With her tattoos, laptop and cup of coffee, Amy Reed looks at first glance like one more West Asheville parent taking her work to a café while her kids are at school. And Reed is a young mother — she and her husband moved to Asheville from the Bay Area two years ago, after the birth of their daughter (“we wanted to get somewhere a little more laid back, where there were more trees and mountains,” she says). At the same time, Reed is also a highly successful author of young adult novels. On Wednesday, May 11, she’ll celebrate the release of Unforgivable — her seventh novel in as many years — with an event at Malaprop’s.
Although she’s published at a pace that she volunteers “is kind of nuts,” writing for teens is Reed’s passion and her calling. Her email signature quotes Madeleine L’Engle: “If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” That, for Reed, sums up the attraction of YA fiction. Early in her career, she says, “I found I wanted to write about teenagers. That’s when we discover who we are, and set the foundation for who we’re going to become. Those are the most important stories, and to me the most important audience.” In Reed’s work, however, these stories are also difficult: she has explored the darkest aspects of the teen experience, including mental illness and addiction, and also the pain that accompanies both failing and succeeding at becoming one’s true self.
Unforgivable is no exception. The final installment in a two-book series that began with last year’s Invincible, it continues the story of two Bay Area teens, Evie and Marcus, and their attempts to maintain a romance while coming to terms with profoundly troubling experiences. Invincible dealt mainly with the trauma caused by Evie’s terminal cancer, and her miraculous recovery and struggle to escape the roles her illness forced her into. Unforgivable looks at the scars Marcus bears as a result of his mother’s alcoholism, his brother’s drug-driven self-destruction, and Marcus’s own experience of being wealthy, privileged — and African-American. “He just doesn’t fit in anywhere,” Reed says. “It definitely does have its impact on his family and his identity.”
Evie and Marcus deal with their pain in different ways. Evie turns to drugs, Marcus to self-harm and emotional withdrawal. But for Reed, Unforgivable is ultimately the story of how they reach a place where they can turn to each other again. While Reed debated with herself (and with her editor) whether to give Evie and Marcus a happy ending, she does end the book with them figuring out “a way to each other that [is] honest and healthy.”
That movement away from despair toward a brighter outlook occurs in other books by Reed. In her 2012 novel, Crazy, the main character struggles with bipolar disorder, but finds strength in a long-distance friendship. And according to Reed, her current work in progress, Nowhere Girls, follows the same trajectory. In this book (slated for a 2017 release), three high school girls start an underground movement to avenge the rape of a classmate.
“I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written,” Reed says. “I’m inspired by it. I’m inspired by the characters’ bravery and courage.” She also took inspiration, she says, from the firestorm surrounding of the owners of Waking Life Coffee in West Asheville. “I was working on this already at the time,” Reed recalls. “But when that happened, I was like, ‘I have to put some of that in the book,” and she took some of the aspects of the Waking Life story — in particular the idea of men blogging about their “conquests” — to add detail to the misogynist culture her protagonists try to overthrow.
Asked about another local controversy, HB2 and its impacts, Reed pronounces the law “horrible,” and notes that she, along with several other local YA novelists, signed a letter denouncing it. And while she tries to have compassion for people who are afraid of those different from themselves, she says, “I have to believe that things are going to move on the side of progress.”
Is her attitude shaped by the responsibility she feels toward her readers? That, she says, and the fact of being a parent. “You’ve got to have hope,” she says. “I spent a lot of my teen years and my 20s being very cynical. My first few books really dealt with the darkness. I needed to write about what that is and acknowledge that place where a lot of teens live.” But, she says, she may be moving away from that now.
“Having a kid changed things,” she says. “Having a kid, having a daughter, I want to write a book that will inspire her to be the good that we need in the world.”
WHAT: YA Panel with Amy Reed, Robin Constantine and Amber Smith
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Wednesday, May 11, 7 p.m.