Once upon a time, I was sitting in a cabin in Montana with my family talking about books and shit, as per usual. One of my dear cousins mentioned that her friend Bennett, whom I have been hearing about for basically ever and am 99.99% sure I met at her birthday party one year, had won the Nebula. (For the sake of accuracy, Bennett was actually nominated for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, a sort of subset of the Nebula, but my cousin said Nebula and THAT’S HOW RUMORS ARE BORN). My synapses fired at molasses speed, and when I asked her if her Bennett was, in fact, Bennett Madison, her answer was yes! Yes! Many dots were connected in my brain that day, my friends, and maybe you haven’t been keeping up with current events, but one of my favorite books that I read in 2014 was Bennett Madison’s September Girls. So, introductions were made and, without further ado, here is an in interview with the fabulous and talented Bennett Madison.
Book Punks: I guess I’d like to start by asking the generic inspiration question. September Girls is such an interesting mash-up of so many different elements – coming of age, fractured fairy tales, fantasy, and a really on point feminist deconstruction of how fucked up our patriarchal society’s expectations of “growing up” are, according to gender. So, yeah! Where the hell did this story come from?
Bennett Madison: I could answer this question a bunch of different ways and I’m not really sure that any of them are all that interesting. The short-ish answer is that I was about halfway through writing a totally different book, which was supposed to be called Apocalypse Blonde, and I was totally stuck on it and losing my mind. For me, like a lot of people, ideas tend to come to me while I’m struggling with something unrelated. Actually, the book I’m trying to finish now is something I started when I was struggling with the middle of September Girls. But now I’m sort of stuck on this one, so who knows what will happen.
On a more basic level, it’s just a mash-up of a lot of the things that are interesting to me.
One of the things that really blew me away about September Girls was the way in which you successfully captured the voice of a teenage dude while also writing some truly beautiful, dreamlike prose. I know some people had a hard time with the “crass” language that you used, and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about this contrast: why did you choose to address the narrative in this blended voice? Why do you think people have such a hard time dealing with realistic voice/dialogue when it comes to teen characters? (This is something I think about constantly as a teen librarian, since we get parent complaints about content/language and it’s like, UGH, do you not remember your teenage years AT ALL?)
Thank you for liking it! Voice is such a hard thing to talk about, because it’s not something I tend to think about while I’m actually writing. I don’t mean to say that I’m one of those people who is channeling the voices of the characters in some kind of supernatural way—I don’t relate at all to people who say that when they sit down to write, their characters just sort of speak through them and then they sort of just type it all up, because writing is always a huge struggle for me. But I do think that once you find the voice you’re working with, it makes the writing a lot easier, because you can let it pull you along to some extent. In this case, the voice I eventually settled on felt like it matched both the characters and the world of the book—because the book is set in a world that’s a lot like ours, with all the rough edges that entails, but is also overlaid with a sort of primal mythology that needed to feel abstract and sort of ancient.
As for why the word “fuck” bugs people so much, who knows! To me it’s the most innocuous thing; it’s more like punctuation than an actual word. For a certain type of character it just conveys emphasis, or a break in a sentence, more than any kind of vulgar intent. I get why people don’t like explicit sexuality, or violence, or things like that—even if I don’t agree. But I don’t really get why people don’t like the word “fuck,” at least for older readers. Who cares?
That said, I do think a few of the objections, in the case of September Girls, came from readers who felt like the language seemed forced—that was trying too hard at teenage authenticity. I don’t know! That’s not what I felt like I was doing when I was writing it (because for one thing, I don’t particularly care about authenticity), but I do understand why there’s a sensitivity to that from YA readers.
There was a pretty huge “is it sexist?” divide to how September Girls was received. I remember being kind of confused when it first came out because it got these rave critical reviews, a feminist friend of mine recommended it as being “amazeballs,” and then there was a pile of claims of sexism and misogyny, mostly from the blogosphere and Goodreads. What was your reaction to this? When you were writing September Girls, did you have any inkling that it would be received in the way that it did? What was your authorial intent (haha, never thought I’d get to ask someone that). As an author, how difficult and/or easy is it to read these kinds of criticisms without engaging with the people who make them? Do you even WANT to engage?
Oh, man, I wanted to engage so bad! It’s so, so hard not to. About a month before September Girls came out, I almost went on this murder mystery reality show called Whodunnit, and the way the audition process works in the final stages of these reality shows is that they drag you out to some terrible airport hotel in LA for a week and you’re not allowed to ever leave your room all day except to see the producers or whatever. (And hotel cable packages are always strangely bad—this one didn’t even get Bravo!) So basically you’re incredibly bored but also super-amped up at the weirdness of being under this insane microscope, and you have nothing to do but gchat with people and scrutinize the internet all day and night.
Anyway, just by happenstance, it was during my hotel sequester that people started reviewing the ARCs of September Girls on GoodReads and stuff. And it’s not like they’re writing one bad review and forgetting about it—they’re like going through it page by page and posting hourly updates about everything they hate about it, like specific lines and stuff, and then it begins to snowball because people are all commenting on the statuses being like, wow, this sounds so horrible, or, wow, this guy seems like such a dick, or a misogynist, or, I’d hate to be this asshole’s girlfriend (which, lol) or whatever else. Meanwhile, because I have literally nothing else to do, I’m sitting there clicking refresh, refresh, refresh, and wanting to die while also desperately wanting to jump in and argue with them.
Luckily, my friend Emily Gould had been through a lot of this stuff in ways that make my own situation pale in comparison, and she just kept telling me not to get into it. I kept writing up potential responses to post and then sending them to her to see if she thought I could get away with it, and every time she was just like NO. I’m really glad I took her advice, because for one thing you can make the situation so much worse by responding, but also, like, you have to respect other people’s space, and their own experience of reading, and whatever. It is incredibly hard to resist, though, especially when you feel like people aren’t just criticizing the quality of your work, but also its core intent and by extension the core of the way you see yourself. Being called a misogynist just felt like a knife to the gut—it’s so opposite of what I was trying to do with the book, and also so opposite of who I feel like I am as a person. And you start to question yourself at a certain point. Later, after I didn’t make it onto Whodunnit (boo hoo), I was back in New York and was talking about it with my therapist and he was like “Well are you a misogynist?” and I was like “I never thought so but now I don’t even know!”
As far as my intent, and the actual substance of the criticism, I think it’s complicated. I’m as susceptible to the culture I exist in as anyone else, and so I feel like it’s impossible to say that I’m not a misogynist, or at least somewhat sexist on some level. I think it would be impossible for any person to say that, as a matter of fact. But to me that’s a big part of what the book was supposed to be about—how these terrible narratives are imposed on us by history, and by mythology, and by the world, and about how hard they are to escape from as much as you try. Whether I was successful in conveying those themes is clearly up for debate, but I’m happy that at least some people were able to appreciate what I was getting at, even if other people thought I totally fucked it up.
You say that for you, writing is always a challenge. What are some of the ways that these challenges manifest themselves, how do you overcome them, and WHY do you choose to overcome them and keep writing? I’m asking this mostly for selfish reasons…for me, I am my own biggest obstacle in that whenever I have something more creative to write than, say, a book review I will make one thousand and one excuses why it is not the optimal time for me to sit down and write, mostly because I’m afraid of how hard it will be to get going, or that I’ll get totally stuck.
I’m not one of those people who has a hard time starting things, although I sympathize with that problem. I start stuff all the time; I have a whole folder of first chapters and stuff like that. Actually I have a really good friend who’s always telling me I should just publish a book that’s a bunch of first chapters.
I’m not intimidated by the blank page. The beginning is always fun because you haven’t closed off any possibilities for yourself yet, and you can just throw shit in for fun. The intimidating part, for me, is like fifty or a hundred pages in, when you step back and look at the mess you made for yourself when you were just having fun, and then you have to figure out how to make that into a book. I get totally flummoxed at this stage every single time, pretty much—it would probably be better if I was a more committed outliner, but I hate outlines. My outlines are often just a really long list of open ended questions, which I suppose is barely an outline at all.
So, to answer your question of how to force yourself to sit down and write, I don’t really know. Sometimes I think the only way to do it is just to make yourself so fucking bored that you can’t do anything else. Like, first you watch everything on Netflix, then you play video games for five hundred hours (I don’t even really like video games), and then you lie on the floor of the shower watching water drip until finally you’re moved to go write a book. But the thing is, that’s not actually a very efficient method.
Another thing that has helped me is just to try to make it fun for myself. Like you just write the fun parts, and if you get bored, you just move on to another part that seems more fun. Ideally, I guess you eventually realize you never needed the boring parts in the first place? I don’t know, I am totally the wrong person to ask this question. All my friends write a book a year; I’m lucky if I write one every three years.
I don’t know about you, but I am perpetually tired of “literary” types claiming that YA and genre writing is simplistic and just not worth anyone’s intellectual time. One thing I love about your writing (kind of a fan girl here) is that you take these stereotypes about YA and genre writing and flush them down the toilet—you wrote about something real and resonant and thought provoking and you wrote it magically for teens. Why do you write for young people? What are your thoughts on genre elitism?
You know how there’s always that person at a dinner party who says, you know, “I only read really serious books—books that are truly important.” And then you ask, “Oh, what was the last thing you read?” And they can’t think of anything, or they say, like the Steve Jobs biography or something. It’s like, “Oh, you don’t actually like books! You should have just said so!”
Real readers are rarely snobs. Because the way you become a reader is often by reading everything you can get your hands on, whether it’s Judith Krantz or Charles Dickens or Proust or whatever. And in doing that, you start to see value in things that aren’t thought of as Serious, and you also start to toss aside Serious things that you’re just not feeling. It’s called developing your own taste.
The most well-read people I know are usually people who read really broadly—they’ll be reading five things at once, and it’s like P.D. James and Game of Thrones and Dawn Powell and Jennifer Crusie and George Eliot and Pushkin. It almost seems indiscriminate but if you look closely you see that they’re discriminating based on their own idiosyncratic tastes and interests and mood rather than on someone else’s notion of what’s important or good.
If some people want to be snobs and underestimate books because of what section they’re shelved in at the bookstore, that’s their own problem, although I have to say that I think it makes them look basically stupid. (Not to mention stupidly basic.) Who cares! If I had picked my profession based on what would impress people at dinner parties I would have been a porn star rather than a YA novelist.
I love what you have to say about readers reading according to individual idiosyncrasies. It’s something I often have to tell people when they ask me to get their children and/or students to read something “better” (which I refuse to do). Just yesterday I was checking out this seemingly random hodge podge of roughly twenty books to this 13-year-old girl, and when I commented on the array of different books she said “Yeah, they’re all pretty different, but when you think about it they’re kind of the same, too.” I thought that was cute, especially because the connection that was so apparent in her mind was totally invisible to me. Anyways, what are some of your THINGS when it comes to books and reading?
Just yesterday I was saying to someone how much I like books about scrappy British girls who live with their crazy, destitute families. I think it’s a little mini-genre. (Examples: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, etc.) I also tend to like things that are funny and sad at the same time. I usually like things that are a little fantastical, but I don’t really like anything with hobbits. I sometimes like mysteries but only when they’re not boring. (I don’t like the type where cats solve the mysteries, although those might be okay if the cats talked.)
The last few books I read were Chris Barzak’s awesome Wonders of the Invisible World, which is a family story as well as sort of a psychic ghost story; Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble, which is a collection of very bizarre short stories; Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, which is a very charming and smart actual diary; John Cook’s Our Noise, an oral history of Merge records; Peter Cameron’s Leap Year, which is a comic novel about New York in the 1980’s that was originally published as a serial; and Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, a middle-grade book set in the 1960s about three sisters who go to spend the summer with their estranged Black Panther mother. I’m not sure how I would try to connect the dots between all those, but I bet if I thought about it long enough I could probably figure it out.
At what point in your career as a writer did you feel like you could say “OK, I am a writer FOR REAL”? Is it like being an adult, where each milestone makes you stop and think, “Am I an adult now?” Or is it something you’ve just always felt about yourself? This is something I think about constantly—whether it takes outside validation to make me a writer, or if it’s something I just intrinsically am, and so I’d love to get an Andre Norton-decorated author’s perspective on that.
I mean, funny you should ask this, because I haven’t had a book out in two years now, and won’t for awhile longer at the rate I’m going, so I don’t feel like much of a writer at all at this particular moment. And, you know, I have a day job and everything. Usually I only feel like a real writer when I get a check for something, or when I get invited to a book festival, or when I get a good review or get nominated for an award. But really you’re a writer when you’re writing, and the more time you’re spending actually writing the more of a writer you are. The YA writer Justine Larbalestier gave me a lecture, years ago, about how important it is not to get wrapped up in all the bullshit of outside validation, and that advice has stuck with me even if I often find it incredibly difficult to heed.
Lastly, do you have anything in the works that we should be super excited about?
I mean yes, I hope! I actually have a book due to my publisher in September. But at this point I don’t even want to talk about it. (See above.)
So that’s it, folks! Thank you so much, Bennett, for being charming and answering my stream of consciousness questions and for giving me pointers on how to turn procrastination into a creative art.