29 March 2012

Cheryl Rainfield taps painful memories to write novels that speak to troubled teens

Today we are featuring the amazing Cheryl Rainfield. Cheryl is the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, March 2010), HUNTED (WestSide Books, Dec. 18, 2011; F&W Canada, Feb. 2012), and the upcoming STAINED (Harcourt, 2013). Visit Cheryl's website to learn more about her work.

Q: Cheryl, you have been very open about your own terrible experiences as a teen victim of incest and ritual abuse, and how you turned to self-harm as a coping mechanism. Can you tell us a little bit about the experience of writing SCARS and putting something out there that was so personal to you (including the cover image of your own arm)? 

A: Writing SCARS was painful at times, because for much of the first years that I was writing and rewriting it, I was living the pain I was writing about. I felt like I was pouring my pain onto the page. It didn't feel like a relief or a release at the time, though I think it would have been much worse if I hadn't had that outlet. I also found it painful and hard to receive rejections for so long--10 years--when I so desperately wanted to be published. I was okay with the rejections the first few years, because I knew it can take time to get traditionally published, but when it got to be eight years of rejections, then nine, then ten, I was feeling pretty despairing and hopeless.

But when I got the offer to publish SCARS (from two different publishers at once) it felt so good to me! And then the reader letters started pouring in, and that also felt so good. It was one of the most healing experiences of my life to have SCARS published and have it reach people, resonate with them. For me, it disproved some of the lies that my abuser parents had repeatedly told me--that I would never succeed at anything I cared about, and that if I spoke out no one would listen to me or believe me.  It wasn't hard for me to publicly share about being an incest and ritual abuse survivor or using self-harm to cope because I've been open about those things since I was a teen. I think that talking about painful issues can encourage greater healing in ourselves and in other people, and can help break painful silences. And I also don't like and can't bear keeping secrets; it reminds me of the incest and ritual abuse that I had to keep silent about. For me, talking about those things in SCARS was an extension of what I've done for years--be open about some of the major things that have affected me, and try to encourage healing in others and myself.  I was delighted when my publisher agreed to use a photo of my arm on the cover of SCARS. It felt like it made SCARS even more my own story (even though it's fiction), and it tells the reader immediately what the story is about--and to me says you're not alone and you don't have to feel ashamed. That's important to me.   

Cheryl Rainfield
Q: What has the response to SCARS been like from readers, including those who are self-harming and reaching out to you for help?  

A: The response to SCARS has been wonderful! Two years after SCARS was first published, I still receive letters every week from readers telling me that SCARS helped them stop cutting, get into therapy or get help, tell someone for the first time about their own self-harm, sexual abuse, or being queer, or helped them feel truly understood, often for the first time in their lives. I've had readers tell me they feel that I wrote about them.  

I also hear from people who have never had any of those experiences who tell me that now they have more compassion and understanding for people who have, and that they really "get" self-harm where they never did before or may have judged it harshly before.   I'm so glad for both of those types of responses; they're both what I hoped for when I wrote SCARS--to have people know they're not alone, and to have others have more compassion and less judgement. It has been incredible and rewarding to get that feedback over and over again.   

Q: Your latest book, HUNTED, is a YA paranormal fantasy/dystopian. How was the experience of writing this novel different than SCARS, and how was it similar?  

A: Writing HUNTED was similar to writing SCARS in that I again drew on my abuse and trauma experience to write it; I wrote my emotional truths; and I focused on oppression. It was different in that HUNTED is a fantasy, and because I wasn't in as much emotional pain as I was when I wrote SCARS it was much easier to write (though some parts were painful). I also felt lighter and had more hope because my editor was immediately interested in HUNTED--something I didn't have while I wrote SCARS--so I knew it was more likely to get published. But mostly, it felt very similar to me. Yes, HUNTED is a paranormal fantasy (or a dystopian or a thriller, depending on how you look at it), but for me it was another way to talk about oppression in an accessible way.  

Q: I often ask authors about how they found their agent, and wonder if you could touch on that but also tell us about the experience of working with your agent… what the interaction is like, the support/guidance, the process… 

A: I got my wonderful agent, Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger, once I had an offer of a contract for SCARS. I'd submitted another manuscript to Andrea before that, and received the nicest, personal, most encouraging rejection letter from her, telling me that she'd love to work with me on another project. Her belief in my writing stood out to me amid all the other personalized (and non-personalized) agent rejection letters I'd received. So when I got an offer for SCARS, I wrote and asked if she'd be my agent and work with the contract, and she accepted. I'm very happy she did! I'd read that that was one way to get an agent--once you had an actual offer from a publisher, so I'm glad I remembered that. 

Andrea has fought hard for me for rights, money, and all sorts of things that I'd never have known about and never have had the courage to fight for, for myself. I also knew from the editing course I took that publishers have two standard boilerplate contracts--one for authors without agents, and one for authors with agents, and the one for authors with agents automatically starts with a higher advance, higher royalty level, and more rights, so I knew it was important to get an agent.  

But I didn't want just any agent. It was important to me that I like the person who would become my agent, since I plan to be with them a very long time; they represent me professionally; and your agent gets a percentage of all your work that they negotiate, even if you part company. I had a very brief experience with another agent before Andrea that scared me, so I was so glad and relieved to find Andrea--someone I liked and respected and who I felt good about. Andrea is friendly, professional, knowledgeable, and she gets back to me incredibly fast on any question I have. 

Another thing I really love about Andrea is that she gives me feedback on my manuscripts. She tells me when she doesn't think they're ready, and gives me suggestions on how to make them better (which I so appreciate) before we send them out. That's something I really value. She knows the market and the writing business, so  I feel good about getting her feedback. She's always ready to answer any question I have, or to be the go-between for me and a publisher if I need it. It's a great buffer, and allows me to work on what i need and want to work on--my writing and book promotion.  

Q: What are you working on now? And can you tell us a little bit about STAINED?

A: I am working on an edit of STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), an edgy realistic YA about Sarah, a teen with a port wine stain who is abducted, and who must find a way to rescue herself. I'm really enjoying working with my new editor, Karen Grove at Harcourt, who has given me wonderful, thoughtful, insightful feedback and helped me make STAINED a more powerful book. I also love that she trusts my instincts for my manuscript!  I am also working on another edgy realistic YA novel, as well as a sequel to HUNTED, and I'm getting ready for my Toronto in-person launch of HUNTED (this Saturday at Bakka-Phoenix Books, 4-6pm).   I also work every single day on book promotion. It is tiring and takes a lot of time--I think of it as a full-time job, on top of writing! But I really believe it helps make a difference in getting books out there.

UPDATED (Sept. 17, 2012): Cheryl reports that HUNTED is a finalist for the Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy. The winner will be announced in November. 

Good luck, Cheryl!