Amy Alessio interviewed Genre Galaxy preconference speaker Patrick Jones about his take on edgy fiction. Enjoy their conversation below! (for more information about the preconference, visit the Genre Galaxy wiki!)

Why do you think so many teens want edgy or ‘urban’ fiction now?

The urban part reflects the literature catching up with the music. The influence of rap and hip-hop culture washes over every part of teen life, so that it would finally find its way into book isn’t a surprise. I just wonder why it took so long. It also mirrors what is going on in the adult market with rise of street fiction for similar reasons. As far as edgy, that is certainly a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” (“Won’t Get Fooled Again” by the Who). I wrote an article over a decade ago celebrating that new edge in YA fiction, so it never surprises me. As I’m writing this, there was a big article in the Wall Street Journal about teen fiction; it was the usual decrying of the books being too dark. You get that article every ten years it seems.

What do you think makes fiction edgy?

Four things, and again there’s nothing new in any of these. Sex, drugs, language, and darker themes. Some books combine all four (like my novel Chasing Tail Lights) while others may just focus on one or two of these areas, like Ellen Hopkins’ books. The Wall Street Journal article pointed to 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher as one title, as if there’s never been a book on teen suicide before. A book is edgy if it reflects the darker edges of the teen experience. All the stuff that parents quite rightly don’t want their kids to experience: depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc. The issue, as always comes, back to one of the central conflicts within adolescent life / literature: independence vs. dependence. In most edgy books, the teen characters act independently, often getting themselves into situation they can’t control.

What are some favorite responses you have received to your writing? What do you hope teens take from your books?

I still get the most response about Things Change. Most of the messages are similar to one I got last week: “you changed my life with your book. And I just have to say thank you for representing girls (like me) who have been in abusive relationships. Because you feel like no one cares or will stand up for you. So thank you, for everything.” If you look at customer reviews on Amazon, you’ll see a lot more of these. There’s a review on bn.com about Chasing Tail Lights which is pretty intense. What teens take from my books is up to them, but there are some common themes across my titles. One is this: life is hard, but for Paul, Bret, Christy, Mick, and Danielle, their lives are harder because of sins / flames they’ve inherited. So the message is don’t make bad decisions and do stupid shit that makes a hard life even harder. Another major theme in my books relates back to the edginess issue: what happens when your body does stuff that your brain or heart isn’t ready to handle. That conflict of adolescence is the central conflict in every book. Finally, my books I hope give voice to Flint kids – and by that I don’t just mean youth in my hometown — but youth anywhere who are growing up in hard economic times with an uncertain future. We’re all Flint now.

What has surprised you about the fiction writing life after all your success with professional development?

How difficult it was to do, how much an editor shapes a book, but mostly how much books can really mean to teens. I always knew it as a librarian, but I know it on a totally different level now. The hardest part personally has been going from one of the top people in the YA librarian world to just another person in the YA writer world. That’s been a humbling experience, but I’m hoping my new book — an If You Like Twilight title called The Tear Collector — might move me up a notch or two on the teen novelist ladder.

Did you write creatively as a teen? What did you like to read?

I wrote bad poetry, worse lyrics, and some ok SNL like sketches for my school theater department. My reading – or lack thereof – as a teen I think is pretty well known. As a younger teen if it didn’t have something to do with grown men in their underwear pretending to hurt each other (aka pro wrestling) I didn’t care much. In high school, I read Ball Four by Jim Bouton and Carrie by Stephen King which really turned things around.

What has changed in the teen librarianship profession in the past 10 years?

Wow – that’s a big question. I did talk about this some in my SLJ interview in 8/2006 after I won the ALA Lifetime Achievement Award, but three of the biggest things in the past ten years are the explosion of formats like graphic novels and the energy that’s brought to collections and programming. The second is the way colleagues communicate with each other about teens services, and how they involve teen customers in the discussion. Finally, is a wave of new teen librarians entering the profession / getting involved professionally who seem loaded with energy and ideas for connecting with teens, not just loving the books.

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