Summer Skin is a romance, but it’s a very modern one. I wanted to look at where relationships are at for this generation of young adults, the digital natives. They’ve grown up with unprecedented access to sexual content online, and, thanks to social media, can have an intimate (albeit, highly edited) view of another person’s life, without even having met them. Specifically, I wanted to look at sex. In Young Adult literature we spend a lot of time on the will-they-or-won’t-they question, but what I wanted to examine was the territory that comes after that. At some stage, things abruptly become sophisticated, whether you’re ready for it or not. For me, that happened when I first went to live at a residential college at university. As fun as it was, I found the culture confronting, especially in the early days, because sex was suddenly assumed to be a given, and the focus became a lot more about the terms.
The relationship between Summer Skin’s main characters, Mitch and Jess, is examined in that setting and that context. They’re both at the same uni, but moving in different worlds. Mitch is at a privileged same-sex college. Jess lives at a co-ed college, and is state-school educated and proud of it. When they first meet, Mitch is really only seeing Jess from the neck down. But she decides to challenge that, and what follows is a kind of gradual unpeeling, until finally, they’re both vulnerable.
So, as much as it’s a novel about sex, it’s also a novel about intimacy. I feel like our online lives have come at the cost of intimacy. To put it simply: what happened to talking? Very early on, I realised that what I was actually doing was writing a story where the relationship happens in reverse. At the start, things between Mitch and Jess are sexy, but by the end it’s more about whether or not they can trust each other.
The college setting also gave me permission to examine some really ugly misogynistic attitudes. The sort of stuff that is ubiquitous online. And I also wanted to look at how social media can affect a person’s emotions and behaviour.
I had a couple of prerequisites for the story. One was that at no point would I ever pretend that girls didn’t feel desire too. Nor would the girls in my story be helpless. It wasn’t necessarily about being ‘feisty’ or ‘strong’. My characters are definitely struggling to figure things out. But they are also capable of having a laugh at the whole thing, as well.
Humour—that was my bottom line. If you can make people laugh at something, then they hopefully feel comfortable enough to talk about it. And some of this is stuff we really need to talk about. But talking is HARD—I learned that recently when I smugly reached for Where Did I Come From?, sure it would help me to answer those questions coming from Miss Six, only to find she hijacked the sermon by becoming utterly fixated on whether or not the duck in the bath tub was going to peck that worm looking thing!
Stories and humour are a way of exploring difficult territory, not just for the reader, but also for the writer—and that was definitely the case for me in writing Summer Skin.