Thursday, September 22, 2011

Interview with Going Underground's author, Susan Vaught

This week I interviewed the author of an excellent new book called Going Underground. It was written by Susan Vaught. Put your questions or comments below. If yours is good enough, you could win a copy of Going Underground!

Question: It's clear that some real life child pornography cases helped shape "Going Underground." Which one (or ones) effected you the most and why?

Answer: I can't say that any one case affected me more than another. Over my many years of private practice, I worked with young men (and some young women) who had been charged for various crimes because of age differences with their boyfriends or girlfriends (I'm talking months or maybe a couple of years). I was leaving private practice and moving back to inpatient work when I saw the first ripples of "sexting" and how teens were being charged under these laws. The situation made me want to scream. In my opinion, teens have enough stress without their normal lives and behavior being criminalized. So many have no idea they're breaking a law, or how serious the charges could be.

Question: I enjoyed the way you revealed the story with several flashbacks. Why did you choose this technique?

Answer: The main character chose it. I know that sounds bizarre, but characters often become very real to writers, and I'm certainly no different! Del seemed shy and miserable about what happened to him, like it burned him so badly he could barely look toward the flame. So I let the flashback chapters unfold as he could bring himself to reveal the information.

Question: There were some interesting symbols in your book. Del, for instance, always had one foot in the grave. What were your favorites as you wrote the book?

Answer: Symbols are funny things. Most of the time, I don't intend them, or have any idea they're happening. The grave scenario, for example, occurred because I had moved to a new state and my land has a very old cemetery on it. I was wondering if it could be rehabilitated and if we could turn a section of it into our own "family plot." In doing the research, I read bizarre burial and cemetery laws from dozens of different states, including that bodies don't really have to be buried six feet underground. That fascinated me, and as I developed Del's life, it seemed logical to use that information in the piece--and also that grave-digging was a job that Del could have despite his difficulties with the law. Maybe one of the safest--and, of course, oddest and most interesting. The metaphor developed after the story was written, with the choice of title and cover. My original title was Lost In Space, Without the Robots. Ahem. Not much symbolism there, I guess?

Question: The characterization of Del's parents is somewhat flat and I had trouble deciding whether or not to like them. They're out of touch, but occasionally touching. They may be animal hoarders or the saviors of some innocent fuzzy souls. Did you intend this ambiguity?

Answer: Yes, because they are flat and despite their best intentions, and they are distant. I believe you feel what Del feels--confused, sort of attached to them, but also clearly seeing the faults. He doesn't know whether to like them or not, either (something many teens might say about their parents). I envisioned them as people who weren't super-parents before, but functional parents with demanding careers and absorbing hobbies. Instead of building their life around Del as some parents might, they included him in theirs. Then life (Del's situation) damaged them, and they haven't recovered. Del may be farther along in finding his way back to earth than his parents.

I believe, and have experienced clinically, that disasters that happen to children have serious and lasting impact on their parents. In fact, the inability of parents to magically spring back from damage like this complicates the healing process for many teens, and leaves them struggling not only with their own issues and traumas, but the limitations of their parents as well. In the movies, the parents are often healthier or stronger, trying to pull the traumatized kid along and help him heal, but in real life, that's just not what I've seen.

These two people had good, fairly privileged lives. They--and as far as they knew, their son--were living well within the safe and comfortable boundaries of the law. Then much of their life was shattered, most of their future plans, their sense of being safe--torn away, forever. They were helpless to stop it, and helpless to stop the damage to their only child. The line between rescuing animals and hoarding is often blurry, and animal collecting often begins following a drastic loss and profound sense of helplessness like this. It's a way for people to feel safe and comforted again, to re-establish a sense of control and positive action in life. Del's parents have resources, so they (so far) can care for all of the animals they have taken in to heal (maybe instead of doing the work to heal themselves). Might this change down the road? Possibly. Could they slow down on the animal focus and connect more with Del? Possibly. Could animal rescue become animal hoarding for Del's parents? Yes, absolutely. If they don't face what's happened to them, if they keep drifting along, shutting out the pain, they could fall apart and lose perspective. Del, however, is moving beyond that stage, and perhaps beyond them.

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