#MHYALit: Better Is Not a Place, a guest post by Sam J. Miller
The sight of normal boys made me sick. I’d see them walking down the high school, easy and confident and cruel and strong, and I’d get physically ill. I’d skip lunch. I lived on coffee. My stomach hurt all the time.
Being gay and having an eating disorder weren’t separate issues. I watched the straight boys walk down the halls of my high school, saw their broad shoulders and flat stomachs and I thought—I will never be that. Never have a body like that. And I didn’t just want to be them. I wanted to make out with them, too. I hated them, and I wanted them. How messed up is that? Who wouldn’t be damaged by so many contradictory emotions?
Worse, all the boys knew I wasn’t one of them. It’s why they beat me up, why they said horrible things to me every single day. How could I not become just as disgusted at myself as they were? When I looked in the mirror, what I saw was grotesque. I was weak. And everything I ate threatened to make me more so. But when I didn’t eat, I felt halfway human. Hunger made me stronger.
That’s the seed of my debut YA novel, THE ART OF STARVING, out in July from HarperTeen. Here’s an ugly truth that I wish wasn’t true: there is power in violence. There is power in self-harm. Hurting myself felt like the only power I had. I didn’t get the ability to read minds or control the fabric of time and space and launch a mission of bloody revenge like my MC did, but for once I felt like the world didn’t threaten to break me in half.
I managed to climb out of that miserable swamp. And fifteen years later, when I could finally see clearly what had happened to me, I wrote THE ART OF STARVING. To help other young people, boys and girls and straights and queers and folks who are none of the above, find their way out.
Maybe that’s a spoiler. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you what happens. But there’s lots of young people out there who are in the same hell I was, and it would be irresponsible of me to show that hell without trying to also show how I got out.… and besides, there’s lots of other stuff in the book that isn’t spoiled by that reveal. A Jewish/Muslim gay romance and bad words and sex and arson and plot twists and an army of vengeful hogs.
Young women are disproportionately likely to develop eating disorders, but boys can get them too. That story doesn’t get told as much. Librarians and teachers and others who work with young people might not think to look for the signs, or to try to support young men with debilitating body image issues. Which is why I had to write this book.
I wish I had an easy solution—a switch I flipped to make myself not broken. But there are no easy answers. Not in my book, and not in life. Learning to love myself didn’t come out of nowhere. The most crucial piece was meeting people and reading stories that could tell me how awesome it is to be gay, and that not having the perfect buff male model body is actually completely fine. I didn’t believe I could be beautiful, until another gay guy said I already was. And I didn’t know my story mattered until I read it in a book, saw it on a screen. That’s what I hope my book can do for people. That’s the power of #ownvoices.
At the end of the book my main character, Matt, muses:
“In the hospital, and at the rehab center, I used to imagine Better was a place you could get to. A moment when I would look around and see that Everything Was Fine. But that’s not how this works. Being better isn’t a battle you fight and win. Feeling okay is a war, one that lasts your whole life, and the only way to win is to keep on fighting.”
Better is not a place. It’s process. I’m not cured. I still struggle with body image issues. I hope my book helps someone. I tried to dive deep into the ugliness, and maybe that might make the book too intense for some folks. It probably needs a content warning. But a lot of young people out there are waist-deep in ugliness already, and I’m hoping that they’ll need it as badly as I did when I was there.
Meet Sam J. Miller
Sam J. Miller lives in New York City now, but grew up in a middle-of-nowhere town in upstate New York. He is the last in a long line of butchers. In no particular order, he has also been a film critic, a grocery bagger, a secretary, a painter’s assistant and model, and the guitarist in a punk rock band. His debut novel The Art of Starving (YA/SF) will be published by HarperCollins in 2017, followed by The Breaks from Ecco Press in 2018. His stories have been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, and he’s a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award. His husband of fifteen years is a nurse practitioner, and way smarter and handsomer than Sam is.
About THE ART OF STARVING (available 7/11/17)
Matt hasn’t eaten in days. His stomach stabs and twists inside, pleading for a meal, but Matt won’t give in. The hunger clears his mind, keeps him sharp—and he needs to be as sharp as possible if he’s going to find out just how Tariq and his band of high school bullies drove his sister, Maya, away.
Matt’s hardworking mom keeps the kitchen crammed with food, but Matt can resist the siren call of casseroles and cookies because he has discovered something: the less he eats the more he seems to have . . . powers. The ability to see things he shouldn’t be able to see. The knack of tuning in to thoughts right out of people’s heads. Maybe even the authority to bend time and space.
So what is lunch, really, compared to the secrets of the universe?
Matt decides to infiltrate Tariq’s life, then use his powers to uncover what happened to Maya. All he needs to do is keep the hunger and longing at bay. No problem. But Matt doesn’t realize there are many kinds of hunger…and he isn’t in control of all of them.
A darkly funny, moving story of body image, addiction, friendship, and love, Sam J. Miller’s debut novel will resonate with any reader who’s ever craved the power that comes with self-acceptance.
Filed under: #MHYALit
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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