When my daughter was 14 she was diagnosed with a blood cancer called Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Needless to say it was an unspeakably ghastly time, but beside a little lingering PTSD we all got through it. She’s 21 now, in college, worrying about other things.
But when we were still in the thick of it, my friend went looking for cancer books for my daughter and her friends. What she discovered was that when kids in books, movies and TV shows get cancer, they die.
I can’t blame writers or readers for loving a good tear-jerker, but if it’s your kid, your self, or your big sister who’s sick... well, you see my point.
And those story book sick / dying kids were invariably portrayed as saintly and angelic, more concerned with other people’s happiness than their own. Peaceful, fearless, accepting of their fate.
This was not my impression. Mine was that snotty 14 year olds are snotty 14 year olds, sick, well, or on a Ferris wheel. The patients at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles were as bizarre and motley as any other huge group of kids.
And another thing I learned and re-learned and re-re-relearned going through the whole cancer nightmare, was that people inadvertently say and do incredibly insensitive and cruel things.
True no one knows what to do, and there is no one right thing to say besides, “OOPS! It’s all been a mistake! Your daughter is perfectly fine!”
So, once my daughter was in the clear, I set about writing a funny, teen, cancer survivor book based on her medical experience... Keeping these three things in mind,
1. Not all sick kids die. 2. Sick kids are no different than any other kids. In fact they ARE any other kids except they got sick. And 3. Sick kids, like the rest of us, are surrounded by idiots.
The truly horrific reality (finding out you’re sick, getting chemo and the side effects of chemo, hospital stays, trying to return to normal, school, well meaning friends and strangers...) makes for a scary enough story without having to kill anyone.
And I got to get back at all the stupid things people did by including them in the story! Pure spite and delicious revenge!
When the manuscript was done, I showed it to my daughter. She gave it her resounding approval and off it went.
SIDE EFFECTS was published in 2006, and the paperback followed a year or two later. The reviews were great and it still sells well... Although there have been complaints about the character's "language."
But the best part BY FAR are the fan letters.
I like all my fan letters. Even the e-mails saying they have an author report due on me in the morning and need answers quick.
But none compare to the letters I get from young people with cancer who thank me for writing a book that tells their story.
So that’s why I agree, at least this once, with the old saw about Writing what you know.