Courtney Summers on All the Rage, Complex Female Characters, and Creative Escapes

Courtney Summers' All the RageMildly awkward personal story time. As you may have gathered from my post last week, I’ve been a huge Courtney Summers fan for some time. So much so that a few years ago, when she got a Tumblr with an open Ask box, I was so excited for the chance to connect with my YA lit hero that I dove right in with the most awkward not-even-a-question possible, and pretty much begged to interview her for my then-pretty-fledgling personal blog. Well, as you may have guessed if you’ve ever interacted with her, Summers is nothing like the thorny characters of her novels, and kindly and graciously agreed, and it was basically the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.

So why do I share this now, on the day of the release of her newest YA, the incredibly powerful All the Rage? Because to me, this is emblematic of who Summers is. She’s an author who helps you find a way not to be afraid. She’s an author who puts herself out there in scary ways so you can, too. She cares about girls, about helping them find their inner strength while acknowledging how much pain there can be in the process. I may have gone from being that new blogger terrified to interview one of her favorites to one who’s been lucky enough to interview almost all of them, but no one gives me more pleasure to put in the hot seat than the author who got me there. For the second time, Summers was kind enough to let me pick her brain on her books, inspirations, characters, and what comes next.

I ordinarily hate asking authors about inspiration, but All the Rage just has this feeling of being a roaring flame incited by a million sparks. What were those sparks for you?
We live in a world that often fails survivors and victims of sexual violence. When I was working on All the Rage, high profile cases like Steubenville were in the news, and since I’ve finished, many more have popped up. Each time they do, victim-blaming inevitably follows. No one asks to be raped. Ever. And to see a tremendous amount of energy directed at discrediting and placing fault on victims and survivors, instead of listening to and supporting them, is heartbreaking and infuriating. My anger and heartache about that definitely informed my approach to writing All the Rage.

One of my favorite lines in the book is when Romy’s in a physical fight with another girl and she says “You don’t get to do this when you’re a girl, so when the opportunity for violence finally presents itself, I want all of it at once.” It’s such an astute observation on double standards and expectation that every time I read it, my mind replaces “I” with “we.” For you, was this a description of who Romy specifically has become, or a more universal truth among girls, whether they’ve been in her shoes or not?
I consider it a universal truth among girls whether they’ve been in Romy’s shoes or not. At least, that’s what I want the takeaway to be. (You’ve made me feel like I succeeded with that, so thank you!) My sophomore novel, Some Girls Are, also involves girl-on-girl violence, and something I heard a lot of at the time of its release was that particular aspect of the novel was unrealistic. But it was declared unrealistic in a way that seemed to have nothing to do with the context of the violence itself and everything to do with the notion that girls do not behave violently simply because they’re girls. It’s frustrating to see female characters denied a range of human responses and expression in favour of having them stereotyped. I want to write against those kind of harmful expectations.

All the Rage may be your darkest novel, but all your stuff is pretty…intense. How do you keep from sinking into the misery of your characters? (Please note we cannot post Supernatural gifs on this site.)
How did you know Supernatural gifs would be my go-to?! My work can be pretty all-consuming. I make sure I have a way to decompress after I’ve done my writing for the day. Playing video games, watching fun television, that kind of stuff. I also like to take photographs and I play the piano—it’s nice to have a creative escape that is firmly separate from the worlds I’m creating on paper.

You’ve noted that high school was a tough time for you. What recent YA reads do you think might’ve made a difference to you when you were a teen?
I’m going to pick three: Pointe, by Brandy Colbert; The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma; and Not Otherwise Specified, by Hannah Moskowitz. What they all have in common is wonderfully written and complex female characters—of which there are no shortage of in YA. We have so many amazing authors out there right now, writing incredible female characters. I felt so lonely and my world felt so small in high school, and the truths these ladies express in their fiction, and how much bigger the world becomes because of them, would have been so great for me to have at the time. I’m so glad they’re here now.

This isn’t actually your first release of the year; back in January, you published an e-novella sequel to This is Not a Test, called Please Remain Calm. What was it like to revisit characters for your first time?
It was great! I can’t believe I wrote a sequel, to be honest. I make a point never to say never about that kind of thing, but I’m usually thinking ahead to new stories. After I finished All the Rage, though, I really needed something to write to recenter myself and I REALLY love zombies. It was nice. A bit intimidating knowing readers have gotten to know these characters because of course you want to do right by that. I reread the book to find my footing and made notes. Exploring the zombie apocalypse through Rhys’s eyes was fun. I’m glad I did it. I don’t often give myself the opportunity to revisit familiar faces and make them even more miserable than when they started out.

I was lucky enough to interview you for my personal blog two years ago, when you were still writing All the Rage, and at the time, you mentioned being on draft five. Now that the final version is out in the world, can you tell us some things that changed along the way? (Without spoiling for anyone who hasn’t read yet, of course!)
You mean I was lucky enough to be interviewed by you for your personal blog when I was still writing All the Rage! Also everyone should pick up Behind the Scenes—and all of your books—because your voice is so fresh and sharp. In answer to your question, so much changed from draft to draft for All the Rage that it’s hard for me to even look at the earlier drafts as the same book. In earlier versions, there was a blackmail subplot that ended up unnecessarily complicating things and had to go. There were a few additional characters—young and old—the world may never know. The development of positive parent figures was something slow to happen on the page as well—but I’m glad it did!

It’s pretty safe to say you’re well known for endings that aren’t neat and characters who aren’t the traditional “nice girl.” Knowing how much pushback that often gets, how do you keep that from affecting the way you tell your stories?
I just dig my heels in and I refuse to let it affect the way I tell stories. I have to be true to my characters and their stories. I can’t make any creative choices, no matter what they are, at the expense of that honesty. I would be doing my readers a disservice.

Next up for you is a story in the highly anticipated anthology Violent Ends. What can you tell us about your contribution?
I am so excited about this anthology! I’ve read the stories that will be in it and they are incredible. Intense, provoking, very thoughtful and sensitively handled. I’m honoured to be participating with so many talented authors. I’m not sure how much I can reveal—my story is from a POV I don’t frequently explore. I’ll leave it at that. 🙂

All the Rage is on sale now.

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