11:00 am EDT, June 10, 2015

Deirdre Riordan Hall talks ‘Sugar’ and speaking up against bullies

Author Deirdre Riordan Hall talks about the inspiration behind Sugar and how so many people suffer abuse in silence.

About ‘Sugar’

Sugar Deirdre Riordan Hall

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Sugar is, in her own words, “a fat Puerto Rican-Polish girl who doesn’t feel like she belongs in her own skin, or anywhere else for that matter. I’ve always been too much and yet not enough.”

Sugar has been bullied her whole life because of her weight. Whether it’s from her classmates, her brother, or even her own mother, Sugar has only known hate and shame. The guilt she feels from overeating only fans the flames of her obsession, and the vicious cycle continues.

But then Sugar meets someone who sees her for who she is and not what she looks like. Their friendship blossoms, and for the first time in her life, Sugar sees light at the end of the tunnel. Read our review.

Tell us five interesting facts about yourself.

I polled my friends and family to help answer this question and here’s what we came up with:

1. I’ve only been on a motorcycle once.

2. I have a salsa garden: tomatoes — 3 varieties, chives, cilantro — which seems to enjoy its home growing in a container (I say this because apparently cilantro is difficult to sustain), and peppers — jalapeño, Anaheim, ancho, árbol, habañero…and a few others I can’t remember. I also have a salsa addiction, which works out nicely for me, having the garden and all. However, I can’t grow chips (or corn) so for that, I must go to the market.

3. I love anything sparkly, glittery, shiny, and sequined!

4. I’ve been to 44 of the U.S. states. Of those left on my list, I’m especially excited about Hawaii and Alaska — my grandmother is one of the few people I know personally who has visited and she was in her eighties, leading a dog sled team. I’ll count myself lucky if/when I get there. Also, Hawaii, just because, Hawaii!

5. I surf mellow waves with a longboard, possibly not very well, but it gets me stoked and that’s what matters.
Bonus: I believe in magic and happily-ever-afters.

What inspired this story?

A while back, I found myself in ill health from head to toe. After a battery of tests and a variety of conclusions including the not-very-helpful diagnosis: nothing, one doctor, after several, prescribed an elimination diet. I was off caffeine, dairy, sugar, gluten, etc. It sucked, but it worked. My health returned. As my body detoxed and I went without certain staples of my diet (sweets! bread! coffee!) I contended with waves of emotions, attachments, leading to struggles, staring into the tar of self-hatred, body shame, resulting in an examination of my disordered eating habits.

Ultimately, I arrived at the question: What would happen if I obsessed about the things I love about myself? This brought me to the character Sugar. At the outset, Sugar is miles away from liking, no less loving, anything about herself, her life, the people surrounding her, the town she lives in… but what if… that’s the inspiration.

Have you ever been a victim of bullying?

I have been bullied. I went to six different elementary schools and as a result had a hard time finding my place. As it happened, some surly girls took it upon themselves to show me. In my face, my stomach, my spirit, repeatedly. The principal and a mediator became involved and eventually it was sorted out.

The wounds have since healed, but it isn’t difficult to call upon how painful and isolating bullying feels. This wasn’t a situation where my parents called in, outraged and demanding solutions. I quietly took it until I couldn’t keep from crying, and eventually, thankfully, it was resolved.

There’s no gray area when it comes to abuse, but I remember this quote or maybe it was from a song that went something like, “In a sense, silence is violence.” In other words, it doesn’t serve us to keep quiet about bullying, inequities, abuse, however scared or alone we may think we are. We’re not. Bullying takes many forms and Sugar’s story is but one. The more of us who become informed, speak up, and challenge bullying, the stronger we become.

What did you do to make Sugar’s voice and habits so authentic?

I’m glad you think Sugar’s voice rang true. I definitely called upon the visceral-ness of my own experiences. I moved beyond what felt comfortable or acceptable and delved into the raw, realness of scenes ranging from her binge eating, to her relationship with her family and community, to the turning point with Even, and then crawled through the aftermath, searching for the glimmers of hope that help carry people through adversity. Sugar grew tremendously through the course of the story, and I tried to allow the words to flow naturally rather than direct them.

I also studied everything I could find on showing versus telling, voice, and I did a lot of revisions.

This is an incredibly powerful, thought-provoking book. Did you ever have trouble writing it, or have to take a break at any time?

There were times I cried right along with Sugar and the girls and women (and guys too) who experience abuse whether self-directed or from others. Mama, Skunk, Nash, and the students at Johnson Regional High School were tough to write. At times, it felt like a battle, but the saving grace was that Sugar and girls like her are incredibly strong. It’s truly inspiring to get behind that kind of moxie.

For my writing process, I drafted pretty quickly, but the revisions took more than a year and that was just the first pass. Between each round of editing, I’d take some time off and work on other projects, but Sugar was one of those books that demanded to be written, so nothing was going to stop it.

Do you think Sugar’s situation is an extreme one, or do you think there are more people living like this than we realize?

That’s a tough question to answer, but I do believe, to varying degrees, there are many, many people who suffer in silence, who live quiet unassuming lives meanwhile they’re hurting inside. Although Sugar experienced some extreme situations, bullying, cruelty, and insults, are abuse no matter if they happen occasionally or routinely; whether or not the victims believe what they hear and experience or have strong deflection mechanisms; or if the hatred is self-inflicted or from outside sources, those kinds of arrows pierce the individual and collective human spirit. There’s a better way for us humans to connect and bring a higher vibe to our lives.

How does this story differ from any of your previous books?

Sugar is my debut young adult novel and is definitely unique in many ways. But the other YA manuscripts I’ve written also deal with real life issues and girls who’re lost and eventually forge a new path for themselves. There’s a unifying hope and strength to rise above difficult circumstances that I try to represent.
Compared to the new adult novels I’ve written, Sugar is miles apart. I wrote the Follow your Bliss series with the abiding belief that it’s up to us to create the life we dream of, no matter where we come from, who we think we are, and how sometimes it’s in taking the big risks for our dreams that we learn what we’re made of.

I’ll add that all my books focus on the exploration of change, growth, relationships, and of course a little bit of romance.

Are you working on any new projects?

This question gives me the excited tingles. I’m currently in revisions with my editor for Pearl, a YA contemporary novel about the kinds of friendships that become sisterhoods as well as the struggle to break the cycle of addiction. It’s due for release March 2016.

I’m also enjoying the publication journey now that Sugar has left the harbor of my heart, and I thank you for being a part of it. Connecting with readers and sharing how the story came to be is a pleasure and an honor. Thank you.

About Deirdre Riordan Hall

deirdre Riordan Hall full

I’m Deirdre and I write words, lots of them. I believe in wonder and magic and alchemy. And I really like waves, the kind in the ocean; they’re a fitting metaphor for learning to better navigate the ups and downs in life on land. Also if anyone asks, yes, chips, salsa & guacamole should be a daily part of the diet. I do a lot of things, but mostly I write and when I do, the world glitters and shines.

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