|Photo by Paddy Feen|
By JJ Marsh
I want to tackle some chunky subjects with Louise, but so as not to overload her and keep this entertaining, I’ll chuck in a random lightener* every now and then. Now let’s talk to herself.
Congratulations on winning the Bookseller’s YA Prize. Did you set out to write fiction for young adults?
Thank you! I was thrilled to win, especially in its inaugural year.
I first came to YA fiction as a reader in my twenties. The YA market as it exists today wasn’t anywhere near as extensive or as popular when I was a teenager, I went straight from Narnia to reading Margaret Atwood and Jeffrey Eugenides (with a brief detour to the magical land of Sweet Valley). In my final year of university, I took a module in children’s literature – as you can imagine, my parents were delighted at the thought they were funding my efforts to analyse the subtext in picture books – and that was my first real introduction to how powerful and subversive fiction for young adults could be.
That being said, I didn’t necessarily intend to write for young adults. The voice of the main character, Frieda, came to me as a sixteen year old girl’s, and I wrote the story the way I felt it should be written. It was only when I started approaching agents that it became clear that Only Ever Yours was going to be targeted at the Young Adult market. Of course, very often there is a crossover where adults pick up a YA novel, and I have definitely seen that with my novel – so much so that my publisher has decided to re-publish it and re-position it for the adult market. It will be interesting to see how that works out.
By all accounts, this was your third attempt at writing fiction after abandoning two others at the 10K words mark. Why did it work this time?
When I tried writing before there was always something to distract me. University, a boyfriend, trying to build my career. When I left my internship at ELLE in New York in 2011 to return to Ireland, I had made the decision that I was going to take a year out to attempt writing my first novel. A long term relationship had broken up, I was living back at home with my parents, and I had a rather desperate feeling that it was either going to be now or never. I knew I would never have the luxury of this much time and space, unencumbered by responsibilities. I could be, and I was, completely obsessive about this book, giving it 100% of my energy and focus. I’m aware that for other people that this isn’t possible because of children to feed and mortgages to pay. I know how incredibly lucky I was to have the emotional (and fiscal!) support of my parents.
An observer might see elements of your background as affecting your fiction: a Catholic education, an all-girls school, media pressure on teenagers of both genders, competition and cruelty, an eating disorder and working in the New York fashion industry all as formative factors – but in your opinion, is there a dominant authorial experience driving Only Ever Yours?
You’re correct in saying that a myriad of my personal life experiences have affected and shaped this novel. I think the most dominant of these would probably be my experience of the ‘Beauty Myth’, as coined by Naomi Wolf. (The basic premise of The Beauty Myth, as outlined by Wikipedia, is that as women have gained increased social power and prominence, expected adherence to standards of physical beauty has grown stronger for women.)
I was very focussed on my appearance for a long time. When I admit that, I often fear that people will think I’m vain or self-obsessed but I think it’s important to understand that women are often told that our very value as human beings is directly linked to how attractive we are to men. I wanted to be beautiful, I wanted to look like the models I saw in my magazines. I would look at the fashion editorials and want their bodies, their hair, their faces, and of course, their clothes. I felt like a bottomless pit of need – a need for validation and approval from other people, usually connected to whether or not they thought I was attractive. It’s an exhausting way to live.
It was as I got older and read more and began to understand exactly the sort of pressure that this ‘Beauty Myth’ exerts on women, I could more clearly see how our culture constantly reinforces the idea that women have some sort of responsibility to be beautiful. That became a central theme in Only Ever Yours.
*Summer barbecue and you’re in charge of the cocktails. What are we drinking?
Grey Goose vodka and soda water with freshly squeezed lime juice. I try to pretend this is relatively healthy – I am just doing my best to avoid scurvy, one cocktail at a time.
You’re vocal, and very funny, on the subject of feminism. One comment struck me – you call your friends on casual comments which compound gender inequality. Why pick up on all those ‘only a joke, love’ comments?
|Photo by Miki Barlok|
I know some of my friends roll their eyes at me at times, in a ‘here she goes again’ type of way. But it’s never just a joke. As a feminist living in a first world country, I often hear people tell me that I should be grateful for how much better it is for women here than in other countries, as if I should be sending out thank you cards every time I’m allowed to vote. (Don’t worry, I ask my dad which way I should vote beforehand. My little lady brain can’t handle the pressure otherwise.)
Leaving some of the bigger issues aside, such as the fact that women still don’t earn as much as men for doing the exact same job, casual sexism, mildly sexist jokes, comments such as ‘Don’t be such a girl’, all of these add up to an environment in which being female is seen as inferior, as less than. That is never acceptable. The more you point out sexism, the more others notice it too – and we need as many people as possible to be aware of how inherently patriarchal our world is if we ever want to enact real change.
*If you had the choice of any fictional character, who would you be?
This is so difficult! Jo March from Little Women has always been a role model for any bookish child, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter is a badass, and Susan Pevensie from the Narnia series as I still think it’s incredibly unfair that C.S Lewis dismissed her once she became interested in makeup and fashion.
I found it significant that the ‘designer’ girls in the book have no parents whereas I get the impression your family is extremely important to you. Was that a deliberate decision to leave those girls adrift?
That’s an interesting observation. Yes, my family is extremely important to me as anyone who follows me on Twitter will recognise. They have been an unwavering source of support and understanding, which has anchored me in ways that I will be eternally grateful for. Home, both mine and my grandparents’ house, was a safe haven, in a way that school never was. This is why I set the entire narrative of the book within the confines of the school, I wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia, of being trapped, a sense that the girls couldn’t escape. They didn’t have a family that they could ‘retreat’ to. One of the biggest blessings in family life is a sense that you are loved unconditionally – and those girls have never experienced that.
When I reviewed your book, I compared it to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Many differences between the two, but there’s a sense in both that cruelty and competition between young girls will last long into the future. How can we, all of us, change that?
Firstly, thank you so much for comparing my novel to Ishiguro. I can die happy now.
That sense of competition has lessened as I’ve gotten older. Many of my female friendships now are supportive and loving and I cherish that sense of sisterhood. This is the example that we need to set for younger women. If you have a daughter, don’t bitch about other women behind their backs, don’t tear down other women based on their looks, don’t be cruel. Obviously, I’m not going to like every woman that I meet and I may have valid reasons for criticising their behaviour at times, but there are ways to do that which are not toxic. We also need more positive representations of female friendship on TV, in movies, in literature.
You’ve another book on the way. Can we get a tiny teaser as to what it’s about?
My second novel is called Asking For It and it’s going to be published by Quercus on September the 3rd.
It’s about a girl named Emma, beautiful, manipulative, demanding. She wakes up the morning after a party on her front porch with no memory of how she got there. It’s only when she sees photos on social media that she realises that she’s been assaulted.
The book deals with issues of rape culture, victim blaming, and consent, and has been inciting very strong reactions from all those who have read it so far.
I’m hoping it will start a conversation about the idea of the ‘perfect victim’ and how we as a society actually support rape culture, unknowingly or otherwise.
*A woman’s best friend is:
- A small dog with a huge personality
- A great gang of mates
- A laptop and an idea
I’m lucky enough to have all of the above and I love all of them. However, I think a woman’s best friend should be herself. That sounds trite but women need to learn to treat themselves with as much compassion and understanding as they would their closest friends. You’re stuck with yourself for a lifetime, may as well start liking yourself as soon as you can.
Since this interview was printed, Asking For It has been published to passionate reviews.
Interview first published in Words with JAM