by Greg Herren
When I was a teenager back in the Pleistocene era, I didn’t read books for teenagers. I learned how to read when I was four, and by the time I was ten my reading comprehension levels were college level. I went directly from the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and other mystery series for kids straight to Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Gone with the Wind, and The Godfather. On the rare occasions when a friend or a teacher would recommend I read a book for teenagers, I was almost without fail disappointed. That was the period of the ‘message book,’ or as I liked to call them, ‘the ABC Afterschool Special books.’ Go Ask Alice, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Lisa Bright and Dark, My Darling My Hamburger—the kids never seemed like anyone I actually knew or could identify with, and the message was so incredibly heavy-handed it was like being beaten over the head with a baseball bat. Don’t do drugs! Don’t have sex! Parents don’t understand but your friends will! Don’t do this, don’t do that, blah blah blah. (Although to be completely fair, rereading some of these books as an adult I have found that they weren’t as bad as I remembered; clearly I was a horrible snob about books when I was a teenager.)
And that doesn’t even take into account what I called ‘death books’, which were basically tragic romances where the main character nobly fought a fatal illness until dying beautifully while everyone weeps.
The problem I always had with books for teens (and for kids, really) was that it always seemed like the author was talking down to me as a reader. When I decided to try my hand at writing young adult fiction again (I tried years before I was published; I revised and rewrote the original manuscripts I wrote from start to finish to make them publishable), I was determined to write the kinds of books that I would have liked to read as a teenager—yet found myself writing a message into the first one, and even talking down to the readers. I was struggling with the book (Sleeping Angel), so I stepped away from it and realized the problem I was having with the writing was a subconscious worry that I was writing material and characters that would be considered too adult for teens. Once I stopped worrying about the possible ‘influence’ my writing might have on the readers, and started worrying about a plot that made sense, characters the readers could identify with, and the kinds of things I worried about when I wrote books for adults, the book started getting better and the writing got easier.
My most recent release, Dark Tide, was kind of a departure from what I had done before. I’ve always been primarily known as a mystery writer, and my y/a (and new adult) books had always straddled the line between mystery and horror. But with this new one, I wanted to try something different. I wanted to write something even darker than the books I’d already published, something with twists and turns that would keep the reader guessing every step of the way. But could you do noir for teens?
And then I discovered what I call Megan Abbott’s teen trilogy: Dare Me, The End of Everything, and The Fever. Abbott’s books aren’t targeted to teens, yet they are about teenagers, and they are incredibly dark. Her teens are very real; they go to class, roll their eyes at their parents, sneak out after dark, send text messages and have crushes, drink cheap wine and smoke cigarettes, and push the boundaries of what is and isn’t permissible as they experiment while trying to figure out just who they are and who they are going to become. But what happens to them is very adult, and how they deal with crimes and the darkness that lurks in the heart of every teenager makes for riveting reading. The rhythm of her words, and the way she uses imagery to move her story forward, is simply extraordinary.
Dark Tide is heavily influenced and inspired by Megan Abbott, and it was also one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever had writing a novel. I’m a little nervous about how it will be received, but no matter what anyone else thinks, I am very proud of it.
And I’m already looking forward to the challenge of the next one.
Greg Herren is the award winning author of over thirty novels and fifty short stories. He lives in New Orleans.