Author Swati Avasthi has received many glowing reactions to her first young adult novel, Split (Knopf). Booklist pronounced Split a “nuanced and mournful work” and said “Avasthi is a writer to watch.” Richie Partington called Split “an exceptionally smart and incredibly intense read.” CLN’s Chapter & Verse Book Clubs discussed the book at their July 2010 meetings. Swati was good enough to answer some questions to help give our facilitators background for those discussions.
Question: Did you make a conscious decision to write a young adult novel or did your editor or agent tell you that the book you’d written would sell in the young adult market?
Answer: I wanted to write a young adult novel for a few reasons. Partly because I had been reading a lot of YA novels and had fallen in love with the genre for its honesty, character arcs, innovations, and playful relationship of the narrators to language. And partly because I think teens are better than we adults are at approaching old issues in new ways. Domestic violence is typically framed as a woman’s problem, but in Split, I was trying to reframe the issue and suggest that it is a man’s issue, too. In fact, maybe even more of a man’s issue since abusers (who are usually men) are in the best position to end abuse.
Question: What in your life experience encouraged you to write a book about an abusive family?
Answer: I coordinated a domestic violence legal clinic for three years and, in that time, heard thousands of people (usually women) recount their experiences as victims. It was actually quite inspiring to watch these women gather up their courage and leave the devil they did know and face the one they didn’t. However, there were some experiences that were more haunting than inspiring. Once a woman came in with her two kids. The incident she was recounting was becoming quite brutal, so I asked her if she’d like an intern to look after her kids. She said, “No, they watched it anyway.”
I was torn. I was angry with her for failing to protect her kids, angry at myself for victim-blaming, and felt pity for her; she had been through so much and she was left with so little power that she could not protect her own children. I eventually realized that all my anger needed to be directed at the abuser, not at her. But I still felt awful for her kids and wondered what it would be like to grow up as a boy, watching your dad hit your mom.
Question: Have you known a young man like Jace?
Answer: Not that I’m aware of. Jace was the product of my imagination. It was important to me that Jace look and feel like a regular guy, that he be defined by more than his history with domestic violence. So, I spent a lot of time of making sure he had a life outside of his house—soccer, girlfriends, photography, books—things that would distract him from his home life.
Question: What part of the writing process is most fun for you?
Answer: The best part of writing is when I know my characters well enough that I have given them some level of agency. That is, when they can surprise me. Then, I feel like the book has taken on a life of its own and I’m along for the ride. That is when writing is pure pleasure.
Question: What part of the process is most challenging for you?
Answer: Getting the book rolling and the first draft are the most difficult part. I find it hard to trust that the there will a story worth telling while I’m drafting, and sometimes, there hasn’t been.
Question: How much did the book change from the manuscript your editor contracted to publish?
Answer: While most of the plot remained the same, I’d say at least 1/3 to 1/2 of the book looked nothing like the final draft—different characters, different scenes, different ending. The ending was harder for me to craft. I really wanted everything to turn out perfectly, but I didn’t feel that was true to the characters or true to the story, so I had to incrementally let go of the ending that had a nice bow on it, and go for the ending that was right for the book.
Question: How have you invested time and dedication in your career as a writer?
Answer: To paraphrase Stephen King, you need to write one million words before you write a good one. And for me, that was just about the right estimate. A million words takes a long time to write, especially when you consider the daily demands of earning a paycheck and raising kids. So, while I wasn’t pursuing a writing career until 2006, I’ve been writing novels and/or short stories with an eye to publication since 2000.
I joke with my friends that all you really need to be a writer is obsession, which is another way of saying that a lot of dedication is required. When I’m working well on a book, I think about it in every spare moment I have, plus the hours (about 20/week) I spend writing.
Question: Is there another book from you in the near future?
Yes, I’m cooking on a book with the working title Bidden. Corey, Holly, and Savitri are looking forward to summer after they graduate, filled with comic-book reading and free-running (a sport that blends gymnastics and running in an urban environment). But a shooting changes everything: Corey is dead, Savitri is seeking revenge, and Holly is slipping away into a place where no one can follow her. Bidden is about how and whether the bonds of friendship can survive post-violence.
It has been a really different experience than Split because Bidden is part graphic novel, part prose—a hybrid novel in the spirit of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. So I had to study a lot of graphic novels, take classes, etc., to get up to speed on that genre.