March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Amy Reed & Amber Smith On Trauma, Writing, & Self-Care

Amy Reed, author of The Nowhere Girls (2017), which received an SLJ starred review, chats with Amber Smith, author of The Last To Let Go (2018, both S. & S.), about their writing process, the impact of their readers’ feedback, and why their books tackle topics, such as rape culture, loss, and mental health.

Amber Smith
Photo by Deborah Triplett

Amber Smith: I got an advanced copy of your debut, Beautiful, from a librarian friend of mine in 2009. I think I became an instant fan for life—I was blown away by the voice and heart of that book. At the time, I was in the early stages of writing what would become my debut, The Way I Used To Be, and I wasn’t very familiar with YA, but after reading Beautiful, I said to myself, “Wow. Okay, this is the kind of book I want to write!” I would never have thought way back in 2009 that one day we would be friends. I was thrilled when I finally got to meet you in 2015. I came to a bookstore event you were doing in North Carolina and was fangirling all over you! Do you remember that?

Amy Reed: Of course I remember! And wow, 2009 was so long ago. I’ve had YA authors tell me they read Beautiful in high school, and I’m both honored and horrified. I [did] not know I was writing YA at first, but as soon as I found out about it and read books like Speak and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I realized it was exactly where I was supposed to be.

It’s such an incredible thing to become friends with someone you know first through their work. It’s a unique kind of intimacy. I feel the same way about The Way I Used To Be as you do about Beautiful. I saw my young self so much in its pages, in Eden’s trauma and how she turned it inward on herself, and it was painful but ultimately healing to be reminded of that suffering, and I really credit your book with inspiring me to write The Nowhere Girls. I felt immediately connected to you and knew we would be friends, because I felt like you already understood a deep, core part of me. You and I are both writers who do not shy away from scary places. I wonder why that is. Why do you think you’re drawn to the difficult subjects you write about?

AS: I could not be more honored to hear that you were inspired to write The Nowhere Girls after reading The Way I Used To Be—because, as you know, The Nowhere Girls is truly one of my favorite books. And not only a favorite of your books but an all-time favorite book. Like, ever. I loved that it showed a group of girls who empowered and lifted one another up, and that it was so open and honest about subjects like sex and rape culture. There were so many times while I was reading that book where I was crying one minute and then cheering only pages later. The Nowhere Girls is a book I wish I had when I was in high school.

I so vividly remember my high school years. It was a time of real hardship for me. I had problems at home and at school. I longed to feel connected and understood, but I felt really isolated so much of the time. When I’m writing, it always begins with my younger self in mind. I try to ask myself, what are the kinds of books I wish I had when I was teenager, what are the stories and the voices that would’ve made me feel less alone in the world, and what are the lessons that were hardest for me to learn? What about you, Amy. Why do you think you’re drawn to writing about so many of the more difficult issues young people face?

Amy Reed
Photo by Brian Relph

AR: I relate to everything you said about your high school years. I, too, felt so alone, so scared and full of suffering. I thought I was the only one going through the things I was going through. I feel so grateful to have a profession in which I not only get to practice my creative craft but I also have the opportunity to be of service in some small way to teens like me. I always knew my first novel was going to be the story that became Beautiful. It was the story I needed to tell since I was 13 years old. And the stories that keep coming to me are from that time, I think because the emotional world of those years is still the most vibrant in my memory. My books are less autobiographical now than they were when I started, but they are still based on the imprints of my teenage years, when life felt more to me like survival than the party I thought everyone else was having. I am driven as a writer to honor those difficult stories because, in many ways, mine never was.

It’s often painful to go through life with my characters. I think so much of writing is like method acting; sometimes we have to get enmeshed with our characters to give them life. But that can be grueling. The Nowhere Girls, while ultimately healing and empowering to write, was also emotionally difficult because I had to revisit a lot of stuff from my own life. So this makes me wonder, how do you find balance in your own life when writing the heavy stories you do (and let’s be honest, when living in this bonkers world we live in right now)? What are some self-care things you do to prevent compassion fatigue?

AS: It is so redeeming to be in a profession where all of those experiences—the pain, the trauma, the suffering—can be used to help young people, in some way, to feel not so alone. The need for self-care is an essential part of writing for me. I came face-to-face with this reality when I was working on my most recent book, The Last To Let Go. It is about a girl who, along with her siblings, is trying to rebuild her life after her mother is arrested for killing their abusive father. A central part of the story has to do with the confusion and pain of grieving the loss of a parent when the relationship with that parent was a troubled one. And during the course of writing this book my own father died, and that brought my writing to a complete halt. I didn’t touch this book again for another year and a half. But when I returned to it, it was because I was ready, and had taken the time I needed to go through my own grieving process.

This experience not only ended up shaping the book in ways I couldn’t have foreseen two years earlier when I first started writing it, it also shaped the way I started to approach my writing. And a big part of that is making sure I am always leaving enough time for self-care. So much of my writing these days has just as much to do with what I’m doing when I’m not writing. I’m a huge animal lover, and my two dogs have been my saving grace. They’re so sensitive that I look at them as a kind of emotional barometer for me—if they’re acting antsy and want to go out and play, then that’s usually a sign for me that I need to do the same! I also got involved with a local meditation group several years ago and have been practicing daily ever since (particularly before I begin writing each day). It has totally changed my life, not to mention my mental and emotional well-being. It’s been really important for me to take breaks while writing. To get out of my head and away from the computer, I try to make sure I’m spending time outside every single day. I go on a lot of nature walks, and that really helps me to clear my mind and recharge my mental batteries. How about you? Now I’m interested to know what you do to give yourself a break and find that much-needed balance?

AR: Yes to everything you said. I spend a lot of time running and doing yoga, which I always feel really weird telling people because most of my life I have been the opposite of athletic, and as a nerdy writer, I bristle at possibly being called a jock. But exercise is essential for maintaining my mental health, and I make it a priority. I also meditate every day and am really active in my little Buddhist community of misfits and weirdos. This is also a weird thing to tell people because, as a culture, we tend to be pretty uncomfortable talking about spirituality, just as we’re uncomfortable talking about mental health and addiction, all of which are important parts of my life. I’ve found Buddhist practice and philosophy to be the greatest tools I have to stay balanced in the middle of chaos, which is pretty constant these days, whether it’s chaos in the world or the chaos I create in my own head.

I’ve also found that I’m reading less contemporary fiction. Lately, the real world is real enough, thank you very much. I’ve been on a real sci-fi reading kick lately, and most of the movies and shows I watch are comedies, sci-fi/fantasy, or superhero stuff. I need books and movies to take me to different worlds right now, not remind me of the one I live in. I honestly think that’s helping me stay sane. I also believe media has the power to nourish us through diversion and help us recharge our strength for real life by helping us take breaks from it. A little escapism can be just what we need sometimes. What about you? What are you reading these days? What stories have blown your mind recently?

AS: Absolutely, having that emotional and mental stability is so important. And same here, I’ve also found that I’m not reading as much contemporary realistic fiction as I did not too long ago. I really love historical fiction—I have a degree in art history, and I’m convinced at some point down the road I’ll write something in the historical fiction genre. And I’m with you on the TV and movies front—I almost exclusively watch sci-fi/fantasy/superhero stuff these days. It’s interesting, I find that with historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy, they offer a different way to digest and understand our real, present-day world while at the same time giving us a little reprieve from it.

Hey, while we’re on the subject of who we are as readers, I’m curious about the kinds of responses you’ve had from readers about your books? And have the responses changed over time from your earlier books to your most recent, especially now that we’re currently in an environment that has (in a pretty unprecedented way, I might add) become much more willing to engage in discussions about difficult issues?

AR: Getting feedback from readers is absolutely my favorite part of this job. Sometimes it’s easy to forget who I’m writing for when publishing (and my fragile ego) can put so much emphasis on things like reviews, awards, and book sales. But then I get an email from readers telling me how much they loved one of my books, and it fills me in a way that other stuff never could. The feedback I’ve gotten from The Nowhere Girls has been unbelievable. I’ve had two women in their 70s approach me after events and tell me about an assault they experienced in their youth but had never told anyone about, and how my book gave them strength to finally speak out. I’ve had countless adult women email and tweet about how it was exactly the book they needed as a teen, and how reading it now helped heal old wounds. Teen girls have told me how empowered and inspired they feel, how proud they are to call themselves feminists. I had a mom and a teen girl with Asperger’s thank me, both in tears, for writing such a strong, empowered Aspie girl in Erin. I end up crying at pretty much every book event I do because of these conversations I get to have with readers, and I feel so deeply honored to have the opportunity to connect with them in this way. It gives me life in a way book sales and starred reviews never could. What about you? Have you had similar experiences with feedback for The Way I Used To Be and The Last To Let Go?

AS: It can be so easy to get bogged down in some of the parts of publishing. But then I hear from readers who thank me for putting into words an experience they couldn’t, or tell me that something I wrote helped them to find healing or to know that they are not alone, and I am reminded that yes, it is really worth it. One of the very first emails I ever received from a reader came in just after The Way I Used To Be was released, and it was from a teenage girl who said: “Thank you for writing exactly what I needed to keep me alive right now.” I sobbed. And then I printed out the email so that I could have it on hand when I needed to be reminded of the real reason I write. I’ve also heard from young people who have not experienced sexual abuse or assault tell me that they feel like they have so much more empathy for survivors. One girl wrote to me to tell me how she and a group of her friends had all read the book and were inspired to volunteer at a rape crisis center in their community. And I have never done an event or signing where I have not been approached by at least one person afterwards who shares their story of survival with me. I’ve heard from people of all ages as well—retired women, middle-aged fathers, college students, and teenagers, who have all been touched in some way by assault or abuse.

Each time I hear from a reader, whether it’s via email, tweets, messages, or posts, or even in person, I am humbled and honored and profoundly grateful—it really is the greatest gift to be able to connect with so many people on so many different levels. This is what I think about on those days when I want to give up. It is this kind of feedback from readers that motivates me to keep going, to try harder, and to do better. These conversations have changed me, that’s the simplest way I can say it.

Before I start crying, I have one more question for you. It is something a student asked me last year when I was on a school visit, and it is still one of the best questions I’ve ever received: If you could go back in time and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

AR: You are not alone. And it’s totally okay to cry.

And you?

AS: You are infinitely stronger and more capable than you realize.


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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz ( 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. Amy and Amber:
    Thank you for this amazing interview. I’ve got to go read all of your books immediately. I was wondering if either of you read other books while you were writing the ones you mention here, and if so, what books you read back then and might recommend on these difficult topics? What are your go to books that touch on topics related to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements? What books that might be appropriate for #SAAM (Sexual Assault Awareness Month) coming up in April. Thank you!

  2. Amy Reed says:

    Thanks so much! In addition to Amber’s book The Way I Used to Be, my favorite books that tackle these issues are All the Rage by Courtney Summers, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Exit Pursued By a Bear by E.K. Johnston, Pointe by Brandy Colbert, and Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali.

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