Q&A with author Donna Jo Napoli Q: What inspired you to write Skin?
A: I met a woman who had the skin condition vitiligo. It was so extreme, it took me a moment to be able to look her in the eye rather than look at her face. That bothered me, because I was worried she might have noticed the hesitation. And then I wondered whether she was born that way or at what point it had occurred. So I started reading, and I came across a lot of information about how teens deal (or don't deal) with vitiligo. Vitiligo can have strong negative effects on self-image and self-esteem, and when the onset is during the teen years, vitiligo sufferers report more nasty comments from others. Some experience severe depression; among those, risky behavior (unprotected sex, drug abuse) is not uncommon, including suicide attempts. Q: Why are you so passionate about this novel?
A: I had a family experience that made me a pariah as a teen; people stopped talking to me, my friends weren’t allowed to spend time with me. My self-esteem tanked. So I immediately identified with someone who felt "marked" or "afflicted", as a lot of the teens I read about who have vitiligo described themselves. I made mistakes in handling my situation—not the same mistakes Sep makes—but serious mistakes. So I felt a strong connection to Sep's situation, and I wanted to explore the situation of a girl who makes serious mistakes in handling her problem. Q: The contemporary realistic style of Skin seems very different from your other YA fiction, which is often structured around the exploration of fairy tales. Why did you decide to work in this genre? What were the challenges in writing it?
A: In most ways writing this book wasn't a different challenge from writing my other books. I had to do a lot of research, both on vitiligo and on high school culture today. Where the challenge lay was in characterization. So many books for teens are about people in extraordinary circumstances who rise to the challenge. It is exhilarating to read these things; it is comforting to believe that we might be able to rise to the challenge ourselves if we were in the main character's shoes. But not everyone rises to the challenge—and many people spend some time hiding from the challenge before they finally face it. Sep is an ordinary girl, not a born hero. She never chose to be different. She has no interest in being the center of attention. Vitiligo is thrust upon her and she hides. She is frightened and constantly hoping that the vitiligo will stop and she'll be only "slightly" different from her old self. But eventually she realizes that she's got to deal with it. And the first step is to accept herself—a really hard task, since “herself” keeps changing. That's the real challenge in life, I think. If you understand yourself and you accept those things you cannot change about yourself, you are then free to focus on the rest of life—on the things you can change, on the things you can do. That's when you flower as a human being. The hardest thing for me was to try to make Sep's behavior deplorable (not telling Joshua her situation is dishonest and unfair to him) while at the same time making the reader empathize with her. The things we do before we are ready to face our problems are often baffling to others. Family and friends may want to shake some sense into us. My job was to keep the reader on Sep's side even when they wanted to shake some sense into her.
Q: Why do you think it will speak to teens? What are you hoping teens will take away from reading the book?
A: I want very much for any reader to feel stronger after reading one of my books. With this novel, I'm hoping that teens will see that Sep really blew it—she is a good person basically, but she messed up pretty bad. In the end, though, she did catch hold of herself. All of us make mistakes. But with a lot of hard work and determination and just a little bit of luck, we can recover from those mistakes. Sep's life is always going to be complicated by the fact that she has vitiligo. But her personal relationships do not have to be complicated by it—and she knows that now. She's stronger now. My hope is that the reader will feel stronger along with her. I also hope that readers will develop some understanding of some of the challenges that people face when they have vitiligo or any other visually apparent "difference"—even acne (which can get severe). We are an appearance-driven culture in so many ways. It's hard to stand up to the pressure of having to look a certain way. What happens to the people who simply cannot "look a certain way"? Maybe some of my readers will rise to the challenge of becoming a warrior for someone who is ridiculed or shunned, in the same way that some of Sep’s friends become warriors to support her.
Q: Sep moves from having no sexual experience to daily sexual activity in a matter of weeks. Why did you rush it?
A: I didn't rush it. Vitiligo rushed it. Sep feels she's in a race. She fears she will become repugnant. So in her mind it's "now or never". Each splotch of vitiligo urges her on. She's breathless, racing so hard she can hardly think, so she gives up on thinking and simply races. Is this realistic? I read interviews with teens who face this fear (not only people with vitiligo, but people in other situations, too) and I concluded it was. I also tested out various drafts of the story over the years on teens, and listened to their reactions and revised accordingly. (My first draft was written in 2006. I tend to work on a YA novel for many years before I feel that it's ready to be published.)
From Publishers Weekly
Sixteen-year-old Sep is alarmed when her lips suddenly turn white, forcing her to pull out some long-buried pink lipstick to disguise them. Just as unexpectedly, Sep starts getting the attention of popular football captain Joshua, a former childhood friend, and learns that she has vitiligo, a disorder that will turn patches of her olive skin white. As Sep’s vitiligo and her relationship with Joshua quickly progress, she decides to keep her condition hidden through brightly colored lipstick, hand-drawn tattoos, and creative fashion statements. Readers will empathize with Sep’s growing panic and inner turmoil as Napoli (Lights on the Nile
) deftly maneuvers them through this rare disease’s effect on a teenage psyche. However, Sep’s rapid intimacy with Joshua, including a graphically erotic sex scene, feels at odds with her lack of trust in how he will react to her vitiligo. Although there are dark moments as Sep faces who she is and what she looks like, her rebound at the end, after a hastily cobbled-together “coming out,” is abrupt. —Publishers Weekly