Rachel M. Wilson: DON’T TOUCH

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DON’T TOUCH, HarperTeen, September 2, 2014

I lift my gloved hand to catch his wrist. It feels strong in my hand, and his fingers, his
palm, burn an inch away from my already hot cheek. It would be a choice to let him
touch me. I almost want to pull his hand to my face, close the gap and let go.

_________________________

Today, we’re chatting with Rachel M. Wilson. You know the drill: one author, four questions! Rachel’s YA contemporary, DON’T TOUCH deals with anxiety, theater, divorce, and so much love. It will be out from HarperTeen on September 2, 2014.

Hey, you’re getting published! How’d that happen?

Well, my college roommate was a witch and . . . No. Nope. Not telling that story . . . For the record, while my debut is realistic contemporary, I’m a big fan of fantasy and horror!

In reality, I’ve been working toward publication for a long time. A few lines of this book were written when I was in college, but I didn’t develop the story into a novel until years later, when I was studying for my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I wrote two full drafts during the program, and the second was a major rewrite. To give you some idea, the book used to be called Manatee, and a manatee played a major role in the plot. Today, the book contains a total of zero manatees.

After I graduated, I continued revising, cutting, adding, until I got the guts to submit to agents. My dream agent, the amazing Sara Crowe, had seen me read from the book at an alumni retreat at VCFA and seemed to like what she heard. When I queried her, she accepted, and the book sold at auction to the delightful people at HarperTeen in February of 2012.

What’s your debut book about? Can you share any cool details with us?

Don’t Touch is the story of Caddie, a 16-year-old girl who’s recently been accepted to an arts high school to study theater. Caddie wants to play Ophelia in the academy’s production of Hamlet, and she wants to renew her friendship with her former best friend, Mandy, but she’s troubled by a fear of touching other people’s skin. Caddie’s parents are trying out a separation, and she creates a rule for herself that if she can avoid touch, she might be able to prevent her family from falling apart. Of course, it’s difficult to act without touching other actors. It’s hard for Caddie to act normal in front of her friends when she so clearly isn’t, and it’s hard to deal with her feelings for her fellow actor, Peter, who seems like a shoe-in for the role of Hamlet.

Cool details? I think it’s pretty cool that the book is set in Birmingham, AL, my hometown. Birmingham is a decent-sized city, an old iron town built around train tracks, but it definitely has some Deep South flavor–red-orange clay, hills covered in kudzu, plenty of BBQ and ham-laced greens and grits . . . There are some scenes set in old Irondale, by the train tracks, and around an abandoned swimming pool in the middle of the woods. These settings are inspired by real places. During revisions, my sister accompanied me in taking pictures for inspiration.

My sister Laura on the tracks

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Baby pool with the big pool in the background.

This is the wreckage of Irondale Swim & Tennis where I used to swim as a kid. I visited it while drafting Don’t Touch, and was surprised to find it abandoned. That inspired a scene which is still part of the book. The picture you see here was taken a year or two later–on my visit that inspired the scene, the pool had not yet been filled with dirt, much less grass, and still had water in the bottom.

Why the fear of touch?

As a kid, I had OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) starting around age ten. For several years I was afraid to touch lots of things–not just people–and I was a magical thinker, constantly worried that I might cause something bad to happen just by thinking about it. By the time I was in high school, I’d gotten help for it, but I still had a lot of anxiety, and that made it hard to be open with other people.

At the same time, I was good at putting on a happy face and hiding what was going on with me. Like Caddie, I loved acting because it allowed me to hide behind a character and to connect with people in ways I wasn’t bold enough for in real life. So while the plot and characters are definitely fictional, the novel had its spark in experience. Fear has loomed large in my life. I wanted to explore how fear can separate us from other people and from our passions, and how those same people and passions can sometimes combat fear.

I decided to focus on the fear of touch because it serves as an extended metaphor for Caddie’s struggle to be open and vulnerable to other people. You don’t have to have experienced mental illness to relate to that. Caddie’s fears are heightened versions of the fears we all feel . . . the fear of abandonment, the fear of change, the fear of coming into one’s own power . . .

What do you do when you’re not writing?

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That’s me, front and center, rocking my Halloween Monkey shirt

I do a lot of work with an amazing theater company called Barrel of Monkeys. We teach writing workshops in Chicago Public Schools and adapt the students’ writing for the stage, often with comedy and music. I coordinate our after-school program, teach, and play roles ranging from a homicidal church bell to a two-timing cheerleader to a rampaging American Girl Doll–whatever the kids can imagine. It’s the most fun ever. If you want a little taste, here’s a link to one of my favorite Monkey songs, “Bad Car,” which is adapted word for word by musical theater guru, Jonathan Mastro.

Aside from that, I do lots of odd jobs–the oddest involves pretending to be sick to help doctors learn. Sometimes, I get to pretend to be a surgeon or nurse and save mannequins’ lives. It’s always educational, and a not-so-terrible side effect is that I want to set all my scenes in hospitals these days.

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My coworker had a rough day.

Lately, I spend way too much time on Tumblr. For myself, for the OneFours, and for my PhD in Superheroes!

Thanks for asking!

Rachel M. Wilson‘s DON’T TOUCH stems from a personal vendetta against anxiety and a love of all things theater. After studying acting at Northwestern, Rachel earned her MFA in Writing for Children & YA at VCFA. Originally from Birmingham, AL, she now lives in Chicago, IL, where she writes, acts, teaches, and spoils a dog named Remy Frankenstein. DON’T TOUCH releases September 2, 2014 from HarperTeen.
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