When I picked up Heather Demetrios’s novel Bad Romance, I wasn’t expecting a gut punch, and yet that’s exactly what I got. Demetrios weaves the intensity of young love with the realization that sometimes bad boys really are just bad.
Grace wants out. Out of her house with her domineering parents. Out of her California town, too small to contain her big city dreams. Out of her life, and into the role of Parisian artist, New York director. Enter Gavin: charming, talented, adored. Controlling. Dangerous. When Grace and Gavin fall in love, Grace is sure it’s too good to be true. She has no idea their relationship will become a prison she’s unable to escape.
Where did the idea for Bad Romance come from?
It’s highly autobiographical – I was in an abusive relationship for over two years when I was in high school. I never wanted to write about that time in my life (to this day I still have recurring nightmares), but I was asked to contribute to an anthology (the book is I See Reality) with a short story about a teen dealing with something and I ended up writing this story called “Three Imaginary Conversations With You” about a girl in a bad romance who’s trying to break up with her boyfriend. She imagines how the conversation will go down and we get a sense of the abuse in their relationship. I had to go back to that dark place, remember all that horrible crap, but I did it because I knew some girl reading it would maybe draw comfort and hope from the story. My husband is a high school teacher here in Brooklyn and he sees relationships like this all the time – so bad that girls are at school with broken bones (they, of course, say they fell). I felt this intense pull toward writing this book, even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. I knew I had to tell my story so I could help these girls. 1 in 3 teens is affected by teen dating abuse. This is FOR REAL. And it has to stop.
Grace is very into theater – in fact the opening sentence is a quote from Rent. Are you also a theater fan? What was it like digging into theater culture and translating it to the page?
Um, yeah — “fan” is perhaps an understatement. I have a theatre degree and on top of doing plays and musicals all through high school, I also had my own theatre company in LA for a while and assistant-directed, produced, and directed. It was so much fun letting my inner drama nerd out for this book. I had a blast being able to relive some of my happiest memories from high school (our shows and our senior year trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). It was really cool to put to words this lifetime passion of mine. And it gave me an excuse to listen to waaaaay too many soundtracks! I live in New York City now, so I’m seeing shows all the time – it’s a dream. I stopped directing quite some time ago, but lately I’ve been thinking about getting into writing and producing something.
The thing that sees my main character, Grace, through this tough time is her drama program and her best friends, who are also in all the shows with her. She’s obsessed with Rent, loves Hamilton, and regularly quotes the shows she digs. Grace has a passion and it’s what ultimately gives her the courage to choose herself (the hashtag for the book is #chooseyou). Grace sacrifices a lot for Gavin, but she eventually begins to see that she’s losing herself and that she’s going to lose her dream of being a director on Broadway if she just follows Gavin and his band around from show to show. Her difficult home life makes everything more complicated: when your home’s a prison and your relationship just a cell with more space, how do you escape?
The theatre also brings her Gavin Davis: a rock god with a sweet streak that hides his possessive, dangerous side. If you were to break the book up into acts, the first act is all about them falling in love and Grace adjusting to being a really intense dude’s girlfriend. The second act is Grace getting woke: she knows he’s bad news now, but she loves him. They’re so twisted up with each other that she knows if she leaves him, she’ll lose parts of herself. And Grace isn’t sure she’s ready for that. Enter cute Gideon, who’s a one that got away for me because I just couldn’t leave my boyfriend, even though I was miserable. The question is, can Grace do better than I did? The third act is how it all goes down. The book is written in second person, so Grace is talking to Gavin as she’s narrating the story. Think of it as a really long letter in the present tense. This was the only way the book would come out for me — I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just brought up so much that the only way I could tell the story was how I lived it: in a little bubble, just me and him.
The characters in Bad Romance are imperfect, particularly the teen characters. For instance, Grace’s friends make a few fatphobic comments and Grace (in the beginning) romanticizes another character’s suicide attempt. Tell us about what went into the decision to depict teens as imperfect.
I just think it’s so important to keep it real. I like to get in the trenches with my characters and see the world from their eyes. This book is a bit different in that it’s based on my own experience (though much has been altered in order to protect people’s identities, and to let the story organically unfold as it wants to be told). So I didn’t have to do a whole lot of imagining here, in terms of the characters. The fact is, as a teen I did romanticize my boyfriend’s suicide attempt and I was majorly fatphobic (this is no surprise, since I grew up in LA and had family members who often made comments about my weight and my sister’s). I wanted to show all the things Grace is up against. Her romantic nature, for one. While her friends have a pretty clearheaded approach to a character’s suicide attempt at the beginning of the book, Grace is up in the clouds, comparing him to Hamlet. As we see her self-esteem diminish over the course of the book, we understand that some of those early comments and experiences are coming home to roost. The rose colored glasses come off and things get real. I’m not interested in didactic characters meant to teach a lesson – I’m interested in authentic, flawed people who struggle to maintain their dignity and humanity and who fight for themselves.
One of my favorite quotes from Bad Romance is, “Girls don’t fall in love with manipulative assholes who treat them like shit and make them question their life choices. They fall in love with manipulative assholes (who treat them like shit and make them question their life choices) who they think are knights in shining armor.” Why was it important to you to show that abusers can seem good, while also being horribly abusive behind closed doors?
Because I think that’s how most abuse happens, and it’s certainly how it happened to me. Most people don’t present their dark sides to the world. And when you’re in an abusive relationship, there are so many parts of you tied up with the other person that it seems impossible to break free. And when things are happening behind closed doors, it’s easy for your partner to manipulate you: they might make you feel like you’ve blown an abusive act or comment out of proportion, or they might play on your love for them by turning things around so that they seem like the victim. Suddenly, you’re apologizing for making them feel bad about abusing you! It’s a total mind game. Nobody is just one thing. Like, I was just reading about how Hitler married his mistress before they committed suicide. This super evil man was a closet romantic. Isn’t that weird and messed up?
If you could send a message to your own high school self stuck in a bad romance, what would it be?
Going off the theatre nerd thing, here are some tips on how to deal if you’re in a bad romance, straight from the stage:
- I am not throwing away my shot. (Hamilton): Don’t give up what you love. Don’t lose interest in everything but him. You are young and free and the world is your oyster, so don’t throw away your shot on a guy who makes you unhappy.
- No day but today. (Rent): Rent is Grace’s favorite musical, and it’s mine too. It makes her dream of a bohemian life in NYC, living among other creative people and doing her art. She knows life is short, she’s seen the mistakes her parents made when they were young, and she’s certain that if she doesn’t make the most of her life it’ll pass her by. When Gavin insists that she sacrifice her future and her friendships and her senior year, she resists. She knows she can’t get this time back, not ever.
- Oh, I’m gonna be wounded / oh I’m gonna be your wound / Oh, I’m gonna bruise you / Oh, you’re gonna be my bruise. (Spring Awakening): Grace and Gavin hurt each other in a thousand ways—Grace isn’t perfect, though it’s Gavin who’s usually at the bottom of their unhappiness. The pain they feel is deep and relentless and it’s clear that even if they break up, they will have wounded one another for life. The stakes are high in this book—life and death. The longer you stay in a relationship like this, the harder it will be to leave, the more deep the pain will be when you finally summon the courage to say goodbye.
- Enough; no more: ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before. (Twelfth Night): One of the hardest parts about ending a relationship is remembering all the good times. Sometimes, we stay in them for those memories. We feel like we’re dishonoring ourselves by giving up, by saying Enough; no more. But that’s a REALLY bad reason to stay in a relationship. You have to let it go (Let it goooooooo! Sorry, Frozen moment). Ending the relationship doesn’t discount the good and though those memories hurt like hell, especially right after you break up, you have a better chance of allowing them to stay good memories if you leave. Otherwise, you’ll just poison each other and what you had. So it’s time to say So long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye!