Carolyn Mackler Talks with Roger

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Fifteen years and half a dozen books later, Carolyn Mackler has written a sequel to her second novel, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, published by Candlewick in 2003. And because the events of The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I follow closely upon those of that first book about Virginia, Carolyn decided to revise that one to bring it up to the present day. Bloomsbury is publishing both books this spring.

Roger Sutton: I remember when The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things came out, in 2003, and the ladies here at The Horn Book were crazy about it.

CM: That book touched a lot of people deeply. There weren't a lot of books out there like it. I think people — myself included — really identified with it, because it's about this girl's struggle to be happy in her skin and understand who she is apart from her family. And then seeing her family very clearly for the first time when her brother, Byron, who's in college, has that fall from grace in her eyes after being accused of rape.

RS: Why did you want to go back to it?

CM: When I finished The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, I felt like I got Virginia to a place where I wanted her to be, which was beginning to accept and feel good in her body, her curvy body, and also starting to see her brother and her family through a clear lens. Then over the years, Virginia started coming back to me, in new scenes. I pictured her driving. For me, especially when I was a young woman, driving felt like a very feminist, strong-woman activity. I bought a car right after college and drove cross-country by myself when I was twenty-two. It was such a declaration of independence.

RS: One of my mother's magazines, either Woman’s Day or Family Circle, had a column called "Woman at the Wheel," because it was still an era, in the sixties, when it was slightly unusual to have a woman be driving.

CM: Right. So I pictured Virginia driving, and I started thinking, she's this New York City kid and she's not familiar with driving, and she's not so comfortable being in the driver's seat. And then I started thinking about how Byron was only punished for committing sexual assault by being suspended for a semester, he's off the rugby team, he has to do some counseling. Annie, the woman he sexually assaults, had this conversation with Virginia in the previous book to say, "I am not a victim. I'm a survivor. That's who we are. We're not going to let these men damage our identity." So then I started thinking, well, that was her initial response, but I wanted to look back now and explore how sexual assault actually has longer repercussions. Annie is going to have really complicated feelings, especially once Byron returns to campus and she starts seeing him around.

RS: Both sexual politics and fat politics have changed a lot since the first book. When you went back to revise the first one, so you could have it on the same timeline as the second, did you have to make a lot of editorial changes to reflect what culture is like in 2018?

CM: The sequel picks up about five months after The Earth. Interestingly, the sexual politics and fat politics have changed as far as acceptance. There's more cultural understanding of body positivity and #MeToo; there's no place in our society for sexual assault and harassment. But the first book — when I looked at it with those eyes, I was really surprised by how forward-thinking it was. Virginia talks a lot about how she doesn't want her body to be a conversation. It's hers. She wants to feel strong in her body, both mentally and physically. That said, I wanted to move her even further along with The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, to go beyond "a boy will feel comfortable kissing me in public," which is where she is at the end of The Earth. It's a really important place for her to reach, but I wanted more for her. That's where Sebastian comes in.

RS: That's in the sequel, right?

CM: Right. The things I changed in The Earth were updating technology, of course, taking out the defunct teen magazines, changing how we look at TV shows, changing some snacks — who knew that people don't eat Hostess Cupcakes anymore?

RS: You've also changed in the fifteen years between the books, one's hoping, right? So what does that change about the book?

CM: Between writing the two books, I became a mom. I've not only had babies and toddlers, but now I have a young teenager in the house. I thought more about Virginia's parents in this one, whereas in The Earth — they weren't exactly like the Charlie Brown waa-waa-waa characters; they were very significant in Virginia's life, but I didn't give them as much complexity. They had a very black-and-white role. In this one, even though the teenagers are my protagonists, and I care about them and their journeys the most, I thought more about Phyllis and Mike Shreves and about how heartbroken and confused they are about Byron's arrest for rape, and how they're absolutely devastated to see their son's life falling apart while at the same time they know this behavior is absolutely not okay. Virginia's mom also steps up more with her daughter and tries to listen to her, especially at the end when Virginia declares her allegiance to Sebastian: "This is who I love; this is who I want to be with. I'm sorry if that is disappointing to you." Virginia's mom reaches out to Annie and Sebastian's mom, mom-to-mom. I don't identify with Dr. Phyllis Shreves, but I did think more about what it would be like to be her, now that I'm actually closer to her age than I am to Virginia's.

RS: Yeah, that happens, doesn't it? I felt like such an adult when I read the scene at the end where Virginia is calling home from her escapade with Sebastian, and her friends are there, and her family is expressing concern. She says something like, "This feels like a turning point, maybe everything can be okay." But I'm also thinking, as the adult reading this, "Well, yeah, plus you're the center of attention now, aren't you?" It's going to be very satisfying to young readers, that scene.

CM: Well, and I think that Virginia earned that. Sometimes it takes sort of shaking things up to demand focus and respect. She's done a lot of time being the good girl, and it's time for her to say, "This is what I want, this is what I need, this is who I am, and I'm doing it for me, not for you guys." That's really important for Virginia to know about herself, for her life plans, her body, her person she loves, who she wants to be with sexually — that's a very important moment for her.

RS: Another thing that's changed between the two books is the nature of YA publishing. The first book was published before Twilight, before John Green, before The Hunger Games, when YA became absolutely huge, and at the same time, aged up in terms of its protagonists and its readers. It's not that the writing got more complex, but they were more books for high schoolers than the traditional YA age of junior high through ninth, maybe tenth grade. We're getting books at The Horn Book that are for seventeen-year-olds and up. The Earth is part of that traditional audience — I could see readers seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth grade for that book, and for the second book as well. Did you, in conversation with your editor, discuss what the YA landscape was like today? Because it is a different place.

CM: No, we didn't discuss it. I don't generally write for an audience. I find that when I try to think of a book as being for an audience, that's where I run into problems. I try to be as true to my characters and the story as possible. I hope to write the best stories I can write, and then hope that my audience finds them. If I tried to write for a specific audience, I wouldn't know what to do. Similar to when I had a lot of issues with The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things and censorship. There were a lot of banning issues and censorship issues. As that was happening, I was writing a different YA novel about a teenager who acts out her mom-abandonment issues through promiscuity. I decided I can't listen to my audience on any side, because it has a very chilling and freezing effect on my writing. That said, I definitely try not to write down. Let's say the book's target market is seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth grades. I don't try to edit out anything. I try to use the language I want my character to use, have her read the books she wants to read, have her go through the complexity of emotions she's going through, have her talk about her body, sexuality, have her swear, if that feels appropriate, and whether that is for the current YA market or just a Carolyn Mackler novel, I don't know. That's just who I am and what I do in my writing.

RS: One thing that impresses me about both books is that they have this generosity of spirit in them that we don't always see in YA writing. It tends to be sort of snarky and dark, and your books aren't like that.

CM: Virginia can be snarky when she's talking about the mean girls or her mom.

RS: But the books don't have a snarky attitude towards the world.

CM: Right. I try to write the books that I would want to read. I try to write books that interest me and characters who compel me. The way I think about the world is I can analyze things forever. My husband would joke sometimes, early when we were together, let's talk this out — it would be midnight, and he'd be like, "Should we put on a pot of coffee? It seems like you can keep going." I have certain friends I can call if we really want to hash out the fine points of an interaction. Debriefing, analyzing. In my novels, I can look at a situation through my characters' eyes and try to get the subtext. I write about very sensitive teenagers who observe situations and try to extrapolate meaning from them. And I also see things humorously, with a funny lens, and I try to make light of even tough situations, both in my life and in my writing. Which is why it's fun to write about teenagers, because they do that.

RS: I think that's good for a person and a writer, but maybe that's just us.

CM: Maybe.

RS: Why do you think you became a writer for YA in the first place? What drew you to that?

CM: Those are the novels I loved reading through my teen years. I read all the Judy Blumes, Lois Lowry, Paula Danziger, Norma Klein — those are the people I grew up reading. M. E. Kerr, oh my God, I loved M. E. Kerr. I read them again and again.

RS: I think Gentlehands is my favorite YA novel.

CM: That was amazing. All the ones about the lonely boys on Long Island who would fall for the quirky girls. I just loved those. I also read a ton of adult novels as a teenager, but I felt like the YA books were so rich and so well written and so incredibly clear in their storytelling. Then I went to college and didn't read as much YA because I was reading analytical texts for classes. Toward the end of college I started writing, just thinking of characters, and they seemed to be about sixteen years old. Those were the voices that were coming to me. So I went back and reread a lot of the YA that I'd read as a teenager, and I loved it again. I still sort of feel in my head that I see the world as a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old, even though I'm forty-four and a mom of two kids and have a marriage and a career. Also, there's just so much that happens in the teen years.

RS: And it all seems so important.

CM: It all is so important. "Who am I? Who am I going to become? How am I differentiating from my parents? This is the first time I've ever done this." Those thoughts are really exciting as a novelist. There are so many stories to pluck from those years.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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