Sense and sensitivity

I hadn’t intended to blog today but I received an email from a writer friend that has made me think about writers and the responsibility they have to deal with difficult subjects sensitively and with good sense.

ITL?_new packshotMy friend has just read Is This Love? and said nice things about it. But she also said that she found it unsettling because her younger daughter is disabled.ย In this book the heroine, Tamara, has a sister, Lyddie, who needs more care than most adults after a hit-and-run incident in her teens. Is This Love? gave my friend a ‘flash forward’ look at how things might be for her family as her daughter grows older, especially for her other, able-bodied daughter.

I thanked my friend for sharing her thoughts – they really gave me pause. At the time, one of the things that worried meย  about writing the book was whether readers would think Tamara was wrong for having the hots for Jed, when Lyddie had had such a teen crush on him! I ran a Facebook conversation about it and everyone said they thought it was OK because Lyddie/Jed had been so young, so I included all their feedback in Tamara’s thoughts. But this morning’s email showed me that it certainly wasn’t the only area where I could have jumped all over people’s feelings.

I’m sorry if I made my friend think of things that she’d rather not, I really am. Writing the book came out of guilt. When I was a teen we had a friend – we’ll call him Tom – who suffered head injury when hit by a car. It wasn’t hit-and-run, as it was for Lyddie inย Is This Love? Tom just did something careless, but the effect was the same. He was reasonably OK for friends as long as we were all teens, but when we got a bit older I’m afraid we left him behind. We got married, got jobs, went to uni, etc etc. I know that he began to go to the pub and had no sense of when to stop drinking and other drunkards used to drag him home. He had a younger brother who used to do his best for him … but I recently discovered that the younger brother died in his early thirties, which made me feel worse. I don’t know if Tom’s still around, or his parents.

I channelled some of my feelings and thoughts about Tom into Lyddie and her family.

I also knew (and really disliked, but that’s a different story) a woman whose daughter had cerebral palsy after a difficult birth. However much I didn’t like the woman, she was ever-conscious of what was best for her daughter, and I admired her for that. I can even accept that some of her less endearing qualities related to the sacrifices that she’d made. I used to speak to her about the daughter going into respite care at weekends, how the younger (able-bodied) sister coped, and stuff like that, so I utilised some of that knowledge for Lyddie, also.

Research is fascinating but today has shown me how much a writer should think about readers in ways more than just book sales.





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19 responses to “Sense and sensitivity

  1. julielees

    You could look at it another way and say you have achieved with your novel what all good books should do: raise awareness and incite debate. If you think of it that way, it’s a positive result.


    • Thank you – I’m with you on this one. I don’t set out to write issue-led books but if I have raised awareness of something without hacking anyone off, then I’m happy. ๐Ÿ™‚


  2. I think you’re right, Sue. We all have something to say and should think very carefully how to say it. In my latest book, one of my characters is bullied by more than one person and it leads to a tragic outcome. At the outset I wondered if I should explore these issues in a novel because of the reasons you outlined. I personally haven’t been bullied in this way, but in my past role as a teacher, I knew people who had. I decided I would write about it, as unfortunately it is part of life, but I hope I have handled it thoughtfully without losing the impact of just how horrific and totally unacceptable bullying is. .


    • Thanks, Mandy. I wrote a little about bullying in Love & Freedom. I didn’t set out to. I had a character in mind and wasn’t sure what his issues were … then suddenly I realised that he was frightened of someone and his life was being made a misery.


  3. Great post – and often an aspect of publishing that’s overlooked. I think any contemporary book is going to have its shady areas, where you know you need to cover real-life issues, but have to find a way to do it with sensitivity as well as realistically. There are certain subject matters I won’t deliberately pick up to read, due to my own history, but if they crop up unexpectedly, and are dealt with responsibly, they don’t have as much negative effect as they would if they had just been thrown in there for ‘shock’ value.


  4. Very interesting post Sue and it is a difficult thing sometimes. I know I’ve avoided reading certain books because the subject was something I wasn’t sure I was able to read about. As to the effect on a family of something like your story a friend of mine was one of three sisters and the youngest was disabled. It had a huge effect on them all both positive and negative.


    • Good point about the positivity, Angela. In ITL, Lyddie is a joy to have around for the vast majority of the time. Small things make her happy and she’s very loving. Not all able-bodied adults can make that claim.


  5. A deep thought provoking post, Sue. Like your books actually! You always manage to go deeper into a particular subject which is a lesson to all us aspiring writers. All I can say is, keep writing your issue-aware novels please!


  6. kirstyferry

    Very interesting. I always hesitate to deal with the murkier side of things, but I asked a few friends about something II was writing that I thought was controversial at the time. They all said the same – handle it with sensitivity and be genuine, and nobody can complain.


  7. A thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Sue. For me, Is This Love gave an even greater awareness of how a special needs member of a family affects all those around it. The strength of Lyddie’s characterisation was in the way you portrayed that how much she was loved.This is my favourite of all your books so far.


  8. Zana

    Thoughtful and thought provoking, Sue. Just moving your book to the top of my TBR pile on the strength of this post.


  9. beverleyeikli

    Don’t know why my response from a couple of days ago didn’t show up, but yes, what a though-provoking topic for both a blog post and your book.


  10. This is a very thoughtful post, and it shook me out of my writerly bubble (you know, the place where we invent situation and people and their difficulties). I completely understand your worry that you may – inadvertently – have stepped on someone’s toes (no one likes to do that), but think about all the people who have learned something about life from reading your book. People who have become that little bit wiser from reading about someone else’s difficult situation.
    In my novel “The Elephant Girl” (pardon the shameless plug here!) I deal partly with the issue of living with epilepsy, and I’ve had a lot of positive responses from people who feel they understand the condition so much better and that it’ll make them think differently next time they meet someone who suffers from it.


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