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Life’s Sway

With a controversial new novel, local author Kat Spears writes for her troubled, 17-year-old self.

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Kat Spears, debut author of the young adult novel "Sway," was no role model in high school.

"I was a terrible student," she says. "I partied at a young age; I did a lot of things that I shouldn't have been doing. But I loved to read."

Now a married mother of three, Spears is the director of operations and development at the Library of Virginia Foundation. She is also a bartender in Washington on the weekends. For 17 years she has worked the bar, only taking a short hiatus when she had her children.

"I take a huge amount of pride in being a bartender," Spears says. "I'm really good at it. I work hard. I make people have a good time while they're there."

The protagonist of "Sway" is the controversial Jesse Alderman, a parent's worst nightmare. He's the kid who can get anyone anything: a keg, an A on a paper, a fake ID, a date with a dream girl. His services always require a fee or a favor and he handles a web of manipulation and crime with the coldness of a mob boss and the skill of a chief executive.

Spears admits the character is based on parts of her life.

"I hate to say I was a troubled kid," Spears says, "because that's a stupid label. But I was. There were a lot of things that happened to me and to people that I knew, and things I did that I think most people would be very shocked about."

By age 15, with her parents' permission, she dropped out of her Arlington high school. Spears then spent one semester at "basically a school for delinquents," she says. After that semester, she attended community college. "Eventually I got my act together," she says, "because I learned that there were greater possibilities for an interesting life by going to school and having an interesting career."

Spears put herself through college, obtaining a bachelor's degree in art history and a master's in anthropology. This led to a variety of jobs, including taxidermy and working in the field as an archaeologist. All of it has helped Spears appreciate her current dual life.

"My kids know that I have a job at the library, that I have an office and do work on a computer," she says. "But they also see me washing dishes at a dive bar in D.C."

Consequently, she reports that her children see no difference between people who work as bar backs and people who work in offices. Neither does Spears." I have a very good friend who is a judge," Spears says. "And I have a friend who changes light bulbs for a living. One is no smarter than the other. One is no more interesting than the other. But I'm lucky enough to have both instead of just one or the other."

Not surprisingly given Spears' life experiences, "Sway" has a diverse cast of characters. Jesse is Jewish and his accomplice Joey is a lesbian. Carter, his henchman and friend, is black, and Jesse inadvertently falls in love with Bridget, who has a brother with cerebral palsy.

"My agent and my editor made a big deal about the diversity in my book," she says, "which I didn't think about at the time." Spears makes no apology for the dialogue that is anything but politically correct. "I don't write for school librarians," she says. "I don't write for teachers, I don't write for parents. I don't write for anyone but the person I was at 17 who wanted books to read."

It seems like Spears is on the right track. A starred review of "Sway" from Publisher's Weekly says of the novel: "Sharp dialogue, edgy humor and an unlikely hero make this page turner a winner." Both Kirkus and Booklist also give it glowing reviews. Some readers, however, may find the situations and language in the book offensive. Spears is not bothered.

"While this is a work of fiction, there's nothing fabricated about what kids are exposed to at that age," says Spears. "There's kids who live in extreme poverty. There's kids who are high school dropouts. There's kids who have had a lot of different life experiences, and those kids like to read, too."

Spears' advice to young people who want to be writers runs contrary to the usual instructions to read a lot. "If you have the chance to take a job as an intern in your dad's office or rent shoes at a bowling alley, pick the bowling alley. Get outside of your comfort zone and meet people and do things because that's the only way you become interesting enough to write a book." S

Kat Spears will discuss and sign copies of "Sway" at the Library of Virginia on Sept. 17, and at Chop Suey Books on Sept. 21.

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