Writing about controversial issues

- by Kathryn Shay

Kathryn Shay and her son Ben Schaefer

I’ve been thinking lately about the kinds of books I write and why I choose to write them. It’s probably because I have my first mainstream book out in September, THE PERFECT FAMILY, which deals with a teen coming out gay and what happens with his parents and brother, his school, the church and the community at large.  Having a gay son myself, I was familiar with this “issue” though it makes me sad that being gay IS an issue in today’s society.  The book is full of conflict and love as everybody tries to handle the repercussions of the boy’s disclosure as best he or she can.

I wonder sometimes why this kind of writing permeates my work—or anyone’s—in fiction.  It seems to me it’s more the theme of the Greeks or Shakespeare. Hatred of one’s step-father (HAMLET), adultery (Ibsen’s work), insecurity because of racial prejudice (OTHELLO) can be traced through the classics.  I taught high school English and my students used to ask why we read such depressing literature. They were right, of course, because the themes we dealt with were dark and gave a bleak outlook on life. 

I believe, though, that writing about controversial and difficult topics can be cathartic for readers and can ease their burdens. And yes, can entertain.  Some people agree. When I published my first book, a romance about a suicidal teen girl whose father and school counselor try to save her life, I got a huge groundswell of positive letters saying how much the book helped them.  That they cried when they read it because they had someone in their lives who was/is suicidal or who committed suicide, and they were left to deal with all the emotion left behind.  Catharsis, I think, does help us.

But I don’t write books to bring about this catharsis, though I must admit I love it when readers write to say they cried reading my work.  I write to entertain, and I think having a meaty conflict, one people can relate to (everybody has troubled teens) is interesting to me.  Seeing how family members work out their problems also keeps my attention.  And of course there have to be “ice cream cones” along the way: times when people celebrate their love, their closeness, their ability to be better than they are. Also, humor provides real comic relief and I’ve seen people do wonderful things with it in a controversial book.

I also like science fiction and some paranormal romance but I still prefer the meatier kind—when a person is forced to give up his own will to save a planet, where the stories warn about our overdependence on technology or show the result of our environmental abuse.  Didn’t most people love AVATAR?  

I also like the books that end on an uplifting note. Though I was enthralled by THE ROAD, there was little redeeming for me in the book. In almost all of my work, people come out on the other side after they went through some painful experiences.

Still there are risks in writing about controversial topics.  Some people say they just have to walk into their kids’ bedroom if they want to experience troubled teens, or turn on the news to hear about global warming. And reviewers really vary on this. If you get one who doesn’t like their reading material peppered with social commentary or everyday issues we all have to face, then your book can get ravaged.

But done right, I think writing about controversial issues, or real life, can be really popular in today’s literary market.

Bio: Kathryn Shay is the author of 37 books from Harlequin, Berkley and Bold Strokes press.  Her next release is THE PERFECT FAMILY, due out September 14th, 2010.

One comments

  1. Kathryn,

    What a great post. You’re right that sometimes reading about highly emotional topics can be a catharsis. It can also spark some great discussions. One of my children just had to read (for school) a novel that was very dark (about a nuclear war) and it was the cause of much grumbling in the household. By the time the book was finished, though, many good discussions had ensued and now the book is on my TBR pile. We never would have discussed most of the topics we did had the book not prompted us to do so.

    Best of luck with THE PERFECT FAMILY. It sounds like a winner. I hope you get lots of good feedback!

    Marianna