February 19, 2010

Behind the Book: By the Time You Read This, I'll be Dead

Behind the Book is the feature where I pick the books I've liked the most and have a little chat with the author about how the book came to be. Julie Anne Peters' new book has been one of my favorites this year, although I warn everyone that it is a very dark and harsh book. There might be spoilers to those who have not yet read it. If you like darkish realistic fiction, you should go get yourself a copy of this wonderful book.

-How did you come up with the story?

In October of 2006, I was invited to speak at the ALAN Workshops. ALAN is the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, an offshoot of the National Council of Teachers of English. C.J. Bott, a former educator and strong voice in the field of bullying, had assembled a panel of authors to address the issue of bullying in literature. A few months before she sent me the presentation title: Don’t Look and It Will Go Away: YA Books—A Key to Uncovering the Invisible Problem of Bullying.

I spent a long time with that title. How easy it is to turn a blind eye to the ugliness in life, the parts we don’t want to see. For my part I planned to read letters from young readers who described the harassment they’d been subjected to at school and at home for coming out as gay. For them bullying ranged from years of taunting and verbal abuse to physical assault to family disownment. Self-injury is high among gay youth, and suicide is mentioned so often in the letters I receive it’s agonizing to know gay youth feel it’s their only way out.

During that same time, there was a special report on TV about kids who’d been so severely bullied in school from kindergarten on that they’d either dropped out or were forced into home schooling. Even if they had pleaded for help, they’d received little or no adult intervention to stop the abuse. Several parents talked about their bullied kids who in the end committed suicide. Later, I’d learn the term for it: bullycide.

I came home from that conference with a thousand questions swirling in my brain. Why do some children survive bullying while others can’t? Are we born with an overarching sense of self-preservation? If we’re given free will at birth, when and why and how do we begin to exercise it in self-destructive ways? If an overly sensitive child is constantly bullied and teased with no relief in sight, how long does it take before she or he loses hope? Why are eight-year-olds cutting? How can we not know our children are hurting?

In this age of technology, where so many kids live their lives as invisible isolates in cyber communities, it wasn’t difficult to invent a site of suicide completers. I do know that many young people who kill themselves act on impulse, and I think that’s why Daelyn, my main character, was forced to wait, to count down the days, to consider all the options and alternatives. I gave her loving parents, trained professionals, God, the possibility of romantic love, a new friend and a fresh beginning. Then I left it up to her to decide her future.

-Does it have to do with your life?

I’ve known people who’ve committed suicide, and I wish they were still here. I wish I could do than provide long-distance comfort for the young people who write to me about how bullied they are. Knowing others feel victimized, less than human, or terrorized every day of their life makes me more determined to advocate for compassion and equality.

-How long did the book take to write?

I was so “in the zone” while writing this book that it took only two weeks. One day I woke from this subconscious state and there was a completed manuscript on my desk. It was titled, By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead. Of course, there would be many revisions and years before the book was published, but it felt as if this story was given to me; it had to be written.

-Can you read other books during the writing process?

Yes and no. If I’m working on a rough draft, the first draft, my brain is usually consumed with those characters and that story, so I can’t really absorb anything else. During revisions, I can turn my writing brain on and off. Plus, I need a break from the rigors of writing to the comfort of falling into a book.

-Why do you write YA?

Because I love to read YA. I may have unresolved adolescent issues . But those years of young adulthood are a time in life where you really discover who you are and what you’re made of. Every choice you make will be tested, every chance will be jumped at or overlooked, and you’ll have to face the consequences. They’re messy years, as far as mucking through the mud of your missteps, but you learn grace, and forgiveness and fortitude. There’s so much dimension to how we become ourselves that I love exploring every aspect of it.

Thank you, Julie!!!


  1. I love Julie Anne Peters, and I cannot wait to read this book! :]

  2. I just finished reading this book. I'm highly recommend it.

  3. Wow - two weeks! That's amazing. I love it when writing just flows out of you like that.

  4. Awesome interview! And WOW two weeks to get the first rough draft done? That is awesome! I cannot wait to get my hands on this book :)

  5. Wow, only 2 weeks to write the draft! That's crazy! Great interview.


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