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Interview: March 2010

March 2010

In this interview with Teenreads.com’s Usha Reynolds, debut author Swati Avasthi discusses the inspiration behind her newly released novel, SPLIT --- which centers on a teenage victim of domestic violence --- and explains why she chose to focus her narrative on how her main character copes in its aftermath rather than on the abuse itself. She also describes how writing the book became a semi-cathartic experience for her, provides some information on where domestic violence victims can get help, and shares details about her current work-in-progress, BIDDEN.

Teenreads.com: I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a book about an abused teenager, but SPLIT was an amazing and fast-paced read that engaged me from the very first page. Could you please tell our readers about how your experiences working at a domestic violence legal clinic informed the story?

Swati Avasthi: Thanks! Let me start with a quick note: I’m happy to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

Coordinating the domestic violence legal clinic was the starting point for this novel. I’d say that my experiences had quite a few effects on the book. There are specific incidents that inspired the story or that shaped the way I conceived of the book. (See answers below and last week’s guest post.) It also put faces on what felt more like an abstract problem. It was incredibly moving --- both inspiring and heartbreaking --- to work with so many victims. They were varied and complex, which helped me to develop my characters fully. Their stories helped me ground the novel in specific details (though I didn’t replicate any of the details in SPLIT). And the repeated patters I could see after a while helped me imagine what it would be like to grow up in an abusive household.

TRC: What made you decide to start your story at the point at which Jace has fled from an abusive home?

SA: Once a woman in her 30s, who I’ll call Sheila, came through our office. When she recounted her story, there was something different about her. She didn’t have to struggle to talk about incidents; she wasn’t defensive or angry. Most of all, she wasn’t ashamed. She knew that the abuse she suffered was not her fault.

I wondered how she had that wisdom so quickly. Turns out the last incident of abuse occurred seven years prior. (She came to us because her abuser had been threatening her from his jail cell and was about to be released.)

In those years, she had built a life for herself post-abuse. She had walked the long road from victim to survivor. I learned from her that when the physical abuse is over, the recovery is just beginning.

TRC: Jace has a distinct and authentic voice. Was his character based on a real person you encountered, a composite of many people, or perhaps just someone you imagined?

SA: Thanks! Jace wasn’t based on anyone I knew, nor is he a composite of people.  He is what I imagined someone would look like, think like, and be like who had his history. His humor, while not intentionally so, came to sound a lot like my husband’s.

TRC: The relationship between Jace and his brother Christian is at the heart of this story. The brothers find different coping strategies for the violence they’ve faced in their lives. Did you see their different ways of dealing with the same situation as a result of birth order, their life experiences, their personalities, or perhaps something else entirely?

SA: **SPOILER ALERT** In my view, the difference between Jace and Christian was born in the garage, in that flashback scene when Jace witnesses his dad kick Christian and nail his mom’s hand to the wall. Christian did not want to ever become like his father and standing up for his mom was a way to ensure that he wouldn’t. Jace, on the other hand, watched his hero, Christian, fall and saw how vulnerable we all are. That frightened him. In that chapter, his father tells Jace he is strong and Christian is weak. So, Jace, who was just a kid at the time, ended up conflating manhood with power and abuse.

TRC: In the story, Christian’s friend goes to great lengths to help him escape his abusive father. What do you think is the most useful thing that friends and family can offer a victim of domestic abuse?

SA: Emotional support, really. It is incredibly difficult to watch someone you love stay in an abusive relationship and a lot of families cut off the victim inadvertently. In an effort to protect the victim, they will sort of say, it’s either him or me or throw their hands up in exasperation and lay judgment on the victim for not leaving. Additionally, maintaining a relationship with a victim is difficult because the abuser often cuts the victim off from her support network. So, I believe, that the most useful thing is to let the victim decide for herself, let her make her own judgment, and in the meantime, remind the victim that her family/friends will be available for her without an “I told you so” anywhere in sight.

TRC: For many people, it is easier to picture domestic violence taking place in the projects rather than in a wealthy community. But Jace in fact grows up in a very comfortable home as the son of a judge, of all things. What made you decide to make the abusive father a well-respected judge?

SA: I think that media representation, by virtue of portraying it as a projects problem, enables the wealthy to dismiss abuse as a problem that doesn’t affect them and operate under the illusion that “it doesn’t happen in my community.” In fact, it does. In fact, some statistics suggest that underreporting is higher in a wealthier community. Abuse isn’t a projects problem alone.

I chose a judge for two reasons. First, I really believe that the law helps and I needed a reason why the law wouldn’t help. Second, because of a story I heard while working in the clinic about an in-chambers conversation that went something like this:

Judge: Well, what’s the problem, counselor? It was just a little slap.

Attorney: The statute protects victims against all forms of violence. In section –

Judge: Don’t quote that law at me, counselor. We live in the real world, and in the real world, who hasn’t slapped his wife at some point?

I hasten to point out that this incident was so outrageous that it stuck with me. It’s actually the only one I can remember of a judge who, in my opinion, completely failed and let his personal opinion override the statute. We have good attorneys and good judges for the most part.

TRC: Were there parts of the story that were more difficult for you to write than others? Did you have a tough time writing about the abuse? If so, how did you work around that?

SA: The abuse scenes weren’t that difficult to write, actually. The stories I heard in the clinic lived in my head, percolating for years, and so getting them out felt semi-therapeutic for me. Revising them was difficult at times because it was hard to voluntarily re-enter those scenes. But I sensed that there was real power to the story, that they had held some of Jace’s defining moments. On the tough days, I would look at statistics or think of the people who inspired SPLIT and remind myself that re-entering an imaginary scenario is nothing compared to people who live with abuse.

TRC: Could you please give our readers some ideas on where someone facing domestic violence can turn?

SA: Absolutely. There are some great organizations out there. For a referral to help close by, start with:

National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline (866) 331-9474 or TTY (866) 331-8453.

National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799–SAFE (7233) or TTY (800) 787-3224. 

Before you go online, remember that an abuser can trace your online activity, so it might be safer to call. But, if you have access to a safe computer, try:

http://www.loveisrespect.org

http://www.ndvh.org

http://www.ncadv.org/protectyourself/GettingHelp.php

In terms of supporting organizations, I also really like what the Family Violence Prevention Fund is doing with some of their initiatives, Coaching Boys into Men and Lessons from Literature.

TRC: What books did you enjoy reading as a child and as a teenager, and what books are currently on your nightstand? 

SA: Many of the books I liked as kid, I still love today, including Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lois Duncan, S. E. Hinton, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Brontë, Harper Lee…oh the list keeps going. Currently, I’m reading Louise Erdrich’s LOVE MEDICINE, David Treuer’s THE TRANSLATION OF DR. APPELLES and Jacqueline Houtman’s THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS.

TRC: What writing projects are you working on now?

SA: I’m writing my second YA novel, BIDDEN. It is still flux, but here’s what I can say for sure: Corey, Holly and Savtiri are looking forward to the summer after graduation --- reading comic books and free running when a shooting changes everything. Now Corey is dead, and Holly and Savitri are looking for ways to survive their loss. Like SPLIT, it is an aftermath story.

Thanks so much for having me! These were thought-provoking questions.