“People Like Us,” a recently released young adult thriller, holds no punches.
And neither does its author, Dana Mele.
Mele, a Windham resident, delved into her own experiences as a young teen and student at Wellesley College to write the novel, which has been compared to Donna Tart’s “The Secret History,” and Sara Shepard’s “Pretty Little Liars.” She gets into bullying, doping, suicide and a slew of other issues.
But it all starts out with a dead body found on the grounds of a quaint prep school.
Kay Donovan, the protagonist with a mysterious past, and her friends are roaming the grounds on Halloween night when they discover a dead classmate. Donovan and her friends rule the school and often bend the rules, but it seems that someone knows all their secrets and wants revenge.
“People Like Us” has been praised by “Publishers Weekly,” “Buzzfeed,” and “Seventeen Magazine.” Not bad for a new author, whose diverse career began in a bookstore, jumped to television production, headed into law, and recently landed in creative writing. Her winding path helped form the story in unexpected ways.
Here Mele talks a bit about the inspiration for the book and what she hopes readers come away from the book thinking.
Question: When did your passion for writing come along?
Answer: I always liked writing when I was younger. I wrote in junior high and in high school. When I got to college I actually stopped. I auditioned for this introductory writing class, it was a poetry class, and I didn’t get in. I took that as a sign and I stopped writing for a while. I still wrote academically; I’m a pretty strong academic writer and that helped me in grad school and in law school. I did publish in law school. It wasn’t like I wasn’t writing at all but I wasn’t writing fiction. Law is a little bit demanding timewise, so after I stopped writing, I joined a couple of literary journals from the publication side to just ease my way back into fiction. That involves a lot more reading and critiquing and evaluating and that’s how I transitioned back into the writing side of things.
Q: Where did the idea for “People Like Us,” come from?
A: It’s really cool actually. The catalyst of the book is that these girls are out partying one night, it’s on Halloween night, and they discover this dead body. That sets everything into motion. Back when I was in college, I was out with a bunch of friends one night and we found out that there had been a murder and it was Halloween night. So I drew inspiration from that.
Q: Do you think any of the characters or the subplots were also [inspired by] that time in your life?
A: There’s a bullying sequence ... well, I can’t talk too much about it without [spoiling things] but there’s something that happens on Valentine’s Day that draws from a painful experience from a Valentine’s Day of yore where I was dumped. I took that and I intensified it. I based the school on the college that I went to. The biggest inspiration I took was the landscape itself, it’s this beautiful campus. But I did take [inspiration] from little rituals and traditions that exist there. Some of them are secret ones and others more well known.
Q: As you mentioned, bullying comes up a lot in the book. Why did you want to include that?
A: Well, I like writing about it because I was bullied when I was younger, really badly for a few years. A lot of times you write about things that are formative to you so that’s just a personal thing. But I think these kind of mean girl books and bullying books are popular but I don’t know if there are any books that focus on the bully and the fall out [from the bullying]. So I wanted to take on a book that gave both a little bit of equal screen time and I don’t know if I really accomplished it.
Q: Even though [as a reader] you feel sympathetic towards the characters, they’ve all done something [terrible]. How did you come up with these characters?
A: Well, I didn’t want to let anyone off the hook. I’m really interested in stories with morally grey characters. I think that a lot of my favorite TV shows have these [characters]. I was a really big fan of the show “Lost,” because every character had this backstory where they had done something wrong. Whenever I write, I think “what has this person done to make them culpable?” Murder mysteries are always most fun when you could see someone that might have a reason to have done it.
Q: You included lesbian relationships among others in the book [more than other YA books I've read]. What led to that decision?
A: I wanted to make it feel normal. My experience in school was that there were a lot of bisexual relationships and lesbian relationships. Especially in a single-sex environment, people feel [freer] to express who they are. I wanted [“People Like Us”] to reflect reality and when you read statistics, they do show that an incredibly high percentage of today’s youth identify as being QUILTBAG (Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Allied/Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer). I think it’s reflective of reality and it’s certainly reflective of when I went to school.
Q: Why did you decide to write for the young adult genre?
A: I actually started to write a middle-grade book first and I couldn’t find the words for it. When I kept writing the story that was intended to be middle grade the voice that kept coming out was more “teenage.” I started writing a different one in a YA voice and it just came out more naturally for me.
Q: What do you hope readers walk away from the book feeling or thinking about?
A: It’s a little lofty but I hope people walk away from it thinking about how [their] actions always affect other people, even if [they] brush them off and think “These are just words” or “This person doesn’t even know me why should they care what I think.” Everything does matter, even if it was three years ago or an off-hand comment. Be nice to people [because] it matters and it’s not too late to change.
'People Like Us' by Dana Mele
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (of Penguin Random House)