July 22


From Stage to Page: How I Discovered the Healing Power of Fiction by Margot Harrison

A fourteen-year-old girl is taking a summer theater program at a local college. She dreams of seeing her name in lights. But right now, rehearsals aren’t going well, and the director is angry. He accuses the cast of not giving their all. He goes around the room and singles out one actor after another, asking probing and sometimes embarrassing questions in hopes of getting an emotional reaction.

He asks the girl if she has ever performed a particular intimate act. She is mortified. She has never even kissed anyone; kids at her school consider her weird, and boys avoid her. She says no, feeling grateful that she recently learned the slang term the director used. She doesn’t want these sophisticated theater people thinking she’s a naïve little girl. Their acceptance means the world to her.

The director tries to continue with his questions. But another actor—a college-age woman—interrupts to tell him he’s crossed a line. His first question was inappropriate, she says, and the girl should have refused to answer it. The director relents, and the rehearsal ends.

The girl feels intensely relieved to be out of the spotlight, but also guilty. Why couldn’t she stand up for herself? Why is everything she does wrong?

That girl was me, and this is my first time telling the story of that rehearsal. That incident, and others like it, inspired me to create Celeste, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of We Made It All Up. Like me as a teen, she loves being onstage but is painfully shy without a scripted role to play. Also like me, she looks much older than her actual age—and yearns to be older.

The novel opens shortly after Celeste moves with her dad to the tiny town of Kray’s Defile, Montana, hoping to escape the memories of what happened when she took college theater classes in her native Montreal. The director, Frank, made inappropriate comments and advances to her, and she wasn’t sure how to draw the boundaries. Though she tells herself that “Nothing really happened,” Frank still occasionally texts her, reminding her of how helpless the whole situation made her feel.

In her English class, Celeste witnesses an argument that brings it all back. When the popular hockey star does a wooden reading from Shakespeare, an outcast boy heckles him, trying to goad him into expressing his true feelings—just as Frank did with her at a rehearsal.

This time, Celeste is the one to step in and stop the situation from escalating. But she can’t forget the confrontation, wondering what motivated the hostility between the two boys. Egged on by her new friend Vivvy, she starts writing passionate fan fiction in which the jock and the stoner are having a clandestine romance.

In Celeste’s stories, the jock’s perfect exterior hides a secret like her own—a secret involving abuse by an authority figure. What she doesn’t know is that a similar secret lies at the heart of the town. She’ll unravel that dark history only after the boy who was the hero of her stories is murdered, and she becomes the prime suspect.

While the murder mystery is pure fiction, I wrote this book partly to grapple with my teenage memories of incidents like that rehearsal. There was no single “Frank” in my life, but I encountered too many men like him. I dreamed of being a precocious YA heroine who could send those men packing with snarky putdowns. In reality, though, I didn’t even feel safe saying a flat no. I learned to make excuses and slip out of awkward situations. I told myself that “nothing actually happened,” so I was fine.

I wasn’t fine. For decades afterward, experiences like that theater rehearsal made it hard to trust men, or myself. I couldn’t get over the sense that I had somehow invited the unwanted attention. Only now, in an era when such behavior is no longer laughed off or tolerated, do I fully grasp that I wasn’t at fault.

I didn’t tell people about these experiences. Instead, as I got older, I found commiseration and kinship in stories that dealt with similar issues, whether they were dark literary narratives or anonymous fan fiction about characters helping each other heal from trauma. Safely planted in the realm of fiction—sometimes even with vampires or dragons!—these stories helped me work through my feelings of confusion and complicity. They quieted the constant questions: Why didn’t I stand up for myself with that director? Why didn’t I have a snappy putdown?

In my own stories, I experimented with different scenarios, rewriting the past. Over the years, the healing power of fiction has been as real for me as it is for Celeste and Vivvy in We Made It All Up.

Fiction is a parallel world where it’s safe to twist the facts, experimenting with what-ifs. But boundaries are key. My characters discover that you play with fire when you try to transform your stories into reality. I still believe in fiction—yes, including fan fiction—as a safe place for people of all ages to play and explore, just as long as they respect each other’s boundaries.

I never became an actor. These days, my theatrical side comes out only on TikTok.

But I’m still grateful that my adolescent self had the bravery to venture out on stage. I hope that other kids, including shy ones, will feel empowered to discover themselves in the magical realm of the theater, where fiction meets performance. And I’m so grateful to the young woman, her name long since forgotten, who tried to make that space a safer one for me.

Margot Harrison is an award-winning journalist living in Vermont. Her first YA novel, The Killer in Me (Little, Brown, 2016), was an Indies Introduce pick and a finalist for the Vermont Book Award and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Her second, The Glare (Little, Brown, 2020), received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. Her third, We Made It All Up (Little, Brown, July 2022), is a Junior Library Guild selection and has appeared on “best of” or “most anticipated” lists on BuzzFeed, Teen Vogue, Book Riot and Lit Hub. Find her on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter at @MargotFHarrison.