Tattoo Heaven

“Best Books for Kids & Teens” – Canadian Children’s Book Centre 2008

Tattoo Heaven, my third book, began life as a short story – a rather long one. The story contained all the kernels of the larger novel, except for the friendship with Katie and the relationship with Alex, who inhabit the sub-plot of the novel. This is a book about friendship. We often assume that friendship can only blossom between people who are alike and who have
much in common. This may be true, in part, but the problem is finding those common points. They often crop up in unexpected places and in unforeseen ways. Jackie never thought she had anything in common with Theresa, a sheltered girl battling leukemia, until she was forced to get to know her.

Like all my books, the spark for this one can from my life. When I was a kid, for a very brief period of time a girl who was very sick lived across the street from me, in a flat identical to my own. In a way, I thought of her like a mirror image of me, except that she was sick where I was healthy. I never knew this girl. She rarely came outside. No one really knew what she had, just that it
was a serious illness. Whenever she did come outside, she stood just like she does in the book, all dressed up but standing perfectly still, as though she was a mannequin and not a real girl. She scared me to death, mainly because I knew her body carried death inside it, and I got the creeps looking at her and thinking how someone my own age could be dying. I also felt the way Jackie does, that I should be trying to do something for her, but had no idea what that could be.

That image must have stayed with me, even though her stay on our street was very brief, perhaps just one summer. The book ends up being very much about what gives colour to a person’s life. The book opens with a dark event, a father leaving home, but it is really about Jackie finding out that people need colour (a metaphor for happiness, liveliness) to be full. Her
father finds it with his new girlfriend, Nicole, who gives colour to people’s skin for a living. Jackie has to find it somehow in her own life and then, of course, try to help Theresa find it as well. There are lots of images of white surrounding Theresa, who has a disease where white blood cells outnumber the red. I’ll stop here, or else I’ll give too much away.

Turning a short story into a novel (which I’ve done 3 times now), is challenging. In a way, you have the scaffolding before you and only (ha!) have to fit in the bricks and mortar. On the other hand, the novel often feels laid out ahead of time, which isn’t something I like. Luckily, the character of Nicole, who was Sylvie in the story, was one I was really anxious to develop. I like Nicole and I wanted readers to like her, even though she’s the evil “other woman.” She becomes a good role model for Jackie, I think. I am also a step-mother to two girls in my own life and it is a role that has many challenges, especially since our culture is saturated with images of evil step-mothers (Snow White’s, Cinderella’s as prime examples). I was determined to try to undo that stereotype, even slightly.

I worried most about my portrayal of Theresa, since I have no experience at all of being close to someone, let alone a child, with leukemia. I hope I did it and her justice, in the end. I did lots of research, but didn’t want the book to be about the technical, medical side of the disease. I wanted it to be about the human side of Theresa. I have no idea whatever happened to the real-life Theresa. I can only hope she made it through.

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