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Interview: December 2010

December 2010

A new media producer, reporter and Web show creator by day and a novelist by night, Daisy Whitney is the author of THE MOCKINGBIRDS, a page-turning account of an all-star student named Alex, who is date raped at a boarding school for exceptionally gifted --- and supposedly honorable --- teens.

In this interview with Teenreads.com’s Usha Rao, Whitney talks about what motivated her to address the issue of date rape in her debut novel, elaborating on the effectiveness of student-run justice systems and the pressures teens face in their everyday lives. She also offers advice on what readers can do if either they or a friend has been a victim of sexual assault, addresses the discrepancies between what’s expected of highly successful students and their actual behavior, and reveals how Harper Lee’s timeless classic found its way into her book.

Teenreads.com: What a terrific read! You tackle a very serious topic, but in a way that leaves the reader hopeful for the main character. In the Author’s Note at the end of book, you explain your personal connection with the story. Can you share with our readers what motivated you to write THE MOCKINGBIRDS, your debut novel?

Daisy Whitney: Even though I have a personal connection to the story, the novel was inspired by what I see around me and in the news about teenagers. They are living in this incredibly “on” world, where everything is public and exposed. It’s such a challenging environment to grow up in, but yet so many of the teens I know are socially aware and passionate and full of fire. I wanted to show what a group of smart, ethical teenagers could do by themselves to right the wrongs around them. Because of my personal connection to Alex, it was a natural fit to look at those ideas through the lens of date rape.

TRC: When Alex is date raped, why does she take her case to the informal student judicial system, the Mockingbirds, rather than directly to the police? Do you believe that a system of student-run justice might work better than the criminal justice system in a campus date rape situation?

DW: I do think campus-run, university-run or even student-run systems can potentially work better. And it may be controversial that Alex chooses NOT to go to the police, but sadly I think the criminal justice system fails rape victims most of the time and effectively re-victimizes them. I have talked to many attorneys who have prosecuted date rape cases, and most of the time they say that they simply can’t gain a conviction and that the victim is re-traumatized. That’s not to say I advocate vigilante justice --- in fact, I believe that speaking up for yourself when you’ve been hurt can take a number of forms. The Mockingbirds is simply one fictional example of how a person can reclaim herself.

TRC: Date rape is a serious problem across high schools and colleges. What is your advice for young women and girls who have been date raped? Are there any resources that you would like to direct them to?

DW: Date rape is quite prevalent --- one in six women will be a victim of sexual assault during her lifetime, and according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), girls ages 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. If someone has been through date rape, I would urge her to seek counseling. Anybody can be connected to free or sliding scale services through the national sexual assault hotline, at 1-800-656-HOPE.

TRC: Do you also have advice for young women on how to handle a would-be attacker?

DW: Date rape is never the victim’s fault. There are things that girls and boys can do to minimize the risk of being in a potentially dangerous situation, though, such as sticking with friends when you go to parties. 

TRC: Alex has a close circle of friends and supporters who come through for her in this situation. This is not always the case, especially if the rapist is also part of the same social circle. What is the most useful thing that friends can offer someone who has been date raped, especially in the limbo period before the case is resolved through the justice system?

DW: Support without judgment. Standing by them. Asking what the friend needs. Does your friend need someone to walk to school with? To have lunch with in the cafeteria? What does your friend need so she doesn’t feel alone or scared?

TRC: You describe Alex’s character as having been a virgin before the rape. Why was it important for you to note that? Do you feel like it somehow established her credibility as a victim or a good girl, or was it another way of illustrating how quiet and reserved her personality and life were before the rape?

DW: Having Alex be a virgin before the rape was an artistic choice that served many purposes. It helped me to mine a new layer of emotions connected to having your first time taken away from you, helped establish her backstory, and also --- frankly --- it helped her credibility as a victim.

TRC: Alex’s friends sometimes seem to cross the line in helping her, such as threatening to start a false rumor about someone to get them to comply. Are they misguided in their choice of methods, or do the ends justify the means in this case?

DW: Ah! Good question. I’m not a big fan of what the character you mention says to Alex, so I’d have to say I side with Jones when he threatens to start a false rumor! BUT, I’m not trying to paint perfect teens --- I’m trying to show real teens. And I feel that a good guy friend would do something like that to help Alex. Jones is protective of Alex, and he also recognizes that the adults at Themis won’t help, so he makes a choice --- perhaps a tad controversial --- to protect Alex. 

TRC: What was your model for Themis Academy? Did you go to boarding school yourself?

DW: I went to public high school in Miami! However, I have always been intrigued by boarding school and how teenagers live and breathe in that kind of tight-knit, all-too-close environment. The assignments and achievement-centric focus of the school all came from my imagination!

TRC: There is a significant gap in the story between the ideal espoused by the institution and the actual behavior of some of the students enrolled at Themis Academy. Do you feel that organizations, especially idealistic ones, can sometimes fail to notice egregious behavior on the part of the people who make up the organizations?

DW: Absolutely. I completely believe that institutional blindness is alive and endemic throughout the world. I also contend that when students achieve a certain amount of academic success, it is often assumed they are also upstanding citizens. One does not follow the other, and that’s why I think parents and teachers should always be infinitely more helpful than most of the adults at Themis Academy are.

TRC: The book is named not for Alex herself, but for those who provide justice: the Mockingbirds. Can you tell us about the connection to Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which you reference a few times in your story?

DW: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is the ultimate story of justice and doing the right thing. I believe the lessons Atticus Finch imparts to his children are universal and universally good. When the students at Themis create a secret society for justice, it’s a natural fit to take their name from Harper Lee’s novel. That her novel also includes a bit of “vigilante” justice from Boo Radley is so much the better.

TRC: Whenever Alex needs some guidance, she likes to pretend that Beethoven, Mozart and Gershwin are available to advise her. Who would you like to have on your advisory panel?

DW: Great question! I would like to have Robert Cormier, John Knowles, Norman Maclean, Emily Giffin and Gayle Forman on my writing advisory panel! They’re all amazing.

TRC: Music is such an integral theme to Alex’s life and to the story, as well. Are you a musician or pianist yourself? And are you as big a fan of Beethoven as Alex is?

DW: I’m pleased to report that I have no musical ability whatsoever. Can’t sing, play or read music! I do, however, adore Beethoven, and I walked down the aisle at my wedding to a string quartet playing “Ode to Joy.”

TRC: Alex comes to feel that we are defined by the things we choose, rather than by the things that simply happen to us. What an intriguing concept. Can you expand on this?

DW: I believe that we all go through tough stuff in life. There are roadblocks and challenges and bad guys lurking around every corner. BUT I also wholly believe in the power of each individual person to rise up and take ownership of themselves, their feelings, their actions and their heart. We can change; we can improve; we can make a difference. We have that power within us. And that power is choice --- we don’t have to be defined by what other people think of us, or how we were raised, or who we dated. We can be defined by how we act and what we choose and who we know we are.

TRC: Do any boarding schools really provide cake to the common room in a student’s dorm on his or her birthday? This makes me wish I had gone to a boarding school!

DW: My husband went to boarding school for a semester, and he told me they did in fact make cakes for the students on their birthdays!!! 

TRC: What can you tell us about the sequel to THE MOCKINGBIRDS, and when can readers expect to see it?

DW: Little, Brown & Company will publish the sequel to THE MOCKINGBIRDS next fall, and it will pick up where this book leaves off. The Mockingbirds will face perhaps their most challenging case to date, and it will call into question issues of leadership, friendship, loyalty and love.