Alyx thinks she is a weirdo, a freak. And that’s what much of society might say too, even the medial industry often uses the words “disorder” in their descriptions of intersex conditions. But my book is about embracing diversity at its core level, really considering the gifts we are all given, no matter how “different” we may be, and our right, and divine obligation, really, to be fully ourselves.
Despite your struggles with dyslexia and being a single mother, you made a mid-life decision back to school to get your MFA, what led to that decision?
A friend in one of my writing groups pulled me aside after a writing group and suggested I check out Vermont College, which was one of the first low-residency MFA programs. Given my learning challenges I wasn’t even sure I could get in, but I had met the groundbreaking author of Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden, at an ALA (American Library Association Conference) conference in Chicago, along with Newberry Award Winning author Marion Dane Bauer, and they both encouraged me to apply. And not only did I get in, but I won a scholarship for my application essay—the first time I had ever been “paid” for my writing.
Attending VCFA was the best investment I ever made for my writing and myself. I met amazing people, who happened to be fabulous writers, who loved the world of books and cared about young people just like I did. As a dyslexic writer, VCFA helped me find and cultivate the confidence I needed to persevere.
Basketball plays a huge part in the plot of Double Exposure, why basketball?
Basketball rocks! You will often hear writers say that you should write the book you want to read, and basketball was probably my first love. It helped me, like Alyx, feel like I had something I was good at, where I could fit in. Unlike Alyx, although she may disagree, it helped me escape a very difficult home situation. Furthermore, because I had to study twice as hard as most of my friends, it helped me stay motivated enough to carry a decent enough grade average and stay out of trouble.
I played on Brookfield Centrals girl’s varsity team all through high school and attended Creighton University in Omaha Nebraska on a Division 1 basketball scholarship. Basically, I wrote about basketball because it’s what I know, but the issue of intersex athletes has been raising its head in woman’s sports for a long time.
Caster Semenya from South Africa is probably the first international athlete who brought the subject clearly out into the light. Caster won an Olympic gold medal in the woman’s 800m run in 2009, and shortly thereafter was subjected to a battery of gender tests, her gold medal was stripped from her and then reinstated.
More recently, the New York Times, on October 2014, had a powerful piece about Indian sprinter Dutee Chand who is challenging the ban over her testosterone level. Medical professionals involved with Olympic athletes estimate that 1 out of 7 athletes involved in Olympic competition have conditions, which challenge the traditional definitions of what it means to be male or female.
What’s your ultimate goal with Double Exposure?
My hope is that this book will a be a game-changing YA novel, that it will expand the question of what it means to be different, that it will move way beyond the “problem novel” about a teen struggling to overcome bullying to a teen who ultimately finds her true power! The power to define, shine and be fully herself. At the same time it sheds a light on the reality of intersex athletes in completion, whether in high school or the Olympics, where do they fit, and what makes someone a “woman” or a “man?”
My intention for this book is that it will become a healing talisman reaching the readers who need it the most. I am asking anyone and everyone I know across the country to help me and Sky Pony Press get the word out to every library and bookstore that houses contemporary teen literature. And it’s already been noted as one of the top teen anti-bully books by Publisher’s Weekly.