In Tahereh Mafi’s debut novel, Shatter Me, 17-year-old Juliette has a terrible and isolating power: her touch kills people. So naturally, she gets locked up in a tiny cell with the most beautiful boy she’s ever laid eyes on. Juliette and Adam eventually settle into a comfortable kind of rhythm—until, suddenly, everything falls apart. The Reestablishment, the totalitarian government bent on “purifying” human culture, is facing resistance and wants to use Juliette as a weapon. Can Juliette resist the temptation to work for them and save Adam? Or will she sacrifice her love to save other people’s lives?
We got a chance to ask Tahereh some questions about her inspiration, writing style, and the joys and heartbreak of the publishing process. Read our interview below, and be sure to start reading Shatter Me now on Figment!
Describe Shatter Me in five words.
Finding the strength to fight.
Not at all. I didn’t write the book with any specific goal in mind; I just heard the voice of this sad, broken girl in my head one day, and I knew I needed to write it down. The details developed as the story did. And though Juliette is often compared to Rogue, her abilities are actually quite different; it’s hard to tell in the first book, only because Juliette herself has no idea what’s wrong with her. But as the series develops, so does she.
When Shatter Me opens, your protagonist, Juliette, has been locked up and isolated in asylum-like conditions for a long period of time. How did you approach writing someone who has gone through this kind of trauma and isolation?
I think as teenagers we all experience some level of emotional and psychological isolation; we don’t always fit in, we’re never really understood, and we often wonder if there’s any hope in our future–if we’ll find happiness and success after high school and beyond. I took this idea to an extreme with Juliette. For her, it’s more than just bullying; it’s more than being a little different in a society that demands conformity. She’s utterly, absolutely other. She’s been deemed a monster and thrown into a world of nothingness where she’s expected to disappear and die; her existence is no longer acknowledged, not even by her own parents. And while we often read stories about the broken heroines who rise up and get angry and start killing people with no regrets, I just couldn’t see Juliette that way. Not right away. She’s been so beaten down her entire life that she’s like a skittish, traumatized animal, terrified of her own skin. She clings to hope with a frantic, manic desperation even though she’s losing her mind, and she’s trying to convince herself that she’s still human, that she deserves to live. She’s a complete mess. I knew she needed time to heal; she needed to find a way out of her own head.
Juliette narrates the book in a kind of free-flowing stream-of-consciousness. Was it hard to naildown this style? Is there a trick to writing a polished first-person that still feels “unedited?”
I actually didn’t realize I’d written something that would qualify as a stream-of-consciousness style until after the reviews came in; Juliette’s voice always demanded that I abandon convention, and I never questioned it. I was so deep in her mind that it felt inauthentic to put her thoughts together in an ordinary, detached story-telling format. Being in her head often makes me feel like I can’t breathe: she doesn’t stop for punctuation marks unless she wants to; her thoughts are un-tethered and often transition abruptly. But as the book moves forward, she begins to break out of this self-imposed prison she’s living in, and her thoughts become clearer, more coherent. This will become even more evident in the subsequent novels. So while I don’t know whether or not there are tricks to writing this way, I do think it requires you to really know your character.
You use punctuation in a really interesting way, using strikethroughs to show what Juliette is really thinking but can’t actually say. What inspired this tactic?
This also wasn’t a conscious decision; the strikethroughs have been a part of this story from the very first sentences I wrote down. They seemed organic to the self-censorship happening in Juliette’s mind–the constant battle for sanity, for acceptance of what was right and what was real. She’s been keeping a journal her entire time in the asylum, and, as she has no one else to talk to, the way she writes has sort of bled into the way she thinks. She’s obsessed with words and numbers, writes them down and thinks about them all the time. But then she’ll write something and cross it out. Write something else and cross part of it out. She’ll change her mind a million times, never willing to admit certain things to herself. It’s just another element of her psychological instability.
You mention on your blog that you’ve struggled a bit with how to accept praise. What have you learned about being modest and gracious and keeping your feet on the ground?
The more I’ve learned about this industry, the more I’ve learned that I know absolutely nothing. There’s so much to know, so much to learn, and so much of that is changing. But more than anything else, publishing is an intense, grueling process, and I never want to forget that. There are different hurdles at every step in this journey, and obstacles are never entirely overcome; but I’ll always remember what it was like to be a terrified newbie-writer, querying and querying and constantly being rejected; holding my heart together in the middle of the workday, trying tofocus on my day job when all I wanted was to go home and cry, all the time wondering why I was wasting my time trying to get a book published. I’m not anyone now that I wasn’t back then, and I hope I never pretend to be.