Reading Matters

Amber Smith’s compelling debut novel about teen rape

I don’t normally read teen fiction, so I was not looking forward to “The Way I Used to Be” by Charlotte’s Amber Smith.

Not looking forward, that is, until I opened the novel and could not –- could not – stop reading. Not only because of Smith’s incredibly compelling style. But also because this sad, sordid story offers hope.

This is the story of a girl who’s raped by her brother’s bestfriend.

A rape that Eden, a girl “always good at being good,” can’t talk about, that she tries to pretend was “just a dream, a bad dream – a nightmare. Not real. Not real. Not real.”

But it was real, and she changes from a normal, outgoing girl to a frozen, empty girl, a girl who’s “just sort of slipped into another realm.”

And the rapist’s voice moves “like a tornado” through her mind, whispering ... “No one will ever believe you. You know that. No one. Not ever.”

Smith, who moved to Charlotte seven years ago from her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., and works at the Mint Museum, will read from “The Way I Used to Be,” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Park Road Books.

She says she started writing this novel in 2010. “It probably took me about two years to compose a manuscript that was solid enough to begin sharing with my first readers,” she says.

Meanwhile, she began to revise – “that might even be my favorite part of the writing process,” she says. “With each revision, I find that something new is revealed that deepens the story or my understanding of a particular character or situation.”

“In 2012 I began the process of searching for and finding my fantastic agent, and next came her search for the perfect editor and publisher,” she says. That happened in 2014 when Simon & Schuster bought the novel.

Smith says she actually did a lot of editing with her agent before the book was sold. “So when it came time to begin working with my editor, the process was pretty painless. In the last revision, it was mostly a matter of cutting and trimming. After working on something for so long, it’s easy to lose perspective or want to hold onto parts that may not have a place anymore.

“So it was truly a gift,” Smith says, “to have my editor be able to step in and pinpoint elements of the book that weren’t working, weren’t absolutely necessary or didn’t serve to move the story forward. Trimming those portions felt not only liberating but also made for a much tighter, more focused story.”

Smith says she’s finishing up work on her second book now – another contemporary young adult novel, slated for publication in the summer of 2017.

“This one deals with domestic violence,” she says, “the story of three siblings as they cope with the death of their abusive father at the hands of their mother.”

And I can’t wait to read it.

Dannye: dpowell@charlotteobserver.com

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