*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*
Title: Confessions of a Teenage Leper
Author: Ashley Little
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Publication Date: September 25, 2018
Synopsis from Goodreads:
Abby Furlowe has plans. Big plans. She’s hot, she’s popular, she’s a cheerleader and she’s going to break out of her small Texas town and make it big. But then she notices some spots on her skin. She writes them off as a rash, but things only get worse. By the time her seventeenth birthday rolls around, she’s tried every cream and medication the doctors have thrown at her, but nothing works. When she falls doing a routine cheerleading stunt and slips into a coma, her mystery illness goes into overdrive and finally gets diagnosed: Hansen’s Disease, aka leprosy. Abby is sent to a facility to recover and deal with this new reality. But it’s during this recovery that Abby has to learn to live with something even more difficult than Hansen’s Disease. She’s becoming aware of who she really was before and what her behavior was doing to others; now she’s on the other side of the fence looking in, and she doesn’t like what she sees. . .
I had a chance to ask Ashley Little a few questions. A huge THANK YOU to Ashley for taking the time to answer my questions and to give you, dear readers, a glance at her inspiration and her writing space. Check out our conversation, followed by a book review below.
1. Featuring a character who struggles with Hansen’s disease is really unique. What inspired you to write a character with such a rare and unusual illness?
Kind of a long story, but while I was doing my undergraduate degree in creative writing, a prof assigned our class a historical fiction piece. So we had to find something in British Columbia’s history that interested us and then research it using three different sources (microfiche, interviews, encyclopedias, maps, etc. i.e. not the Internet) and then write a short story about it. I found out about a place called D’Arcy Island; a leper colony on a tiny island off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, not far from where I was going to university, in Victoria; it ran from 1891-1924. I did my research and wrote a short story from the perspectives of four men and one woman that had lived there. The idea had always stayed with me because it was so haunting, and the people sent there lived in really poor conditions and were basically sent there to die, not get better. So, about ten years later, I decided it was time to write a novel about D’Arcy Island; I went to the island and stayed three nights and visited the orchard they had kept and saw the foundations of the buildings that had housed them. I did about six months of research towards a historical fiction novel and sometime in the spring of 2015, June, I think, my friend sent me this article because he knew I was researching leprosy/HD, and it basically said that leprosy/HD is alive and well in the United States today in states like Texas, Florida, and Louisiana, because these states have high populations of armadillos and armadillos can transmit leprosy/Hansen’s Disease to humans and vice versa.
And that, just that one line about it still being a disease in these modern times — gave me the idea to do a young adult novel set in present day about a character who is very concerned with appearances and ends up contracting Hansen’s Disease. The whole novel shot into my mind like a single, focused, beam of light after reading that short article. And the next day, or maybe a few days later, Abby started talking to me and after that, there was no shutting her up.
2. What struggles did you encounter in the writing of this book?
I originally had a different storyline for Dean, one that did not end well for him… My editors at Penguin Randomhouse thought that it was detracting and distracting from the main storyline – Abby’s struggle with Hansen’s Disease – and so they wanted me to change it.
I was sort of attached to that storyline because it was really powerful emotionally (I thought) so I didn’t want to change it as much as they were suggesting. But I eventually came around to seeing that they were right, and that it would be stronger to focus on Abby’s journey without clouding it up with Dean’s. That’s why editors are so great – because they see what you can’t… but if you can just let go of your ego for a minute and trust their guidance – you end up with a better story for it.
3. Abby’s family looks like the perfect nuclear family from the outside, but there’s so much difficulty going on behind the scenes. Without giving too much away,why did you decide to bring in a secondary, but very intense conflict with Abby’s brother in addition to very difficult diagnosis?
Dean is the metaphorical ‘leper.’ He represents the teens who feel like outcasts and freaks (but not because of a disfiguring disease – just because that’s who they are).
4. Did your experience writing Confessions differ from that of your previous books? If so, can you tell me how it differed? If not, how was it the same?
I really liked the dynamic between Abby and Dean and I had a lot of fun writing their dialogue. I sometimes laughed out loud at the ridiculous things Dean would say or do and I hadn’t really had that experience before. Dean, although he’s a colossal jerk, was a joy to write.
5. What does your writing space look like?
It’s a desk in the corner of my 2 year old daughter’s bedroom. The desk is not actually a desk. It’s a small, old wooden dresser that’s been converted into a desk. I think we found it at the side of the road about 15 years ago. Then I work on a PC so it’s all set up ergonomically. On the wall behind my desk I stick HUGE pieces of paper (giant sticky notes) and keep my plotline, timeline, character charts, and notes on those. When I was working on this novel I had green sticky notes of scenes and ideas stuck all over the wall for about a month, I would re-arrange them daily as I tried to figure out the climax and the ending.
6. Do you have other novels or ideas in the works? Anything you’re particularly excited about?
Yes! Right now I’m working on a thriller for adults about a writer who has a stalker. It’s called Creep.
This quick, but quirky novel shows the transformation of the selfish, mean girl, queen bee of the high school to a thoughtful and driven teen after a diagnosis of Hansen’s disease forces her to reevaluate her life. I enjoyed that Little chose to shed some light on a less well-known disease, especially in today’s society. Abby struggles to shake off her shallow mask that she’s hidden behind for so long in order to truly learn about herself and who she wants to be. Although I didn’t really love Abby as a person/character, I thought that her story was incredibly interesting and unique compared. Abby is a bit of an awful human being, but we do get to see her grow and improve as the story goes on. Her mind opens and so do the various doors of her life as she grows in her recovery. This story layers intense family drama in layers so that it’s not just Abby’s story that we get to see. We get to know her family and its troubles quite intimately through the story. These struggles strengthen the characters’ bonds with one another and lead to self-discovery, especially on Abby’s part. Confessions of a Teenage Leper is an interesting read for sure.