Sometimes, it's Easier to Spin
A Case Study in Fiction + Recovery
When author KJ Farnham approached me about beta-reading her book, Spin, she had a very specific reason in mind. She knew that I have been vocal about my own trauma and that I’ve done work with trauma survivors and trauma recovery education. She did what I wish most authors would do: she wanted to make sure that she was providing an accurate and timely portrayal of trauma and it’s after effects.
I’ll admit, I was nervous because I’ve seen so many authors attempt to capture the raw and gritty truth of trauma. And to be honest, most of them fail to execute it. The truth is: it’s hard to write about trauma, especially traumatic events if you haven’t experienced it OR you haven’t immersed yourself in the world of trauma work.
But all my nervousness was for naught because Spin hit me in the gut. Farnham tells a terribly tragic story through the lens of teenager Jenna Kemp and her family and friends. And she did a fantastic job that I wanted to explore the book as a case study. It’s only one of a few novels I’ve read in the last few years that really gets it right. I thought about doing an “Unpacking Trauma” type of article for Spin, but then I had a better idea. I wanted to talk to Farnham directly to learn about her process writing the book. Her why, her how, how it felt, how it helped, how it scared her. Because as I’ve talked about many times before — writing for healing doesn’t have to be all journaling or poetry. It can be just as powerful to write a novel. KJ generously agreed to be interviewed for this article and I thank her immensely!
So, KJ, first off, let me say that I found Jenna’s story to be so eerily similar to my own but I’ve learned over the years that when an author can do that — it’s a sign of great writing. What would you like to say to other people, who may, like me, feel that Jenna embodies their own traumatic story?
KJ: Before I say anything, I’d like to give you and every other person who can relate to Jenna’s story a BIG VIRTUAL HUG. This includes family members who might be racked with guilt over not knowing a loved one has been abused.
It is not your fault, and you are not alone.
And if I may, what prompted you to want to write Jenna’s story in the first place? How did writing Spin change you or your thoughts on trauma?
KJ: I wrote SPIN for all of you — all of us — who’ve experienced sexual abuse, especially those who are afraid to tell someone. I know from experience that keeping it to yourself will eat you up inside, so that was the basis of the story — that Jenna’s secret had become too much for her to bear on her own.
I held on to my secret until I was in my early twenties. This is largely why I acted out as a teen and had a hard time trusting and connecting with people. It wasn’t until after I’d confided in a few friends over the course of several years that I finally started to heal. Then, years later, after I had my first child, I told some family members. I felt stronger (mentally and emotionally) with each person I told and writing SPIN has only provided further catharsis.
I really appreciated the way you juxtaposed the theme of “good vs bad” and that some people aren’t always who they seem to be on the surface — we see that in many of your characters — how did it feel for you to write about characters that were better (or worse) than what they seemed on the surface?
KJ: This is a great question!
I always tell my children to never judge a person based on how they look or the things they say, and I constantly remind them that this goes both ways — appealing looks and a friendly demeanor on the outside aren’t always mirrored on the inside, and vice versa. I think this is an important reality for people to keep in mind, regardless of age. It’s something I’ve overanalyzed since childhood. Are people really as happy or kind on the inside as they appear to be on the outside? Which people are pretending to be something they aren’t or thinking horrible thoughts? How do I figure it out? Unfortunately, I’ve been shocked to discover firsthand that a lot of people are NOT who they pretend to be. Then again, the opposite is also true; I’ve had many eye-opening surprises when I’ve incorrectly passed judgment based on appearances or gossip.
So, to answer your question, I love creating realistically flawed characters. Writing about characters who are better (or worse) that they appear to be is very satisfying for me because I feel like I’m doing my part to shed light on a universal truth: Appearances are often deceiving.
Another thing I absolutely loved about what you did with Spin is bringing the realities to the surface. As we know, trauma affects individuals, but it also affects the people around them. In Spin, we get to see several layers of this with Jenna’s family, her friends, and her romantic relationships. What made you want to show this “other” side of trauma from the POV of people in Jenna’s life?
KJ: When I was in my teens and early twenties, I thought an awful lot about myself, as many young people tend to do. Not that this is always necessarily a bad thing. That’s just how it is, you know? It takes time and experience to widen the tunnel vision we all have when we’re younger and develop the ability to empathize with others. Nowadays when I look back on my angry, younger self, I can see that I wasn’t the only person struggling. People close to me were struggling too, not just with their own issues, but also with trying to understand what was going on with me at various times. That being said, I knew Jenna’s story couldn’t possibly be told adequately through her eyes only because when something traumatic happens to a person, the ramifications are far-reaching. I knew I had to show readers the entire picture, the way the trauma experienced by one can be a source of sorrow for many and can be extremely detrimental to personal relationships.
This feels very meta, so stick with me, but in Spin, Jenna uses a journal to reflect on her feelings, emotions, and thoughts. I’d like to point out that you unknowingly helped my assertion that writing (whether it’s journaling or fiction, etc) does help with trauma and recovery. Do you feel like writing Jenna and her story was your own kind of “journal?”
KJ: I used to keep a diary, from when I was in grade school all the way up until I was in my early twenties, but I never wrote specifically about what happened to me because I was afraid someone would find out. Instead, I wrote about how sad, lonely, and depressed I felt. So, yes, writing SPIN has been very cathartic for me.
One of the biggest themes in Spin (and Jenna’s story in particular) centers around secrecy, silence, and what society tells us we should do. Much like real life, if the characters in Spin had been more honest with themselves and others, things may have changed. Do you envision a future where that can happen in real life? That we’ll learn how to address a person’s trauma before it gets out of control?
KJ: Yes, I absolutely feel that things can change, that the door is wide open for increased awareness about sexual abuse (and mental illness) and steps that can be taken to support those who’ve suffered from it. I think a great place to start is by speaking candidly to kids about their bodies, proper and improper touching, and sexual predators. I think it’s also important to teach our youth how important it is to look out for their friends and never be afraid to tell a trusted adult about suspicious behaviors that could indicate someone has been harmed.
You’re a mother to three awesome kids, so how did it feel to write from both Jenna and her mother’s POV? The subject matter itself is a tough one, I can’t imagine how it felt to write Jenna and her mother’s story.
KJ: Jenna’s chapters were tough but not as tough as her mother’s. Bonnie’s chapters gutted me because the thought of anyone harming my children is extremely painful, even more so than being harmed myself.
What do you hope to accomplish with Spin and Jenna’s story? If you could choose one thing that you hope a reader gets from it, what would it be?
KJ: Everyone knows sexual abuse occurs, but most people aren’t comfortable talking about it. So I hope SPIN helps to facilitate discussion among various groups of people, such as teens, parents with children of all ages, and educators.
If this book encourages even one person to seek support or justice in the wake of sexual abuse, or offer support to a loved one who has been abused, SPIN will have served its purpose.
I can’t say thank you enough to KJ for asking me to read her novel, agreeing to speak with me about it and for her courage and bravery in writing a story that wasn’t easy to write. I also want to thank her for allowing me to use her novel in this case study as well as a textbook for one of my expressive writing workshops. If you would like to grab a copy of your own, I’ve included a link to her book and all the places you can find KJ (to tell her how amazing she is!).
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