When MAKE invited me to dialogue with Young Adult novelist David Yoo, whose second novel, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before (2008) has gotten quite a bit of acclaim, I admit that I was unsure what a writer with a nipple on the cover of her book (that would be me—the writer, I mean, not the actual nipple) would have to talk about with someone writing for young adults. However, as soon as I read David’s sharp and hilarious novel, which grapples with issues from beauty to race to virginity to cancer, all in fresh ways that eschew simple political correctness, I quickly realized we were going to have all the fodder we could possibly need for discussion. As it turns out, we both got so into our conversation that we only managed to ask each other a couple of questions apiece before we’d already exceeded the MAKE word limit, and I’m pretty sure we could have kept on going for days. Here is our dialogue, and I guess we’ll just have to continue it sometime on our own. Meanwhile, buy a copy of David’s novel for a young person in your life—or just anyone who remembers the indignities of high school and could use a good laugh.
Gina Frangello, 9/17/10
GF: Your novel, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before, chronicles the ill-fated relationship of an “intentional loser,” Albert, and a pretty, popular girl, Mia. While one of the points of the novel is Al’s own judgmental nature, which can be brutal, I was still struck by his observation at one point that pretty girls are generally “mean” or “not good people.” In fact, I’m struck by this general sentiment in YA lit and film, going back to the John Hughes films of my youth, in which being good-looking or popular (much less, having money!) are often automatically signs of a character’s moral inferiority or villainous role. Although Mia is extremely kind—perhaps to a fault—the novel’s narrative seems to view her as an exception to this rule. I’d like to explore and unpack this mythology and why it holds such multigenerational power in its appeal to youth culture. I should stipulate here that I was closer to a Goth than a cheerleader in high school and that when I was junior high–aged, I was overweight with teeth like Laura Ingalls and hair like a Brillo pad. Still, this polarization strikes me as unfair or facile, and I’ve written a bit about its adult manifestations in my own fiction in an effort to get to the bottom of it. I mean, isn’t it possible that a lot of kids become “popular” precisely because they’re nice or generous? Why would being born with a certain type of face have anything to do with whether someone is a good person or not? Why is it so incredibly compelling for people of all ages to believe that the geeks are good and the jocks are bad?
DY: The polarization is unfair in the grand scheme of things, and Albert’s perception of his peers does seem to (for the most part) align with the now cliché characterizations of teens we’ve seen since the dropping of the Hughes oeuvre in the 80s, but I think there’s a slight difference between those teen movies, which I’m a fervent fan of, but which I readily admit tend to cozily rely on well-worn stereotypes that in effect offer sweeping assumptions about teens, and Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before in that it’s a novel told in the first person, which means it’s not so much attempting to serve as a universal, authoritative portrait or indictment of the various castes in high school but is instead merely one teenager’s honest perspective—in this case, Albert Kim’s, a 16-year-old misanthrope [clarification: a socially awkward if somewhat genial young man as opposed to the creepier silent misanthrope who sits behind girls in class drawing really realistic pictures of guns].
That’s important to clarify because if it were told from the POV of an adult looking back, even in first person, it could very easily come off as authoritative in such broad strokes, like in those teen movies. But this is just a clueless boy telling his story, and teens tend to stereotype, no? (E.g., you get bullied by just one varsity wrestler, and you then blanketedly despise the entire wrestling team.) For that matter, teens even tend to prefer to identify as a “type,” it seems. You labeled yourself as something of a Goth back in high school, for example, whereas I kind of straddled several lines: I was a jock soccer player but overall a more gentle jock given that my main sport was tennis (hardly the mean jock’s sport of choice). At the same time I was the guy who listened to Echo and the Bunnymen and XTC and wrote obscure (in small town New England circa the late 80s/early 90s) band names in bubble letters on the outside of my Trapper Keeper folders to the utter befuddlement of my teammates. Anyway, because of this chameleonic, ever-shifting identity, decades later, I saw Albert as a kid who doesn’t quite fit in with any particular group, and when kids feel like that, they tend to use the thicker paintbrushes when painting their peers. But he finds the nerds just as elitist as he considers the popular, pretty girls mean, which is to say that he’s an equal opportunity hater! On top of this, Albert’s the token Asian guy in school—which isn’t something that is explored in-depth in this novel as it is in my first novel, Girls For Breakfast (2005), which is about the correlation between the protagonist’s ambivalence toward his ethnicity and his desire to date a popular white girl, but it’s another layer of outsiderness that offers a possible explanation as to why he puts his peers in very specific drawers of categorization. Albert’s narrow-minded first-person views don’t necessarily deny the truth that, in real life (perhaps it’s fitting I write a lot of YA given that as an adult I still use the phrase “real life” in everyday conversation), there are nice popular people, just as there are mean losers. Albert does consider popular-yet-nice Mia an exception to the rule, as you rightly note, not only because he’s so judgmental but also because she’s the only popular girl he’s gotten to actually know personally. The story in part deals with how one’s predetermined placement on the high-school social totem pole affects one’s persona, if that makes any sense.
That being said, there are truths to those tired conventions about the typical teen social hierarchy. While not always the case, the especially insecure, crappy jocks in high school are often quite meatheaded and bully the weaker lot, while the insecure, especially vain popular pretty girls, are often mean (or at least naively dismissive) to unpopular people. Emily in the title story of your collection, Slut Lullabies (2010), acknowledges the universal high-school rules, like when she notes that after you hook up with a guy in high school, you either become an item or “you carefully ignored each other for the remainder of your teenage life.” We grew up in different parts of the country, but I immediately recognized that rule! Generation after generation, there are these unspoken rules that tend to not change as much as we’d hope (even Emily’s mom wants her to dump her best friend for fear of being cast as “nerdy by association”). So while I agree that it’s unfair and too easy to make the same old obvious connections (wealth + looks = evil, poor + nerdy = decent), the rules that promote this in high-school society do exist just about everywhere.
This isn’t particularly relevant, but I want to add that lately it seems as if there has been something of a renaissance for geeks. Today, more than ever, it seems being a geek or nerd is considered cooler than it was back when we were teenagers—making your comment all the more insightful. Actually, I had no idea that making the hero of my story a loser when I wrote it was going to be so en vogue . . . sigh. The funny thing is, while Albert’s perspective conforms to many of the typical stereotypes, the genesis or root of this story was an example of the polar opposite of a facile stereotype—specifically, that no matter who they were prior, any teen character who gets cancer is always thereafter considered a victim, an utterly innocent martyr, whereas in Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before, Ryan Stackhouse, Mia’s ex-boyfriend who gets sick midway through the book, is undeniably the villain of the story.
As for why people of all ages, particularly adults, find it compelling to see the geek = good vs. jocks = bad typecasting, I don’t know. Maybe we like looking back on our youth in such simplistic black-and-white terms because life made more sense back then precisely because of it and that as adults we now struggle to define ourselves? My lord, that sounds cheesy, but to run with it, say a former popular basketball star at age 30 has to grapple with the fact that strangers can’t identify him as such at first glance standing in line at the grocery store. Instead, the only category they see him fitting into is the “prematurely receding hairline” group, or any other subcategory that just makes him feel incredibly old and denuded. [A sidebar: Why is it that former bullies at their ten-year reunions never seem to remember being bullies back when they were in high school? That’s always mystified me.] And so by that (admittedly cornball) rationale, the former “winners” per se back in high school are today drawn to these “old school” notions of social politics because they get to relive their glory years or something, whereas for former geeks to see the meek inherit the Earth in a teen story serves as a form of belated revenge? Or maybe it’s that at some point in adulthood, we cease to be jocks and cheerleaders and eventually all become geeks, every last one of us? At least teenagers would think so . . .
So I’m going to swing it back in your direction. Your question intrigued me regarding your own mindset when you write stories, specifically those dealing with teen characters. When you deal with teen protagonists, or even adult characters looking back on their high-school years, do you consider these thoughts (that you’ve brought up here) prior to writing—that is, the stereotypes or tropes of teenagerdom—and do you actively try to subvert them in your work? Do you worry about sounding too familiar or pat in your characterizations? Do you consider different angles as you write your coming-of-age stories—not just presenting the truth, or at least emotional truth, but also striving to present a perspective that’s, I d’no, fresh, for lack of a better word?
GF: I’d certainly agree that—as you say—the characters have a tendency to write themselves when it comes to their own biases and perceptions. This is true at any age, not just for teen characters, of course. When I’m first writing a draft of something, I’m not likely to feel very aware of any philosophical or political agenda in terms of why my characters think as they do, or make the classifications or stereotypes they may make. Like a lot of writers, my characters feel so real to me that . . . well, my friend Robin Antalek had this fabulous line in an interview recently where she described a good writing day as being “like taking dictation.” And that’s essentially how I feel. When the writing is really grooving, the writer is not aware of herself or himself as a puppet master pulling strings, or of having any “agenda.” Everything feels completely organic and essential to the character.
At other stages of writing, of course, the writer’s perception may change. Working on a revision isn’t the same as working on a first draft, for example. In first thinking about a story—or especially later when revising it—it becomes much more clear to the writer whether a character’s beliefs and perspectives are synonymous with the story’s beliefs and perspectives, or whether in fact the story may work in part to subvert the character’s worldview.
I don’t write a great deal about high school or its social conventions in particular, but three of the ten stories in Slut Lullabies are about teenagers. I think these stories focus a lot more intensely on the family dynamics of young people than they do on the stereotypes or tropes of teen culture specifically. But the ways teens conceptualize themselves in terms of their “roles” or place in society is a major impetus in those pieces, and that can be related.
I have a story, “Saving Crystal,” about a 15-year-old girl who has an affair with—and subsequently blackmails—her high-school English teacher in order to make the money for her pregnant stepmother to escape their abusive home. Some of the scenes take place within the walls of the high school, but my protagonist, Jenna, doesn’t talk much about her social life or the cliques of jocks vs. nerds. She mentions friends, but her concerns have a lot more to do with what’s going on inside her home and also with the class issues in her rural New England town, where women like her stepmother have little freedom or financial options, whereas just a four minute drive away is Hanover, New Hampshire, populated by wealthy Dartmouth alums or professors, whose kids seem to have all the opportunities no one in her world possesses. So these are factors—they’re part of Jenna’s consciousness, and of mine when I was writing the story—but these dynamics between the teens themselves are not on the page. Jenna is the only teenage character who is actually in the story. The reader is probably able to discern that she is pretty and reasonably popular, if merely because of the absence of her ever worrying about these things, and also based on her English teacher’s response to her. For her part, even though she has an ulterior motive in trying to seduce him, she’s also genuinely very drawn to him because of the worldliness and opportunities he represents—things that feel so inaccessible to her. This story ends badly on a number of levels, but one of the saddest aspects of it, to me, is how Jenna’s determination to draw out the ugly, base side of her teacher—in order to then be able to extract money from him—destroys her innocent ability to believe in a “better” life or more noble world outside her town. By showing that her teacher has more than feet of clay, in a way she also loses the dream—of “getting out” and being around people she believed were so much better than those in her own milieu—that had kept her going.
The way beauty or popularity might inform identity also plays a role in my story “Attila the There,” which takes place in Amsterdam and centers on a 16-year-old boy, Camden, whose mother uproots him from his high school in the States to move him overseas so she can live with her new lover, a Dutch, wheelchair-bound poet. Camden isn’t in school during the course of the story, but he’s very haunted by the role he once played in pressuring a naive freshman girl to basically start having group sex with him and his friends, back home. Camden is highly aware of the fact that his good looks have virtually guaranteed him a level of social desirability despite the fact that he’s jumped from school to school. He’s wrestling with how that plays against the fact that his mother is a lesbian and assumptions he fears kids at school may make about his sexuality because of that. His overcompensation or concern about his social status and fitting in essentially led him to participate in what he believes was a rape, although the other guys, and even the girl in question, wouldn’t call it that. So yes, in that story perhaps more than any of my other stories, the role that “beauty” or popularity plays in high school impacts my main character, leading him to have done things he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life.
What I mean to say most of all is that I don’t tie whether or not someone is born good-looking, or even whether they have the social skills (or particular cachet that’s valued among whatever group of people they happen to live among) that make them “popular” with their peers, as having anything to do with either their morality or with the ease of their lives. This doesn’t mean that people don’t hold many stereotypes about one another and what type someone may belong to. I have a story called “What You See,” that engages those themes much more explicitly than any of my other work. The story follows two women, The Beautiful Woman and The Intelligent Woman, as they essentially misunderstand, envy, and misconstrue each other over a period from college into their thirties. The story also very much grapples with the fact that neither woman bears only the identity or label the other has assigned her but has a different identity depending on who is perceiving her. The Intelligent Woman may be The Beautiful Woman in someone else’s narrative, which is one of the ironies of beauty, right? No matter who you are, there is always someone better looking and someone uglier than you. So these identities are permeable and shifting, though the stories we tell ourselves about who we are can be pretty damaging. But, at the end of the day, many people have a lot of baggage, a lot of demons, and I don’t correlate those things much, if at all, with looks or labels or stereotypes. There are people across all levels of good looks, money, popularity, social skills, and morality who have pretty low-drama, contented lives, and there are people across all levels of these characteristics who lead lives that are often tormented and turbulent. Being shy or geeky or not having a good-looking face is perhaps of more interest to teens than adults because it’s one of the most basic and simple problems a person can have—it’s almost like the way fiction is more interesting if the struggle comes from inside the character rather than being imposed from the outside. How pretty or handsome someone is, is one of the least interesting things about them because it’s something they can’t control, or control all that much. It doesn’t necessarily reveal much.
About keeping things fresh, well, I think that’s related to avoiding stereotypes, or exploding them, or focusing very intensely on who someone is as an individual rather than a type. I think all writers try to keep things fresh, but it may be the most difficult task we have before us.
I also wonder if freshness, like other concerns, might vary across genres. I’m particularly interested in the YA genre because of the fact that it’s not just the age of the protagonist that determines whether a book is primarily for an adult or teen audience. Obviously, many great works of literature have had child protagonists and, likewise, a lot of YA books—Harry Potter or Twilight being just some obvious examples—have gained immense popularity among adult readers. And some books aimed at adults—I’m thinking of Memoirs of a Geisha here, among many others—seem as though, really, they are YA stories that, perhaps because of exotic themes, have been primarily marketed at adults instead. This can be puzzling, because, in the case of that book, for example, I actually think it would have been a beautiful and complex YA novel but that it fell short in some ways as an adult literary work, despite its commercial popularity. As a YA writer, what are your impressions of the conventions of the genre? Clearly, a book about love, cancer, or race, could be written for adults or younger readers. How did you specifically position Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before as fitting into the YA genre, and how might you have tackled this (or a future book) differently if you were aiming at an older readership?
DY: Defining what constitutes a story as YA vs. adult is cloudy, at best. In many cases it’s simply a marketing decision, really. My first novel initially went out as an adult title, and midway through the submission process, my agent (who, it turned out, was primarily a children’s agent) asked if he could show it to some YA editors. I’m one of many YA authors who kind of fell into the genre, having written primarily adult fiction up to selling my first novel. Interesting probably only to me is the fact that when I’d list my favorite adult novels back before I got into YA, it turned out many of them are about teenagers—Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, a collection of stories by Dylan Thomas called Portrait of the Artist As a Young Dog, to name a few. So my interest in writing about teens had always been there, even before I discovered YA. Back to trying to define the genre, other than having a teen protagonist and refraining from cursing like a sailor on every single page, the reasons that deem a book a young-adult novel vary, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear definition, as far as I know. I’ve heard publishing people say that if Catcher in the Rye were written today, it would probably be released as a YA title. Then again, a novel like Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld was published as an adult title, and I can also see it published as a YA novel, too. (I read in a magazine somewhere that her agent had considered selling it as YA at one point.) I do think if Prep were published as YA, it would have to be condensed significantly, and one reason why it works as an adult title is because it’s undeniably told from the perspective of an adult looking back, and with young-adult fiction, the story’s usually cast through a much younger lens. What I like about strong YA is that there’s an immediacy to the voice and less patience for flowery writing that stifles bad adult fiction (in the way that preachy or simplistic stories stifle bad YA). You don’t have much room to flex your authorial muscles in a YA novel, though I’ll readily admit that my YA novels so far would hardly qualify as concise! Another book that has found both an adult and teen audience is The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, but I couldn’t tell you precisely why it straddles the genres. It just resonates with everyone because it’s simply ridiculously good, in my opinion.
Anyway, if I’d written Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before as an adult title, I don’t think my approach would have been all that different, though I would have given myself freer reign with word choice. It’s not that YA uses a dumbed-down vocabulary, but it’s a bad thing when you can hear the author’s adult perspective trickle through the voice of a 16-year-old protagonist, and I’d likely feel compelled to tell the story from a bit more distance, age-wise. That said, lately I’ve been working on my first collection of essays for adults, tentatively titled The Choke Artist (Grand Central, 2012), and I’ve come to realize that maybe the reason I gravitate toward YA is because, even though I’m in my mid-30s, I seem to have the internal voice and opinions of a 16-year-old. I suppose it was less glaring ten years ago.
The one other aspect that I’d have to consider if writing Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before as an adult novel would be my handling of the “edgier” bits—sex, race, the at times misogynistic way teen boys think, not so much because they’re misogynistic but because they’re clueless. I don’t censor myself when I write YA, but I do handle the topics in a bit more, I don’t know, suggestive rather than explicit manner, I suppose?
Anyway, as I was reading Slut Lullabies, I found myself wondering how you feel about writing about sex, and heavier topics, in such a deeply personal way. To make up for my weaknesses as a writer, one thing I try to do is embrace bravery, being able to look with open eyes at the ugly warts and all of my characters. With the adult stuff I’ve been working on, I’ve been feeling less brave, at least to start. I think it was easier for me to write with a bit of distance (at least mentally) about these topics through the lens of someone half my age, perhaps. Do you feel no inhibitions or blushiness in general tackling such edgy, naked, often bleak topics in your work? I thought “How To Marry a Wasp” was really funny (though still painful) for the record . . . but otherwise the other stories I’ve read feel like ripping open a Band-Aid prematurely. I guess what I’m asking is do you do so gleefully, or not? Oh, and I’ll note that your work reminds me of a great collection of stories, City of Boys, by Beth Nugent. She, too, is a brave writer.
GF: I really like Beth’s work, so thanks! This is a question I’ve been getting a lot since Slut Lullabies came out. I’m not sure I’ve done any interview that didn’t address this, which is something I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I’m really flattered and glad that people think my work is brave or open-eyed about dark things. On the other hand, I sometimes greet this observation with a little bit of confusion, because most of the books I’ve loved in my life, from Lithium for Medea to The Book of Daniel to Bad Behavior to The Unbearable Lightness of Being to The God of Small Things to Beloved to The Adderall Diaries to The Things They Carried to The Handmaid’s Tale to The White Hotel—very diverse and not obscure books—do exactly what reviewers, bloggers, or interviewers seem so surprised to find me doing in terms of dealing very bluntly with sex, violence, or self-destruction. I find it surprising when people are surprised to find me doing what I do, if that makes sense. I have always been under the impression that this is exactly the writer’s task and obligation, because the writers who matter to me certainly have not shied away from such things, and that’s exactly what made such an impact on me and informed me about the larger goals of literary fiction—beyond just being “entertaining.” Literary fiction, to me, automatically entails taking some kind of risk.
For any kind of artist to bother to create at all—to spend years in a room alone, driven, probably without much in the way of concrete financial incentive, at least initially—he or she must be extremely motivated to illuminate or explore some kind of issue that doesn’t seem to be getting addressed with enough complexity by the dominant discourse, right? Why else do it? The life of a writer isn’t a terribly secure one. Even the most successful writers at one point had to toil in obscurity, unsure whether they’d ever find publication—and in this current literary climate, most writers are not able to make a real living on our craft and have day jobs like teaching or editing. So why does anyone do it, if not because there is something they want to explore very deeply and passionately and intensely? What that particular writer wants to discuss varies enormously, of course. For some, it might be the corruption of government or something like that. I’m not an expert on soldiers or politicians or greedy heads of major corporations, so that’s not what I try to illuminate in my fiction. I’m an ordinary American woman who has spent the bulk of my working life either in the helping professions or in the writing world. I don’t have the same scope as a Tim O’Brien or Arundhati Roy or Milan Kundera, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things I understand that are also quite important in people’s lives. I grew up in an inner-city neighborhood where violence (against women but also other forms of violence) was quite common, and then I worked as a counselor for a number of years in rural New Hampshire and Vermont, where my “population” was battered women and foster girls who had been taken out of their homes for extreme abuse. Actually, I just almost erased that previous sentence, because one does not have to have been a therapist or to have grown up in a poor, urban neighborhood to understand the kinds of things I write about. Complicated sexual politics and certain forms of violence exist across all parts of society, and there is no shortage of people out there who are “experts” in this type of terrain. This is not a specialized kind of authority. You don’t have to have fought in Vietnam, be a global activist, or have lived through a Communist takeover of your home country. You just need to be willing to take a risk on the page and go to places in your head that it may not be pleasant to visit.
So I don’t write about the darker aspects of sex or about violence “gleefully” at all, but likewise I don’t write about these things with trepidation or blushiness, because these things are precisely what motivate me to write in the first place. Those complexities exist under the surface of everyday, ordinary lives but are still somewhat taboo to discuss explicitly, or our culture is squeamish about. In the moment I first feel compelled to write a new story or start a novel, I’m overtaken by a character, by that person’s voice and situation, rather than by some wide-angled social or philosophical agenda. It would be fair to say that the people who come to me—the characters who speak to me most loudly—tend to occupy a space that holds these complications. They tend to lead lives that feel like ripping a Band-Aid off an unhealed wound. They are sometimes self-sabotaging or self-destructive, even if they are also smart or funny. I’m very interested in the juxtaposition between the demons of the past and the choices people need to make in their present lives, and I explore that collision a lot in my fiction.
On a less lofty level, I also just plain think that sexual situations provide a really awesome vehicle for character development. People are—quite literally—naked in bed, and there is less artifice, or what artifice there is reveals more about them, than perhaps at other times in their lives. To me, this is just kind of going for the jugular in terms of getting to understand my characters. Though ironically, there are very few actual “sex scenes” in my writing. I deal a lot with sexual dynamics but very little with what body part goes where. This is not to say that I am squeamish about writing that, but more just that I don’t think people stroking each other’s asses, or whatever, is actually what tells us most about them, so to speak. The physicality of sex is less individual and specific than the psychology of sex.
So I think you should go for it, David! I’m not sure if writing more explicitly helps compensate for any of our individual writerly weaknesses, but you’ll at least have a good time trying, right?
DY: For the record, I’d like to officially retract my usage of the word “gleefully” with my previous question and replace it with something else, say, “bearably comfortable?” GF: Yes, I’m comfortable . . . I guess even when it’s a little unbearable . . . DY: As for your advice, well, it’s never a “good” time writing, but that’s a different can of worms for another day (… sigh).
Gina Frangello is the author of two books of fiction, Slut Lullabies and My Sisters Continent. She is also the Executive Editor of Other Voices Books and fiction editor of the online literary collective The Nervous Breakdown. Visit her at ginafrangello.com
David Yoo is the author of the YA novels Girls For Breakfast and Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. Forthcoming is his first collection of essays for adults, The Choke Artist (Grand Central). His novel for middle graders The Detention Club (Balzer+Bray) was recently released. davidyoo.com
– See more at: http://makemag.com/a-conversation-between-gina-frangello-and-david-yoo/#sthash.mLiZF0SP.dpuf
portraits by Rachel Mason