Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Guest Post: Sherry Shahan on Skin and Bones

By Sherry Shahan
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Years ago I wrote a quirky short story about teens in an Eating Disorders Unit of a metropolitan hospital.

Sort of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” meets “Love Story.” Then titled “Iris and Jim,” it sold to a major literary journal. Later, a London publisher included “Iris and Jim” in their YA anthology, and after that it appeared in their Best Of collection.

In total “Iris and Jim” has appeared eight times worldwide.

My agent kept encouraging me to expand “Iris and Jim” (now titled Skin and Bones (Albert Whitman, 2014)) into a novel.

I spent months weighing the pros and cons of such an undertaking.

Pros:
  • The short story would serve as an outline since the basic story arc was in place.
  • Each character already had a distinctive voice.
  • The hospital setting was firmly fixed in my vision.
  • The subject matter had proven itself to be of interest to readers.
  • Proven ground is attractive to editors and publishers, as long as the topic is approached in a fresh way.

Cons:
  • The story would require an additional 60,000 words.
  • I would have to create a cast of new characters.
  • Every character would require a convincing backstory.
  • I would need compelling subplots.
  • Every scene would require richer subtext.

Sherry's Office
During the first draft I encountered a number of unexpected obstacles.

For instance, how could I keep up the idiosyncratic tone without the narrator sounding flippant?

Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, compulsive over-eating, etc.) are serious, and in too many instances, life-threatening. It took several drafts before the tone felt balanced.

More than one anorexic in my story figures out how to beat the health care system. After all, they’re experts at manipulating family, friends, and each other, as well their environment.

Yet I worried about Skin and Bones becoming a how-to manual for those still in the throes of the disorder.

On the other hand, I knew I had to include information about the potentially grave consequences associated with the illness. But I didn’t want to sound didactic. Sometimes I sprinkled facts into farcical scenes. Other times statistics emerged in dialogue between ranting patients. Either way, disseminating information felt more organic when slipped in sideways, and never straight on.

Sherry in High School
After the editorial issues had been resolved, it was time to solicit opinions from the outside world.

Comments so far have reinforced my decision to expand my story into novel:

“Male eating disorders are on the rise...Skin and Bones is an open and honest story that addresses a topic much ignored.” —Sharon M. Glynn, Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness.

“Reading this book was like going back into that hell—it was that real!” —A grateful, recovering compulsive-eater (Anonymous). 

People have been asking why I chose to explore this issue in the first place. The answer is simple: the media gives attention to accidents resulting from teens drinking and driving, drug abuse, shootings, suicide, etc.

Yet anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents and has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

They also express curiosity because the main character is a teen guy. Most people don’t think of males as being afflicted with this illness. Yet eating disorders currently affect approximately 25 million Americans, of whom 25 percent are males.

Sherry today!
Cynsational Notes

Sherry Shahan has a wide range of children’s books to her credit, including Alaskan-based adventures Ice Island and Frozen Stiff (both Random House). She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches a writing course for UCLA Extension.

See also How Anorexia Is Striking What Many Consider to be an Unlikely Group: Boys and Young Men by Lia Steakley from SCOPE, published by Stanford Medicine. Peek: "... anorexia is generally more advanced among boys by the time they seek treatment."

8 comments:

Sharon Lovejoy said...

Talk about a timely and relevant book!

I really like the fact that she writes about boys who have this disease as well as girls. Funny, but many people think that this is only a problem for girls.

This will be a must read for me and for many who work with kids in peril.

Thanks for this interview and introduction.

Sharon Lovejoy

Sherrie Petersen said...

Great article! I love that she was able to incorporate real facts into the story as well as create a compelling narrative for readers. I'll be adding this one to my to-read list.

Jeanie Greensfelder said...

I appreciate Shahan's pros and cons of expanding a successful short story and weighing the work involved.

It's a powerful topic and important that teens have an inside look that speaks to them.

Well Done! Jeanie Greensfelder

diane stevens said...

Great to address this issue. Humor is needed to keep from getting bogged down by the sadness. Thanks, Sherry, for sharing your journey to completing this important novel. Bravo!

Renee Benson said...

I, also, like the fact that she chose to write about a boy. This choice jolts the reader into interest, that weird kind of interest that makes a story unique and memorable, that drives the point home and parks in the garage.

What's more, people neglect that there is a push for men to be super skinny, as there is a push for women to be super skinny in the modeling industry and from the modeling world, boys are pushed in certain areas of sports, like jockeys for example where the weight of the rider can determine the win.

What a great way to expose this issue! I liked your pros and cons list too!

CS Perryess said...

It's good to see this issue explored. I remember my high school pal Jeff, who suffered with anorexia back in the 1970s & nobody believed it. Brava, Sherry.

Scheerger Sarah said...

Love your post, Sherry! Thank you for letting us in on your thought process... very helpful for all writers!

Sarah
www.sarahlynnbooks.com

Sherry Shahan said...

Thank you everyone for chiming in here. Unfortunately, it seems most people have known someone with this life-threatening disorder. Just the other day I heard Dr. Drew's daughter on CNN discussing her longtime battle with anorexia and bulimia. So brave to come forward like that in a public way.

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