After reading the title, maybe like me you have MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” going through your mind right now. Well, my guest today will change that tune. In the house is the marvelous Rachel M. Wilson, author of Don’t Touch, a young adult novel that debuted this month. Isn’t the cover beautiful? You can read the synopsis here.
Rachel is represented by Sara Crowe. Don’t Touch was published by HarperTeen. After I finish talking with Rachel, I’ll talk to you about a giveaway. So strap yourselves in. Before we get started though, check out this book trailer:
Cool huh? Let’s talk to Rachel!
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Rachel: I’m a Scorpio. I love Ethiopian food more than any other cuisine and eat it about once a week. In my last show, I played a harmonica solo. I almost always wear a turquoise ring that belonged to my grandmother. She was a geologist and liked uncut stones, so her husband had it set for her.
El Space: Cool! Please give us the scoop on Don’t Touch. How did this book come about?
Rachel: The book grew out of my own experience with OCD. Like Caddie, I started dealing with OCD symptoms around age ten, and I still struggle with anxiety. Caddie’s story isn’t my own, but that was the first inspiration. I wanted to explore how fears—rational and irrational—can separate us from other people and from pursuing what we love. And while I’ve never gotten the chance to perform in a full production of Shakespeare, I’m a big fan, and I’ve long loved Hamlet. Once I landed on that as the play within my book, my story path felt clearer.
El Space: What was the most challenging aspect of slipping into Caddie’s skin?
Rachel: Probably figuring out her relationship with her parents. It was hard for me to be mean to Caddie when it came to her changing family, and it took me a long time to find the balance between love and disappointment in her relationship with her father.
El Space: What, if anything, would you like to see more of in young adult fiction? Why?
Rachel: Oh, wow! Great question! Apart from diversity, which I think most of us are really hungry for, I’d love to see more genre-mashing and more magical realism. Those are two things I respond to as a reader, and I think they stretch the mind in challenging ways. As readers of Don’t Touch will probably glean, I have a thing for superheroes, so I certainly wouldn’t mind a badass superhero trend.
El Space: Me too! You also act and teach. How does either profession influence your writing?
Rachel: You know, I’m an introvert, but I’m also a very social creature. Theater is the most collaborative art, and teaching can be highly collaborative too. It’s very important to me to have a place where I go and make things with other people, and it makes it easier for me to sit alone with my computer if I know I’m on my way to spend time with other people.
Aside from that more practical answer, teaching writing to younger kids always perks up my own excitement and energy for writing. It’s a great reminder of why I love it. And theater got me started writing. I would write from the points of view of characters I was playing, and I did a lot of collaborative writing projects in theater, and eventually, I started feeling ready to try my own stories.
El Space: You graduated from both of my alma maters: VCFA and Northwestern University. Yay! I attended NU 100 years before you, however. How did each of your programs leave its mark on you?
Rachel: I didn’t know that! Awesome! I was in the theater program at Northwestern—as an actor there, you join a class that stays intact for three straight years. My teacher was very spiritual, into meditation and Tai Chi as well as some physically and emotionally aggressive schools of acting. One day, I was prepping to bring in a scene from Euripedes’s Orestes, where Orestes and Electra are about to be executed, and our teacher warned us to wear running shoes to class! It wasn’t uncommon for people to get picked up and tossed around and totally break down on stage. Playing around with all of that within a safe community had a huge impact on me. I credit it with teaching me how to be an open, creative person. And as I said above, acting out other people’s stories gave me that drive to write my own.
And VCFA! I can’t say enough positive things about that program. The residencies feel like writers’ summer slash boot camp, and it’s another magical place where the community feels drawn together in an inevitable way. And then working with advisors over months at a time, it’s a true mentorship. I’ve never had a relationship quite like that with another artist, and through that program, it happens four times in a row. It stretched my writing muscles in ways that I hadn’t been able to accomplish on my own and gave me the support to push through the hard stuff and finish a book.
El Space: I know you know a ton of authors, so this next question is usually a delicate one to answer. But I’ll ask it anyway: what books, authors, or actors inspire you? Why?
Rachel: How about I stick with authors I don’t know well? Nova Ren Suma, Jaclyn Moriarty, and Libba Bray always inspire me. In different ways, there’s something so present and tangible in their writing that slams me right into their worlds. Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races blew me away with its perfection of world and character, and I need to read more of her work. In middle grade land, I feel the same way about Zilpha Keatley Snyder and E. L. Konigsburg. The Headless Cupid and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth are two of my longtime faves, as is Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. As all of the above are at least a little dark and creepy, that might give you a sense of how my tastes trend.
El Space: Any advice for the writer who wants to incorporate the theater in his or her fiction?
Rachel: Choose your story within a story with care. Bringing another story into play changes the story you’re telling, even if the play within the story is an invented one. That story will probably be the weightiest metaphor or mirror in your work, so it’s important to understand it inside and out and to have a clear thesis for how it’s in conversation with your own and how the roles your characters take on challenge them and serve as foils for them. And you need to remain open to finding connections you may not have consciously realized were there—the art of the mash-up comes into play.
El Space: What are you working on now?
Rachel: I have several irons in the fire, but the one I’m most focused on right now deals with the aftermath of a shocking change and coming into power. I’m being cagey because you never know how things will develop. The next thing readers will see from me is a short story, “The Game of Boys and Monsters,” out from HarperTeen Impulse as a digital short. It’s suspenseful and creepy, very different from Don’t Touch, about two girls whose friendship changes when the enigmatic Marsh boys move to town.
Rachel, thanks for stopping by! I’m looking forward to that short story!
And thanks to all who stopped to read this interview. You can be entered into a drawing to receive a copy of Don’t Touch just by commenting below.
Don’t Touch is available here:
Winner to be announced on Tuesday, September 30.