Why I Like to Emotionally Destroy My Readers (And Four Thrillers that Emotionally Destroyed Me)
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When Wednesday Books and I began to finesse the messaging that would frame the promotion of my new novel, The Project, “COURTNEY SUMMERS WILL DESTROY YOU” seemed like the most obvious choice.
For over a decade, I’ve built a brand around my utter delight in emotionally traumatizing my readers with hard-hitting books about young women just trying to make it in the world. There’s a bit of gallows humor to it; as an author, it’s hard to spend long stretches of time exploring and unpacking the worst of what this world has to offer. This grim levity helps me to ultimately finish what I start.
It’s also, well . . . sometimes the easiest way to communicate what your novel is about without scaring off prospective readers is to turn it into a challenge, a dare. I don’t always convince everyone that 300-odd pages of an attack on your feelings and sense of self is worth the cost of the admission—though it ABSOLUTELY is—but sometimes, when I suggest to people that it’s no small feat being part of my Survivor’s Club, they rise to the occasion of being left in pieces.
I used to wonder what it was about me, that I would be so compelled to write such dark material. From Sadie’s heartbreaking road trip across Colorado to seek revenge on the predator who murdered her little sister, to The Project’s exploration of the cost of the most vulnerable and well-intentioned sides of ourselves through one young woman’s infiltration of a cult—this stuff doesn’t go down easy.
So why do I go there?
Over the years, I’ve been able to distill my reasons to two: the first is that my work is often a response to the anger I feel about these subjects. The moment we become complacent to the pervasive violence that women and girls are confronted with every day—both subtle and overt—is the moment we, all of us, are lost.
The other reason is . . . I’m an optimist. Bear with me. Each novel I write, at its core, is a love letter to our ability, as people, to fight through our darkest moments and find something meaningful on the other side. If you really dig into my work—you’ll see it. The Project is my latest testament to that.
But all this begs the question: when Courtney Summers isn’t destroying readers, what does Courtney Summers read to be destroyed? Because when I’m not writing to shake myself out of the complacency this cruel world wants to bury us in and ultimately finding hope in the fight, I’m looking for books that will make me feel that way. Without further ado, here are four thrillers that did just that—and destroyed me emotionally in the process. I’m grateful to them for it.
A Better Bad Idea by Laurie Devore
Every sentence Laurie Devore writes is an uncompromising takedown of a cruel world that makes little compromises for the young women forced to navigate it. Her forthcoming novel, A Better Bad Idea (out March 16th, 2021) is no exception. This is a book about two teens—Evelyn and Ashton—whose lives have been absolutely torn apart over their love for and fascination with the same girl. So why not take a match to what’s left? A Better Bad Idea is a devastating examination of poverty, domestic violence, and the way girls have to weaponize themselves against the world just for the promise of—or the promise of the illusion of—safety. How do you win in a world like this? And what does it look like when you do?
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
Angeline Boulley’s ambitious debut is one you won’t soon forget. Firekeeper’s Daughter (out March 2nd, 2021) is a mystery-slash-thriller-coming-of-age that does a lot and does it all beautifully. It follows Daunis Fontaine, a biracial unenrolled tribal member who is determined to define herself on her own terms. This provides no small amount of difficulty, as others are equally determined to do that for her. When a dangerous new kind of meth begins to ravage her community, she’s forced to go undercover for the FBI to get to the bottom of it. This is a story of family, identity, and love and Boulley offers a searing portrait of the stakes at play, and how our own complicity makes the gross injustices featured in the book possible. It had me on the edge of my seat when I wasn’t clutching at my heart.
Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
Tiffany D. Jackson’s ability to hook readers from page one and have them eagerly following every twist and turn to endings they’re guaranteed to never see coming is unparalleled. Grown is exciting and breathtaking in all the ways you can expect from one of Jackson’s books, but it’s devastating on a level that really demands your attention. When young and talented singer Enchanted Jones catches the eye of famous singer, Korey Jackson, she’s whisked into a world beyond her wildest dreams—and worst nightmares. Not only is Grown a taut, page-turning mystery, it’s a bold, important, and powerful examination of our continued failure to listen to voices that need and deserve to be heard.
That Weekend by Kara Thomas
From The Darkest Corners to The Cheerleaders, Thomas’s brutal explorations of crime, punishment, and girlhood stand shoulder-to-shoulder with authors like Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott. That Weekend (out June 21st, 2021) cements her as a master of her craft. What’s supposed to be a fun getaway with her two best friends ends with Claire alone and Kat and Jesse missing. What could have happened in 48 hours? You would not believe me if I told you—but in the end, it all makes perfect sense. And I have still not fully recovered from it. What I love most about Thomas’s work is her commitment to shining a light in the, well, darkest corners we’re determined to ignore. It takes a bold author to force herself to look at them and an incredibly talented one to keep readers from turning away.
*Author Photo Credit: Megan Gunter
About The Project by Courtney Summers:
“The Unity Project saved my life.”
Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died, Lo’s sister, Bea, joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt. Thanks to its extensive charitable work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of most in the Upstate New York region, but Lo knows there’s more to the group than meets the eye. She’s spent the last six years of her life trying—and failing—to prove it.
“The Unity Project murdered my son.”
When a man shows up at the magazine Lo works for claiming The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with Bea once and for all. When her investigation puts her in the direct path of its charismatic and mysterious leader, Lev Warren, he proposes a deal: if she can prove the worst of her suspicions about The Unity Project, she may expose them. If she can’t, she must finally leave them alone.
But as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members, and spends more time with Lev, it upends everything she thought she knew about her sister, herself, cults, and the world around her—to the point she can no longer tell what’s real or true. Lo never thought she could afford to believe in Lev Warren . . . but now she doesn’t know if she can afford not to.
Welcome to The Unity Project.
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