Amy Reed has a knack. The Oakland writer's novels are classified as "Young Adult," but the way she bores into the heart of troubled youth provides a laser-guided trip back in time for any reader who remembers being the kind of adolescent who found pushing the boundaries of the acceptable far more compelling than schoolwork or any more appropriate extracurricular activities. (Full disclosure: I have known Reed for many years, and was an usher in her wedding.) Her first novel, Beautiful, charted the downward spiral of a lonely young woman who finds herself suddenly desirable in the big city. The recent follow-up, Clean, allows Reed to stretch her characterization wings: Its five protagonists are teenagers in rehab, and, as there's a pretty one, a hot guy, an effete home-schooled boy, a wound-up perfect girl, and an arty goth chick, it's a relief when, early on, one of the characters gets the Breakfast Club mention out of the way.
Some of Clean's characters were easier for Reed to get inside than others. The three girls, she said, "are like the holy trinity of my teenage self — the wounded, brooding artist; the obsessive overachiever; the wild girl with poor boundaries," she said. "I have been all of those girls at various times in my life, sometimes all at once. I loved being able to throw them together, watch how they interacted, and see them ultimately become friends." The kind, closeted gay character is a type Reed's known all her life, but the fifth protagonist, Jason, was by far the biggest stretch for her. "I wanted to challenge myself to write the kind of boy I always blindly hated as a teenager — we called them 'white hatters' when I was in high school in Seattle. They were like jocks who didn't actually do sports. But I wanted to get beyond the stereotype to ultimately find compassion and love for him."
Though Reed's characters are primarily middle- and upper-class suburban and urban teens, there are parts of Clean that cut right down to the quick of addiction, no matter what the age or circumstance. Anyone who has battled any kind of substance or behavioral abuse — or who has been close to someone who has — will me moved by one character's wish to one day "be able to concentrate on what I'm doing without having to look around the room every thirty seconds. Someday sitting still and being in my skin won't feel like torture."
While Beautiful wasn't consciously written for young adults, it was classified as such as soon as Reed began shopping it around. Reed, who celebrates the release of Clean on Tuesday, August 9, at Pegasus Books (2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley), had a different mindset for this second novel. "Writing has been a pretty selfish act for me for most of my life; it was always about what I wanted to express," she said. "Now I'm also thinking that what I write is going to be read by kids who are still forming their beliefs and values, kids who feel lost and scared, kids who are faced with big decisions, many with very little guidance. I feel an incredible responsibility to offer not only the truth, but also something they can use — wisdom, insight, hope — not just a compelling story. I hope adults are reading my books, too. I hope they are reading them with with their kids." 7:30 p.m., free. 510-649-1320 or PegasusBookstore.com