I recently had a chance to sit down with Mary Stewart Atwell, whose debut novel Wild Girls is an incendiary coming-of-age tale like no other. . .
Where did this idea come from? What inspired you to write about the wild girls, this difference between “the secret darker self” and “the daylight self” of girls?
I was teaching at my old boarding school, in my twenties, thinking about my own adolescence. So I wrote a realistic novel about boarding-school life and I wasn’t very happy with it. I came back to it a couple of years later. I’d never written anything with any magical realistic elements, but I started thinking about girls acting out in a metaphorical way. It really clicked for me and said something true about my own adolescence: while it doesn’t happen to everyone, for me, I became a different person for that time.
I can look back at myself at 15 and 16, and I just don’t relate now to who I was at all, so to me, it seems more true in an everyday way, to really explore what happens if we took those feelings to an extreme in metaphor. What would that look like?
I like that idea of truth in magical realism. The supernatural element is actually something that took me by surprise. I expected a psychological outburst from the wild girls, but to see what actually happens to these girls took me aback. Can you see this sort of story working without the supernatural element?
To me, it was what brought it alive: If you write about female adolescence from a realistic perspective, it’s a story we’ve heard so many times. Giving those girls power that in a realistic situation they could never possibly have is what made it click for me. Power is what they’re missing, so at those times they have more power than anyone in the community.
And they tend to hold this wonderful folk-mythology thrall over the community. Even when a wild girl isn’t present, there’s always the threat there, that she exists within the community.
Your phrase “truth in magical realism” is a great way to express it: with teenagers who act out, that’s something the community and their families feel, that tension of “When are things going to go really wrong?” The community can be afraid of that with teenage girls.
I find too there’s definitely a gender role at play, both in Wild Girls but in general: there’s far more of a fear of a girl going wild than of a boy going wild.
We’re so used to boys acting out: the idea of “boys will be boys,” our culture knows how to accept that. For a girl, there’s a sense that they’re going to ruin everything. They’re teens and they’re going to ruin their whole lives if they act out, whereas boys can have that sowing of oats and become respectable members of the community. I don’t know why we don’t have that model for women.
There’s certainly the wild girl who loses control and commits murder and arson. But there is also the adult counterpoint: the almost riotous atmosphere of the grown women when they get together at the Tastee-Freeze. Could any of those women become a wild girl too, or does that impulse become sublimated as adults?
Gender and class play into what happens to the wild girls. And those feelings don’t go away: they grow up and still feel marginalized. They have choices, and I like that people are still afraid of them , because if women in those situations in real life chose to act out, turn their backs on their responsibilities, that would be something to be afraid of. So that gathering they have is somewhat of a release and something that they really need.
And in terms of socioeconomic status, the wild girls tend to be the poorer girls. You also see tension between the depressed town of Swan River and the richness that comes into the town through the girls attending the elite Swan River Academy. Can you talk a bit about that socioeconomic inequality in your book?
That was something that was present to me from the beginning. Kate’s not much like me in terms of personality, but I had that feeling when I was a teenager that I had to get out of my hometown, and contempt for the town itself. That sort of situation, where you have a lot of dramatic inequality, tensions are bound to come up. Kate is caught between those worlds; she sees herself with the girls at the Academy, but her emotional ties are with another community. This causes a lot of stress. We see this a lot around this type of school that is in a place where the students are not otherwise accepted by the community.
Place and space is very important to this book: I can’t, for example, see Swan River existing on the prairies in Saskatchewan. That Appalachian setting is so important, in creating a sense of isolation and claustrophobia. The smaller setting within of the Academy also creates a sense o fisolation and claustrophobia. Can you talk a bit about the importance of the geography of Swan River and then also about that all-female, isolated milieu of the boarding school?
I love hearing how this book speaks to a Canadian audience. The environment was so important to me, and I didn’t know how that would speak to other audiences. I was living in the Midwest when I wrote it, and a big driver for me was homesickness for the mountains where I grew up. I hope in the final book, Kate’s mingled love for and fear of that place comes through. I think my nostalgia ended up in her character. Because of the isolation, historically, there’s not a lot of opportunity, there’s certainly not a lot of industry, and the region is still very poor. There’s not a lot of exposure to cultural diversity. The region hasn’t kept up with the way the rest of the country is changing, and people can feel very threatened by difference.
For the boarding school, I went to a women’s college, so it’s an environment I feel very familiar with. You get a very different dynamic. We always assume competition between adolescent girls has everything to do with boys, when of course it doesn’t. The relationships were very easy for me to write, and the way the girls would talk to each other. I wanted to write realistically about how girls act in that setting. It’s not always pretty. Even putting aside the supernatural element, there can be a lot of destructiveness in female friendships at that age.
While there are boys in the story, for me, this book is far more about friendship triangle than love triangles that you would see in a more YA version of this sort of story. So Tessa-and-Willow-and-Kate and Willow-and-Kate-and-Caroline, those two sets of friendships and the interrelations between them are so important to you story. Can you talk a bit about the roles Caroline and Willow play in Kate’s life?
Caroline is probably my favourite character in the book. I feel like she’s the vice of reason for Kate. Some people in reviews talk about the love triangle, which is not what it’s about for me. It’s not important in terms of Kate trying to figure out who she’s going to be. The reader knows who the right choice is between Caroline and Willow, but I wanted Willow to be a charming, magnetic girl. It’s a hard thing to say no to, especially for a teenager, when someone has that draw. Mason has that too: Kate wants to be around him and around Willow. She knows in the back of her mind that these relationships aren’t taking her in the right direction. I left it open whether she and Clancy end up together. For me, it’s far more important that she’s still friends with Caroline later, that she’s a presence in Kate’s life who has kept her grounded.
Was it important to make Willow a townie? Though she’s the queen bee of these rich girls from other places, she’s from Swan River.
That’s something that changed in the revision process. I saw Willow as having a level of sophistication that Kate doesn’t have originally. To me, Willow has a lot of anger in her that Kate doesn’t see. I don’t think Kate ever fully understands how dissatisfied Willow is with her situation. Her feeling of isolation and marginalization, though she has a lot of advantages others don’t have, is important.
It’s the gilded cage thing, right? She has so much opportunity, so to speak, but her parents have prescribed for her a life she doesn’t want to have.
They’ve kept her on a certain track. Even though Kate’s parents were not the greatest in some ways, they’ve let her become herself.
Can you talk a bit about agency within the story? For Kate it’s about figuring out who she is and who she wants to be. She seems to think the wild girl will take her or won’t, that she doesn’t have a choice in it at first. As the story progresses, it’s a choice she realizes she has to make for herself.
It was true to my own experience of adolescence. A friend said to me that at that age he’d have jumped in a puddle and not realize he’d get wet. You have such a limited understanding of causation. She thinks these feelings are going to take her over and she has no say in it whatsoever. You can feel like that, but she comes to realize that she’s writing the story of her life and she has more control than she thinks she does.
Was it always going to be told from her first-person perspective, and, at least to me, that she’s telling her story from the future, looking back at the events of her own life? Is that how you’d always envisioned it?
Her voice is the first thing that came to me, and I don’t think I could have written it otherwise. It’s not my voice, but it’s such a magical thing that happens when a character starts talking to you. I didn’t think about shaping when she was giving information because and what that would mean later because I was just letting her direct her story. I’m working on a new book, but I realize I’m in mourning a bit. I miss Kate’s voice.
Let’s talk a bit about the tension between choosing home and settling: Maggie seems quite happy in Swan River after she’s gone off and seen a lot of the country while Kate seems to have disdain for her choice. Kate wants to go to that out-of-state college.
I would love now to go back to my hometown and the region I grew now, but if I’d stayed there I’d have been miserable. I have friends and family who have stayed where they grew up and have been completely happy with that choice. It depends on how you’re built. But for me, how do you know that you’ve made the right choice for yourself if you haven’t explored what’s out there? That’s not a question for everybody, and ultimately it’s not for Maggie. She’s happy that she got to do her touring, but if her life is limited in some ways, that doesn’t bother her. That is a place where I relate to Kate: she needs to imagine other futures for herself in order to be happy.
How about the time and setting? This book has a timeless feel. No one is using smartphone and iPads. It could be set in the 60s or in the 80s. When do you envision the time setting?
I did a guest post on a blog called Large Hearted Boy, where I got to write a playlist for the book, and it turned out to be all 90s indie rock, which is what I was listening to in high school. For me, and it’s true of many writers who grew up before the internet was everywhere, that’s the natural way to imagine life. You’re not constantly plugged in. Because of the fantastic elements, I didn’t want it to be tied down in any way: people ask what state Swan River is in, too, and I don’t want to place it like that. For me, that ruins that possibility of imagining that world if you have to assign it to a specific place and time.
I’d love to know when other readers envision it. I would guess that different people picture it set in the era when they are teenagers. I was picturing YouTube videos of wild girls. Do you think, because of the folk mythology within the story, it could be set today, at a time when someone could tweet a picture of a glowing, flying girl?
To me, an important part of the setting is that Appalachia is still so unexplored for so many people. I’s easier for them to imagine the fantastic happening in a place that seems mysterious. Now, people would just Google these things, and the story wouldn’t fit anymore. This has changed the dynamics in terms of adolescent relationships. Now, you have a fight with your friends and then go tell the whole world about it, that changes the relations between people in a way that I can’t totally relate to. It would ruin the closed-in environment of Kate’s Swan River but also of the boarding school.
Let’s switch gears a bit: what is your writing process, a typical day-in-the-life?
I have a one-year-old, and my writing room is also his playroom. He goes to daycare in the mornings, so I write a lot in the mornings with toys around my feet and everything’s a bit of a mess. Writing makes me feel myself, so I need that writing time. But the days of a ten-hour-writing stretch for me are over for a while.
Do you write with music, or in silence?
I’ve never been able to write with music. I’d concentrate too much on what’s going on in the background. I like being by myself in silence. I do a lot of staring into space in a weird way so I think that would look weird!
Do you see the Wild Girls becoming a movie?
I would love that. People have said to me that they can see that happening. I would hope that if that ever happens, the fantasy wouldn’t be played up to much. For me, the coming of age story is at the heart of it and I would want an adaptation to be sensitive to that.
What are your reading now? Who are your favourite authors?
I’m reading a memoir about a woman whose teenage daughters go missing and are living on the street, and she tries to get them back. That’s research for my next book. A lot of my favourite writers are classics. George Elliot is at the very top of my list, and Austen. For this book I was influenced by Dan Chaon and Karen Russell, fiction writers who bring elements of the fantastic into their work. I think it’s so exciting that people are doing that now, stretching the bounds of what is acceptable in literary fiction.
Can I ask what you’re working on now?
It’s called The Wandering House. It’s about a woman in her 50s who was a 70s feminist icon, Gloria Steinem-ish, and her teenage daughter goes missing. It’s about her expectations for how her daughter should be now that feminism has made the world friendlier for self-determination for women, and having to let go of those expectations.
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