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Author tackles tough teen topics

Interviewed August 2007

Mandy HagerSmashed, Mandy Hager’s third novel, is “completely different” to her previous effort for young audiences, Run for the Trees.

It begins with a relatively normal scene – a group of teenagers heading off to a party. The main character, Toby, assures his parents his 14-year-old sister, Rita, will be fine. What should have been a great night out ends badly. Really badly. After leaving Rita with Don, Toby takes off from the party with Jacinta. Toby drinks too much, pukes all over his would-be girlfriend, and rolls home at about 4am.

Worst of all, he later he finds out Rita has been raped by his mate, Don.

Don ends up in hospital with a face the size of two rugby balls, and according to the police who visit Toby’s house, may not survive. It looks like a revenge attack, and Toby is one of the prime suspects.

“It’s a bit of thriller, a bit of a ‘who really did it story’,” Hager says. “I’d like to think people are guessing all the way through who really did perpetrate the crime, and why.”.

It’s gritty stuff, as lives tailspin out of control. “It’s about how supposedly nice, ordinary kids, with a bit of alcohol and drugs can just do one or two really stupid things that can impact on their lives potentially forever. It’s about the ripple effect of actions and about consequences – how we all need to learn that we can take control of our lives and turn things around.

The conflict between your genes and your brains is a central theme of the novel – are we set on our life path, or do we have the power to make choices that can change our destiny? “I’m really interested in that. It’s an incredibly complex world to grow up in today. It would be really easy to feel completely powerless about it. If you can understand that there are some things we can’t control, but there are a lot of things that we can control, so long as we make the decision to do it.”

“Hopefully that can counter that feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness.”

Research ‘disturbing’

Research for the book involved spending a lot of time with police officers. The “nuts and bolts” of being arrested is very accurately portrayed in the book, Mandy says.
“I was taken around the Wellington Police Station and shown how the different arrest processes work and where people would go, so that when I wrote it I could walk it through again in my head.”

“It was a really disturbing experience. It does feel like you’re taken into the bowels of this building that you might never emerge from again. It was quite scary; very freaky”

The motivation for the novel was partly drawn from the intrigue of the free-will debate – that young people have the power to make choices in their lives. Mostly though, it tackles the tough topic of rape.

“I’d written a resource for youth workers about violence against women for the Global Education Centre and some of the facts that I came up with to do with date rape and to do with young men’s attitudes to rape totally horrified me – I wanted to explore that further.

“I talked to my kids about the kinds of attitudes they saw, but I didn’t want to tell it from the girl’s point of view; I felt like that was too on the nose … I wanted to approach it from the attitudes of those young men and what they were thinking at the time, and how something like that happening might change the way the think about it. That’s why I went into it in that way, and that’s why I needed to get right into his head really – in order to go through that whole processes of thinking about it.”

The effects of the crime are played out through the whole book – parents, friends, victim – no-one escapes the aftermath. It is a life-changing event for everyone.

“I see (the main char) as a kid who’s mentally locked himself into a way of thinking – he’s already jailed himself in a way. In the end he discovers freedom so he can go out and explore other things in the world.”

Smashed - book coverDoubts and fears ‘everywhere’

She says the doubts and fears of her characters are “everywhere” in the real world.
“Go to any group anywhere – even kids that you think are handling life really well, and I think you’d find that all those doubts and fears are there. Last year I did a trip around Northland talking to youth workers around there, and kids have got incredibly difficult lives that they’re trying to negotiate their way through – often with very little support. You can find kids like that everywhere, sadly.”

In addition to the rape and a near-death beating, another of the characters – battling ADHD - has a major personal crisis.

“I think he’s the case of a kid who has become really trapped in the labels he’s been given, and gets to a point where he thinks there’s no point even trying anymore – he thinks ‘I can’t ever escape this’.”

Hager wants the message of the book to be a positive one:

“There are an enormous amount of kids out there, not just with (ADHD) but with the place they’ve been born, or the colour of their skin or the trouble they’ve previously got into, whatever, they feel like they’re stuck with that. I’d like to think that they could read Smashed and think ‘I have got some power to actually change that for myself – especially if I seek help to do so.”

Smashed will be used from December 2007 as the basis of a DARE Foundation programme, Dare to Move On. The programme aims to help people explore their future directions and examine what consequences their current behaviours may have.

“DARE generally work with kids who already been identified as having a real need for support.”

“It’s much safer for people to talk about another character than to talk about what’s happening in your own life. Through that, they begin to talk about what’s happening in their own lives, and are given tools to help them with decision making and problem-solving and time management and actually just talking about values and morals and trying to teach empathy and talking about the fact that consequences ripple out and that our actions can affect a lot of people. We try to get them to see that their actions can affect a lot of people and to think more broadly about what they’re doing. It’s really exciting that they’re doing it – it’s great.”

Hager will be involved ongoing review of the programme, which will be trialled at the end of this year.
“It’s nice to know that it will continue to have a life in that way – you can never know how long a book’s going to sit on a shelf and get read otherwise.”

More projects on the go

So, Smashed is almost crossed off Hager’s project list, but she has plenty more on the way to occupy her.
“I’ve just started a film script – I’m 37 pages into it. So I’ll probably get cracking on that now, and then I’ve got a creative non-fiction book I’d like to work on – but there’s a lot of research that I have to do for that, so it’ll probably keep me busy for a while.”