Thursday, September 11, 2008

Author Chat: An Interview with Beth Fehlbaum

Hi Beth. Welcome to Bloggin' 'bout Books! Let's talk about your book ...

Me: I think it's pretty obvious why you wrote Courage In Patience, but I guess I want to hear it in your own words - What inspired you to write this book?? ?

BF: In the course of my recovery from childhood sexual abuse, I wrote a lot of poems and short stories and shared them with my therapist. One day, he suggested that I try writing a novel. It took about four months to pull myself out of my own head enough to attempt writing about someone else's recovery. When I was able to do that, the story began to flow. I wrote it for myself, initially. It was only as I neared the ending that I began to think about seeking publication for it, because I realized that it could provide hope for others who were on the same path as I, and help people who love those who have been abused to understand what it is like to live in that world, in that dark place-- and to show them, too, that there is hope. It's found in truth.

Me: To me, your book felt more like a memoir than a novel. Why did you choose to tell your story through fiction?? How did this format help or hinder your ability to tell an authentic story?
BF: First of all, I suppose I need to clear up a misconception here. This is not my story. It is not an autobiography or a memoir. I must say I am flattered that it reads as if it is a memoir, because that tells me that I did well my job of bringing Ashley Nicole Asher to "life."

Me: In the book, you portray a variety of authority figures who react to Ash's allegations against her stepfather in different ways. Some are instantly supportive, others are skeptical, and still others are in flat-out denial. Why do you think some adults react so negatively to children's pleas for help? And, what do you think our responsibilities as parents, teachers, and administrators are in regards to the kids we have "authority" over?

BF: I believe that the choice that some adults make to ignore children's pleas for help is rooted in their unwillingness to face the truth when it's an ugly thing to see. In terms of parents, it is a parent's responsibility to love and protect his or her child. Period. Anything less is unacceptable.

With regard to teachers and administrators, the law is very clear in that a child's outcry for help must be reported to authorities.

Me: Like Ash's stepmother, you work with victims of sexual abuse through your job as an English teacher. In what ways can reading and writing help kids overcome the obstacles in their lives, whether they are experiencing abuse, racial slurs, problems with parents, etc?

I work with all kinds of kids in my capacity as a teacher, and the thing that all kids-- all people, for that matter-- need to know is that they are not alone in dealing with problems. Kids feel less isolated when they read stories which feature characters they can identify with. Writing is a wonderful way for all people to take what is in their heads and see it in black and white. Not only does it help one take a step back and be able to see what's going on in a less emotional way, but it's also a valid way of processing events. And, should they choose to do so, when kids share what is going on with them through writing, they are pretty much guaranteed that they will not be interrupted in their telling. Writing often feels safer than talking.

Me: The back cover of Courage In Patience states that it is "Suitable for classroom study" and contains "No graphic content." I'll be honest with you, I don't agree with this statement at all. If my child's teacher assigned it, I would have to seriously think about whether or not I would let my kid read it. I know you're anti-censorship, but do you really think your book is suitable for classroom reading? Why or why not? I know you believe in authenticity and truth-telling, but how much truth is too much truth for kids, especially those who have never experienced the kind of abuse you're talking about?

BF: This is a complicated issue with several considerations to be kept in mind. First, the age and maturity of the reader. I did not necessarily write Courage in Patience with a YA audience in mind, nor did I label it as "suitable for classroom reading" or as having "no graphic content." The publishing house made the decision to put those statements on the cover.

Some of the scenes in the book are painful to read, I know. That said, I believe that teenagers are much more capable of dealing with life's messiness when it's on the pages of a book, rather than within their day-to-day existence. A lot of kids, though, are not so lucky as to be blissfully unaware of abuse. At any rate, I would like to think that Courage in Patience will be the springboard to dialogue between adults and teenagers, particularly when these statistics are considered:

1 in 4 girls (25%) are sexually abused by the age of 18.

1 in 6 boys (17%) are sexually abused by the age of 18.

Most teen sexual abuse victims (7 in 10, or 70%) know their abuser. It is generally a family member, or someone close to the family.

Of female Americans who are raped, 54 percent of them experience this type of sexual abuse for the first time before they are 18.

A victim of one incident of teen sexual abuse is likely to experience further sexual abuse.

Teenagers account for 51% of all reported sexual abuse.

Teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 are 3.5 times more likely than the general public to be victims of sexual abuse.

69% of the incidences of teen sexual abuse occur in a residence.

23% of all sexual offenders are under the age of 18.

Female victims of teen sexual abuse while in grades 9 through 12 are more likely than others to experience eating disorders, suicidal behavior, pregnancy and risky sexual behaviors.

(SOURCE: http://www.teenhelp.com/teen-abuse/sexual-abuse-stats.html)

As you can see, in a classroom of teenagers, roughly a quarter of them-- or more-- have experienced sexual abuse. I think it is important that these people know they are not alone. Courage in Patience is not, however, at its root, about sexual abuse. It is about finding freedom and healing through truth, and second chances when those things seemed out of the realm of possibility, among other things.

While I do understand what I am perceiving as your discomfort with some of the aspects of Courage in Patience, I am committed to truth-telling and authenticity. I believe teenagers are intelligent enough beings to make up their own minds about what they want to read, and I absolutely support parents having dialogue with their kids about what their kids are reading. You're right about my stance on censorship. I do not believe that books should be banned. While I respect parents' rights to, with their teenagers, decide which books fit into their families' value systems, I think it is wrong to dictate to others which ideas are suitable to consider on the pages of a book.

Me: I see that you're working on a sequel to Courage In Patience - tell me a little about that. What does life have in store for Ash Asher?

BF: Yes, I am at work on the sequel to Courage in Patience, titled Hope in Patience. Ashley is continuing to struggle to accept "what IS," with respect to her relationship with her mother and the challenges she faces as a result of her scars. Beyond that, it's still so early in the birthing process that I do not want to share more at this time.

Me: What kind of response have you gotten from readers of your book? Has it gotten the reaction you expected?

BF: The response to Courage in Patience has been overwhelmingly positive. I did not really have preconceived notions of what the reaction would be, although it was my goal that readers would recognize the love that Ashley is surrounded by in her father's family, and the healing that occurs. Everyone who has read it so far and contacted me has found Ashley to be a very lovable, empathetic character that they found themselves rooting for.

Me: What advice would you give to victims of sexual abuse, especially children and teens, who are struggling to deal with the trauma they have experienced? What have you learned from your own experience that can help kids cope with victimization??

BF: Any child or teen who has been victimized by someone else needs to know that what happened is not his or her fault. That's very important, because there is so much shame borne by the victim that really belongs to the abuser.

With respect to my own experiences, I would just say to anyone who has been abused, "There is hope. Don't give up. It's sometimes the hardest work you'll ever do in your life, but keep going anyway."

Me: Chris Crutcher has obviously been a big inspiration for you. How have his books influenced your writing? Do you teach his books in your classroom? How do students and parents react to novels like his?

BF: Chris Crutcher has influenced me through his commitment to truth-telling, to writing stories in which teens can find themselves, and to his stance against censorship. I do not teach teenagers any more, so, no, I do not teach his books in my classroom. Chris' books are some of the most frequently awarded-- by organizations that recognize the value of his stories-- and also the most banned-- by people who are either afraid of the truth or who want to dictate for all of us what is suitable to read. His site, http://www.chriscrutcher.com, has a lot more info about his battles on behalf of the First Amendment.

Me: Finally, I ask this of every author I interview, because I find the answers so fascinating. How do you write? What routines do you follow? Do you write at a certain time every day or in a certain place? Do you follow an outline or let the story flow on its own?

BF: Courage in Patience was written in the wee hours of the morning. I have been working on Hope in Patience during the daylight hours, particularly over the past summer when I was off from school. I would start in the morning, stop at noon, then keep going until late afternoon. Many days I looked up in surprise to see that hours have passed. Those are great writing days.

No matter what time of day I write, I need a lack of distractions in order to lose myself in the story. I do not have an outline per se. The story flows on its own; I ask myself what happens next. I rewrite a lot, and drink massive quantities of Diet Coke. At times, I listen to music on my iPod-- folk singers and songwriters such as Chuck Pyle, Kate Wolf, Tom Russell, Shawn Colvin. Their music is soothing to me, and something about the songs they write makes my Writing Muse very content.

Me: Thanks so much for chatting with me, Beth.

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