Amanda Panitch is one of those rare authors who are more like superheroes since they seem able to do so much: she’s young, she’s got a full-time job, and she’s written an incredible debut novel, Damage Done. Not only is it a YA thriller both teens and adults will enjoy for its intelligence, but it’s also a standalone novel—because it can be a relief to step away from all those series you still have to catch up on.
Damage Done begins with Lucy Black, formerly known as Julia Vann, living life as usual in the new town she and her parents moved to after tragic events drove them from their old home. Julia had a twin brother, Ryan—but Lucy is an only child. And while Julia was in her school’s band room when 22 bloody minutes changed her life, Lucy doesn’t have much of a past. But what happens when Lucy begins to see people from Julia’s life creeping into her own? It’s when past and present start to mix that we feel Lucy fraying, the seams of her new and perfect life slowly ripping apart, as Julia is forced to come out of hiding and face her past, her present, and possibly her future.
How does it feel, making your literary debut with Damage Done?
In one word: exciting! But also terrifying—what if everybody hates it?—and gratifying—because even if people hate it, it’s incredible to watch them take the time to write paragraphs explaining why. Above all else, though, as corny as it sounds, this is a dream coming true and I’m thankful every day.
You work at a literary agency. How did you manage to write the book with a full-time job? Did the work help you figure out what you wanted to write?
Working in book publishing definitely helped me put a finger on what is working and what isn’t working in today’s market, which helped me shape the plot and concept of Damage Done. It does make writing more difficult, of course—I’m fortunate in that I’m a fast writer, but still, working nine hours at a demanding job and then coming home every day to face a full evening of another demanding job is undeniably stressful.
I want to ask you so many questions that I can’t because of spoilers, so I’m going to ask this carefully: what is your opinion about unreliable narrators and do you like them as a literary device in general?
Unreliable narrators fascinate me. I try to be an honest person, but I still find myself lying from time to time to others (“That casserole was delicious, Mom”) and to myself (“It didn’t bother me when my friends went somewhere without inviting me, I was busy anyway”). Our memories themselves are unreliable. As a teenager I was a witness in a lawsuit, and I told the lawyer honestly, with conviction, what I remembered seeing; though I had to my knowledge been telling the truth, video evidence told another story. I am an unreliable narrator. We are all unreliable narrators.
In your acknowledgments, you thank your siblings for being nothing like the siblings in the book. Were there any characteristics of your siblings or people you know that you did include in the novel?
Absolutely—in my experience writing a novel has been a deeply personal experience, so it’s only natural that parts of myself clung to the page. There are bits of myself scattered throughout the book, many of which I didn’t even realize I was using until I went back through it: like Julia, I played the clarinet and I hated driving; like Michael, Julia’s boyfriend, I love to cook and often use food to try to make myself and others feel better. Julia’s best friend, Alane, was modeled partially off a close friend who’s caring and loyal and the most talented singer I’ve ever known. All things considered, though, this was not an exceptionally personal book in that I didn’t draw from real-life experiences or purposely include pieces of my life.
From the start of the novel, we know the character of Julia Vann has had to reinvent herself. Is reinventing yourself an appealing concept to you?
I feel like we’re constantly reinventing ourselves. I’ve always written, but I identify through and through as an author now, which I didn’t always. In college I wanted to be an ambassador, in high school a doctor, and in middle school I was lonely and depressed and thought I’d be nothing. In elementary school I was convinced I’d grow up to be a ballerina, though I had all the grace and coordination of a drunken elephant. It’s an exciting idea, knowing you might wake up tomorrow and go somewhere or do something you’ve never done before, and it’s also scary, because most of these reinventions happened organically—I can’t help but wonder what the aspiring ballerina would think of the doctor or the diplomat. If my lonely, depressed middle-school self would believe I grew up to be largely okay. Or what the author will think of whoever I’ll be in five years.
Were there particular books or authors that inspired you when writing this?
I was definitely inspired by the articles and Twitter conversations about unsympathetic or unlikeable female protagonists in literature, in particular Roxane Gay’s article on Buzzfeed when I was doing revisions. I also read a lot of books with unreliable narrators: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, to name a few that made the most impact on me.
You managed to make your book very edgy, very dark, without losing some of my favorite parts of the YA genre: the boyfriend, the best friend, the difficult parents. Did this balance come naturally to you?
I read a ton of YA, so I’m familiar with the elements that are often included. A lot of the writing process here was, “How far can I push this? How dark can I go?”
Are you working on something new that we can look forward to?
Yes, I have a second standalone YA psychological thriller coming from Random House in 2016. It’s called Never Missing, Never Found, and that’s all I can say about it right now!
Damage Done is out today!