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Thursday, 26 September 2013 00:00

Q&A with S.A. Partridge, author of Sharp Edges

Sharp Edges is the fourth novel by the highly successful South African YA (Young Adult fiction) author, S.A. Partridge. Her first, The Goblet Club, was a dark, gothic story about a secret club and a murder in a boarding school. It was followed by Fuse which explored the life of a teenager pushed to the edge. In Dark Poppy's Demise, Partridge ventured into the dangerous world of online romance. In her latest, six friends travel to a music festival in the Cederberg to celebrate Demi's seventeenth, and last, birthday. Sharp Edges is the story of that tragic weekend and its consequences.

Partridge has won the M.E.R. Prize for Best Youth Novel twice and has been honoured by IBBY International for her work.  Two years ago she was named one of Mail & Guardian's 200 Young South Africans to watch out for, and there is no doubt that all these forms of recognitions were only the beginning.

KMS: Your novels are not only entertaining, fast-paced reads, but also astutely committed works of literature. In your work, you take up many socially-relevant issues like bullying, violence, the pitfalls of our online reality, but your novels don't preach. Sharp Edges is not different. In it, you turn to drug abuse. But drugs are not really the issue. The real tragedy begins somewhere else. Can you tell us more about that?

SAP: For me, the greatest tragedy in the novel is Demi's death because it was totally avoidable, yet none of the characters see that. They're too busy blaming each other and themselves. After she died, Demi's friends made her out to be this perfect, golden-haired girl that was cruelly snatched from their lives. But Demi was anything but perfect. She was an unapologetic party girl with a growing substance problem that none of her friends had ever addressed. The Voice of Reason in this girl's life was absent and she was as oblivious to her problem as much as everyone else was. Friendship is a big theme of the book, but this group of friends didn't know each other as well as they thought they did. James didn't know anything about his best friend Siya, neither Demi nor V saw that Ashley was a dormant volcano of uncertainty and low self-worth. They all communicated in various ways, from talking to each other directly to writing letters and sending text messages, but none of them said the things that they should have. Instead they focused on frivolous things like girl-boy talk and partying. All these broken lives would have been so different if they had just communicated properly with each other from the start. James and V's promised love story, which held so much potential, was sabotaged by their inability to say how they really felt about each other.

KMS: Your characters are often outsiders. Do you find them more interesting to write about?

SAP: I could be wrong, but I think everyone sees themselves as outsiders. This is especially true for teenagers, who are just starting to develop their awareness of the world. We all have this little voice in our head that only we can hear that questions everything we do. We all keep quiet about what we really think about people, choosing to display this outer mask of insincerity and cheerfulness. I love writing in first-person perspective because not only can I display this outer mask the characters wear but the internal dialogue as well. The reader gets a full picture of the character – how they act around the other characters, and what they're really like on the inside.

I've mentioned in the past that most of my characters are hooligans, which I suppose makes them more fun to write about. But I think I could take any type of teenager, even the well-behaved bookish types, and find some way to turn them into a misfit. Someone may seem like a good kid on the outside but what they're like on the inside is a whole different story. As a writer I'm most interested in what makes people tick.

KMS: What is the greatest challenge for you when writing for a teenage audience?

SAP: Relevance. I could write what I think is the best story I've ever written, but at the end of the day the young person that picks it up has to find it interesting. That's why plot is so important. Sharp Edges deals with so many issues and themes, from drug abuse and grief to identity and perception, but a teenage reader is not going to care about any of that. They want a good story that they can devour in a matter of hours so that they swirl around in the aftermath for a bit before picking up the next book. In Sharp Edges I have the mystery element. What actually happened to Demi Crowley? Without a good story and a solid plot you're basically just writing a long essay about the teenage psyche that academics will love, but no teenager in their right mind would ever touch.

KMS: Are there any taboo topics in YA literature?

SAP: I don't think so, especially when it comes to contemporary YA which is based soundly in the real world. Life is hard. Life is ugly. Teenagers have a full plate in their everyday life comprising school, social hierarchies, peer pressure, bullying, their awareness of the opposite (or same) sex. And this is just the suburban teenager. There are kids living in abject poverty, kids in war-torn countries, victims of abuse, child-headed families, rape victims. Bad things happen in real life and it would be remiss of me to not write about it.

In Sharp Edges my characters all experience real-world problems. One character's parents are divorced, one hasn't told his parents that he's gay, two attempt suicide, one deals drugs, one tries to seduce her friend's father. The world isn't perfect. Our paths are full of sharp edges that graze us as we pass.

KMS: You partner Warren Talmarkes was part of the creative team behind the evocative cover and design of Sharp Edges. Can you tell us more about the collaboration?

SAP: Sharp Edges tells the story of a group of friends that go to a music festival in the Cederberg, but the book isn't about kids going to party and having a good time. It's about what happened after the party. The book touches on death, grief, friendship, perception, sadness, and the ghosts that shape who we are. It was important for me that the cover provides a true representation of that content. Warren is an amazing designer and he understood exactly what I wanted. He's also a live music photographer so if I wanted a cover that depicted young people going crazy at a music concert I could have easily had that, but that's the opposite of what I wanted. I wanted something eerie, whimsical and soulful that hinted at the dark nature of the book. Demi is the ghost that haunts the lives of the other five characters. The disembodied girl on the cover is that ghost. It's perfect.

KMS: What is next for you?

SAP: I am, as always, writing. I have several draft manuscripts in the pipeline, and am currently busy with another. If I'm not writing, I go insane. There will definitely be a next book, but which one I can't tell you yet.

I am also currently writing a short story about Siya and Terry for a short story anthology for charity. Siya's chapter was such a special moment of lightness in the story. When someone suggested that I explore that relationship more I jumped at the opportunity.
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Karina Magdalena Szczurek

Karina is a writer and literary critic based in Cape Town.

Website: karinamagdalena.com/
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