In 2009, when Amy Reed’s debut novel, BEAUTIFUL, appeared on shelves, I interviewed her about her book and her amazing writing. Now her second novel, CLEAN, is out, and once again I wanted to hear Amy’s thoughts.
First, here’s what CLEAN is about: Olivia, Kelly, Christopher, Jason, and Eva have one thing in common: They’re addicts. Addicts who have hit rock bottom and been stuck together in rehab to face their problems, face sobriety, and face themselves. None of them wants to be there. None of them wants to confront the truths about their pasts. And they certainly don’t want to share their darkest secrets and most desperate fears with a room of strangers. But they’ll all have to deal with themselves and one another if they want to learn how to live. Because when you get that high, there’s nowhere to go but down, down, down.
Now, here’s what Amy had to say about it, and other things:
TEM: Your previous book, Beautiful, was written from one person’s point of view, while Clean has five different narrators. How was this easier/harder/different for you as a writer?
It was definitely more challenging, but in a lot of ways way more exciting to see the world of the book from five very different perspectives. It was fun to think about characters not only in how they saw themselves, but also in how others saw them. I was able to approach the story as if it were a collage instead of one narrative line, which led to surprise connections and juxtapositions I hadn’t planned.
TEM: In our 11/2009 interview, you said “What I think does come naturally to me is an obsessive curiosity about what motivates people to do the things they do, which definitely helps my writing.” How did that come into play with Clean?
I really wanted to find out how and why these characters became addicts, and I wanted to portray their stories in a way that the reader could find compassion for them, even if they didn’t necessarily relate. I was obsessed with finding out why their needs to escape reality were so strong, why they were so afraid to feel. I couldn’t just write a story where these things were taken for granted. There are too many books already about drugs that have no respect for the disease of addiction, that don’t acknowledge the psychology and incredible pain behind drug abuse. I refused to write a book like that, one that looks at something so complicated in such a shallow way.
TEM: Aside from the five addicts, there are a bunch of other interesting characters in Clean: the other kids in rehab for example, but also the counselors. I think Shirley is my favorite, but she’s also a hard one to pin down. Can you say more about her?
I think Shirley personifies the idea of “tough love.” She’s straightforward and incredibly honest, and she doesn’t try to protect people’s feelings from the truth. This can be hard to take, but in this situation I think it was the best thing for these characters. They trusted her because she was so brutally honest, which gave them courage to open up. They knew she was hard on them because she actually gave a shit. But despite how hard she was a lot of the time, I think Shirley was also incredibly kind and cared about her patients a lot. There are a few little moments where she shows incredible tenderness.
TEM: Near the end of Clean, someone mentions that 90% of those released from rehab go back to using, which is a startling number. And yet I felt that all five of your characters had endings that made me feel hopeful for them. Do you think any of them use again?
Maybe. It’s hard to say. I know lots of people who went to rehab as kids and it didn’t take. Maybe they weren’t ready. Maybe they hadn’t hit their bottom. But these people I know definitely found their bottom eventually, and luckily some of what they learned the first time around stuck, and they knew what to do to get help when they were ready. But I also know people who got sober in their teens and have stayed sober ever since, who lead amazing, full lives and have no desire to drink or use again. Some of their bottoms were really low, others not as much. But they all decided they had had enough. They were done. I hope that’s true for Kelly, Christopher, Eva, Jason, and Olivia. I hope they believe in their hearts that they are done and will do what it takes to stay sober. And if they do relapse, which according to statistics is unfortunately likely, I hope they find their way back before it’s too late.
TEM: Part of what I like so much about Clean is that each kid comes from a different background and using situation, but, after some time, they are able to like and help each other. Did you mean for that to be a metaphor for life in general, or am I just projecting here? J
Of course! In some ways, these characters were lucky to have been forced together in this situation. Because it was such a small community, it was perhaps more easy for them to become so intertwined. But I hope the example of this little microcosm illustrates that it’s possible to connect with people who may surprise you, that behind all the walls we put up, all the trends and styles we use as disguises, we are all basically the same–loving, hurting, breathing, scared, lonely–and we all basically want the same thing most of the time–to feel a part of something, to feel safe.
TEM: I know, from seeing your Simon Pulse video, that Beautiful was a personal book for you. Rather than asking about the personal nature of Clean, I want to know your thoughts on how it feels, putting things out there in this book-writing way.
It can be scary, exploring such deep stuff that I know thousands of people are going to read, especially if it’s personal. But I believe I create the best work when I’m at least a little bit scared. For me, art has to be vulnerable. That’s the only way I’ve found that I can fully access truth. And I always try to remember that there are kids out there who need to read this stuff. I try to remember these books are bigger than me.
TEM: On a personal note, how has your life changed, if at all, since the release of your two books, and what have you learned in the past two years?
Life has definitely changed in the last couple years, but I wouldn’t say it’s because of the books, although the books have definitely been a big bonus. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned, and I guess this relates to writing a little, is to just let things go sometimes. I’m a bit of a control freak, and I care a lot about what people think about me. I tend to obsess about things, and that accomplishes nothing but making me miserable. So it’s liberating to recognize there are certain things I just don’t have control over–like how many books I sell, how many good reviews I get, if people like me, etc. All I have control over is what I do. And if I’m OK with that, if I know I’m acting with integrity, the other stuff doesn’t really matter.
TEM: On your website, there’s a link for “If You Need Help” with a ton of great resources. I hope, that after Beautiful and Clean, you’re getting feedback that you’re making a difference. Is that the case? And, any last thing you want to say here to anyone needing help (or knows someone who does)?
This is seriously the best part of writing for me, when teens reach out and tell me they relate, that my books have helped them feel less alone, that they have found some hope. I got a message from a girl the other day who went to rehab at fifteen and has been sober a year and a half, and there was so much strength and wisdom in her note. It made me cry, and I feel so grateful that I have the opportunity to do this, to connect to readers like her. There are great resources and communities online for kids needing help, which can be lifesavers especially if you feel like you don’t have adults in your life that you can trust. I think the most important thing is recognizing you’re not alone. People have felt the exact same things as you, and they have survived. They are living full, meaningful lives, and they are stronger because of living through their challenges. Pain sucks, but it passes. Everything changes eventually.
And for those who know someone who needs help, the best thing you can do is let them know you’re there for them and you love them. If it’s really serious and you’re afraid for their safety and don’t think they’re in a condition to help themselves, sometimes the best thing to do is the hardest. Sometimes you have to ask for help for them. Maybe they’ll be mad at you. Maybe they’ll never forgive you. But if it saves their life, it’s worth it.
Songs In My Head Upon Waking In the Last Week:
“Abigail Adams,” by City and Horses; “Sorrow,” by The National; “Last Night Music Saved My Life” (mashup) by MadMixMustang; “La Valse D’Amelie,” by Yann Tiersen; “Is This It?” by the Strokes; “Times Like These,” by the Foo Fighters