Manuela Salvi: How to write controversial stories
21st Sep 2016
Use your memory
Adults don’t know every single thing going on in children’s and teenagers’ lives. There’s a secret world, a secret language that young people share. When the parents of very young killers are seen on the news, they have this stunned look in their eyes: “We had no idea.”
We have no idea. But we can remember. We were young and we were mischievous now and then, even wicked, most of us. We used to love forbidden things, we cursed when no adults were around, we liked to challenge the rules both at home and at school. It’s how we grew up, testing the limits in one way or another.
So recollect your memories, look for authenticity and then convey it in what you write. As a writer, you should always be in the company of your young self’s ghost: the best advisor ever about what is suitable for young readers and what is not.
Unveil the lies
The first thing my screenwriting teacher said in class, a few years ago, was: “You want to be a writer? Start by finding out how many lies you have told yourself.”
I agree. We are all skilled liars because we can fake smiles and pretend to be what we are not, we don’t cry in public, we willingly fable about our choices and behaviours. And we believe what we make up!
Make a list, and begin. Once you have realised how subtle mendacity can be, you should also be able to detect anything in your story that may sound untrue to young readers.
My biggest lie? I told myself that I’d never grow up and now I’m in shock. It serves me right.
Find the shades
No topic is black and white. A good, well-balanced story will always give space to both theme (the right thing) and counter-theme (the opposite, wrong thing which sounds ominously alluring).
Take Melvin Burgess’s Junk: some gatekeepers accused him of showing the fun side of drug addiction. They didn’t realise that it was only by exploring the issue in all its shades that Burgess could be honest when trying to show how bad drugs actually are.
Honesty is everything for a controversial writer, because it allows readers to trust what they read and keeps you away from preaching.
Work on language
Yes, teenagers swear all the time. I love curse words and in my private life I’m rather foulmouthed – but my characters are not. Yes, sex is all about genitals, but I wrote a whole novel packed with explicit sex scenes without mentioning them once.
The reader can clearly understand what’s going on, my writing is utterly visual, but I’m never too specific.
Once again, I believe in shades when we write, and curse or sex words are too obvious to really unpack a feeling. Controversial writers must be honest but they don’t need to mirror reality because their playing field is still fiction.
Actually, language is the most effective tool we have to differentiate fiction from documentaries, pornography and rap music (joke intended) when we deal with tough topics.
Your story should resound in your readers’ hearts thanks to your original voice and your approach to the narrative. Personally, I first create the characters that I’d have respected and cherished when I was young: everyday ‘heroes’ who make a difference.
Then I add a touch of humour even in the most tragic scenarios, just to ease the pain here and there. Lastly, I choose a bittersweet ending, a mix of hope and scars, which should leave the reader with more questions than answers.
Questions are the answer. Every controversial writer knows that.
This means one thing: research your topic. Girl Detached required distressing research into underage prostitution because I didn’t know anything about it; I wasn’t the bit slightest similar to Aleksandra (the main character), so I also needed to identify with that kind of shy-naive girl.
Research will give your work consistency; mastering your topic will make your story more substantial and you more aware that beyond fiction there are too many people who are suffering and struggling because of the issue you want to deal with.
Don’t indulge in docufiction
You have researched for months. You could take an MA on the topic. You found out millions of interesting facts that you absolutely want to include in your novel.
Think twice. Breathe. Discard. Discard. Discard again. You’re writing a novel and what really matters is the story: characters, relationships, feelings, turning points, conflict (see Sara Crossan’s One). You’re not writing an essay or reportage.
Recently I read a book about a girl who suffers from a severe injury, and I am now informed about every single medical and technical detail of her case.
But her story didn’t leave me with anything more than that, because the author let herself be carried away by her own research, and neglected the storytelling once past the inciting incident.
The real controversial writer doesn’t preach and that’s exactly why she’s controversial; because she doesn’t judge her characters.
Gatekeepers, on the other hand, usually make “highly subjective value judgements” (White, 1950) because they seek to divide the entire world into Good and Evil people, and sleep well.
Of course what you think about the whole issue will shine through your writing, but you should never be tempted to turn your narrative universe into a courthouse.
Don’t be your own gatekeeper
It’s called self-censorship: you are typing something and then you wonder whether what you have just written is going to be appropriate. To avoid being questioned, you decide to edit it out.
When I was writing Girl Detached, I edited out a scene in which the main character’s friend explains to her the different shapes and sizes of boys’ ‘popsicles’. I didn’t find it gross and it was fun to write but when I re-read it, it just didn’t match the story, it wasn’t thematic.
So when you are not sure if you went too far, just ask yourself: is this really necessary to the theme? If the answer is yes, go ahead and don’t be scared – your readers will understand. Gatekeepers may not, but never mind.
Don’t give up
This is the most difficult part. I’ve had two books banned in my career and it’s a life-changing experience, especially when you are not invited to the round tables where other people discuss how harmful your work is to young readers.
I protested on social media, I wrote emails and articles to make them see my point, but nothing worked. Eventually, I left my country and started a new chapter in my writing life.
But I was sure they were wrong because of one important thing: my readers’ reaction. Young readers know better, trust them. If they love your book, if they are moved by that point of the story that makes gatekeepers wince, you hit the mark.
Manuela Salvi is the author of Girl Detached, translated by Denise Muir and out now from Bucket List Books. Find out more about Girl Detached‘s journey to publication, read an extract, or find out why it was banned in its homeland of Italy.