Author Carol Lynch Williams Talks Bioethics, Dystopia, And Her YA Novel "The Haven"

In the world of "The Haven," teens lead a sheltered and regimented life within the boundaries of Haven Hospital and Halls, but there's a price.
Publish date:
February 28, 2014
shoppables, books, reading, s.e.'s bookshelf, young adult, author interviews

Greetings from the future, xoJane minions! (In New Zealand, I get a preview of the day you have yet to experience.)

The minute I read Carol Lynch Williams' "The Haven," I knew I was in love with this book. First, it's a great story. Secondly, it touches on some important real-world issues going on right now surrounding medical ethics, autonomy, cloning, and a whole lot more. Don't mistake this for an issue book, though, because Williams used these elements to drive the story, rather than the other way around.

In the world of "The Haven," teens lead a sheltered and regimented life within the boundaries of Haven Hospital and Halls, but there's a price. Periodically, girls and boys are taken away for surgery, and they come back with missing pieces and confused memories. They're being used like living parts cars for wealthy people who want new organs perfectly matched to their bodies, and some of them are starting to wonder if perhaps it's time to fight back...

I was delighted to have a chance to talk with Carol about her book, some of the thought processes behind it, and what we can expect from the future. "The Haven" comes out on 4 March, and I highly recommend picking up a copy.

xoJane: So, "The Haven" tickles all the bioethics-loving parts of my brain, and it's such a timely book as we're starting to grapple very seriously with issues that touch upon those in this amazing book -- for example, I was just reading a potentially very controversial proposal for opt-out organ donation to make it easier to secure a stable supply of donor tissue. What drew you to the thematic elements in "The Haven"?

Williams: It's crazy and amazing what we can do now-a-days to keep people alive. When you write a story (I am working on a ghostie story right now and I was thinking -- sort of) you always push to make the story better, a little more different, a little more exciting. One night I was sitting at the table in the dining room wondering what novel I should write next.

It popped into my head that a body shop (which was the original title of the book) could be pretty scary place if this was a Body Shop for People. I started working on the idea. And then a movie came out that had a few similar elements so I set the book aside for several years. But I couldn't stop thinking about rights and people and limits and who do we think we are and who should live and who decides when we die.

So many interesting questions. Heartbreaking questions. And then there are the questions like who will protect the innocent, who will watch out for those who cannot protect themselves, what will people do for money -- who knows. There are lots of questions when you write. And not always answers. But those questions give a writer a reason to write.

xoJane: I've been really enjoying Neal Shusterman's Unwind books, which play with some similar themes (in terms of forced organ and tissue donation and human rights for minors). Why do you think society is so interested in exploration of these subjects right now?

Williams: I haven't read Neal's Unwind novels (though I do love "The Schwa was Here").

So a good friend of my daughter's was killed when he was 18 in a freak accident at school. He was a donor and his body saved many, many lives. Another good friend was dying from liver cancer. Days before my friend died (really, literally) another donor gave life -- this time to my friend. So much is involved in that. The recipients. The families of the donors who are left behind without their loved ones.

Switch that up. Take selflessness out of the equation. We know some will do just about anything to look younger. We know money is a huge motivator. So, if, as a writer, you are looking to push the normal to a weird place then what happens if you make body parts a reusable commodity? What if a test tube baby isn't "real" or human? What if you feel you can do more than God?

xoJane: As I was reading "The Haven," I couldn't help but be reminded of the history of forced institutionalization, and I was curious to know if that played a role in this work?

Williams: I didn't think of that, but find it very interesting. When I wrote "The Haven," I wanted to have a smaller, controllable environment. And I wanted the vulnerable to be the actors. A school was the perfect environment.

xoJane: Clearly class plays a critical role in "The Haven" as well -- I don't want to give too much away for our readers, but do you also view this as a commentary on the class barriers in the modern medical system, not just that of a potential dystopian future?

Williams: I think I wrote this as a real possibility. When you couple possibilities with those who have very few rights (children), odd stories happen. I have a really low tolerance for children being abused in any way. I have been known to take down tag numbers on cars then call the cops, ask people if they need help with their kids when the parents seem super frustrated and actually stop people from hitting their toddlers in public places.

It hasn't happened a lot, thank goodness, but there is a part of me that twists in a knot when I see kids hurt. I think children ARE in a different class. They are powerless. They have few rights. They are the perfect characters in a story like this because even in a free world they have little say.

xoJane: One of the things that intrigues me so much about "The Haven" is that the controls placed on the residents of Haven Hospital and Halls are really similar to those imposed on teens in the real world, too -- be quiet, don't question, learn what we tell you learn, etc. In a way, does Shiloh act as a model not just for someone trapped in a horrible fictional situation, but for teens reading it now who might be wondering about how to resist unfair treatment?

Williams: I think books are there for readers who need them. Teens read for lots of reasons, but two are: 1) to give a person an experience they can only have in a novel and 2) to give teens hope when they are trapped in the similar situation as a character. That reader needs to see a character survive and know the reader can succeed. Now, no one is trapped at Haven Hospital and Halls, but there are plenty who read books who may feel they don't have a voice. Book can offer a reader escape. They can also show courage in a tough situation.

xoJane: I always adore putting authors on the mat like this, so, who's your favorite character, and why?

Williams: In any book at all? I love Mazzy in "Everything is Fine" by Ann Dee Ellis and Lennie in "The Sky is Everywhere" by Jandy Nelson (Jandy has a new book coming out in September). I also love all the characters in the Casson Family, a wonderful series by Hilary McKay. Oh, and I mustn't forget Cherry in "Cherry Money Baby" by John Cusick. If you are asking me about my own characters, no, I never have favorites.

xoJane: PLEASE tell me you have more planned for this fascinating world. That's not a question?

Williams: There could be more, couldn't there? :)

xoJane: Finally, a key question for our readers: cake, or pie?

Williams: Pecan pie. Tres Leche. (I love this question. It made me smile. I am still smiling.) And this morning I couldn't sleep. I arose at 4 am. At 5:30, while answering this particular question [we chatted via email], I remembered I had a cream-filled donut in the kitchen. It was delicious!

So get out there on 4 March and grab a copy of this baby! You won't regret it, whether you're reading it yourself or picking it up for a friend.