Best selling young adult novelist Kate McCaffrey won over readers with her cyber bullying novel Destroying Avalon before reaching the North American market with her hard hitting second novel In Ecstasy. In Beautiful Monster she’s writing about eating disorders. Kate tells us why.
I have seen first-hand the effects eating disorders can have on girls, in particular – from a mild obsession with body shape to the compulsive and obsessive disorder that Tess demonstrates. The far reaching consequences can be disastrous. Not only for the victim, but also the friends and family. Often the discovery is so late, that friends and family wonder why they didn’t see it earlier and then for the victim they are trapped in a head space from which it is difficult to emerge.
Beautiful Monster differs from other novels on the topic – it is more like a thriller. Was this your intention from the beginning?
Ned was the character who came to me first and I knew, given the nature of his character, that this book would become a thriller.
A lot of observers of people with eating disorders think it’s about a decision to be thin – but an eating disorder is far more complex and psychological than that. I wanted to delve into the psychology of it, so my aim was to take Beautiful Monster from the ‘teen issue’ genre and place it in a psychological/thriller genre with the hope of showing the complexities of the disease.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing Beautiful Monster?
The fear of triggers. With a novel of this nature it is really important to have reliable information on which to base characters and actions. They must operate within the realm of realism. To do this I had to talk to people suffering from the disease and read a lot of personal stories. Research shows that people trying to recover can be triggered by information like weight loss amounts, or foods to avoid—anything that reminds them of that type of behaviour. So there was a real fear not to put in triggers for people who might be recovering.
It was also difficult to listen to the stories of girls who were so beautiful and clever yet trapped in a cycle they were struggling to get out of — one that consumed their every waking moment.
One of the most significant characters is Ned. How did he take shape?
Ned was the underlying premise of the novel and he was formed during the research phase. Most sufferers of eating disorders all talk about ‘the voice’ that drives their insecurities. And from all the stories I listened to that voice was the same, it told them the same thing, made all the same promises. The voice was manipulative, calming, controlling and charismatic. The voice becomes the master, the victim becomes the slave. And (even though most girls say their voice is female) I saw this love/hate relationship from which Ned was born.
How do you explain Tessa’s drive to be perfect?
I think it goes with the psychology of bulimia/anorexia. It’s about achieving goals and maintaining control. I have that same psychology – the obsession with perfection, the need to achieve 100%. In fact, I can remember every bad review I’ve ever received for my novels – but not the good ones. I think I understood how easy it was to let the desire for perfection overshadow your life – which is why I could relate so well to Tess. I was lucky, I had parents who were involved in my life, who encouraged me and built my self-esteem.
What do you hope teenagers will learn – or at least think about – by reading Beautiful Monster?
I hope they like the novel – for the strength of the characters and the story. Maybe it will help them understand other people around them better – how we really don’t know someone past the concept we have of them. The girls in the novel all see Tess as beautiful and clever (which she is) and have no idea of her insecurities.
How do you stay up-to-date with ‘teen-speak’?
I stay employed in a high school! I actually went back to teaching part-time after the publication of Destroying Avalon for the purpose of staying up-to-date. It’s difficult to stay current with language because it’s geographic. So what might be current here on the West coast may make no sense on the east, or overseas. But that is one of the difficulties of writing in this genre. Language is so quickly outdated.