Deb Jannerson is the author of the queer YA novel The Women of Dauphine (NineStar Press, 2019), which was praised by Kirkus Reviews and was a finalist in the 2019 Best Book Awards. Jannerson also has two collections of poetry: Rabbit Rabbit (Finishing Line Press, 2016) and Thanks for Nothing (Finishing Line Press, 2018). They have written viral articles for Bitch magazine; won short prose contests with The Writer, So to Speak, and The Flexible Persona; and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. They live with their wife in New Orleans, where they work at the public library and frequently perform at literary events.
When Cassie’s family moves into a decrepit house in New Orleans, the only upside is her new best friend. Gem is witty, attractive, and sure not to abandon Cassie—after all, she’s been confined to the old house since her murder in the ’60s. As their connection becomes romantic, Cassie must keep more and more secrets from her religious community, which hates ghosts almost as much as it hates gays. Even if their relationship prevails over volatile parents and brutal conversion therapy, it may not outlast time.
In fifth grade, I opened WordPerfect and invented a friend.
Carmella was only ten years old, like me, but she had secrets no one knew. Every day, she got straight-As and pulled off pranks against her playground rival (who would turn out to be her true love in their late teens). Every night, she’d return to a secret underground home in which she’d amassed food, furniture, and a bunch of the beautiful flowers I’d seen in the encyclopedia called love-lies-bleeding. Also, she had her own trampoline.
Carmella had run away from her parents, because they were abusive. I never wrote those scenes. They only mattered as her backstory: her parents did horrible things, things they couldn’t talk her into hiding or insist she deserved. So naturally, she fled for a secretive but totally awesome existence.
It wasn’t a happily-ever-after. It was the beginning of her real life.
I process everything that happens to me by writing about it. This doesn’t mean I’m writing about my life; often, I’m actively avoiding it, but my subconscious is hellbent on expressing itself.
As a child, I disassociated through prolonged periods of abuse and neglect. Since writing was my escape, I tried not to let the pain show there, either. My stories were about aliens’ lairs, preteen superheroes, and, if I deigned to go realistic, crushes and schoolyard hijinks. Even in my diaries, I wrote around danger zones: “He hit me really hard and I wanted to die. Let’s talk about something else. Diana showed me this horoscope thing…”
My favorite thing was building adventures in my imagination, but my second-favorite was being absorbed in someone else’s. I dreamed of writing a novel that could be featured at the top of a Scholastic book order–one of those ninety-nine cent deals, so every kid would feel inclined to add it. With titles like Howl-aween and Why Did the Underwear Cross the Road?, those paperbacks offered pure, zany escapism.
I wrote a swamp monster who traveled through juniper bushes, a ghost trapped in a phone, a red cloud-planet only accessible to people who didn’t try to find it. With adult distance, the recurring themes are obvious: depression, unsafe homes, phantoms with the faces of loved ones.
Asked why I write, I once blurted out “Because I want people to feel and grow!” Like most good quotes, it’s pithy but inexact. Writing is how I share my philosophy with the world, but it’s also how I enjoy my own company and unpack what happens around me. In other words, I write for myself, but I publish for others.
Coming-of-age stories have my heart because they’re not afraid of the depth of their own emotions. My ultimate goal has become to shine an unflinching light into the hardships young people deal with but never stop reminding them that there is hope. Pain is huge, but hope is huger, and pain always ends.
My debut YA book, The Women of Dauphine, was conceived as “a nice lesbian romance novel, with ghosts.” The story I actually wrote involves familial violence and a religious compound that administers torture while the law looks the other way. Cassie’s ghost girlfriend is the most functional part of her life. They tease, they analyze, they make out; their relationship radiates joy. Danger originates from the “normal” parts of her life, the adults Cassie should be able to trust.
The more I wrote, the more urgent the story felt. Its first draft poured out of me during two weeks of unemployment. The circumstances Cassie was born into did not dictate her life story; she did, because she would gain the power to leave.
She would be okay, because no one is a minor forever. She would be okay, even if her happy ending didn’t look as she imagined.
In fact, Cassie was less haunted by her abusers than I was. When I wrote that first draft in 2010, I was still trying to make peace with the people who had brutalized me in my youth. By the time Dauphine hit bookstore shelves in 2019, I was not. Like Cassie, I had taken the only remaining option and walked away.
As my writing career matures, my subconscious continues to express itself. Now that I’ve finally built the life I want, every day feels like a scrimmage against my complex PTSD. The lasting trauma from how I grew up creates a film between me and the outside world, and on my most agoraphobic days, my brain feels like soup.
As usual, progress arrives through fiction. I’m querying my most healing and vital work to date, a surreal novel in verse about a bisexual overachiever whose suppressed memories catch up to her in college. With this project, I speak against the culture of silence around abuse, and to its anguished survivors:
She will get through this, and so will I, and so will you.
When asked about my career dreams, I point to a Big 5 deal and enough cash to stop worrying about health insurance. This answer began as a stand-in for lofty abstractions, but in fact, it says everything. I want my books to be recognized by those in power, because that will make them accessible to kids who need their message. After all, I write with the objective of being heard by readers struggling to connect to their own power.
At the same time, my medical expenses are a sobering reminder of how little power most of us truly have. Even my daydreams remain within the parameters of what I need to stay alive. Aside from my swamp monster-sized cPTSD, I live with Type 1 diabetes and need constant medical intervention that is staggeringly expensive and needlessly gatekept. Some days, I still feel like the child who begged for their livelihood.
But now when I write, I have the autonomy to look directly at what my characters are cowering from. Today, if I could meet that child disassociating about underground trampolines, I’d tell them to persevere. I’d tell them the world has room for their imagination, in all its darkness, complexity, zaniness, and humor. Then I’d share fanmail from teenage girls: proof that words can provide comfort, proof that people can connect.