A Conversation with
Deirdre Riordan Hall
Q: You’ve written some New Adult novels, but this is your first YA novel. What would you say the differences are? And in writing YA, do you attempt to recall your own high school experience, or how do you do your research?
A: My writing journey hasn’t followed my publication path in that I wrote several young adult manuscripts before New Adult, but took an indie detour when I realized I’d written a novel with a protagonist that had already graduated college, but didn’t quite fit into women's fiction. When I discovered NA is a category, I carried out a six-book series. It was a lot of fun, but YA fiction is my literary home. I find it’s a magical world, even when exploring contemporary topics. There’s a rich dichotomy to explore in YA: innocence and vulnerability, courage and doubt, friendship and independence just to name a few. My friend and fellow author Cheyanne Young summed up YA like this, “You’re only a young adult once and you get to be a grown up forever after that.” While New Adult and Young Adult might deal with similar themes, the characters in the latter are younger, lending more flexibility and possibility as far as the stakes and consequences for go. My other favorite thing about YA is oftentimes the characters get to experience things for the first time, and for a reader, we get to see it through fresh eyes, experiencing it alongside them.
In writing, I draw loosely from my own experiences, along with stories I've been told, snapshots and lives I imagine people living when I pass them on the street or see them eating alone in a restaurant. My writing process involves creating a tapestry from seemingly random fragments of life, as observed and imagined, and weaving them into a compelling story.
Q: Sugar faces many challenges in the book – she has an abusive family, she’s bullied at school, she’s obese – what is it about her nature that keeps her going despite all the odds against her?
A: One of my favorite lines in the book answers this question:
Sugar’s at church, sitting in the pew just after mass. She prays for her grandparents, then her parents and brothers, and finally wants to say something for herself, but isn’t sure what. The scene concludes with this:
“I mull on this not knowing week after week, but then silence my thoughts when I feel like I skirt the dangerous edge of wishing for a change.”
Sugar does face many challenges and this innate, burgeoning well of hope is what keeps her going and not giving up. She isn’t necessarily aware of her tenacity, but it’s there, just under the surface and about ready to overflow. It’s strong in her and I believe the same is true for each of us.
Q: As a reader, it’s hard to find anything to like about Sugar’s mother and brother. What was it like writing those characters? Do you see anything redemptive in either of them?
A: Ugh. I know! Mama and Skunk are deplorable. At the time, writing their scenes was a battle, minus actual swords and arrows, because that’s what they’re primed for. I had to focus on the impact their words and actions were having on Sugar so I would be able to eventually flip it and give her the opportunity to come back with the opportunity for a win. Otherwise, I would have gotten caught up in making them softer for her sake, when it was necessary and real for them to be as awful as they were to demonstrate the intensity of the impact they had on her.
I believe if Mama and Skunk were of the mind to change and redeem themselves they could, but as it stands, they perceive the world’s officers lining up the troops against them, preparing to wage a war, causing them to operate from a defensive place, leaving little room for love in their lives.
Q: Sugar lives in a dead-end town somewhere unspecified in New Hampshire. Why did you decide not to name her town? Are there any parallels to where you grew up?
A: The notion of home is one of the central themes I explore in my writing and in my own life, so it was important for the place Sugar lived to outwardly reflect the broken parts of her inner world. I didn’t name the town on purpose, because I felt like the absence of a specific location shined the spotlight on the characters more brightly. The location is stationary while the general population are the ones who shape and create the vibe there. Although the setting is broadly NH, I wanted it to feel like the reader could be walking down the street with Sugar or shopping at Old Town and being heckled or reminded of how dysfunctional her family was.
Just as some of residents of the town make Sugar’s life as unpleasant as possible, Even comes along and sheds an entirely new light on her experience, so in a sense, who she aligned with influenced how she experienced an area. It’s like a two-way street.
There are some similarities to a variety of places I’ve lived (I moved around a lot when I was younger) but the dead-end town is mostly based off the combination of two real locations in New England.
Q: Your main character is half Puerto Rican, half Polish – different ethnicities than your own. How did you go about understanding the culture she came from?
A: Writing about culture and people outside my own is a challenging and delicate process. I chose Polish for Mama’s background because it’s authentic to various places in New England, having a real rooted quality in the region. On the other hand, people who aren’t white don’t make up a considerable portion of the semi-fictitious population in the relatively rural New Hampshire town, so that helped create the contrast relevant to Sugar’s experience.
Growing up, there were a few Puerto Rican tías (aunties) in one neighborhood where I lived who I like to think looked after me when I needed looking after, making sure I ate a plate of rice, beans, and chicken by the day’s end. Later, in high school, I interned at a community center serving the Spanish-speaking population. I have an affinity for the culture, the language, and the warmth I’ve been shown. I wouldn’t go so far as saying I understand the culture, but I hope the portrayal in Sugar reflects my positive experience of both the Latin and Mexican communities.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading your novel?
A: I would like readers to find Sugar in a little pocket of their hearts and minds where they hear her whisper the question: what would happen if we all concentrated on the things we like (or love) about ourselves? Along with that, my hope is for all of us to find more hope in the parts of our lives that feel shadowed and confusing.
Also, of course I hope readers simply enjoy the story.
Q: By the end of the book, what advice do you think Sugar gives to young women? And how would it have changed if she’d been asked at the beginning of her story?
A: By the end of the book, I think Sugar would have two things to say to young women, one would be: go for it! Whatever your dreams are or if they're just starting to take shape, follow the thread, see where they go; don’t settle for less than whatever makes you sparkle. Secondly, I really like this question because it ties into the (r)evolution Sugar experiences in her relationship to her body. In the beginning, Sugar’s suffocating under the “traditional female ideal” of beauty. Meanwhile her mother contributes to warping her perception of who she is, inside and out. As she distances herself from the mixed messages, she gets closer to herself, eventually learning to love who she is, including her curves. So the second bit of advice Sugar might share would be to: define beauty for yourself never mind what everyone else says or thinks. How to do that? Look in the mirror, the person you see in the reflection, that's beauty.
Q: What other YA fiction do you like to read?
A: I enjoy both contemporary and fantasy YA. On my wooden and e-book shelves you’ll find titles ranging from indies like Autumn Doughton and hybrids like Jessica Park to bestsellers like Jandy Nelson and Maggie Stiefvater. I just discovered Heather Demetrios and I’'m on my second read of her novel, I’ll Meet you There; it’s comfort and courage rolled into one beautifully told story about love, war, and listening to that little voice that insists you go out there and live your best life, despite the obstacles.
Q: What’s next for Deirdre Riordan Hall?
A: I’m pretty stoked about the now and the next. I’ve recently signed with Skyscape for another YA contemporary titled, Pearl. I’m super excited to dig in and breathe life into this story. I’ll be working with the same group of editors as I did with SUGAR and it’s one of those delights that’s on my top ten list.
In surfing, they say the best surfer is always the person out there having the most fun. I’d like to modify this to apply to writing: The writer having the most fun is writing from the heart, even when it (or the hands) ache. Since the inception of SUGAR, I’ve written several more novels and have another manuscript halfway done. So the question is what’s next? Writing of course!