Magic realism is not a genre that often crosses with contemporary pop culture. How often do vampires talk about shampoo brands – or inhuman creatures read teen magazines? Why is this rare? Well, it’s hard to do. Another hard thing to do is to create young adult fiction that avoids some of the most common tropes of the genre: murder mysteries, “queen bee” popular girls, singular versions of “teen” sexuality and the classic defining of the different social groups that sit at different lunch tables. But it’s a good time for storytelling, because bold writers are giving young adult fiction an exciting sheen of artistry for the new-ish millennium. Enter Bennett Madison, author of September Girls, The Blonde of the Joke and other works of fiction.
You probably want to keep his name on your watch list, because his ability to mix tricky-to-mix genres, to comment on pop culture in an affectionate (non-judgmental) way and to productively muddy how we think about teen sexuality will make his books a rising part of the conversation. September Girls is a book you hadn’t realized you wished existed – it’s about mermaids, it’s about parents’ struggling with their marriages, it’s about small town boredom, it’s about connecting with someone in the mass media world and in the more private, mystical inner world. AND it might get made into a TV show. I suggest you read it if you like reading things that are good.
Since it’s the kind of work that leaves you with more questions than answers, I got Bennett Madison to talk about his work firsthand.
You’ve got a lot of books out but where else can people find your writing? Do you write for any blogs or publications?
I actually don’t very often. I’m a super-slow writer and I’m not that confident in my nonfiction skills, so it’s pretty rare that I write stuff other than novels. I wish I was better at it. I do it sometimes but I’m always really self-conscious about it when I do.
What got you into the world of Y.A.?
In some ways it was a matter of good timing – I left college in 2003, which was just at the time when YA was starting to boom in the publishing industry. Publishers were suddenly looking for a lot more YA, and I was already reading a lot of it. I’ve never been into making big distinctions in terms of genre, plus books like Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books had already opened my eyes to how much you could do with YA. It was an exciting time in YA, because while there was suddenly this huge market for it, it was before a lot of people had really noticed what was going on. So there was this sense that you could could really bust open some boundaries in a way that you might not be able to in “grown-up” fiction. Which really appealed to me.
Plus, I was twenty-three. I’d studied creative writing in college, and – probably partially because of my age, because was practically a teenager myself – most of the stuff I’d written in my writing workshops had been about teenage characters. I didn’t and still don’t see a huge difference, as a writer or a reader, between stuff that’s marketed as YA and stuff that’s aimed at grown-ups but is about teen characters.
So when a friend of mine got a job working at a new YA imprint at Penguin, I sent her some of the stuff I’d written school, which she then showed it to her boss. It wasn’t quite right for them, but they liked it enough that they asked me to try to come up with some other ideas. I knew they wanted mysteries, which I’d read plenty of but never really considered writing. It seemed fun, though so I basically thought a bit about how to combine my own sensibility with a pretty straightforward Girl Detective thing, and that’s how Lulu Dark was born. I don’t think it could have happened if I’d come to the publishing world a few years prior, or a few years later.
If I’d waited to start publishing fiction, I’m not totally sure it would have been YA. Maybe! Who knows! I love YA and I plan on writing more of it, but I don’t necessarily consider myself a YA lifer. I like all kinds of books and I have pretty eclectic tastes, so I’ll probably try to branch out at some point. (I’ve already branched out a little with my new novella The Island After, which I’d love to develop into a full-length novel for grown-ups at some point.)
The portrayal of women in this book was so complex. Have you read Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey and other books that young girls/ moms are obsessed with? How did you feel about the way those books portrayed womanhood/sexuality? What do you hope this book does differently?
I’ve read Twilight; I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey. (And I actually haven’t read the whole Twilight saga – just the first one.) I do read a lot of other YA that’s probably primarily aimed at girls and women. And I grew up reading tons of so-called Girl Books. Right I could rattle off the first fifty Baby-sitters Club books, in order, without stopping for a breath.
I was thinking a lot about Twilight when I came up with the general idea for September Girls. I was thinking less about it when I was actually writing the book, but I still just trying to play around with these ideas of purity in fantasy and myth, which is a very gendered thing. Over and over in myths and fiction, we see girls punished for wanting knowledge. Pandora opens the box, Eve eats the fruit of knowledge. (Some scholars think that fruit was really supposed to be a pomegranate, which is the same fruit that Persephone eats in Greek mythology.) And the “knowledge” that these characters want and obtain can often be read as sexual knowledge. In other words, a girl or woman gets curious about sex and ruins the world for everyone else.
Twilight relies on Bella’s virginity. She can’t have sex with Edward or really bad things will happen. This is an idea with a lot of implications when it comes to gender, but of course it’s also the narrative engine for the book. It’s the thing that’s keeping Bella apart from Edward, which is totally necessary for any romantic plot. With September Girls, I wanted to switch up the genders a little bit and play with how those stories and themes interact with each other. I didn’t have any real outcome in mind, which ended up being a problem when I got farther into the writing process. I just wanted to explore it.
Holly Black, who’s one of the best YA writers out there as well as one of the smartest thinkers when it comes to fantasy as a genre, has talked a lot about how in fantasy, magic is always a stand-in for different types of power and agency. I thought a lot about that when I was working on September Girls. In this book, magic is all tied up with sexual power. But magic in September Girls is probably more abstract than it is in a lot of fantasy– it’s really slippery and ambiguous. Some of the characters have access to magic of some sort, or they’re subjugated by magic, but no one really totally understands the way that magic works. There are all these questions about who has the power; about who’s the victim and who’s the victimizer. Without spoiling too much, I guess I wanted to show that in the end, all the characters – male and female – are kind of victims of a system that’s much bigger and much more powerful than they are. It’s a system that they’re constantly trying to understand, but the rules are always being changed on them. When someone thinks they’ve gained some kind of power it usually ends up biting them in the ass.
I wasn’t trying to write an explicitly feminist book, exactly, and I wasn’t trying to write a Boy Book either. I was just trying to write a book about things that are interesting to me, and these are all questions that are fascinating to me as both a man and a human. I’m obviously not going to complain if anyone calls the book feminist, but I hope they also are able to see how it’s about other things too. Some of those things completely unrelated to any of this! I don’t like to write or read books that come across as having a really clear political axe to grind.
You created some interesting contrasts between how different types of teenage boys view sexuality and girls. What was your vantage point like as a teenager?
Well, I’m super-gay, so my vantage is probably a little different than that of my male characters. I think being gay gives me a somewhat interesting perspective on sexual politics, but it might also give me some blind spots – because in talking to some of my friends who are women, I can see that there’s a lot of stuff about the sexual dynamic between men and women that doesn’t really apply to gay relationships. And when you grow up being mostly friends with girls and feeling very closely aligned with girl culture, like I did, you do run the risk of feeling like you’re more of an expert than you really are when it comes to what it’s like to actually be a girl. I tried to be pretty careful about that, but I know some people thought I wasn’t careful enough.
As a gay teenager in the ’90s, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for relationships with people I went to school with, which meant that I had to look elsewhere. I dated a few people my own age, but I dated several people who were slightly older. And I spent a certain amount of time sneaking into gay bars and things like that. This is an interesting position to be in, because while the aspect of gender is mostly stripped away in that situation there are still all these other power dynamics at play. When you’re the seventeen-year-old hanging out in the back of the bar, people are automatically going to place you in the more submissive role, and yet youth is such a trump card that you can’t help feeling sort of in charge, too, because you have what other people want. It gets complicated trying to figure out who’s on top. So to speak!
With Sam, even though he’s (probably) straight, I wanted to explore some of those ideas.
Changing gears, this book would make a killer movie. Have you had any offers?
There’s actually a TV show in the works rather than a movie. It’s just in the early stages right now, and who knows what will happen with it – the road to getting a book adapted is an incredibly long one – but I’m excited.
What would your dream film adaption of this book look like?
My sister’s boyfriend, who works in television, said he thought Chloe Grace Moretz would be a great DeeDee and I thought that was the best idea. Then I found out that she’s going to play Mia in the movie version of Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY, which made me super-jealous. I don’t really have any good ideas for who I’d like to see as Sam or Jeff, but I love thinking about who I’d cast as the mom. Parker Posey would be amazing I think.
If it does ever become a TV series, the plan right now is that it will focus more around this community of Girls than around Sam. That wasn’t my idea but I think it’s a really smart one.
Who are some of your favorite authors/books for us to check out?
I recently read Sarah McCarry’s ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS, which I thought was great. I also adored Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s USES FOR BOYS and Hollis Seamon’s SOMEONE UP THERE HATES YOU. Natalie Standiford’s books are always great, including her most recent, THE BOY ON THE BRIDGE. There are a lot of books that I haven’t read yet that I’m really really looking forward to, like David Levithan’s TWO BOYS KISSING, Carrie Mesrobian’s SEX AND VIOLENCE, Andrew Smith’s WINGER and Abigail Haas’s DANGEROUS GIRLS. Oh and Elizabeth Wein’s new ROSE UNDER FIRE is a follow-up to CODE NAME: VERITY, which was one of my favorite YA books of the past several years, so I really want to read that too. In terms of grown-up stuff, I’m desperate to start on THE GOLDFINCH, but so is everyone else. Right now I’m reading and really enjoying Caleb Crain’s NECESSARY ERRORS.
You can start reading his work here.