Author Kiersi Burkhart stops by the blog to talk about her debut YA novel, Honor Code.
Q&A with Kiersi Burkhart
First, tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up riding and racing horses in the rodeo. The machismo of cowboy culture always deeply bothered me—the only way to get respect there was to act like “one of the guys.” And I did, for years! I’m sure that’s what led me to being so politically vocal in high school, and then moving onto a degree in political science once I reached college. I focused on women’s rights in constitutional law, and the way that despite advancements in equal protection, our political system still uses our bodies to control us. Undoubtedly all of that passion ended up in Honor Code.
What inspired you to start writing Honor Code?
When my incredible editor at Carolrhoda Lab, Alix Reid, approached me wanting a book about a scandal at a private boarding school, it struck a chord with me. Campus rape was a huge problem back when I was in college—there was even a fairly high-profile case at my own school—and it’s continued to be a big problem ever since.
I believe it’s because these private, walled-off institutions, where everything is about reputation and image, tend to foster an environment where victims are pressured to stay quiet and “just get along.” There’s a mob mentality that emerges when a person who’s well-liked on campus, is accused of assault. People so often don’t want to believe that someone they once admired could do such a thing, and will often go to great lengths to protect that person—thus protecting their image of themselves and the institution that enabled sexual violence.
How would you describe your writing process?
My process varies from book to book, but since I was working so closely with Alix on this novel, it was planned fairly carefully since the beginning. Once I had the little spark in my mind for what this book was setting out to do, I started reading everything I could about what life is like on the campus of a private boarding school.
Not long after turning in an initial rough draft, the Stanford rapist story hit the news. It felt like being inside a funhouse. The topic that had been roiling inside my heart was everywhere. It became simultaneously easier to write about how the media handles these types of cases, and also more difficult because of the real lives that had been turned upside-down by sexual assault.
Did you find that in writing Honor Code that you needed to step away from time to time? How did you do so?
Let me just say that in more ways than one, 2017 was a really tough year for me.
There were certain scenes in this book that would take me days to edit because I had to keep taking breaks. Alix and I did a lot of editorial passes together—we knew it was so important that we approach the topic with a lot of care and mindfulness, so revisiting those scenes over and over was very mentally taxing. Often I’d work on a few paragraphs of it, then move on to a different chapter later in the story, and then come back and do the next paragraph. Getting feedback from experts and sensitivity readers, and considering all our choices carefully, involved a lot of back-and-forth, time, and energy.
I spent a lot of my downtime watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, playing farming sims on my Gameboy. Every unrelated, passive, calming activity I could find.
Justice is a prominent theme throughout the book. What are you hoping that readers take away from Sam’s struggles with the Edwards honor code and her fight for justice?
What was most important to me in writing Honor Code was that readers recognize through Sam’s quest for justice what a double-bind women face when deciding whether to come forward with their experience of sexual assault.
Someone in that position has no good options—if you do nothing, a crime goes unpunished, and a predator could go on to rape someone else. But if a woman speaks out, she’s criticized and blamed for what happened to her. The responsibility to “avoid” assault is still put on women, while perpetrators get excuse after excuse for why they did what they did.
Despite those personal risks, victims who still choose to come forward are usually not believed. The best estimate for false rape reports is ~8%, but most people—including the medical professionals, police, and judges who are all part of the legal process—believe that number is much, much higher according to a study done in 2009.
Per a 2010 study, the people responsible for bringing rapists to justice believe that up to 50 out of 100 women are lying about being raped. But it’s just not true.
Victims are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Say something, get blamed. Don’t say something, and a criminal walks free. Rape culture, victim blaming, and institutional silencing creates a ripple effect of problems that affects everyone involved.
What would you do if it happened to you? To your friend? To someone you love? How would you navigate these uncharted, hazardous waters when there’s really no right answer and no safe way out?
I hope Honor Code can shine light on a piece of this complicated, ugly puzzle.
What has been the most exciting part of publishing your first YA novel?
Can I say…everything? First it was getting good reviews from big journals. I can’t believe they liked what I wrote! And since then, the best part has been seeing readers’ reactions to the ARCs circulating now. That, to me, is pure magic. Taking someone along on this tumultuous, sometimes painful, and unpredictable journey with you—it’s what I’ve dreamed of doing since I was small.
Look inside Kiersi Burkhart’s Honor Code