By Malinda Lo
Last summer I was honored to have Tess Sharpe in my writing workshop at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Writers Retreat. From the moment I read her submission to the workshop, I could tell that she was a writer to watch — and guess what? Her debut novel, Far From You, a mystery about a girl investigating the death of her best friend, comes out this week from Disney Hyperion.
I loved Far From You for Tess’s lovely writing, the beautifully described landscape of Northern California, and the fact that protagonist, Sophie Winters, is bisexual and disabled — but those identities don’t define or limit her. I asked Tess to answer a few questions about her debut and the novel itself.
Malinda Lo: How would you, personally, describe Far From You to potential readers? Don’t worry about writing breathless cover copy! Just tell us how you conceptualize your book.
Tess Sharpe: I’d say Far From You is a love story tied in a murder mystery bow.
ML: This is your debut novel — congratulations! What was your publication process like?
TS: It was such a great learning experience. I love revision, so being able to work closely with my editor was fantastic. And Hyperion and Indigo, my British publisher, have the most amazing, creative people. I loved working with and learning from them.
My road to publication was either very long or short, depending on how you look at it. I’d been writing with the goal to be published for seven years and had gone through five other projects before I wrote Far From You. In retrospect, I’m so grateful those other books never went anywhere, because even though I learned a lot by writing them, this was the right one.
ML: Far From You isn’t told in a linear fashion; the story jumps around in time to reveal the mystery. I thought you did a great job with this storytelling technique, and I wondered how you arrived at telling the story this way? It’s so hard to do!
TS: Thanks! It is hard, though I make lots of rules so I can rein myself in and not go too crazy.
I’m a big fan of messing with story structure, which probably comes from being a theatre kid. But once I’d plotted the book, the choice of structure really came down to Mina. I realized this was the only way to show her many sides—her sweetness and ruthlessness, the fear the drives her choices, the depth of her secretive nature and how it affects each of the characters, whether they know it or not. At least half of the story had to be in the past to reveal the complicated bond she and Sophie share.
ML: Sophie, the main character in Far From You, is bisexual, disabled, and she’s also a recovering addict. These three characteristics could overwhelm almost any fictional character by taking over the plot entirely, and yet the way you wrote Sophie, they simply became part of her as a three-dimensional human being. How did Sophie come into existence? Was she fully formed from the beginning or did she come to you more gradually?
TS: Oh, that’s so nice of you to say! Sophie came to me fully formed, but I definitely had moments, when writing her, where I thought, “Tess, you are heaping way too much on this girl.”
But then I thought about my teen years, my friends, the students I had when I taught acting, and the dizzying amount of good and bad everyone went through. I have a friend who calls the teen years an iceberg experience: what’s on the surface, what we see, is only a sliver of what’s actually going on in a teen’s life. There can be a lot of heavy stuff going on underneath a happy façade. And that’s what I tried to keep in mind when writing all the teen characters, because I am not terribly nice to them!
ML: And now for a spoilery question. Turn back if you don’t want to know!
In the past, gay and lesbian characters in many forms of media (TV, film, books) often wound up dying, as homosexuality could only be represented as a tragedy. As recently as 2005, Brokeback Mountain followed this very same story line. However, death sometimes happens in fiction because in reality, people die, and fiction that seeks to speak about reality must also therefore include death. In Far From You, a lesbian character does die, but not because she’s a lesbian. I think your book follows in the tradition of YA novels like Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher or Hold Still by Nina LaCour, rather than in the dead-lesbian trope. I wonder if we are finally moving beyond the stage in which LGBT characters must always be noble, and if we’re entering a stage in which they can also be human — and therefore, affected by things like death (just not in a dead-lesbian way). What do you think?
TS: I think we’re in a great time for LGBT books, mostly in thanks to writers like you, Brent Hartinger, Julie Anne Peters, David Leviathan, and Alex Sanchez, who laid such a solid foundation of amazing books. I remember being so encouraged and excited when I read Ash, because the focus wasn’t on Ash’s sexuality, but on love and freedom.
But I agree, I think the emphasis in media has started to slowly shift from nobility and lessons to humanity and a deeper, three-dimensional reality not defined only by sexuality. Our sexuality as LGBT individuals is hugely important—but it’s not the only thing about us. I think we’ve reached a “more than” stage, where people are really eager to talk and read and see other forms of media about characters that are much more than their sexuality. And that’s so exciting to me as a writer, because there are so many different aspects to explore!