Today, Olivia chatted with the super interesting Deirdre Riordan Hall, the author of SUGAR!
Sugar Legowski-Gracia is a Puerto Rican-Polish teenager who lives in a dead-end town somewhere in New Hampshire. And Sugar is very, very fat. She wasn’t always fat, but now at age seventeen, fat is what defines her. She’s not as fat as her bedridden mama, who shouts for Sugar to fulfill her every need, or even her brother Skunk, who is just as vindictive as he is big. But Sugar is fat enough to be the brunt of cruel jokes and ridicule everywhere she goes. To survive, she keeps her head down, does what she’s told, and tries to fill up the empty space in her heart with food.
Then Sugar meets a young man named Even (not Evan – his nearly illiterate father misspelled his name on the birth certificate), and can hardly believe that he seems to like her for who she is—and her looks don’t matter to him. As they grow closer, despite the scorn of their classmates and families, Sugar begins to envision a life beyond the abuse of her mother and brother and free from her own self-loathing.
Olivia with Papercuts Podcast: Deirdre, welcome! We’re here today talking about SUGAR, a story that has certainly caught my interest in topics near and dear to my heart!
Deirdre Riordan Hall: Thank you for having me by and creating such an outstanding forum for discussing YA and the greater conversation novels can spark.
Ollie: D’aww! Thank you for being part of those conversations. 🙂 Let’s talk about Sugar herself. How did you two first meet? What makes Sugar the perfect character to tell this story vs. any other character?
DRH: I’ve heard authors say, “The character just popped into my head.” I can confirm this phenomenon is real. Several years ago, I got sick: top to bottom. It sucked. Eventually I went on an elimination diet, excluding gluten, sugar, dairy, etc. to help test for allergies and sensitivities. As difficult as that was, it was even harder to look at my relationship to food. How it played a larger role than providing nourishment and as an aspect of pleasure/celebration, like cake on a birthday; how I turned to it for comfort, for distraction, to fill voids that otherwise ached. As I looked within, the inspiration for Sugar appeared.
Sugar was the perfect character to tell this story because it was authentically and uniquely hers. Although it wasn’t a life she chose, she was solidly part of the world around her: in the falling down house with Mama and Skunk, at Johnson Regional High School, and hanging laundry on the line during a dusty afternoon when she met Even. That world was hers, those were her challenges to face; in other words, in many ways she belonged there until she realized she didn’t.
Ollie: What sets Sugar’s story apart from others like SKINNY by Donna Cooner or BUTTER by Erin Jade Lange? What will readers find that is unique to this tale?
DRH: I’m honored Sugar is on the shelf with SKINNY and BUTTER. At risk of making it overly simplistic, the through-lines are body shame and body shaming, and how we humans interface with emotions and food. Obesity, anorexia, and disordered eating are real issues that males and females of all ages face. Yet it isn’t a “pretty” topic so often it’s left out of the conversation, which leads to those who’re enduring challenges like these to be left out, to feel invisible, desperate, and hungry for something that eating (or not eating) can provide.
Sugar also deals with her general sense of self-worth, abuse, and poverty. But through friendship and her innate inner strength, she learns to see her beauty, intelligence, value, and begins to see a way out. Later, when everything in Sugar’s life dissolves, it isn’t beauty, or smarts, or value that carries her through, though, those qualities help. Instead, it’s hope, and courage, and strength that helps her overcome the challenges she faces and own who she is.
Ollie: What non-book influences (films, television shows, music, plays, etc) helped spark this story? I’m getting shades of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape when I read the synopsis.
DRH: Wow! I hadn’t thought of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in years! What a great film. I’ll definitely have to revisit it.
I’m going to make a confession: I don’t watch much TV/movies these days. I always feel weird saying that. The truth is there isn’t time; my days and nights are full! Although I do catch Downton Abbey when the season airs and occasionally tune into Seinfeld for an old school laugh or America’s Test Kitchen to improve my cooking abilities. As you can imagine, none of those informed writing Sugar.
Music on the other hand…my Sugar playlist included tunes from Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, Band of Skulls, Marching Band, Monsters of Folk, Bright Eyes, Eels, Blur…
Ollie: When you were a teen, what was your favorite book (YA or otherwise)? Now that you’re an author for teens, what is your favorite contemporary YA?
DRH: Although I’ve been a big reader throughout my life, interestingly (or strangely, depending on where you fall along the vampire-werewolf continuum) the TWILIGHT SAGA was my introduction to the term young adult fiction as we know it. I never knew that was a category. I grew up reading books like the BABYSITTERS CLUB series, then swiftly leaped into the high school reading list: THE SCARLETT LETTER, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET, and became a big fan of Toni Morrison.
As for contemporary, I’ve recently become fond of the work of Jessica Park, Jandy Nelson, and Heather Demetrios. I rarely read a book twice, but I’LL MEET YOU THERE begged a second go. On the ever-growing pile bedside, I currently have: NEVER ALWAYS SOMETIMES by Adi Alsaid, PROOF OF FOREVER by Lexa Hillyer, and ANATOMY OF A MISFIT by Andrea Portes. As for my Kindle TBR…it’s getting close to a hundred books.
Ollie: I’m fascinated with how authors decide on a book’s title. Sometimes a title sticks from rough draft to published novel; sometimes the author works with their agent or editor to find the perfect title. While it may seem obvious being that it is your lead character’s name, what is *your* story behind the title SUGAR?
DRH: Love it! You’ve got me thinking! Like you said, the obvious answer is the title is eponymous. But if I go a bit deeper, it’s also because like Sugar, sweets are my indulgent food of choice. Related to what I mentioned above, in the wake of my health crisis, it was in my relationship with sugary foods that I struggled the most with and consequently explored. But back to the book, it’s fitting because sugar is what undoes Sugar. Also, for better or worse, all of Sugar’s experiences make her who she is so it’s ultimately empowering to own (and in some ways honor) the experience of being her, Sugar, a person who happens to be pretty darn rad if I do say so.
Ollie: The state of YA has changed a lot in even just the past two or three years. We still have a long way to go, but what is the most positive change you have seen or see coming in the future of YA?
DRH: In a recent Tumblr post Maggie Stiefvater asked her readers to hold her to better writing. If I understood her comment correctly, she meant doing a true and upright job representing a broad spectrum of people and their stories for young adults; going outside comfort zones, igniting conversation, and connecting. The invitation resonated with me as a writer and reader. Although the act of writing is a solitary and subjective effort, what we gather, represent, and translate becomes collaborative in the writer-reader relationship. Whatever message we’re putting out there, whoever the characters are and the story they have to share, it’s important we remain authentic to them, yet write our damn hearts out with honesty and courage, and not avoiding topics because they’re not trendy.
Ollie: We’re always looking for positive representations in YA here. What does SUGAR offer for readers looking for teens of color, LGBT youth, or positive friendships between female characters (meaning: no girlhate!)?
DRH: While there aren’t too many bright spots in terms of positive representations in the relationships Sugar has with her peers, she befriends Even, who, at the outset isn’t a love interest or a pity ploy. Sugar and Even develop a true boy-girl friendship, which, I think tends to be overshot by romantic love in a lot of YA, though those relationships certainly have their place. In her mostly-white community, Sugar is half-Latina (her mother is of Polish decent and her father purportedly from Puerto Rico.) Yes, she’s bullied, yes she’s poor, but she’s much, much more, and I think the beautiful and brilliant part is she ultimately sees that about herself.
Ollie: What’s up next for you in YA land? Any pet projects you can tease us about?
DRH: My next YA novel, PEARL is in edits and slated for March 2016 release. It’s a story of friendships that become sisterhoods and breaking the cycle of addiction. I’m also in revisions of three other YA manuscripts and drafting another. Other than that, I’m enjoying publication and connecting with readers.
Ollie: All right, last one! If you could spend one day with Sugar, what would you do together? What would advice would you give to Sugar about her past or future?
DRH: Best interview question ever! I would love to spend a day with Sugar because it’s almost like I’ve known her my whole life. I think we’d be besties. Aside from the version of her you see at first (she’s super harsh to herself) she’s one of the least judgmental people, and it’s safe to say most of us need that level of acceptance in our lives.
I’ve only been on a motorcycle once (a 1969 Triumph) so I’d love to go for a long country ride on the back of her bike. Also, I’d commission her to make me something fabulous to wear. We’d get all decked out (I rarely get fancy) and go somewhere and eat dinner with our pinkies up and call each other dahhhling. That would be awesome.
I’d give Sugar the same advice I give myself about my past: Own it. I may not like some of the experiences I’ve had but they’ve helped shape who I am, and I’ve grown to like this gal. The best we can do is own what we’ve gone through, accept it, though maybe not like it, and then go shine our brightest.
Ollie: Thank you very much, Deirdre! And again, congratulations on SUGAR! We look forward to hearing a lot more from you in years to come!
DRH: Thank you hugs, Ollie! It’s been my pleasure. Cheers!
SUGAR, published by Skyscape, is now available at your favorite retailers and local independent bookstores!
NOTE FROM OLLIE: I wanted to let you all know that I did this interview before I read SUGAR, and uuuunff, the feels! This one really hit me hard, and I may need to do a book review. It started off really uncomfortable, and I was nervous that it was going to only focus on every time Sugar put something in her mouth. But omg, seriously. If you have ever struggled with a parent who treats you like crap, emotionally abusing you because of their own shortcomings… uh, well, trigger warning on the book but go read, please please please. I really love Sugar Legowski-Gracia.
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Olivia Hennis is a transplanted New England girl dropped by a tornado into the magical Land of Jersey. For more info, follow her on Twitter.