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Dirty Little Secrets and a Chat With CJ Omololu

C.J. Omololu's debut YA, Dirty Little Secrets, hit the shelves earlier this month and, after reading the synopsis, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I got my copy and read it in one sitting. It's good, y'all. Tense and descriptive, with a main character you have to feel for. From the back cover:

Everyone has secrets. Some are just bigger and dirtier than others. At least that's what I told myself. I stood at the bottom of our cracked cement walkway, the ache in my stomach starting the minute I saw Mom's car in the driveway. If you were paying attention, you could spot the black mold gathering along the edges of the living room windows and the way the curtains were pressed against the glass by stacks of boxes. Those were just small hints about what was really behind the shingled walls, but nobody from the outside ever noticed . . . From out here, it looked pretty normal. All of our secrets started at the front door.

C.J. was kind enough to stop by and chat with us about her novel, her writing and about hoarding.

1. Your debut YA novel, Dirty Little Secrets, is about a teen dealing with the influence of her mother’s hoarding on her life. To begin, will you tell us a bit about hoarding?
Compulsive hoarding isn’t laziness or sloppiness, but a real mental disorder where the person just cannot get rid of their possessions – whether the object is their kid’s baby shoe or that old bag of McDonalds wrappers. There are a lot of theories about hoarding, but it seems to be part of an organizational deficiency and people need to have objects out where they can see them in order to keep the memories associated with them. It also seems to be a component of OCD – it’s weird to think that hoarding stems from the same issues that cause people to be overly neat. It’s an element of perfectionism – they can’t get rid of that empty margarine container because it might be useful to someone someday. Very devastating for everyone involved.

2. What inspired you to write Lucy’s story?
I read a magazine article about a woman who had grown up in a hoarded home which started me thinking about the situation. We have had some hoarding issues with distant relatives, so I could relate in a very small way.

3. Lucy, the book’s main character, reveals a trend with hoarding in her family. Is it common for hoarding to be a generational disorder?
It really is, although there are questions about whether it is genetic or just what they’ve been taught. Hoarding does tend to get worse with age – that’s why many of the worst hoarders you see are usually older men and women.
4. Lucy’s motivation to keep a horrible event a secret centers on her desire for her friends not to find out about the hoarding. I think you masterfully combined that with normal insecurities to make Lucy’s actions believable. Did you worry while writing this story that readers might think Lucy’s actions are too extreme, considering what’s in the house (not to give away any spoilers!)? How far will someone go to hide hoarding?
I really did worry that people would close the book and say “as if”, so I worked really hard on Lucy so that her actions were not only believable but completely understandable. I worked a lot with some adults who had grown up in that situation and they gave me details of how they lived and it all centered on not having anyone on the outside find out. I think people (particularly teens) would pretty much do anything to keep a secret that they thought would destroy them.
5. Lucy has a great best friend (Kaylie), though Kaylie never gets the chance to learn Lucy’s secret. What can a person do to be the best friend possible to a teen or child living with hoarding?
I think it’s like anyone living with a person who has a disorder –mental illness or alcoholism for example. Whatever is going on around them, it is not their fault and the first step is to reach out for help – Lucy felt that she couldn’t do that, although I’m not sure she was right. The best thing to do is don’t judge them by what the house looks like – they’re probably in a lot of pain over it.

6. Your descriptions are so powerful. I found myself cringing in expectation of what Lucy would find in her own home. Can you tell us about that particular part of the writing process: creating that kind of tension and that kind of real, raw emotion and expectation?
Thanks! I think writing is a lot like acting, but instead of doing it in front of an audience, we’re doing it in front of a computer. You really have to throw yourself into the part – become the character so that you know instinctively how they would act and feel. This is going to sound strange, but in a lot of places I was as surprised as Lucy was. Things would pop up and I’d just go with it, trying to figure out what it meant – finding the piano was like that. I had no idea why it was there and it ended up being a big insight into her Mom’s character. I do have to say…there were more maggots at one point. I had to tone it down a bit because it was just too much for some of my readers.

7. The ending is explosive and satisfying and it seems to me to be the only way it really could have ended. Did you write alternate endings, or was this how it always was going to be?
The ending is an interesting story. I don’t write an outline – I just kind of meander to the end of a book – so the original idea was that she comes to some sort of peace with and understanding of her mother. As you know, that is not what happens. One of the women who had grown up with a hoarder actually suggested the ending and at first I totally refused because it just seemed too drastic. As I got to know Lucy and her situation better and got deeper into the book I realized how right she was and that it was in fact the only possible ending. I’m so glad you feel the same way. It is the one element that I worry about the most, particularly in terms of the message it might send to young people. I try to remind them – the book is not a how-to manual, it is the story of one girl in one desperate situation.

8. What do you think would happen to Lucy now, were there an epilogue? The sense of freedom at the end is so empowering.
I’ve actually had some readers ask for a sequel, but for me, this part of Lucy’s story is basically done. I do know what happens after the last page has ended and I’ll just say that Lucy is doing fine.

Five Real Fast

1. A book every parent should buy for their son: ooh, I have two sons so this is a hard one. I’m tempted to say any book that they will actually read. I’d probably choose The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins because it shows how the world could get in the worst circumstances but also has a romance with a strong girl character.

2. Your favorite place to get inspired: I do a lot of my “internal” writing while I’m walking the dog.
3. If I could have one superpower, it would be: I’d say flying, but everybody says flying. I’ll go with invisibility.
4. Your favorite writing snack: Coffee. Is coffee a snack? I view it as survival.

5. One book you would love to see as a movie: I’d like to see Magic Under Glass by Jackie Dolamore as a movie – for me, it was such an unusual visual book.

Thanks so much for the interview, C.J.! You can learn more about C.J., including links to her other work and links to resources offering assistance with hoarding issues on her website.
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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  1. Great interview. Dirty Little Secrets sounds like a great book.

  2. Nice interview Kristin, and thanks CJ! I've been meaning to put this on my "to read" list.

  3. Love this interview! It made the book sound even more intriguing.

  4. Oh, man, I so want to read this. I'm a, uh, closet hoarder. I mean, I'm not the girl on Oprah or anything, but I have a hard time throwing stuff away! I can't wait to read this book!

  5. This book sounds so fascinating. Moving it up to the top of my fact, I think I'll start it tonight!

    And coffee is indeed survival. :)

  6. Great interview, and wow do I want to read this book.

  7. Thanks everyone. Definitely get your hands on this one!


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Item Reviewed: Dirty Little Secrets and a Chat With CJ Omololu Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook