Author Melissa Walker is the master of the summer read. I read SMALL TOWN SINNERS back in July or August, and I was blown away by not only the story — a young girl coming to terms with her faith while a) falling in love with a “bad” boy and ) coveting a role in her town’s Hell House — but the sensitivity with which these tough topics were approached. I loved the characters, I felt like I knew them, and I wanted to hold their hands and say it would all be okay. And, okay, yeah…SMALL TOWN SINNERS is a bit heavy for what we normally think of as a summer read. But it’s got that sweet love story that we all expect from Ms. Melissa. I had so many questions, though, after I finished the book. So I’m psyched to present this interview with Melissa Walker:
E. Kristin Anderson: SMALL TOWN SINNERS was spawned by an article you wrote for ELLEgirl. How did this turn from a narrative nonfiction piece into a full-blown (awesome) novel?
Melissa Walker: The teens I met while working on that article talked to me for hours and hours about their lives, and I never forgot their world. I kept thinking about them, and finally I realized that I could fictionalize things and create a story about a small town doing a Hell House that held some of their spirit and thoughts.
EKA: What exactly is a Hell House?
MW: It’s a “haunted house of sin” that some churches do around Halloween where each scene is a different “sin” and guests are scared by these sins, plus demons and the devil, before eventually ending up with Jesus and receiving a decision card where they can agree to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior if they choose to.
EKA: I really liked that you never really specified where Lacey’s town was. Was this intentional? Did you ever consider making the setting a “real” town?
MW: Yes, it was intentional. I wanted it to be “anytown,” and I realize that sometimes giving a story a particular setting creates expectations from readers. That can be a good thing (LOVED exploring Austin in LOVESTRUCK SUMMER) but this story felt more like “any small town” to me.
EKA: I was really impressed with how respectfully you approached a lot of the religious aspects of your book. Was it difficult to remain neutral on so many of the controversies Lacey has to deal with?
MW: It was hard at first because my own personal views kept entering my head. But once I really got into Lacey’s mind (after writing a few chapters in her voice), I could follow her thoughts and feelings more clearly and stay within her “bubble,” so that helped a lot.
EKA: Teen pregnancy is also an issue that gets discussed in SMALL TOWN SINNERS. Was this difficult to write about from a perspective of faith?
MW: Yes, but I think it’s important to talk about sex, pregnancy and faith because there are lots of conflicts within the abstinence movement (the black-and-white “no sex is acceptable” viewpoint is simply not realistic for most young adults), and of course there’s still a big double standard in terms of girls/guys and this issue. Sometimes while I wrote I thought, “It’s like the 1960s,” but it really can be in some places. Still!
EKA: The promise ring comes up a few times in the book. And it’s mostly girls who wear them. Do you think girls are under more pressure to remain “pure” than guys?
MW: Oh heck yes. We are still in a wink-wink culture with guys, whereas girls are slut-shamed by not only the men in their lives but the women too. Don’t get me started.
EKA: One of Lacey’s friends is the victim of bullying, and the adults seem to think it’s not a big deal. How did writing this make you feel? And why do you think adults so often turn the other cheek?
MW: In the book, the bullying comes from a kid who also has problems, and I knew the adults would be aware of the whole situation where the main characters might not be. I think the adults in the book do try to do the right thing, actually, but it seems unfair and wrong to Lacey. It also felt unfair to me because I “cared” a lot about the character who was bullied. But everything has shades of gray, and the bully always has a story too, which is why I think these adults, at least, handled it the way they did.
EKA: Like Lacey, I also grew up in a small town, where it feels like everybody knows your business. You’ve written books that take place in big cities, but, you have to admit, there’s something fun about writing a cast of characters in this rural setting. What do you think attracts us – as writers and readers – to small towns?
MW: They are full of heart and charm. I love Brooklyn for its pockets of small-town feeling, but there is nothing like a Rural Route and a dusty, wildflower-lined lane. Small towns are rich and enchanting–in both good and bad ways.
EKA: Have you read anything great lately?
MW: Yes! I just read Cecil Castellucci‘s FIRST DAY ON EARTH and really loved it. It maintains this lost-out-west feeling throughout, and it was such a nice world to peek into. The main character had tremendous heart.
EKA: What are you working on now?
MW: My next novel is UNBREAK MY HEART, and it’ll be out in May 2012. I’ve got the copy edits in front of me, so it’s almost done! I’m back to telling a summer love/heartbreak story, and I hope people like it.
Thanks so much to Melissa Walker! If you haven’t read SMALL TOWN SINNERS yet, definitely find yourself a copy stat!