Joanna Kenrick was lovely enough to put by some time to answer a few questions for us on her YA novel, Screwed.
How did you come with the idea for screwed?
It was when I was writing Red Tears, my novel for teenagers about self-harm, two years earlier. It struck me that some teens were using promiscuity as a form of self-harm too, and I was also surrounded by reports in the papers saying Britain still had the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe. I thought, ‘but if all these girls are getting pregnant, what about the ones that aren’t?’ And I also saw a programme about teenagers who were sleeping with each other at parties because they got drunk, and they didn’t see anything wrong with it – but at the same time they didn’t really seem to enjoy it much!
Your book deals with what I feel is one of the biggest problems for teenagers; casual sex without really getting what they’re doing. Did you find this a difficult story to write?
No, because I see it as like most other things teens indulge in without understanding the consequences – drugs, drink, dares on motorways. Casual sex is easy, available, and free. However, I should point out that my teenage years were NOT spent in endless one-night stands; far from it! So in that respect, yes, it was difficult to write because I had no personal experience. But I could imagine Marsha in my head, and so I just pretended I was her when I was writing the book.
I loved how you separated the sex scenes from the rest of the story, a visible way of showing how Marsha disconnected herself from sex. Was it important to you to show Marsha’s disconnection?
Yes, because I think a lot of people do disconnect. Sex in itself is quite a detached activity if you’re not emotionally involved. Most adults will admit to having sex they didn’t really enjoy, but they felt they ought to, or ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to refuse. The media often portrays sex as something all-encompassing; a passionate affair. When in fact, for many people, a lot of the time, it isn’t like that. Marsha is doing something she loves and hates at the same time: she loves the attention that sex gives her; the feeling that she is ‘special’ to someone – but at the same time she finds it somewhat disgusting, and she never seems to look back on the experiences with any pleasure. Like I said above, she’s doing it as a form of self-harm; a way to deal with feelings she has buried, but not in a positive, long-lasting way.
Although graphic, the sex scenes in Screwed don’t seem so bad as there is a lack of emotion and thinking through most of them; it makes them less shocking which is disturbing in itself. How did you come up with the style in which you wrote the sex scenes?
I’m glad you said that, because although I knew I was writing an ‘issue’ book about sex, I never wanted the sex scenes to be something teenagers would necessarily enjoy reading. The sex scene on page one was the first thing I wrote for the book, and it set the tone. I wanted Marsha to notice other things during the act, like the moon, or the sky, because as a woman you do tend to be looking up rather a lot… Curiously, the first draft of the book was written entirely in the present tense (which was what I used for Red Tears) but I then realised that it would work much better if I used present tense only for the sex scenes – it’s like the experience is very immediate but as though viewed from above. Marsha is almost seeing herself from the outside, rather than taking pleasure in her own body.
You covered some important topics brilliantly in my opinion, such as virginity and your first time through conversations with Beth and STDs through Marsha’s scare. How important did you feel it was to cover such subjects for teenage readers?
Very important. Sex is a complicated issue. Most teenagers are aware of the risk of pregnancy, but I saw a TV programme two years ago in which teenage boys went for STD tests. Their ignorance was terrifying. First time experiences are almost universally disappointing. A lot of young people have huge expectations of losing their virginity, and that in itself is a shame. Sex should be explained as something you can practise over a period of time within a relationship, not the mind-blowing orgasmic experience between strangers it so often is in the films.
Several people have said to me that they thought Beth was going to get pregnant after losing her virginity, and actually that did happen in an early draft of the book. But my editor very rightly pointed out that that subplot then started to detract from the main thrust of the story, which is Marsha and her relationship with Rich, along with her journey of self-discovery.
What is your view of the hook-up culture that has come about?
I think it’s an inevitable outcome of the current society. There are so many aspects that contribute to it though – the binge-drinking trend; the fact that so many children grow up in ‘broken’ families, where often they don’t see positive relationships around them; the lack of feeling part of a community; the dearth of sex education in schools – and of course the simple fact that teenagers will always rebel because that’s what being a teenager is all about. In a way I think it’s sad that a lot of young adults don’t value themselves and their bodies more highly. But on the other hand, I also think there is an over-reaction from many adults which doesn’t help the situation. Teenagers are always going to be curious about sex. That’s not the problem. The problem is when no one will talk to them about it!
What’s your opinion of how YA novels are dealing with the topic of sex?
I haven’t read very many that deal with it directly. But I think it’s good that more books are daring to deal with it as a topic. I think there need to be more stories that deal with the issue of sex itself, not just the one outcome of pregnancy (although that is very important).
Do you think there is a limit on what should be covered in YA novels?
Topic-wise, no. Absolutely not. BUT I do think authors should deal with the topics in a responsible way. Promiscuity should not be promoted as a good idea, for example. On the other hand, you have to be careful not to be too ‘preachy’. Kids can smell a moral a mile off, and they don’t like an obvious message, such as ‘sex is bad’. They know life isn’t that simple. We need to treat our readers with respect. They deserve good stories about real things and let them draw their own conclusions.
What books did you read as a teenager, and how well do you think they dealt with talking about sex?
Well, when I was a teenager, there wasn’t anything like the number of YA books there are now. It just wasn’t a booming market, though there were some books about sex – Judy Blume’s Forever, for example. But I didn’t come across it back then. Actually, what I read at the age of about fifteen or sixteen was Mills and Boon. Now there’s glorified sex for you! I thought them intensely romantic and exciting but even then, I knew the stories weren’t very realistic.
What do you think about parents not allowing their teenagers to read novels with a certain sexual content?
I think they are closing their eyes to a huge problem in this country. If so many teenagers are getting pregnant, then it stands to reason there are a lot of them having sex. Parents sometimes think they need to protect their teenage children against certain issues so that they don’t ‘get ideas’. And yet, by denying their kids access to those books, they are also making sure they’ll ‘get ideas’ from their friends at parties – which may not be the right ideas at all!
Anything else you wish to add/discuss?
I feel quite strongly that there should be a more comprehensive and universal programme of sex education for teenagers in this country. Whenever I hear the phrase ‘teenage pregnancy’ in the news, I always feel sad. Many teens make excellent parents, but nine times out of ten, the pregnancy was a mistake because they didn’t take precautions. That’s something we can fix, if only the people in charge were brave enough to tackle it.
I’d also like to add that ‘Screwed’ was not my choice of title. I wanted to go with ‘You Don’t Have To’ but the publishers felt that wasn’t punchy enough. I also wasn’t sure about the jacket cover, but it was felt that it would appeal to teenagers. I would be interested to hear what other people thought, particularly from teens themselves.
Thank you, Joanna, for an incredible interview! It was such a fascinating read! If you have any other questions for Joanna, she'll be popping by today to answer them, so get asking!