Author and MFAC alum Sonja Solter talks about her debut middle-grade novel, When You Know What I Know (March 24).
When You Know What I Know is a sensitive, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful novel in verse about one girl’s journey in the aftermath of abuse.
What inspired When You Know What I Know?
I’m a very intuitive writer, particularly in my first drafts. So it felt like this character’s voice came into my head one day, full of emotion and wanting to be heard. This first poem was “Believe Me,” which is the main character Tori’s reaction when she tells her mom about her uncle’s abuse and is initially disregarded. However, even though my experience of the character felt sudden and intuitive, I know that what I write is often related to my own ponderings and questions about the human experience and relationships. In this case, one of the influences leading me to write Tori’s story was comments on social media. I’d seen many cases in which people couldn’t understand what trauma survivors went through or why they reacted in certain ways. So it was important to me that Tori and her story could show the complexities involved, from self-doubt to the effects on her relationships.
What were the challenges in bringing this book to life?
I definitely had to go even deeper in processing my own traumatic experiences both while writing the book and preparing for publication. Doing internal work has been particularly important with regard to the continuing taboos around the topic of sexual abuse. I do think the book’s journey to publication was a bit longer than it would have been due to societal discomfort, and that still inevitably comes up. It helps for me to be as clear as possible on the difference between discomfort coming up (as it should!) because it’s horrible that child abuse exists and the way that the discomfort can spill over onto survivors and their speaking out about their experiences.
If you could be friends with only one of your characters, who would you choose and why?
Hmm…that’s a hard one. I’m going to say Tori’s little sister, Taylor. I’d be curious to hear more about her experiences, both in terms of the family effects in this storyline and of aspects of her that I don’t know about because my focus was on Tori. There’s a sense of her seeming older-than-her-age as the story goes along that makes me wonder about the effects on her. And I got to know Rhea, Tori’s best friend, pretty well through lots of backstory that didn’t end up in the final manuscript. In contrast, Taylor feels like a round, real character to me, but I want to know more about her.
What did you edit out of the book?
I had some mild swear words that I took editorial advice on and edited out in order to make sure to reach the widest audience possible. At first, that felt uncomfortable to me because those words felt appropriate to the situation and Tori’s reaction. However, it turned out to be like my experience with most revision—once I figured out something else that worked, it was fine.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I teach creative writing with the Society of Young Inklings and the Boulder Writing Studio. I also love spending time with my family, enjoying nature and traveling.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Try not to take rejections personally by remembering that publishing a book is a collaborative effort. One of the main things impressed upon me from the journey to publication was how important it is to share a vision with those who are helping you birth your book. That can be frustrating when you’re having trouble finding the right person, the one who has a shared vision for a manuscript you feel passionately about bringing into the world. But collaborating with shared vision will contribute immensely to the work and be worth it in the end.
What is next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m always working on several things at the same time, from picture books through YA, in various stages of completion. So we’ll see what makes into the world next!
Sonja Solter graduated from Stanford University and earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University, with a critical thesis on writing trauma in middle grade and young adult realistic fiction. She is currently a creative writing mentor to youth with the Society of Young Inklings and enjoys writing poetry and prose for children of all ages. When You Know What I Know is her debut novel. Sonja lives with her husband and two children in Louisville, CO.