The following conversation is part of our Beyond The Bio series, featuring conversations with authors we love. If you're a teen who'd like to interview an author, please click here to find out how we can connect you with your favorite YA authors. Today's guests include high school freshman Bitia V. and Erin Stewart, whose new book Scars Like Wings came out earlier this year.
Bitia: I really enjoyed your book. It really captures how messy school life can be. It’s sad but also inspiring. Could you share with our readers what your book is about?
Erin: SCARS LIKE WINGS is about 16-year-old Ava Lee, who has lost everything there is to lose: Her parents. Her best friend. Her home. Even her face. She doesn’t need a mirror to know what she looks like—she can see her reflection in the eyes of everyone around her.
A year after the fire that destroyed her world, her aunt and uncle have decided she should go back to high school. Be “normal” again. Whatever that is. Ava knows better. There is no normal for someone like her. And forget making friends—no one wants to be seen with the Burned Girl, now or ever.
But when Ava meets a fellow survivor named Piper, she begins to feel like maybe she doesn’t have to face the nightmare alone. Sarcastic and blunt, Piper isn’t afraid to push Ava out of her comfort zone. Piper introduces Ava to Asad, a boy who loves theater just as much as she does, and slowly, Ava tries to create a life again. Yet Piper is fighting her own battle, and soon Ava must decide if she’s going to fade back into her scars . . . or let the people by her side help her fly.
Bitia: I can really relate to the way Ava pushes people away. How did you come up with her character?
Erin: I worked a lot with burn survivors and doctors to create Ava and her whole story. I wanted to get the physical details, as well as the emotions just right for someone who would have survived a house fire and had to leave with the internal and external scars. So Ava’s initial desire to be alone and push people away was a very natural part of the healing process for most survivors. They felt unworthy for a long time—unworthy of survival and unworthy of love.
The primary person I worked with during my research is a friend of mine names Marius, who was burned as an 8-year-old boy. Physically, Ava has many similar qualities as Marius (toe-to-hand transfer, nose reconstruction, skin grafts, etc). But emotionally, Marius really helped me understand what Ava would have to go through to choose to survive her trauma. Now 20, Marius’ story has always inspired and intrigued me, not only because of the power of his tragedy, but because he chooses every single day not to let it define him. He has had children run screaming from him. He has had bullies call him Freddy Krueger. I wanted to write a story that would go to these dark, lonely parts of tragedies like his, but also to the beautiful, hopeful parts. As Marius has told me, the only way he survived was because every time he wanted to give up, someone was there, helping him choose to live. I hope Ava’s story can show readers that we all have a choice after a life-changing event: We can choose to be alone, isolated and angry that our normal is gone, or we can let people in and find a new normal, together.
Bitia: I loved Piper’s sarcastic and bold personality. And I have a feeling I’m not the only reader who will connect with her clinginess and depression. Where did you get the inspiration for Piper?
Erin: Oh, Piper. I just love her. Some readers struggle with her clinginess and depression (and downright manipulation, sometimes), so I’m glad you understood it! I think Piper, like all people, is a real human who has flaws and is trying her best anyway. I wanted Ava to have someone in her life that would bring her out of her shell, but I didn’t think it would be realistic to have someone who has gone through what Piper has, be all sunshine and perfection. She’s fighting her demons, too, and has to rely on Ava to fight them together. In terms of personality, I’ll admit I gave Piper a lot of my own off-the-wall sense of humor and sarcasm!
Bitia: What advice would you give teens who are living with depression?
Erin: The number one thing I’d suggest is to not be ashamed of depression. Many people struggle with it, and just like you wouldn’t be embarrassed about depression, you shouldn’t be of mental health issues either. Tell someone you trust and get the help you deserve. In SCARS, Piper feels like she’s a burden, but she learns that her friends and family want to help her. They want to be there for her, she just has to let them.
Bitia: I loved the scene when Piper and Ava first met. They’re so alike, and they’ve got such a strong connection. Which real-life relationship of yours most closely resembles Piper and Ava’s connection?
Erin: In a lot of ways, I think Piper and Ava interact like sisters. They love each other to pieces, but they also have complicated feelings of anger, jealousy and resentment mixed in with it all. I grew up as the middle child of three sisters, and my sisters are my best friends in the world. But they can also be my biggest enemies because they know me so well and they can cut me the deepest because of how much they mean to me. I wanted to make Piper and Ava’s relationship real, and not a glossy, BFF-forever friendship, because I think that’s how life is: messy, but beautiful.
Bitia: Your book contains a ton of musical references. Is it safe to say that, like Ava, you’re a drama kid?
Erin: I’m actually not! I grew up writing and doing journalism for the school paper in high school, but I’ve always loved storytelling of any form, including musicals! Ava’s love for drama actually came about because I knew she needed to have a passion that would conflict with her feelings about her physical appearance after the fire. For me, drama was the perfect answer because she would have to get up in front of people to use her incredible voice.
Bitia: Speaking of music, Piper has a “Fire-Mix” which is a playlist of songs that are really connected to fires. I think it's really funny how Piper plays it for Ava and even adds it onto her phone. Did you listen to the “Fire-Mix” while you were writing?
Erin: Sometimes! I especially loved listening to Alicia Keys, “Girl on fire.” That song always pumped me up to write a bad-ass character who was going to take on the world even though she was hurting inside.
Bitia: I hear that you had a tendency to explode your characters at the end of your first stories. Can you tell me about that?
Erin: Haha! Yes, my mom thought I needed a therapist when I was little because everyone always died at the end (usually through head explosion, as you said). But my kindergarten teacher told her this was very normal and very common for creative kids who were just exploring their feelings. As an adult, I still love putting my characters through some tough stuff, though!
Bitia: Your book manages to be both funny and sad. What are some other books you’d recommend that strike that same balance?
Erin: I’m so glad you think so! Readers are always surprised that they laugh out loud in some parts of SCARS because they expect it to be such a serious book. But I’ve always believed the philosophy that we have to laugh at ourselves if we’re going to survive this life! So I didn’t want Ava, Piper and Asad to have great senses of humor since they were facing down some very non-funny circumstances.
Bitia: Will we be seeing any new books from you anytime soon?
Erin: Yes! I’m working on my next book, which is another young adult contemporary, totally unrelated to SCARS LIKE WINGS. The book is about living with mental health issues and is based on my own experience with anxiety. I read so many books (great ones!) about heavier-hitting mental health issues, but I felt like there wasn’t much out there for kind of generalized anxiety and everyday battles against the what-if monster. With social media and all the intense pressure on teens today, I think we need to look at what anxiety is doing to this generation and how many are suffering silently.