Best-selling author CJ Lyons has joined the YA fray with Broken (out now). The fast-paced thriller follows 15-year-old Scarlet Killian, who suffers from a rare and untreatable heart condition. But in an effort to live a (somewhat) normal life, she tries to prove to her parents that she can survive high school. She’s given one week to show that she can make it work, but things take a complicated turn when she starts to uncover the truth about her illness. Without spoiling the I-totally-didn’t-see-it-coming ending, Lyons answers some of our questions about the novel and talks about her inspiration for the standalone.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Broken is your YA debut. Why make the switch from adult to YA?
CJ LYONS: I’ve been a YA devotee all my life, and since I’m a pediatrician, everyone thought I should write YA. But I never found a story worthy of my patients until I came up with the idea for Broken. Adults are so much easier to write for; they’re mainly looking for entertainment, a diversion. But kids want so much more from the books they read. More than entertainment, they’re also looking to try on adult roles vicariously, to make difficult adult choices from a position of safety. I think that’s why so many powerful books come from the YA genre, because they don’t flinch from the emotional honesty necessary to help kids tackle both the problems they face today as well as the ones they’ll be facing in the future.
What was your inspiration for Broken?
The thriller twist was inspired by several real-life cases, but the inspiration for Scarlet’s character came from my own life. I diagnosed my niece, Abby, with the same congenital heart condition, Long QT, when Abby was only 20 minutes old. In fact, Broken is dedicated to her. Because of the way her parents raised her, not to mention her own strong-willed personality (the best adjective to describe Abby is fierce), Abby has never let her heart condition hold her back. But I couldn’t help but think, what if Abby hadn’t been raised that way, what would it be like to live most of your life confined to a hospital bed, always being told that you were “too sick” to have friends or go to school or have any control over your life or your future? How would that kind of life change someone?
What does Abby think of the book?
Writing the book was easy compared to waiting for Abby to read it and give me her verdict! Thankfully, she loved Broken and gave it her stamp of approval—as long as I tell everyone that Scarlet is nothing like her.
Does all your writing inspiration come from your work in the medical field?
There’s a touch of medicine and my real life experiences in all my books (although none of my real life patients, of course!) but one of the reasons I call my books “Thrillers with Heart” is that they’re more about the people and the challenges they face and less about the medical science or technology or adrenaline-rush action.
Speaking of, talk a little about your work in the medical field. Why and when did you make the switch to writing?
Actually, I was a writer long before I ever dreamed of becoming a doctor. Telling stories has always been my way of coping with the chaos around me, making sense of the world. I wrote my first novel in high school, followed by two science fiction novels in medical school. It wasn’t until a dear friend was murdered during my pediatric internship that I turned to writing thrillers. It was the only way I could process my grief and make sense of the evil that had entered my life…. Writing thrillers gives me an outlet to explore the grey areas between the black and white of good and evil. And, unlike in the real world where not all of the victims I treated received the justice they deserved, in my novels, I can make sure the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys win—although, every happily-ever-after does come with a price, at least in my books.
I love that the main character, Scarlet, is named after Scarlet from Gone with the Wind. Why did you decide to give a nod to that?
Gone with the Wind is my mom’s favorite movie and was one of my favorite books when I was growing up. I loved Scarlet O’Hara’s grit and determination. In Broken, I wanted my Scarlet’s biological mother to give her daughter a legacy despite the fact that she dies right after Scarlet is born. Even though her name seems ironic at the beginning of the story when Scarlet starts school and seems so vulnerable, but by the end of the book Scarlet lives up to her namesake—and would have made her mother proud.
I won’t spoil the ending of Broken, but did you always plan such an interest twist? Was that the ending you always had in mind?
Yes. I’ve long been fascinated by that particular diagnosis and have been involved in several cases, so I wanted to explore it from the point of view of the patient. I haven’t read any other novels that have done that. I based Scarlet’s experiences on first hand accounts recorded in the medical journals as well as my own observations of kids caught in similar circumstances. It’s really frightening to suspect something like that but being unable to prove it definitely—it’s one of the toughest diagnoses for a physician to make, yet has such a huge impact on the entire family.