Thursday, 27 May 2010

Della Says...the M Word

Have I got a treat for you today! A guest post from Keris Stainton to mark the publication this month of her debut novel Della Says OMG a funny honest tale of a teenage girl's first love.
Everything seems to be going right for 17-year-old Della when she kisses her long term crush Dan at a party. But she's got an enemy, someone who has stolen her diary where she's long recorded her most secret thoughts. Soon Della's secrets are being broadcast on Facebook and by texts. Will her romance with Dan take the exposure? And who's doing this to Della?
This could have been a book all about the mystery - who took the diary and why? It isn't. It's a book about 21st century shame, about owning your own sexuality. Della has right-on parents who take it for granted tht their daughters will have sex lives. Her best friend has been having sex for ages. But she still feels utterly humiliated when her secrets become public.Underneath the breezy jokey style (a completely authentic teenage girl voice, down to the shoes 'which kill') there's a serious theme about girls and sex.
Sex has to be one of the most difficult and interesting things to write about in teen fiction. How do you get it right without scandalising the gate-keepers - parents, teachers,librarians..even publishers. I relied on euphemism and hints a lot - I suspect a 15 year old boy will read aspects of When I was Joe quite differently from an 11 year old girl.
To mark the publication of Della Says OMG, I'm giving away a signed copy - so please leave a cmment if you want to be in the draw. Thanks so much Keris for donating the copy and for writing this great post..

When I started writing Della, all I had was the idea of a missing diary. I worked out fairly quickly that the diary's content had to be pretty embarrassing in order for Della to be worried about someone having it (no flies on me) and I pretty much went straight to sex. Or rather, sexuality. Della's a teenager who's never had a boyfriend, never even been kissed and so I knew it would be something she worried about a lot. I knew she'd feel like her peers were more experienced than her. I knew she'd be concerned that everyone else was far more advanced than she was. And I knew she'd be afraid that people would find out how little experience she had. How did I know all this? Er. I used my imagination. Obviously. *coughs*

And once I'd decided to focus on Della's sexuality, it was very important to me that she mention masturbation. For a couple of reasons. Firstly, while male masturbation is part of our culture - from magazines like Zoo and Nuts to the casual bandying around of words like "tosser" and "wanker" - female masturbation is still so taboo. Even women don't tend to discuss it with each other the way men do. Although a few years ago I wrote an article about the first time you got a “funny feeling down there” and I got lots of really sweet and funny stories and great feedback from women who really identified with the piece. And, interestingly enough, so many first times took place when reading: Lace, Forever, The Thorn Birds and, er, The Fog were all mentioned.

Secondly, despite it being such an important step in learning about your own sexuality, it's rarely mentioned in teen fiction. A couple of years ago, I read a book called Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume, which features an essay by Lara M Zeises called The M Word. The essay begins with Zeises, age 7, discovering that touching herself feels good, "sometimes good enough to help me fall asleep", and how she didn't know what she was doing until she read Judy Blume's 1973 novel, Deenie. Deenie also touches her "special place" when she has trouble falling asleep and later in the book she asks a teacher, in an anonymous note, "Do normal people touch their bodies before they go to sleep and is it all right to do that?" (The teacher explains that, yes, masturbation is "normal and harmless".)

Zeises goes on to say that "relatively precious few novels even allude to girls getting their groove on by themselves" adding that one notable exception is Meg Cabot's All-American Girl: Ready or Not. I've since read Pop! by Aury Wallington, which also features a bit of female DIY. (Incidentally, in both Ready or Not and Pop!, the deed is done by sliding down in the bath and lying under the "faucet". Not only does that sound physically challenging, but also - unless American plumbing is more sophisticated than ours - presents a terrible scalding risk, no?) So with all of the above in mind, I had one of Della's diary extracts refer to her touching herself. And then later in the book, she discusses female masturbation with her best friend.

A few weeks ago, I went to see the authors Melvyn Burgess and William Nicholson in conversation about sex in YA fiction. They talked about porn, about where they learned about sex when they were teens, even about *having* sex when they were teens. And they agreed that it is weird that there's so little actual sex in teen fiction, despite the fact that a) teens think about sex all the time and b) society - and other media - is so sexualised. I hadn't really thought about it from that perspective, but they were absolutely right. I didn't want Della to be an "issue" book. I didn't want to be controversial or sensationalist or shocking. I just think it's important to write about sex honestly, naturally, unapologetically so that's what I tried to do. I really hope I succeeded.


  1. Keris - I take my hat off to you. I am guilty of avoiding talking about sex in my YA books, partly because actually I don't think I know what to say about it, and partly because I'm just a wimp. (Also because, to be fair to me, you have to decide what your book is about, and focus on that, and it's impossible/wrong to tackle *everything* about life in a novel). But I loved Della Says OMG and I think you've tackled a really important subject brilliantly. It IS something that girls and boys of that age want to know about and want to know that their feelings are normal and healthy.

    Della Says OMG shows use all that there are things we shouldn't be embarrassed about, even when they are private (as Della's diary was supposed to be.) In the end, it's not about sex or sexuality, is it? It's about being comfortable with yourself.

    Great post!

  2. Fantastic post. Keris, I salute you!

  3. I salute you too! Thanks for this great post.

  4. Brilliant post! Love how you describe Della Says OMG, Keren: it IS a book about shame and how to get past it - and Keris does such a grand job of making that into a funny, lecture-free read.

    I confess I tend to duck the sex thing too: there's such a sense of responsibility attached to writing for young people and I think I'm just too nervous about getting it wrong. Then again, I was also asked by a US editor to remove a plotline about a pregnancy scare from a YA book. Writers aren't the only ones to be wary - which makes Della's frankness all the more fab.

  5. Great interview - great insight - great book!

  6. Oh dear, I'm the mother of teenage boys and I still didn't come close to guessing what the M word was. I *should* have known, especially after complaining earlier this week about whoever invented teenage boys needing to beta test them before releasing them into the wild; that was after I had been cleaning a bedroom. Yuk.
    I haven't read Keris' book (yet), but am glad from the description that Della appears to have been suffering from the usual adolescent insecurities and worries that 'everyone else is doing it' and 'I never will'. I don't have to use my imagination to know what that felt like - many of my schoolfriends were and I wasn't. Sadly, as a new divorcee I now know what that feeling is like all over again.
    Today's teenagers are lucky to have writers brave enough to tackle such difficult, very personal, topics. I hope that most young adults today aren't as naïve as I was, and am sure books like this will help them talk and think about the very many issues of which I was in completely ignorance at their age, which must be a 'good thing'.

  7. Sounds like a really great book, especially for teenage girls. I can't wait to give it a read! Thanks.

  8. I've seen some great press and buzz about this book. Would love to read it. Congrats and keep it up Keris :)

  9. Thanks for yet another great post! x

  10. Enjoying these guest posts...still want to see Keren from time to time though!
    *Plentymorefishoutofwater - One Man's Dating Diary*

  11. A fascinating post. For me it's like a report from another planet, and all the more interesting for that.

    But I did have a smile at the idea of men discussing masturbation. Laughing and shouting and joking about it, yes, but discussing?


  12. Thanks for the great comments, everyone.

    And, ha, Thomas. I didn't mean *discussing* it as if they were on The Late Review or something, but I've certainly heard them discussing where they've done it and who they've done it, er, over. Etc. *blush*

  13. I wish I could say you're wrong about that, Keris, but...

    *blush indeed*

    I've added your book to my list.

  14. I thought of many more, Mr Taylor. When they first did it, the times they've been caught doing it, the time their mum caught them doing it. Where they found porn, the first time they bought porn, swapping porn. Doing it at work, getting caught doing it at work.

    And now that I think about it William Nicholson and Melvyn Burgess did indeed discuss it as if they were on The Late Review! :)

    But thank you. Hope you like the book.

  15. "Today's teenagers are lucky to have writers brave enough to tackle such difficult, very personal, topics." Well said Anon.
    All we ever had were the copies of Razzle left in the bus shelter down the road. I always wondered who put them there.

    As for "discussing" it, it's not discussed in a serious manner Keren; blokes don't do serious about that sort of thing unless they're of the odd sort or completely off their heads on illegal substances or booze. As base and sexually obsessed as we are, men do tend to distance themselves from serious truths when it comes to most things sexual, lol.

    I'm also with Monsieur Taylor on the, "report from another planet" stance; it was a very educational post. :-)
    Many thanks Keris.

  16. Yes, that sounds like something Melvyn Burgess would do. The rest of us would be too busy sniggering.

  17. I've discussed masturbation with other women and they've behaved as if I confessed to being a mass murderer. I once mentioned it in a all-women writing group and they all literally hid their hands under their bumbs in denial that they were ever used for such a purpose. It's so bizarre that there is less stigma attached to having sex, than to masturbating. For the record I masturbate, I always masturbate, I always will masturbate, I'm married and I'm still doing it.

    The first time I masturbated was when I was about 13 years old reading a Mills and Boon book. I paid late fees at the library because I kept flicking to that scene. My obsession with romance novels as a teenager all came down to the fact that they were like girlie porn.

    It's offensive how we have commercials about erectile disfunction in your face on television and radio, yet commercials about periods or anything female related is couched in euphemisms. Apparently it's against broadcasting regulations for the word vagina to be used. Porn magazines brush away vaginas. I watched an Oprah episode of a sex doctor telling women to look at their vaginas and there were titters and embarrassed gasps as if she was suggesting an orgy. They'd probably have been less embarrassed if she did suggest an orgy.

    Jemma Jamieson, the former porn star turned business woman, was interviewed and women apparently thank her for teaching them how to give blow jobs. What about some women getting their husband to learn how to perform oral sex on them?

    Women, play with yourself. If you don't know how to activate your button how will anyone else. Keris, I'm really wrapped to hear the theme of your book and will be tracking it down. Also, belated congratulations on your success in gaining publication.

  18. Obviously, I can't speak from personal experience here, but my wife has told me some stories about her sexual awakening that certainly made my toes curl! Boys think they're such randy animals, but it's clear that girls are getting up to plenty but just not making so much fuss about it.

    As to whether they should be making a fuss, I'm not sure - male sexuality is so tiresomely hyped up and in-your-face these days, and it's not much of an aspiration for female sexuality to try to compete on that level. I do agree that it's important to demystify these things for teenagers and for them to appreciate that what they're doing isn't bad or unusual.

    At least a positive side-effect of women's attraction to "literary" porn is to make it seem much more respectable. I would be mortified by the idea of having a stash of porn magazines that my wife might find, yet she can say to me "Don't get rid of that book, it's rubbish but there's a really good sex scene in it" and I barely bat an eyelid...

  19. No scalding risk when you have a mixer tap. Nuff said. Is that so terribly sophisticated in terms of plumbing?
    Great post, Keris! I wish your book had been around when I was a teen.