Hannah Harrington On Unsympathetic Characters, Love is Louder, and Lady Gaga

Hannah’s photo by Direction Studios

Hannah Harrington‘s new novel Speechless is the story of Chelsea Knot, the school gossip, who gets herself into big trouble when she shares one too many secrets. Hannah stopped by Figment to talk about her novel, the book’s anti-bullying campaign with Love is Louder, and difficulties of taking a vow of silence. Read on below . . .

Describe your book in five words.

Learning the power of words.

Chelsea Knot decides to take a vow of silence after she spills a secret and someone gets seriously hurt. Would you ever take your own vow of silence?

I think it could be an interesting experiment! It’d be enlightening to see how much I really communicate on a daily basis and if it would change the way I observe other people. I’m not sure I would be able to pull something like that off, though. I’d probably accidentally start singing to the radio or talk to my pets or something!

Chelsea doesn’t start out as a very sympathetic character, but as the novel progresses, it’s easy to begin to admire her strength and self-awareness. Were you worried about creating a main character who is initially so hard to like?

It is definitely a risk to knowingly create a character who starts off as unsympathetic as Chelsea. My hope was that by throwing her in the mix with characters like Sam and Asha, the reader could find someone to latch onto if they weren’t warming up to Chelsea herself. I also liked the idea that she comes across as very shallow and short-sighted, but at the very start she does the right thing: she turns these two boys in to the authorities. You don’t really know exactly why she did that, and Chelsea doesn’t even seem to really grasp why she did it knowing what she lost as a result, but it’s an immediate sign that there is more to her underneath the surface and she has a good heart. I felt like having her begin the story as a much less likable character was necessary in order to show her evolution, and hopefully by the end, readers have grown attached to her and her journey.

Were you ever the victim of bullying or vicious gossip? Did personal experience influence this book?

I did experience bullying when I was younger, around middle school age. The reasons behind it were very different from what Chelsea experiences, so while some of the general feelings that come along with that that I went through may have informed the writing, it wasn’t really the same situation. But I think it’s something a lot of people go through and can relate to on some level.

Chelsea gets the idea to take the vow of silence when she read an article about Buddhist monks in National Geographic. Does that article exist – and if yes, did it initially inspire the novel?

I totally made the article up! I had had the idea of a girl taking a vow of silence, and one of the questions for me starting out was what, exactly, would inspire Chelsea to take that specific course of action—and I thought of how the first thing I associated with a “vow of silence” was monks, so it kind of went from there. I think at one point the first sentence of the whole novel was “National Geographic changed my life,” which I liked as a hook. From my knowledge, National Geographic has never written anything about monks who take oaths of silence.

Rosies – the diner where Chelsea’s new friends work – is such a cool place. Was it inspired by somewhere you hang out in real life?

The town of Grand Lake is fictional, but it’s loosely based on my hometown of East Grand Rapids, Michigan. I grew up about two blocks away from Reed’s Lake, this manmade lake in town, and right on the water there is a restaurant called Rose’s. When I was really young, it used to be this small little popcorn stand called Rosie’s—I think there’s a picture of my sister and I standing in front of it when I was three or four years old, before they renovated it into a restaurant. My sister had her first job there as a hostess. It’s a more upscale place than what the Rosie’s in Speechless is, though.

There was a diner I hung out at while I was in high school. The diner itself was kind of unremarkable, but I have good memories of socializing there and having great conversations. And I worked for a short while as a pizza cook the summer I graduated high school, so some of that experience influenced those scenes a bit. Mostly though Rosie’s is just an entirely fictional place that I wish existed!

Can you talk a little bit about your work with the organization Love is Louder. When you were writing this book, did you have plans to connect it to the larger anti-bullying movement?

The partnership with Love is Louder didn’t happen until well after the book had been written. Harlequin Teen suggested it, and I was really excited about the idea of working with them since I’d heard of the organization and already knew that they do wonderful work. Love is Louder is giving people the opportunity to hold Speechless book parties—and they’re giving away free copies of Speechless to the first twenty-five people who sign up! It’s all about raising awareness for bullying. You can check out more about that, and Love is Louder in general, at http://www.loveislouder.com/speechless.

Do you have a theme song for Chelsea?

I can’t help but think of the story whenever I hear Lady Gaga’s “Speechless” now! I tend to make entire playlists for my books. With Chelsea, I think Garbage’s “When I Grow Up” is very fitting for her.

We read that Speechless contains a small cameo from your characters in Saving June. Will you continue to set novels in the town of Grand Lake and returning to characters from past novels?

Yes, you do see a brief appearance from Harper and Jake in Speechless. I liked the setting of the town I’d come up with in Saving June, even though most of the novel isn’t spent there, so it was cool to go back to it in Speechless. Then I had the thought that it seemed like a fun opportunity to show how they exist in the same universe and have a little crossover. I think it’s something I might do again in the future!

This is your second novel. Was the writing and editing process easier this time?

It took me a shorter time to write a first draft, but there were more revisions with Speechless than there were with Saving June. Having a better idea of what the process would be since I’d been through it before was definitely helpful. It still went through plenty of edits!

What advice would you give to young writers working on their first novels?

Finish! I think finishing a first draft is one of the hardest things to do, and something a lot of aspiring writers never accomplish. Another piece of advice is to find people you trust who are honest (but not mean), who will give you constructive feedback, and then take that feedback to heart and really work to improve.

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