Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Interview with Liane Shaw

Liane Shaw author of  over at Second Story Press was kind enough to do a short interview with me last week.  You can read my review of the novel here 

Me: I know the author's notes lists you as having survived your own battle with an eating disorder, what made you decide to use this as a story plot?

 Liane Shaw :My reasons are threefold.  First of all, as a teacher of mostly adolescent aged students, I was very worried about the extreme emphasis on body size I was seeing in both girls and boys.  I was particularly concerned when I had a student in my class who was quite thin and the other students were teasing her by calling her "anorexic".  It seemed to me that using that term as an insult indicated a real lack of understanding of the seriousness of the issue.  Secondly, as the mother of two young women, who were teens at the time I started this project, I was worried about the influence of media and societal expectations.  My youngest was trying to fit into size 0 pants...what does that mean anyway!...and I started researching current thoughts on eating issues.  That's when I tripped, literally because I'm not too techno savvy, over the Pro ana movement.  Which brings me to reason 3...I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened to me when I was young if I had had the kind of "support" that the sites can accidentally provide....the kind that encourages rather than discourages eating issues.  When I had an ED, few people even knew what is was, and certainly no one encouraged me to keep losing weight.  Putting the three reasons together, I wanted to do something to share what I felt about ED, the internet and body find a way to "teach" about it while reaching as many young people as I could.

Me:  You chose to do this in diary form, was there a reason for that?

LS : Yes.  I realized that everyone's actual experience of having an ED would vary, and that young girls today are dealing with a very different world than I was as a teen.  But I thought that the feelings would probably be much the same and that's what I wanted to convey.  I thought a diary was the best way to really delve into feelings.   I worried that it was a bit trite, but overall I think it worked.

Me:  Your use of the internet, it was as if it were a character all it's own. Was that on purpose or just simply a way to make the story more hinged in modern culture?

LS :What a great question!  To be absolutely honest, at the very beginning I wanted to find a hook that would, as you so aptly put it, hinge the story in modern culture.  However, the deeper I went into the pro ana, thinspiration etc sites the more I wanted to really shine a light on the internet as a potential factor in the perpetuation of ED for some people.   It was obvious to me that these young people were not intending to hurt anyone, least of all themselves, but unfortunately the potential for harm seemed overwhelmingly clear.
In retrospect, I think I could have made the internet an even stronger "character".

Me: My attention was grabbed by Wolf. The male character you gave the illness to. What was it that made you choose to add a man to the rehab center ? Have you met many men who have had this illness over the years, as I know it's wide spread but rarely talked about (the fact boys suffer from eating disorders too)

 LS: Another great question.  I have had equal parts praise and criticism for adding Wolf to the "cast".   I have dealt very directly and personally with young men struggling desperately with their body images.   More attention is gradually being given to the presence of ED in males, but it is still not enough in my opinion.

Me:  You left the end of the story slightly open, was that because you wanted to give the impression that she would be dealing with this for the rest of her life, or just hoping for a sequel?

LS:  Actually neither.  I wanted to leave the impression that the most important step is the first one, recognizing the issue and being willing to look at getting help.  I believe that's the part of the story that is the same for everyone but I think the next chapter would be radically different for each person dealing with this issue.  I do think some people deal with ED for most of their lives but I don't know if this is true for everyone.   I had an agent a long time ago who wanted an earlier version of the novel to be tied up with a neat bow of healing at the end.  I felt this was unrealistic and disrespectful to anyone actually dealing with an ED so I refused to change it.  That was the end of that relationship /and/ the novel until I re-wrote it a couple of years ago with the ending I thought most appropriate and found a publisher who understood what I was trying to say.

 Me:  As a teacher, do you see that the illness is developing in younger and younger students or is it something that is only apparent with middle to older teens?

LS:  I don't have any data on this question and my personal experience hasn't really given me a clear perspective.  I worked with grades 6 and up for the most part, and really felt that my 11 and 12 year olds were far too worried about their weight at an age where adolescence had barely had time to kick in.  In terms of the illness itself, I have certainly read articles that support concerns about development in younger children.

 Me:  When doing your research for the websites that you modeled  on, did you find there were more that lean towards caution or more towards the risks (pro sites) of the illness?

 LS: The most concerning aspect for me was trying to tell the difference.  Most of the sites I researched seemed to offer positive advice and medical information...on the surface.  However, with many of them, a little clicking on headings led me directly to chat rooms and other types of to lose more, and purge more easily for example...and to pages with ultra thin images that seemed to be there for young people to aspire to.   Beyond the concerns over how many sites I found, was the ease with which I found them.  There are many really positive sites out there as well.  I have tried to include lots of them on my blog and as I find more, I will continue to add them.

Me:  There were moments when you almost seemed as if you were going to move away from Maddie your lead, and follow her family member's story more closely, was there a purpose to your not going that route?

 LS:  I do think that family is a huge part of the process but I was really attempting to focus on Maddie and her personal journey.  Maddie was very absorbed in her own struggles and her own emphasis was on herself.   I was trying to find the balance between the reality of how wrapped up in yourself and your body you become when dealing with ED, and trying to find ways to demonstrate the impact on those around you as well.

Me:  Getting back to the internet side of it, you managed to address another subculture with the fact you had your lead feeling closer to her internet friends then her real life friends. I know myself, my relationships with my internet friends are as close if not closer then my offline ones, was that done to show Maddie's feelings of loneliness or just a natural by product of modern society?

LS:  A little of each.  My youngest daughter is very much a part of the modern, electronic social communication age and I am fascinated watching her deal with people online as if they are right in front of her.  Arguments and making up via text and far from my personal experiences but so interesting to watch with a new generation.  I wanted the novel to be something young people could relate to and this is so much a part of their lives I felt it had to be there...besides my daughter told me I /had/ to have it in there or the novel would suck (her word not mine!).
In terms of Maddie's loneliness, absolutely.   Her feelings of being misunderstood by those in her "real" life are what led her to find new friends online.  I really believe that I would have done the same thing if I had the chance when I was young.  I also believe that the lack of "understanding" I had...literally no one understood what was going on with me...might have helped me on my way to recovery in a strange way.  No one told me what I was doing was "normal" or "OK" so at some point, I started to wonder myself.  If I had others like me, even online, I might have kept on going further down the path than I did.

Me: This is a brave topic to begin with, did you have any outside pressure to not tackle the topic?

  LS: Not in my personal life.  Family and colleagues were totally supportive.  However, there were critics and bloggers who questioned the book before it was even formally released, wondering if it was going to be harmful to young people....which upset me of course as that would be the exact opposite of my dream when writing it in the first place!  My dream was to help people better understand what someone with an ED is going through and to perhaps encourage even one person to seek help.  I do have to admit, it's a tough topic to start a writing career with.  Some of the negative responses (thankfully few in number!) to the novel seem to come as much from passionate opinions about the topic itself as about my ability to write about it.

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