Title: Sea Change
Author: S.M. Wheeler
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: June 2013
Synopsis can be found here.
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Sea Change contains scenes of intense violence. When I see it categorized as a YA novel I balk a bit because of this, though in retrospect I was reading the equivalent at that age. But, then, I’ve grown up to write a fair share of horrific fiction. It’s a quandary. In any case, I can’t blame those potentially inappropriate childhood reads entirely for my adult choices (or I have rationalized the impulses related thereto) and there are concrete purposes for my inclusion of the disturbing and the brutal. It bears endless restating that gritty does not equal true, but that “grit” comes with cathartic potential, a chance of resonation with real-world experience, and honesty.
I need to back up and add more in the ways of qualifications to this discussion. That violence in fiction is haunted with the possibility of being exploitation of intense imagery for the sake of thrills is true; that this might have a negative effect on culture (and we seem to have a particular anxiety about its effect on youth culture) is something explored by a goodly number of SF novels. You would think a fan of The Clockwork Orange (sans the American epilogue) would be chary of slicking prose with gore. Yet here I stand having googled images of in-progress surgeries to ascertain the color and position of various organs in the abdominal cavity for the sake of a truly accurate depiction of someone’s bared guts.
What motivates this? Well, you never know: a surgeon might read the book and scoff if I describe the pancreas as purplish.
That answer isn’t pure silliness. This comes back around to honesty: if I choose to cut open a character and provide the opportunity for my narrator to consider the visuals of this, it is an acknowledgment of the severity of that violence to offer up to the reader an accurate portrayal. If it weren’t a flagrant lie I would say that depiction by allusion and hints isn’t my preference; but, rather, it isn’t my preference where I feel I am placing a reader into a fictional situation where a real world equivalent—in this case, the mutilation of the female body—would warrant direct confrontation.
That is, if it happens, it should not be casual and clichéd. Saying so could be a dodge of the real question, which is: why include it?
Some of this has to do with source texts. Fairytales have a brutal temper towards their protagonists and antagonists alike—“The Maiden Without Hands” is one of the more interesting examples, though one can also look to the numerous creative modes of death experienced by evil characters. From a mechanical perspective, translating this violence from the Grimms’ style (wherein the storyteller is the narrator) to my own (with a protagonist-narrator) results in a sensory description rather than an observational one. Facts of life have their say: Lilly is put into situations that are high-risk in any world that nods towards reality, and she suffers the consequences.
Lastly, I feel that including pain in a novel adds a dimension that, lost, would make the whole lack something essential. The violent acts result in lost dignity, body parts, and sometimes death; without them, however, there isn’t the gain of emotional heft. A simple, bloodless death is a poor close to a certain kind of character’s life, and Sea Change contains two of those. In one draft, the magic requiring bared guts was gone about in a noninvasive way—a more subtle mutilation than endoscopic surgery—and in re-reading I walked out the other side feeling distinctly dissatisfied. Besides, I have the unfortunate tendency towards vagueness (my apologies, readers), and this version forced you to squint and consider at length exactly what had been lost.
A final thought. I take my cues as a writer from what I read, “steal what you like” being good advice for authors new and old. Characters being knocked out for hours without subsequent neurological complications, death sans bodily functions, shots in the shoulder being harmless (there’s an artery and a nerve bundle there)—it’s a sign of poor research as much as being difficult to take seriously. I am, further, peevish in the face of long-term consequences being ignored. Tangentially, chronic pain has left me sensitive to the issue of the swift and complete healing of characters; maybe I am too bitter and demanding, but I am comforted by the recognition that such individuals exist.
Such is the mindset that governs my work. While it is in the hands of readers to judge the use of violence within Sea Change, I say confidently: the choices are deliberate.
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