Art People: Corinne Demas|writer


Thursday, March 6, 2014
(Published in print: Friday, March 7, 2014) Hampshire Life


Over some 40 years, Corinne Demas has covered a wide range of writing — short stories and novels, poetry and plays, children’s books and nonfiction. Her 2000 memoir about growing up in a post-World War II housing development in New York City, “Eleven Stories High,” remains one of her most popular books, she says, based on the volume of letters and emails she’s received from readers.

In recent years, though, Demas, a longtime English professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, has branched out into Young Adult fiction, something she hadn’t tried before. It wasn’t a deliberate decision, she says, but rather because some of her recent ideas for stories had seemed like good fits for a genre that speaks to the heightened emotions and voices of adolescence.

“I don’t set out to write in a particular style or genre,” says Demas, of Amherst. “When I have an idea for something, I look for the best way to tell the story, whether that’s through a short story, a play, a novel or something else.”

That said, Demas, who’s also the fiction editor for “The Massachusetts Review,” finds YA fiction has its own appeal. “It’s focused — it’s about a specific period in a young person’s life, and it’s a good way to look at the issues that teens face.

“Teens suffer sometimes from problems that might seem smaller to [adults], but they’re very real to them,” she adds. “It’s a time in your life when feelings can be intense.”

“Everything I Was,” published in 2011, is narrated by 13-year-old Irene, whose father has lost his high-paying job in New York City, forcing her family to move from their fancy Manhattan apartment to Irene’s grandfather’s farm in upstate New York. Separated from her friends, and faced with her father’s depression and her parents’ arguing, Irene has to find a new way of looking at things and discover what’s important in life.

In Demas’ new book, “Returning to Shore,” another teenage narrator is dealing with an upended life. Following her mother’s wedding to husband No. 3, 15-year-old Clare has been shunted off to spend three weeks on a small island off Cape Cod with her biological father, Richard, who she hasn’t seen in years and speaks to her by phone only at Christmas. Richard is a taciturn man who lives alone and seems primarily interested in helping terrapin turtles, whose nearby nesting areas are threatened by new housing developments.

Richard may also be harboring a personal secret, something that might be tied to his disappearance from Clare’s life. So the question for Clare is, Demas says, “Does she want to find out? And then how does she talk to him about it? She’s slowly developing a relationship with him, and she’s afraid of jeopardizing that.”

Those kinds of larger character issues transcend the YA genre, Demas believes, and could be the reason that YA fiction actually has a pretty high percentage of adult readers, according to studies. “I think good prose can stand on its own,” she says. The whole YA label, she adds with a laugh, “is just another way for the publishing industry to sell books.”

Demas has some ideas cooking for future books, though she’s not sure what form they’ll take. But if she does write more YA titles, there’s one subject she won’t touch.

“I don’t do vampires,” she said.

— Steve Pfarrer

Corinne Demas will read from “Returning to Shore” Thursday at 7 p.m. at Amherst Books.