A Conversation with for Susan Vaught on Going UndergroundQ: In your novel Trigger, your experiences working with teens in your capacity as a practicing psychiatrist inspired and informed the story. Were there any professional or personal experiences that motivated you to write Going Underground?
Both professional and personal experiences inspired this story. It has always been apparent to me that the teens I saw in therapy (and their parents) had no understanding of laws governing adolescent sexual relationships—or that there were any laws at all, outside of the better-known prohibition against adults exploiting minors. I had more than one devastated patient who, other than not knowing these laws and engaging in a relationship or action that violated them, had never done anything “wrong” in their lives and never intended wrong in the situation that occurred. It was crushing to them, and frustrating for me.Q: You have a talent for taking serious issues—issues some would say are contentious in the teen forum—such as suicide (Trigger), online predators (Exposed), and now the Romeo and Juliet laws (Going Underground) and making them accessible. You also tactfully bring levity into these thought-provoking stories. Would say your approach to handling these topics is similar to how you approach life? Please explain.
This is exactly how I try to approach my life, especially now that I’ve moved on to working in an inpatient psychiatric setting. The day-to-day tragedy can be mind-numbing to observe, but the natural humor and poignancy combats that for me. My patients, adults and teens alike, often have incredible insight into their situations and illnesses, and use humor themselves as a coping skill. With teens, no subject can be off the table, contentious or otherwise, because they have to able to ask questions and learn and find their ways over obstacles—many of which they have not created for themselves. Likewise, no teen needs to feel lost or discarded or “kicked off the planet,” as Del often perceives himself to be, so I want to give them voices whenever I am able to do so.Q: You also allow the reader into the subject through the eyes of the person experiencing it, rather than through an observer, so the novel becomes a character driven story, not a subject driven one. Why did you choose to take this route of storytelling?
I’d love to give a deep philosophical answer to this question, but the truth is, first-person, through the eyes of the teen character, seems to be my natural writing voice. I think this arises from how I work to see the world through the eyes of my patients and students, so I can better meet them where they are on the road to recovery.Q: You use lines from songs instead of chapter titles for most of the book. Are you a big music fan yourself? How and why did you decide to “title” your chapters this way?
I am a huge music fan. I have almost twelve solid days’ worth of music on my iPod, and buy more frequently. I also tend to play one song obsessively while writing various chapters or aspects of a story, so much so that my family boots me out to my writing cabin or insists on headphones if I stay in the main house. Even when I’m not playing music, my life has a soundtrack, and did in my teen years. I thought it would be interesting to capture that aspect, to let Del have it and see what happened.Q: Fred the farting, burping, wisecracking parrot adds some levity and humor to the story. Why did you feel it was important to add these elements to the book? Why a parrot? Where did the inspiration for Fred come from?
Like music, animals form a continual soundtrack to my own life. I think the role of pets often gets lost in stories that aren’t specifically about animals, and I think pets are very important to many teens. My own farting, burping wisecracking parrot is certainly a large part of my day, and I can only imagine how that would have played out if I had come across her in my teen years. My Frank is definitely the inspiration for Fred, and Frank does/says most of the things Fred does. I have learned a lot from Frank, and I thought Del could learn from Fred, too. I chose a parrot because Frank is inspirational for me, but also because I think parrots haven’t gotten a lot of press in books, at least in favorable or accurate ways.Q: Gravedigger is not a profession that springs quickly to mind when thinking of jobs people do. What made you choose this job for Del?
My teen patients with sex offenses have essentially no chance of getting “real jobs.” They have all struggled to find any paying position, and most often end up doing something out-of-the-way, definitely in the manual labor category. Please understand that when I say “sex offense,” I am intending to define the term in the eyes of the laws and how they’re employed, not necessarily what you might be thinking. I can remember one situation where a slightly intoxicated young man relieved himself against the back outer wall of a grocery store. He was observed by an officer, ticketed, and ultimately convicted for indecent exposure—which required sex offender registry, and robbed him of his dream of being a teacher forever. He was nineteen at the time. So, in picking graves for Del, I think I might have been expressing my own frustration, and making a statement about what options we’re leaving available for teens in this situation.Q: Animals play a big part in the novel – why did you decide to feature them so prominently? What is about this menagerie that makes them such a good foil for Del?
I think animals make a good foil for Del because he shares a similar gentle, guileless nature. He knows what it feels like to be mishandled and roughly and callously treated by all-powerful people over whom he has no control, so I think he relates well to animals in all sorts of situations. I featured animals prominently because doing so fit well with the story and with these characters.Q: As a woman who works closely with teens and is raising teen(s), how do you reconcile the Romeo and Juliet laws with the reality of what you know and observe happening with kids as they navigate their relationships and sexuality in the technological age?
Well, my teens are grown now, but I worried about issues like this when they were younger. I do not believe the laws are keeping up with adolescent lives, behavior, and technology. The “not keeping up” accusation is perhaps a bit stale and to me, doesn’t come close to underscoring the impact of these statutes. It reminds me of “Blue Laws” which made absolute sense in the moral and ethical systems of the times they were created. We would react with horror now if law enforcement shut down a business establishment for selling socks and frying pans on a Sunday, and drove that small business owner out of business, sent him into bankruptcy, and destroyed his life. That’s essentially what we’re doing to teens. We’re holding them accountable to antiquated moral standards and laws that even their parents and adult advisors don’t know about and/or don’t understand. Then we’re putting them on par with felons convicted of the most heinous crimes. With the burden of that association, with lives and futures smashed to less than toothpicks, they’re supposed to grow into healthy and productive adults. That’s asking a lot.Q: Many readers will echo Livia’s disbelief and shock when they find out about Del’s situation and how he got there. Did you feel the same way when you first learned about the Romeo and Juliet laws? How do you feel about the state of these laws today?
When I saw what that one family went through long ago, agreeing to plea for the young man who urinated on a wall after drinking too much—then realizing what it meant for his future—my exact thought was, you have GOT to be kidding. But it was no joke. During the research for this book, when I asked a local prosecutor about a “grace period”—what if she’s one day under the age and he’s one day over (or vice-versa)—and was told there is no grace period, the one day over is one day over and in the eyes of the law, that young man or woman is guilty of a felony—again—you have GOT to be kidding. I understand the concept of being tough on sexual offenders, but I can’t imagine lawmakers saw into the future and imagined teens caught up in situations like this. Many states are beginning to make provisions for adolescents engaging in consensual activity, but it’s happening slowly, and often without any retroactive component. Also, the whole issue of sexting and internet activity (from cyberbullying to viral videos/photos)—laws really need to catch up with the times. In the meantime, parents and teens and anyone who works with teens should have a reasonable knowledge of the laws of the state where they reside. For example, one parent I know confiscated her daughter’s cell phone after finding that her daughter had sent her boyfriend a racy picture, and he sent one back to her. Both were underage, and under the age of consent. It never occurred to the parent that when she held on to the cell and those pictures without destroying them, informing law enforcement, etc.—and when she showed them to her husband and the parents of the young man involved so that they could take appropriate action—that she became guilty of violating mandatory reporting laws, not to mention possessing and distributing child pornography. In the wrong situation, with the wrong prosecutor, she could face many years in prison for that “offense.” The situation as it stands is truly frightening for both teens and parents, and I hope it’s remedied soon across all fifty states.Contributor: Bloomsbury Publishing Reviews
Del is seventeen, working in a graveyard, and, as per a court order, visiting a therapist at least twice a month. Del’s story is slow to unravel, moving from the present to three years ago. His life now is a shadow of what it was. Though he remains a good student, he is barred from getting into most colleges and, thanks to his felony conviction, bears a stigma that will impossible to erase. Del spends most of his time digging graves, talking to his pet parrot, and trying to keep out of trouble. When he meets a girl at the graveyard, he longs to get close to her, but is terrified of telling her about his past. In bits and pieces, Del reveals that when he was fourteen, he and his girlfriend, Cory, who was thirteen, sent each other sexual pictures. While they did not have sex, they did touch each other in sexual ways. These pictures land Del, Cory, and some friends in trouble. Because Del was the age of consent (here, fourteen) and Cory was not, only Del gets charged with three counts of rape of a child (though they did not have sex and their sexual contact was consensual), as well as charged with possession of child pornography. Now, three years later, he is urged to testify to help change the laws, but Del is hesitant to relive his trouble again. Del’s story is painful and complex. Because what happened is revealed so slowly, readers have the time to get to know Del, understand what happened, and judge for themselves if his sentencing was just. Strong writing bolsters the vivid characters, from Harper the drunken graveyard owner, to Cherie the obsessed and misguided classmate. The timely topic of sexting and all of its unforeseen consequences will be eye-opening for readers. 2011, Bloomsbury Publishing, Ages 14 up, $16.99. Reviewer: Amanda MacGregor (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 978-1-59990-640-9 Updated 12/30/11 Back to Top