Two years ago, when the news came out about Waking Life (the since-shuttered West Asheville coffee shop whose owners were revealed to have blogged and podcasted about sexual encounters with women, offering dating tips spiked with predatory and misogynistic commentary), local YA novelist Amy Reed was already at work on a novel dealing with rape culture.
“I had it all plotted out, and then that whole thing happened,” she says. But once the story broke, “I did all of this in-depth, down-the-rabbit-hole looking into the world of ‘the manosphere.’” What she found shocked her. (“There are communities that are all about sharing the different ways you can hurt women, and I wasn’t aware of that.”) And when she modeled some of her main antagonist’s blog posts on those of the Waking Life owners, Reed’s editor wanted her to take those parts out: “She thought it was too unrealistic.”
Reed’s experience with her editor echoes, if faintly, the premise of The Nowhere Girls, which she will launch with an event at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Oct. 10. Set in rural Oregon, the novel begins months after high school sophomore Lucy Moynihan has come forward about being raped, only to find her community refuses to believe her. But the way the Asheville community came together to speak out against attitudes exposed by the Waking Life controversy reinforced Reed’s desire to tell a story about how the girls in Lucy’s town empower themselves and fight back.
In the novel, three girls — Grace, Erin and Rosina (dubbed “the Nowhere Girls” to preserve their anonymity) — lead the charge to get justice for Lucy. Each of them has to grow, however, to create real, lasting change. Growth out of adversity isn’t a new subject for Reed: Many of her previous novels depict young people finding the strength to deal with mental illness and other challenges. And yet the main characters of The Nowhere Girls challenged Reed in some new ways.
For example, Grace, the ringleader, has faith as her motivation — a subject Reed hasn’t touched on before. “I wanted to write a story about somebody getting the good stuff from [religion],” even if their faith leads them to dispute their church’s teaching, Reed says. “I also felt love and responsibility for kids who might read my book who were Christian.”
Reed says she believes that this approach — a desire to create art based on teens’ experience, art that gives them hope and courage — is what defines writing for kids in general and her approach in particular. And as much as Reed’s depiction of Grace exemplifies this approach, her rendering of Erin goes further.
“The more I wrote her,” Reed says, “she started shifting and changing.” Eventually, Reed realized that Erin had Asperger’s and wanted to be sure that her depiction didn’t reinforce stereotypes. “I worked with three sensitivity readers who had Asperger’s,” Reed says. “I sent them the first draft. It was not good.”
The author discovered that she had drawn too heavily on research that approached Asperger’s from the point of view of parents and clinicians. With the help of her sensitivity readers, she strove to create a compassionate portrayal of a young woman with the disorder leaning into a fuller experience while remaining true to her nature.
“I wanted them to be so different from each other,” Reed says of her characters. “They have nothing in common on the outside, but all girls and women have things that bind us together.”
Reed hopes readers will be inspired by the Nowhere Girls’ self-discovery, by their creation of community and by the way the two processes work together. “The girls of the school realize that they aren’t enemies, and once they start looking at things that way, things start changing for them internally,” she says.
“In the end,” Reed continues, “it’s not what happens at the level of power or administration, or anything. It’s about what happens in us and within our communities.”
WHAT: Amy Reed launches The Nowhere Girls
WHERE: Malaprop’s Bookstore, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 10, 6 p.m.