Q&A with C.K. Kelly Martin

C.K. Kelly Martin is the author of three YA books: I Know It’s Over, One Lonely Degree, and The Lighter Side of Life and Death. She studied English and Film in Toronto, worked for several years in Dublin, and now resides back in Toronto with her husband. In addition to being an amazing author, she was generous enough to do an interview about her books and influences, and offered a little information about the two books she has coming out next, both of which I am really looking forward to reading!

You don’t shy away from controversial topics in your writing. From sex and pregnancy to alcohol and drug use, you manage to portray pretty much all the hot topics. Have you ever been uncomfortable writing about these issues? How has your portrayal of them been perceived overall? I’m also curious whether there was ever any debate as to whether your books should be marketed as YA or adult?

Whenever I’m writing a book I feel compelled to follow the characters and their story wherever it takes them so often that is places that make me uncomfortable. For instance, it was very difficult emotionally to write the scene in One Lonely Degree where a guy from Finn’s school tries to sexually assault her at a party. But it’s important to talk about sexual assault because it occurs with such frequency (a U.S. survey on sexual assault and rape found that over 67% of all victims of sexual assault reported to law enforcement agencies were young people under the age of 18 at the time of the crime) and can have devastating effects. In my opinion some of the things that are hardest to deal with and that people avoid talking about are the ones that it’s actually most important to drag out into the light.

From what I’ve encountered, the reactions to my books vary widely. Some people love them and agree with my point of view that these topics are ones that need to be explored and some people struggle with them because they do feel uncomfortable but can also see some merit in them. Then there are other people who have a kneejerk reaction to the books and somehow think that if teenagers don’t read about these topics in books they’ll avoid being exposed to them in real life.

I’ve always thought of my books as having crossover appeal but so far they’ve all been published as YA and there hasn’t been any debate about that.

Are there any topics that you would consider “off-limits” for a YA book?

There aren’t any topics I’d consider off-limits but treatments of difficult subject matter are different in YA books than in adult ones. For instance, YA books are generally more reluctant to have dark endings and are usually less sexually explicit.

In all three of your books, the main characters’ parents are separated or divorced. Was this a conscious decision, or simply a reflection of the high divorce rate these days? In what way do you think thee characters’ fractured families impacted their characterization?

The three YA books I wrote before I Know It’s Over, One Lonely Degree and The Lighter Side of Life and Death and the three I wrote after, have main characters whose parents are still married so I think it’s just that the ones that got published first happened to have divorced parents. But yeah, the high divorce rate is a reality that I keep in mind and my own parents are divorced so it seems a pretty normal state of affairs to me. I think Mason (in The Lighter Side) wasn’t very affected by his parents’ divorce but having his future stepmom and her kids move into his house impacts him greatly, mostly because his step-sister can’t stand him. Nick (in I Know It’s Over) is still hurting from his parents’ divorce a little, especially from his father’s absence at a time when he really needs him. He’s learned to outwardly walk a delicate balance in continuing to see his father although his sister has cut off ties but I think he still feels the effects of the divorce and that it’s left him feeling sort of emotionally tired and jaded. In One Lonely Degree Finn’s parents’ marriage falls apart during the course of the book and it hits her so hard that it helps set certain things in motion that might not have happened otherwise.

I read that before you were an author, you went to film school. How did your film background influence your writing style?

I went into university as an English major but got so distracted by film studies courses that it would’ve actually taken me much longer to graduate with an English degree than a film one so I applied to switch majors. Good movies are definitely as much of an inspiration to my writing as other books are – it’s all storytelling. Film school exposed me to so many amazing movies that I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise and hopefully I’ve internalized some of the things that work. I think many YA books, because they’re very concise and often really dialogue oriented, would translate very well to the screen.

You have written in both male and female voices. Do you have a preference between the two? Do you have to do anything differently to get into a male protagonist’s head?

I like the variety and don’t have a preference. There’s not anything different I have to do to get into a male character’s head; it’s all about being true to the actual character himself or herself. You really have to figure out who the person is before you start throwing them into situations so you know how they’ll react. My next two books are told from alternating points of view and have one male main character and one female one. It was interesting to go back and forth between the two voices.

If you could spend a day hanging out with any one of your characters, who would you choose?

Finn would be really easy to hang out with because our attitudes are a lot alike but I’m going to say Mason in the hopes that I would also get to see him act during the course of the day. I’d like a chance to see that raw talent before he gets discovered.

Music references are important in your books. What are some of the songs that have been most influential in your writing?

Halfway through my next book (My Beating Teenage Heart) I figured out that I was writing a book that felt exactly like The Airborne Toxic Event song Innocence makes me feel when I listen to it so that would be one of the songs at the top of the list. It’s amazing – one of the most raw, powerful songs I’ve heard in the past ten years.

There’d also be a ton of songs by British musician/political activist Billy Bragg who has been my biggest inspiration through the years both because of the way his intelligence, charm, sincerity, sense of romance and dedication to social justice all gel in his music. I definitely have to include the Leonard Cohen classic So Long Marianne which is so beautiful that it both makes me ache and sends me into a state of awe every time I hear it. I heard him sing it along with The Barenaked Ladies in Toronto once a few years ago and when he jumped in with the line. “You held on to me like I was a crucifix, as we went kneeling through the dark” such a chill ran down my spine.

What were your favorite books or authors as a teen? What is one contemporary book that you wish you had been able to read as a teenager?

I was a huge Judy Blume fan as a kid and in my early teens and also loved the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townshend because I was a major Anglophile, even back then. I remember liking teen books by Richard Peck and Norma Fox Mazer too, especially Up in Seth’s Room. I would love to get my hands on a copy now and read it again. There are so many amazing contemporary YA books that it’s tough to choose one but given my sensibility as a teenager (and even now) I think I would’ve really been able to relate to the main character in Notes From the Teenage Underground by Simone Howell who is artistic and kind of antisocial and trying to find out how to really be her own person.

Is there anything you can share about your upcoming writing projects or publications?

I’m about to start revisions on my fourth YA book, My Beating Teenage Heart, which is about a seventeen-year-old guy named Breckon who holds himself responsible for the death of his seven-year-old sister and is grieving deeply. But it’s also from the mysterious point of view of a teenage girl who watches him from close range. And my fifth book, Delicate, is about two second-cousins (male and female) with their own problems who become reacquainted one summer after not seeing each other for years due to a family feud. These novels will be out in September 2011 and May 2012 respectively.


2 Responses to "Q&A with C.K. Kelly Martin"

  • I really, REALLY want to read The Lighter Side of Death. I also want to read I know its Over. They both sound great and I really enjoyed One Lonely Degree.

    Great interview!

    1 Kelley Vitollo said this (June 28, 2010 at 6:56 PM)

  • C.K. Kelly Martin is one of my favourite authors. I’ve loved all three of her books and am so looking forward to the next.

    “Whenever I’m writing a book I feel compelled to follow the characters and their story wherever it takes them so often that is places that make me uncomfortable.” <- And I think that's the same reason her books resonate so deeply with people.

    Fantastic interview!!

    2 courtney summers said this (June 29, 2010 at 8:04 PM)