February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Debut: SLJ Chats with CJ Lyons About ‘Broken’ and Why Fear is Useless

CJ Lyons is an award-winning, critically acclaimed bestselling author of 21 adult novels. And now she has published her first young adult (YA) novel.

Her independently published novels sold a million copies in less than a year. At one time, her books held five of the top ten slots on Amazon. A fascinating author, she quit the day job she held for 17 years as a pediatrician in the emergency room to write full-time.

CJ launched the Buy a Book, Make a Difference campaign that’s funded 54 scholarships to help fight crime and raised an additional $75,000 for charities. She offers online advice to writers on publishing and success as well. Lyons has been interviewed extensively about her experience with the traditional and independent publishing world. Now she’s debuting her young adult novel, Broken, and there’s been lots of buzz at USA Today and Entertainment Weekly.

BrokenBroken is the story of 15-year-old Scarlet Killian, who suffers from a rare and untreatable heart condition. She’s been isolated, living in hospitals and being homeschooled. At the opening of the novel, she’s given the opportunity to attend a public high school for the first time. As she breaks out of her confinement, she starts to uncover the truth about her illness and her family.

We caught up with CJ to ask some questions that piqued our interest not only about her debut, but her varied experience in the world of books.

You have said that your YA voice is very different from your adult narrative voice–and that you could be more emotionally honest and edgier in your YA books. Can you tell us more?

I call my novels “Thrillers with Heart”, because I strive to maintain an emotional honesty—for better or worse. I guess it’s the ER doc in me, but I try to keep things as real as they get—and still be entertaining.

Adults often read for thrills and light entertainment, not to necessarily be drawn into a character’s emotional struggles as they fight for what they believe in. But people drawn to YA literature read for so much more than plot. Teens especially want to vicariously experience the world and the choices they’ll be expected to make as adults, as well as learn who they are and how they’ll fit into the larger universe once they’re the ones in charge.

You have rated books on your website PG-13 and R—can you tell us which of your adult titles you think are the best for teens and why?

Honestly, that is for the teens and their parents to decide. I do have some graphic sex scenes in several of my romantic thrillers (which is why I label them “R” although most aren’t as explicit as the scenes I’ve seen in mature YA books). The main reason why I give them a PG-13 rating is I thought it only fair to warn prospective readers (as if titles like Snake Skin and Blood Stained aren’t enough) that my books carry with them a hefty dose of reality, including characters who swear.

With each of my books I strive to always portray the consequences of violence on both victim and perpetrator as honestly as possible. It’s how I honor all the many victims I’ve worked with during my career as a pediatric ER doc.

What was the most exciting moment of your success so far? 

With my adult books I knew I’d “made it” when I began receiving letters from fans about how my stories helped them decide to leave abusive relationships, helped cancer patients escape their pain, or helped inspire someone to make the difficult decision to do the right thing. Letters like that make it all worthwhile. Success for me is defined by the underlying theme of all my books: heroes are born everyday—each of us has the power to change our world. I love the idea that my YA work might be empowering and inspiring the same kids that I took care of during my career as a pediatrician.

One of the most interesting parts of your book is the twist at the end.  I knew about it before I read the book and I’m glad I did, but in case people don’t want spoilers I will be vague. That disease sounds difficult to diagnose and treat, with the aftermath of diagnoses being truly horrible, especially for the children.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any first-hand follow-up as the children I took care of were either placed into foster care (and so were followed by other physicians) or died. Thankfully, those who survived were so young that I hope they don’t remember much of what was done to them.

But I’m glad you’re thinking of that—the aftermath for the victims. There are actually tons of books and TV specials on <spoiler> but they focus on the twisted mind of the perpetrator and how easily smart professionals were fooled rather than what’s most important: the children.

One of the things I find missing from many thrillers is a true, emotionally honest account of what a victim goes through. Not in the gratuitous, titillating way with the clichéd scene of a victim being raped or murdered (almost always a woman) told through the victim’s point of view… and once the audience is hooked, you never hear from the victim again.

For me, that’s what made Scarlet such an intriguing character. Even before she knew the truth of what was happening to her, she never gave up trying to live her own life.

In my next YA, I take this even further, following an abuse victim as he makes a stand and fights for the truth, despite the fact that in this internet-driven age that means the entire world will know who he is and what was done to him. Exposing the truth means exposing himself—something that resonates with the teen experience on so many levels.

Your main character, Scarlett has the same disease as your niece, Abby. Unlike Scarlett, Abby is completely integrated into the world—what is she up to now in her life? 

Abby is doing wonderfully. She’s been regaling me with her choices of possible dresses for her school’s big dance that’s coming up—she looks gorgeous in everything!

What was your experience with libraries or librarians as a child ?

The best gift I ever received was when my mom convinced the librarian to give me an adult library card, despite the fact that I was only eight. We lived in a rural area so it was a drive into town and as a kid, all I could check out was three books at a time. I’d be pestering Mom for return trips to the library several times a week, so it was mainly out of self-defense that she convinced the librarian to break the rules and give me a “real” library card that allowed me access to anything, even the hallowed “stacks.” This is where I met Horatio Hornblower and The Saint and Mr. and Mrs. North and flew to Mars with Heinlein and Bradbury and Burroughs before falling back to earth and joining Michener and Wouk and Clavell as they took me on a journey through history and around the world.

How do you relieve stress? 12213CJLyonsbookphoto

My way of dealing with chaos is to write something! It’s how I come to grips with the world around me and understand it better. I also firmly believe in T. H. White’s admonition that the best way to deal with feeling down or bored or frustrated is to go learn something new, so I’m constantly taking classes (right now three: the psychology and origins of criminal behavior; Seth Godin’s entrepreneur tools; and a forensics course).

Got any secret talents/philosophies of life you’d like to share? 

I’m a small-town girl who worked three jobs to put herself through med school—the only one of my siblings to go to college. So I guess you could say I’m a firm believer in sheer stubbornness and dreaming big. If you have a dream and you’re certain it’s right for you, then don’t let it stay a dream. Do the work, make a plan, and decide how to make your dreams reality. Then go for it. As Martin Sheen says,  “Fear is useless, faith is necessary, love is everything.” Pretty much says it all.

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Amy Cheney About Amy Cheney

Amy Cheney is a librarian and advocate, serving the underserved for over 25 years including preschoolers, middle schoolers, adults in county and federal facilities, students in juvenile halls, non-traditional library users and people of color. She began YALSA-Lockdown, a list serve for librarians serving youth in custody, which led to the formation of Library Services for Youth in Custody (LYSC). She founded In the Margins book award and committee, which brings national attention to self published books by, for and about people of color living in the margins. Her theme song is "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" by Cake. Learn more at Write2Read.

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