Monday, February 27, 2012

Q&A: Erin Saldin, author of THE GIRLS OF NO RETURN

I'll let my Goodreads review of this book start me off here:

The usual caveat:  I edited this, I'm biased, la la la.
Actually, I'm more biased than even usual here, because Erin was in the only creative writing class I ever took, our senior year at Carleton College. While I produced odd metafictions based on my personal theories about reading and writing, leavened with pre-graduation depression, she wrote infinitely better stories about believable teenage girls, always with terrifically jagged, smart, sad, sardonic voices. Even in college, she was in control of her ideas and the effects she wanted to achieve, and the edges of that voice cut.

So when I became an associate editor in 2003 and was first feeling my power (ahem), I sent her a letter suggesting that she write a YA novel. And she did -- after finishing an MFA, publishing several short stories, and having agents fight for the right to represent her. The book she produced is worth that fight, and my years-long wait for it. She still has that jagged, smart, sad voice, but it's now applied to a story and a place that are rare in YA fiction, focused on the relationships among a trio of teenage girls at a wilderness boarding school in Idaho:   strong Boone, glamorous Gia, and Lida, who is torn between the poles they represent. This book *gets* female friendships/crushes/enemyships and their complexities, and as each of the girls has secrets that can be used as weapons, the book builds constantly in tension as we wait for those knives to come out and be used. At some point, I want to talk about the ending publicly with Erin, because it grew out of her own reactions as a teenage reader to YA fiction and is fascinating in light of those; but I can't do that until more people have read it and might join in the discussion . . .

So please do! And you don't have to take just my word for its quality:  It has two starred reviews now, one from Booklist, which said "this psychological mind-bender is raw, gripping, and deftly rolled out by a writer-to-watch," and another from Kirkus, which called it "a smashing debut."
And because this is my blog, by golly, here's my chance to talk about that ending publicly! And ask Erin a few other questions along the way:

1. You grew up in Idaho, and you obviously love the wilderness there. What was your most memorable trip in the Rockies? Have you had any notable wildlife encounters like Lida does in the book?

I do love the Rockies! This is going to be extremely sappy, but my favorite backpacking trip was just a year and a half ago. My husband and I got married on a lake in Montana, and we left the next day on foot for a backpacking trip in the mountains. The lake where we were married butts up against the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which is this HUGE, grizzly-infested wilderness. We’d packed our hiking boots and gear when we were packing for the wedding, and our friends tied tin cans to our backpacks to send us off. It was gorgeous, and a great way to start the marriage. But, we didn’t see any bears.

I did have one wildlife encounter, however, that was VERY similar to the one Lida has in the book. I was living in the woods in Oregon for about 6 months, doing a wilderness writing residency as I finished up some revisions on the novel. There was nothing at this cabin: no people, no electricity, and only solar panels for hot water. It was a two-hour drive from civilization. I was sitting on the rocking chair on the cabin’s porch one afternoon as my dog, who was with me, “hunted” lizards (i.e., stood in a corner of the porch with his back to the world, staring at the corner of the floorboards where he’d once seen a lizard appear). I don’t know what made me look up (let’s call it my primal instinct), but I glanced up and looked straight at a full-grown mountain lion that was walking down the dirt road toward the house. It was about fifty feet away from me. And I know they say that mountain lions always see you first, but this one did not appear to notice me at all. Until I stood up and waved at it, that is. It really was like a silent film. The lion turned and ran away. I sat back down. My dog continued to stare at the floorboards.

2. You spent two years in the Peace Corps—how did that experience inform your writing?

I think that the time I spent in Togo, West Africa was crucial to my writing. For one thing, trite as this might sound, it provided me with a sense of the world as much larger and complicated than I’d imagined possible. I also learned that there are different ways of communicating. The official language in Togo is French, though there are over 60 dialects spoken throughout the country. So, I was an English-speaker, trying to explain myself in French, and my friends in the rural village where I lived spoke Kabye, but had to try to respond to me in their second language, too. The result was that we all had to distill our reactions to things. There was a lot of: “I’m happy.” “I’m sad.” “I don’t understand.” “You are funny.” “I like babies.” That kind of thing. Facial expressions were important. In some ways, this made for more genuine and heartfelt friendships. It just wasn’t possible to talk around a problem—I learned how to be direct. So, while my characters don’t often say things like, “I’m happy. I like babies,” I do feel like I have a better sense of their essential emotions.

3. As a writer, what did you get out of doing your MFA program? What do you get out of teaching?

I think that the greatest gift of an MFA program is the fact that it gives you two years in which you basically just have to write. I was lucky, because I also had amazing professors at the University of Virginia, and some of my fellow graduate students are still the people I send my work to first, before I submit it anywhere. Graduate school also provides you with deadlines, which I think are necessary for writers. Otherwise, we might spend the rest of our lives playing around with one sentence.

Teaching has been wonderful, because the students are just so excited about reading and writing and talking about literature, and I think that enthusiasm is infective.

4. The Girls of No Return is unusual in contemporary YA fiction in that it focuses so strongly on the friendship and enemyships of three young women, with a guy only peripherally involved. Was this a conscious choice on your part -- to focus on the girls' bonds -- or did it just happen as you were writing?

Well, because this novel began as a short story that I wrote in graduate school, I already knew what the setting would be (an all-girls’ school in the wilderness). I also knew what the novel would explore: the difficulty of friendship, as well as the way that—especially when we’re younger—all of the lines that we think will be so clear, such as those between friendship and desire, jealousy and affirmation, or love and hate, can blur so easily. I didn’t think those themes would come out as easily if there were lots of guys kind of flitting about. I also didn’t think that the addition of a bunch of male characters would change Lida’s journey at all. She’s at an in-between stage in her life, in terms of her knowledge of herself as both an emotional and sexual person, and the girls’ school seemed like the right place for her to begin coming to terms with who she is and who she wants to be.

5. Which of the characters changed the most -- in your head or on the page or both -- in the writing of the book?

Hmmmm. That’s a good question! I can tell you who didn’t change: Boone. She was definitely the clearest character to write, because she was always essentially herself. Gia did change a bit, though she, too, was always a very clear character in my mind. The trick, I think, was to make her a little less clear. I guess I would say that Lida changed the most as I was writing the book. At one point, I remember you asked me to think about where Lida is at the end of all of it—after everything has happened—and to then think about how she gets there. That was hard, but a good exercise.

4. How did you arrive at the unusual Epilogue structure?

Funny you should ask that! The Epilogues were the way that I conceived of responding to your question about where Lida is at the “end,” and how to show the journey she’s taken between the time she spends at the school and the “present.“ Because the novel is in the first-person point of view, it always felt like it was very much Lida’s story to tell, but when I was revising the novel, I wanted to make it even more immediately hers. By placing Lida at the desk with the pen in hand, I allowed her to tell the story in what I felt was a realistic way, while still allowing the reader to see her now, and to get a sense of how she’s changed since her time at the school. I used Epilogues throughout the book because she literally is writing them at the end, with a perspective and knowledge that the Lida in the “regular” chapters doesn’t yet have.

6. The conclusion of the story is truly unexpected. Why did you choose to write it that way? (Spoiler alert, somewhat, so highlight the lines below to read.)

Well, I guess this, too, ties in with the idea of the Epilogues. When I started writing the novel, knowing I wanted it to be for Young Adults, I knew one thing I didn’t want to do: I did not want, under any circumstances, to tie up the ending neatly with a bow. I do really love YA literature, but the novels I’ve liked the most are the ones that resist the tendency to clear everything up at the end. That’s not how it works in life, and it’s especially not how it works in high school. I was especially interested in exploring the idea that we make wrong decisions, that we sometimes give our hearts to the wrong people, that sometimes, in fact, we don’t learn from our mistakes at the opportune time, and we end up having to work damn hard to make things right. I’ll admit: it’s not the most light-hearted approach. But it seemed like there was something missing from a lot of the books I was reading at the time [as a teenager], and that thing was consequence. Not consequence like, I accidentally broke my mother’s favorite bracelet and now I have to come clean about it!, but consequence like, here is something I’ve done that I’ll live with forever, and I have to keep talking about it in order to understand why I did it.

7. What is your daily writing routine like? Your process?

I write every morning. I wake up, make coffee, take my dog on a walk, and write until 11 or 12. When the writing is going well, I turn off my internet connection and just enjoy it. When the writing is more difficult, it’s a challenge not to constantly check Facebook or my email account. At this point, though, I know that, once I’ve logged onto Facebook, my writing day is basically over. 

In terms of my process, I’d say that every writing project is different. Generally, though, I start by writing short scenes in my notebook. I have a stack of spiral-bound artist’s notebooks—unlined—and I usually begin by writing random things in the notebook before transferring them to the computer. Once I start working on the computer, I try to find connections between the things I’ve written, and that’s when the story begins to really take shape.

More about The Girls of No Return:

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful interview, thanks for posting this! It's great to get to know Erin better, and to hear more about how this beautiful book came to be. On a side note, I must visit Idaho someday, and thanks to this book, I know exactly what to do when I inevitably encounter a mountain lion.