Monday, July 1, 2013

Interrogation Room #31: Chelsea Pitcher, Author of THE S-WORD

Our latest suspect -- er, author -- to face the interrogation room lights is Chelsea Pitcher, whose fabulous Young Adult debut, THE S-WORD, was called "a noirish mystery with swagger" and "a playful spin on the detective genre" by Publishers Weekly!

Our sources at Goodreads reveal that Chelsea Pitcher is a native of Portland, OR where she received her BA in English Literature. Fascinated by all things literary, she began gobbling up stories as soon as she could read, and especially enjoys delving into the darker places to see if she can draw out some light.

What's THE S-WORD about?

First it was SLUT scribbled all over Lizzie Hart’s locker.

But one week after Lizzie kills herself, SUICIDE SLUT replaces it—in Lizzie's looping scrawl.

Lizzie’s reputation is destroyed when she's caught in bed with her best friend’s boyfriend on prom night. With the whole school turned against her, and Angie not speaking to her, Lizzie takes her own life. But someone isn’t letting her go quietly. As graffiti and photocopies of Lizzie’s diary plaster the school, Angie begins a relentless investigation into who, exactly, made Lizzie feel she didn’t deserve to keep living. And while she claims she simply wants to punish Lizzie’s tormentors, Angie's own anguish over abandoning her best friend will drive her deep into the dark, twisted side of Verity High—and she might not be able to pull herself back out.

Let's see what Chelsea has to say when faced with our tough questions:

I remember your Publishers Marketplace announcement because it immediately intrigued me. It said that THE S-WORD was pitched as Veronica Mars meets THE SCARLET LETTER. Your main character, Angie, does share a trait or two with Veronica, namely her desire to uncover the truth no matter who might get hurt. Were you a big Veronica Mars fan? If so, in what ways did the show inspire you to write THE S-WORD? Did any other TV shows or films make an impression on you as a writer?

The funny thing is, I was introduced to Veronica Mars by my mother, who said, “Your father says she reminds him of you.” So Angie shares traits with Veronica, who shares traits with me. I’m not 100% sure which parts of her personality were inspired by Veronica, and which ones just came out of my natural proclivity for snarkiness. Other shows that have influenced me would be Roseanne, Titus and Pushing Daisies: shows that used humor to examine important social issues.  

Angie is not necessarily an unreliable narrator but she is a narrator who may perhaps be withholding information. Was this a deliberate parallel, that the reader can't get too close to her just like she guards herself from getting too close to the other characters? 

Definitely. At the time when we meet her, Angie is so closed off, due to the loss of her best friend and the betrayal of her boyfriend. Everyone she’s ever trusted has left her in some way, and she doesn’t have the ability to trust anymore. So she keeps everyone at a distance, her classmates, the reader…until she doesn’t anymore.  

As Angie digs deeper into the mystery, she learns that people are more well-rounded than she initially gave them credit for. Did you determine each character's motivations, fears, and vulnerabilities before you started to write, or did their hidden facets reveal themselves to you as you went along? 

It really depends on the character. Certain people, like Angie, Drake and Shelby, I had a pretty good understanding of from the start. Others, like Jesse, Marvin, and Kennedy, had a host of surprises up their sleeves. Even Lizzie, whose secrets fueled the entire story, was very protective of her secrets throughout my first drafts. It was only through writing, and rewriting, her diary entries that I came to understand what actually happened, and why.  

Jesse is one of the most memorable and unique love interests I've met. How did you come up with him?

Thank you! Jesse started out as an homage to characters like Angel from RENT and Ricky Vasquez from My So-Called Life: sweet, charismatic boys who refuse to be defined by rigid ideas of sex and gender. Truth be told, I never imagined that he would become such a main character. But Jesse’s light provided such a good balance to Angie’s darkness…it makes sense now, why they were drawn to each other.  

What was high school like for you? Was it a treacherous place like Verity High? Did you draw on any real-life incidents from your teen years when concocting the mystery?

High school was...uncomfortable for me, but not because people were vicious. At worst, I felt invisible. More than anything, when writing THE S-WORD, I looked to stories about today’s teens. There is so much slut-shaming and gay-bashing going on in schools right now, I honestly had too many examples to fit into one novel. But I tried my best to illustrate a composite of the different types of bullying teens are experiencing, and the connections between them.

I'm always fascinated by the nuts and bolts of mystery writing. How did you determine the order in which Angie uncovers her clues? Was there a lot of outlining and revising involved, or did things unfold the way you first imagined?

When I started writing the story, I only had a basic idea of who the suspects were. I didn’t necessarily know who was guilty. So, much like Angie, I let the diary entries guide me: when Lizzie mentioned someone, I knew that was the next person Angie would be interrogating. It really did feel like I was uncovering the mystery with her. That said, I did run into a couple of snags once the novel was drafted, and I had to rearrange some clues to make sure they coincided with certain meetings and interrogations. There are a lot of hints throughout the story about what’s going on and who’s responsible, but they’re (hopefully) subtle enough that people won’t necessarily catch each one on first read. That’s something I love about mystery novels—the fact that things don’t fully make sense until the end of the book, and then everything just clicks. And then, if you’re like me, you want to go back through and pick up every clue the author left.  

In classic noir stories, a large portion of the plot consists of arranging meetings with suspects or reluctant witnesses, by leaving messages with third parties (like hotel concierges or underlings) or being forced to use pay phones. In a modern setting, with every technology available, was it tough to put up communication barriers? Was it something you consciously thought about?

Definitely! I didn’t want the investigation to run too smoothly, but I also didn’t want to pretend these technologies don’t exist. Lucky for me, I realized pretty early on that, unless you have access to PI websites, or your best friend is a hacker (a la Veronica Mars), it can still be pretty difficult to track down accurate information. And sometimes, even if you do manage to track down a person’s cell number and email address, the best way to tell if they’re lying is to interrogate them in person. Of course, this begs the question: what if this person is an enemy, and won’t tell you the truth in a million years? Well, then you have to hatch an elaborate scheme involving an enigmatic informant, a crowded party, and a closet just big enough to conceal a spy. Just make sure you put your cell phone on silent, because otherwise, all this access to technology might blow up in your face.  

THE S-WORD is fairly dark, though not without beautiful moments of hope and love. Was it difficult getting into the proper headspace when writing the darker portions? Did you ever have to alter behavior or dialogue in order to match the mood, or to keep it "YA-friendly" (if there even is such a thing)?

I wrote THE S-WORD right after a very weird, surreal, dangerous situation with what turned out to be a predatory person. So I was actually in a much darker headspace than I usually am, which caused me to write a grittier story. Luckily for me, I got partnered up with an agent and editing team who shared my vision, and who didn’t ask me to lighten anything up. I think we all agreed that showing the world as it is for teens is the most YA-friendly thing we could do.  

What are some of your favorite noir books or films?

Honestly, my influences have come fromVeronica Mars and Pushing Daisies, Gillian Flynn’s SHARP OBJECTS and even James Howe’s BUNNICULA series, which is a total nod to the amateur detective genre. Add to that a healthy knowledge of all things Christopher Pike and it’s easy to see why I ended up writing mystery with a lot of twists, even if I didn’t necessarily set out to write noir. It’s one of those things that found me.  
shows and books that were themselves influenced by film noir: things like

What's next for you? Another mystery? Have you ever considered writing "adult books"?

THE S-WORD is actually the first contemporary I’ve written, so I have a lot of paranormal book either written or in progress. And while they aren’t all mysteries, they always have secrets to unravel, and twists I hope will come as a surprise. I love to shock and delight my readers with unexpected twists. I really can’t help it. If you come away from one of my books unsurprised, I haven’t done my job. As for "adult novels," I think anything’s possible. I have found that my “voice” is getting a bit older as I do, but it’s still hovering in that upper-teen range a lot of the time. So we’ll see what I do...  

How did you celebrate the release of THE S-WORD?

My release day was great, but somewhat low-key. I spent the afternoon on Twitter celebrating with my writer friends. Then in the evening I went out for dinner and margaritas with my mom and boyfriend. Release day is awesome, but pretty overwhelming, so for me, having a small celebration was just about perfect!

Thanks for the scoop, Chelsea, but don't leave town. We may need to haul you in again...

THE S-WORD is available now from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster. You can also follow Chelsea on Twitter, "like" her on Facebook, and add her book on Goodreads.

This interview was conducted by Sarah Skilton.


  1. Thank you so much for having me. AWESOME questions!!! :D

  2. Great interview! I love what you have to say about sequencing (and resequencing) clues and reveals, and love that you don't have all the answers right away when you embark on a draft. That's very reassuring to hear! (Says the person who has changed the perp in her current WIP 3 times!) Thanks for coming by!


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