April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Sisterhood, Body Image, and Sexual Abuse | Carol Lynch Williams on “Never Said”

Carol_Lynch_WilliamsKnown for her poignant portrayals of teen girls who come of age in a society that isn’t welcoming to them, Carol Lynch Williams has delivered in Never Said (Blink, 2015) a complex work about twin sisters with secrets. Former beauty queen Annie has recently gained 50 pounds, and no one is quite sure why. Quiet, shy Sarah recently had her first breakup and fights to overcome her anxiety issues as she tries to uncover the reason behind her sister’s mood swings and physical changes. SummerTeen speaker Lynch Williams shares with SLJ what inspired her to write her latest YA novel, her thoughts on body image and slut-shaming, and more.

What inspired you to write Never Said?
I lived in a close neighborhood where everyone seemed to know one another. There was a girl who, in the space of a summer, gained about 50 pounds. No teen does that unless there’s a problem, and I knew there was. I spoke to her mom. Told her something was wrong. It turned out [that] the girl had been [sexually abused]. To protect herself, she gained all that weight.

That got me thinking and wondering about how young women might protect themselves when something like this happens. One of my cousins was also a victim. Her mother did nothing to protect her child (this girl was much younger than the teen mentioned above) because my aunt felt her daughter wasn’t being truthful. My cousin struggled with weight issues her whole life.

One young woman I knew who was violated said to her mom, “You should have protected me.” That’s a haunting line—something a mother would never want to hear. It was part of what pushed me to write the book: the guilt that would come from that statement.

This is one of the first twin books I’ve read in a long time that depicted a twin relationship between sisters who have never really been best friends. Why did you decide to flip this trope on its head?
My best friend has twin sons. They are NOTHING alike. And the truth is, I wanted to tell two stories, two different stories. Making these girls opposites sets up more possibilities for them to maybe not get along, to wander away from each other, to even break that mold of finishing one another’s sentences. The idea that you can’t even be twins [in the] “right” [way] adds a burden to a character. To remember when they used to be that close, also makes more problems for the girls.

neversaid_smallWhy did you choose to write Annie’s chapters in verse and Sarah’s in prose instead of vice versa?
When I wrote the first draft, Sarah narrated. I realized after the novel had been sitting for a while that I needed each girl to have a voice. Each was struggling with something very different. They both carried the narrative, equally. There isn’t one main character. When I realized this, the story unfolded much more naturally. Now, Sarah and Annie each had their own points of view and needed to tell those stories with their own voices, not through the eyes of a sister.

While Annie is getting heavier, she’s feeling less and less like a whole human being. And so she views the world in few words, in images, not as she used to when she felt “worthy.” For Annie, the verse allows her to look at the world, dissect what’s going on, and begin to save herself in a safe way.

The sisters are each struggling with their own issues—body shaming, sexual abuse, and social anxiety. Why did you think it was important to include in this novel?
People read for lots of reasons, but one of them is to see characters get out of tough situations, maybe even a situation that the reader is enduring. My youngest daughter has social anxiety. She can’t even answer the phone when it rings unless an immediate family member is calling. I watch her struggle every day. I’m not sure what her switch was, because she seemed to be a very outgoing younger child, but one day, she was unable to talk freely.

And if the story is both girls’ as I said above, they each need to carry something that’s heavy, risky even. We grow (hopefully) when we make it through a hard time. Characters in novels need to change and grow, too. That growth can offer a reader hope.

The bonds of family and its dynamics are always big themes in your work—especially how they have the power to nurture and hurt young women. Why do you return to that idea in your books?
I’m from a family of women. Five daughters of my own. One sister. My mom and her two sisters. My grandmother and her six sisters. There were lots of females. There were dark times in my own family growing up. Maybe I explore many of those issues in my novels because I’m hoping to heal myself. Certainly to examine that world and make peace with my childhood. And maybe to offer a bit of peace to others.

While one of the sister’s experiences romance and heartbreak through the course of Never Said, I think the true love story is the one between Annie and Sarah. Can you tell us about your decision to emphasize that relationship instead?
Sisters are really important. My sister was an integral part of my life. My cousin was like a sister. So was a dear friend. When I had children of my own, I had all girls (I wanted 11 daughters. I only got 5, dang it!). So, from my own experience, I’m [all] about sisters. That family tie between sisters is huge and important. If nurtured, it is a relationship that you can have forever. I know girls (having been one and still feeling like I’m 12). Girls, I think, rock!

Almost 20 years ago, life got the best of my younger sister and she stopped speaking to me. It was like someone chopped out part of my heart. To this day, I mourn her loss. I’ve missed so much.

Now, I watch my daughters, like I watched them as they were growing up. They love each other so hard, I know their bond is eternal. As a mom, what’s better than that?

Do you have a favorite book about sisters? Twin sisters?
I loved Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved. When I finished that book I cried my eyes out (they grew back). I love sister books, too. I loved Ann Dee Ellis’s Everything Is Fine (Little, Brown, 2009), Louise Plummer’s The Romantic Obsessions and Humiliations of Annie Sehlmeier (Delacorte, 1987), Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (S. & S., 2010), and Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere (Dial, 2014).

What are you working on next?
I just sold a novel about a girl whose whole family has the ability to get help from the Dead. Each family member has a different gift. It’s lighthearted and funny and all about family. I’m finishing a novel about a girl whose mother is addicted to the Internet, leaving the main character to care for her younger sisters. And I’m working on a middle grade title with Ann Dee Ellis about two girls who are looking to solve a few mysteries in the neighborhood—but the real mysteries are what’s going on in their individual lives.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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  1. Nina Kidd says:

    Great interview! This is a book, and an author, so full of love. The pain is there, but love can win if we remember, and work and forgive and don’t give up. Brava to you both!

  2. Great Interview! I love Carol’s books for their emotional realism, and look forward to reading this one.

  3. Terrific, important interview on a terrifically important subject. Can’t wait to see this book and share it. Thank you, Carol, for your gifts and your books.