A disabled basketball star is the love interest in a new young adult novel
By Louise Kinross
Double Negative is a new book about an elite high school swimmer sidelined with a shoulder injury who falls for a basketball star who is an amputee. Kirkus Reviews describes it as "An often humorous and insightful story of teens becoming self-aware young adults." Double Negative is written by Susan Marshall, author of the young adult novel NemeSIS, and mother to Claire, 14, who is a client at Holland Bloorview. We spoke about her new book.
BLOOM: Can you tell us more about the book?
Susan Marshall: It's about a girl, Reece, whose whole life has been defined by competitive swimming at an elite high school for athletes. She's out of the water for the first time recovering, and has been moved to a regular school where she has to reinvent herself temporarily. She feels very sorry for herself and like everything has come crashing down around her.
Her brother Jamie, who is a year older, decides to run for student council president because he thinks it will pad his applications for college. He convinces Reece to run as his VP. Jamie is a total lack-lustre president, but he seems to be very well loved. His only enemy is this really hot and intense president of the athletic council named Zain. Zain is a basketball star, and Reece, our main character, ends up falling for him. Reece doesn't realize he's a single leg amputee until part way through the book. They're both struggling. Before his accident Zain was gunning for an athletic scholarship for basketball and that's still his goal.
BLOOM: How did you get the idea for the book?
Susan Marshall: A few years ago my teenage boys were at high school and they had a student council president who was a huge character who did ridiculous things. That gave me the idea for the book. Then I had this idea that his sister was just out of water, literally, and new to the school. Then I thought, if she's an injured athlete, who would be good for her to connect with, and I thought an amputee athlete. She's feeling very sorry tor herself and she sees someone who has more permanent struggles and has to come back from something a lot more significant. But he doesn't complain. They kind of connect over their challenges. He's trying to work towards a basketball scholarship and practising, and she's trying to rehab herself and going to physio.
BLOOM: Is writing in your background?
Susan Marshall: I'm a librarian by training and I did a degree in English and my professors told me my strength was my writing. For whatever reason I didn't pursue it, and then when I found out my daughter Claire was missing a hand, I started writing a picture book about someone like her. I had a children's book author read it and she said 'You need to take some classes. This is now how it's done.' So I went and took a bunch of classes on writing for children. I wrote another book which came out a few years ago called NemeSIS, which was a young adult book about two sisters.
Then I started writing Double Negative. The theme is two negatives make a positive. Reece has shoulder surgery and Zain has an amputation and dealing with their negatives together becomes a positive for them both.
BLOOM: Why did you want to write a book with a disabled character?
Susan Marshall: My daughter is a hand amputee and I have a good friend who is a double leg amputee and we had talked about how we don't see a lot of disabled people represented in the media, whether on TV or in literature. I felt strongly that I wanted to include a disabled character as a love interest.
BLOOM: How did you find the voices for your characters, given they're teenagers?
Susan Marshall: It's a contemporary novel. I love to watch young adult shows and I gravitate to young adult novels. I had three teenagers who are now in their twenties and I have Claire, who is a teenage girl. I feel age is just a number. I feel like I'm young at heart and I have a youthful attitude.
I had my friend who is an amputee read the book for issues of sensitivity, and I also had teens read it to point out anything that didn't seem authentic.
BLOOM: What do you hope readers take away?
Susan Marshall: The overall message is not to pigeonhole people and not to pigeonhole yourself. Reece was defined by her sport, until she couldn't participate. Some people want to define people by their disabilities. The take-away message is that there are many facets to the high school experience and you want to participate in as many as possible. Being an amputee doesn't mean you can't be a basketball star and a student leader. And being an injured swimmer just means you need to find something else to do for the time being. In the end, Reece's life becomes so much richer than it was, and she finds a better balance.
BLOOM: What was most challenging about writing it?
Susan Marshall: To show that both characters do have significant struggles, but not have it be a negative book. Not have it get too overwhelming. Something I did to make sure it was in a teen's voice was to read all of the dialogue out loud.
BLOOM: Has your daughter Claire read the book?
Susan Marshall: She hasn't. She's not much of a reader, but she's very proud that I've written this book and that there's a disabled character. When NemeSIS came out all of her friends read the book and liked it.
BLOOM: Some disabled adults feel that only disabled folks should write about their experiences. Did you have any concerns about that?
Susan Marshall: I do have concerns about that. I feel as the parent of an amputee I have a lot more experience than a regular writer. I'm there when people are staring at my daughter and when she hears people whisper about her and when she feels different. I've been to Holland Bloorview and to the War Amps conferences and I have a good friend who's a double leg amputee. In the acknowledgement of the book I say it was read for sensitivity issues by an amputee who encouraged me, as a parent, to write about a teen amputee.
BLOOM: I remember when your daughter Claire was a baby and a young child. She was involved in Holland Bloorview images and videos. How is she doing now?
Susan Marshall: She's doing really well. There's very little that she struggles with in terms of her disability physically. She sews, she water skis and she can do elaborate hair styles. She goes in fits and starts in being interested in wearing a prosthesis. She has a prosthetic hand, but she's very functional without it. She feels it limits her, so she keeps it for special occasions. She loves musical theatre and starred in a bunch of performances. She has a wonderful voice. She's a very good tennis player and teaches tennis as a summer job. Being a 14-year-old girl is a tricky age, and when you have a disability it's trickier. She's a very extroverted girl who has a great sense of humour.
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