About a year ago, I asked author and friend Erica Lorraine Scheidt to do an interview on her novel Uses for Boys (which I ‘reviewed’ here). My love for this book, and for this woman, has not waned. Life got in the way, as life often does, and we both forgot about this interview. And then yesterday, I received a surprise in my inbox when Erica sent her responses to those questions I asked.
I’m probably not the world’s best interviewer and some questions are a bit clumsy/mundane. But I want to end this week with something thoughtful, beautiful, and humane. So here it is. Thank you, Erica.
(P.S. The image above technically doesn’t have much to do with the interview, but it just ‘fits’ in my head somehow. Don’t ask me for logic right now. Image credit: Northern Lights by Sydney Mortimer Laurence.)
Hila Shachar: How did you become a writer?
Erica Lorraine Scheidt: When I was a kid, I was certain I was a writer. I dropped out of high school to become a writer, and then I dropped out of college to become a writer, and then another college, and then I moved to New Orleans to become a writer, and then I went to the The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics to become a writer. And then, like everyone else, I graduated from college, got a job, and never wrote again.
Some fifteen years later, I returned to writing. I quit my job, I wrote stories, I took classes, I spent time with writers I respect. I lost all my teenage bravado. I’m humbled by writing, I struggle with it. I want a beautiful paragraph. I throw away a million words for every few that I keep.
HS: What compelled you to write Uses for Boys?
ELS: I knew I wanted to write about girls. And I was writing all these stories (incomplete, fragmented stories) about adolescence and about loneliness and at the same time I was reading and rereading The Lover by Marguerite Duras and a lot of Jean Rhys and I started writing about a girl for whom sex was an anodyne against loneliness.
HS: As I was reading Uses for Boys, I felt like it was filling an unspoken void in terms of the types of books that I currently see being written for and marketed to girls and young women. I’m much more used to, for example, encountering typical romances in the genre of young adult fiction now. Maybe this is a generalisation, but I do feel Uses for Boys is different and has a different tone. Did you deliberately want to create a different type of story for young women and girls?
ELS: I was frustrated with a certain pattern, it’s the: adolescent girl has some trauma (loses a sibling, is raped) and then starts down a self-destructive path (bulimia, cutting, drugs), then she meets someone (sometimes a teacher, sometimes a coach, often a boyfriend) and finds something (long distance running, art, love) that helps her understand her inner strength, and she moves on trope. So much of adolescence is uneven, and growth is not always forward; sometimes it’s a cluster of awarenesses and sometimes it’s a sequence of setbacks and sometimes you have to trust yourself and sometimes that’s a terrible idea.
Because I was trying to work against easy answers, early drafts of Anna’s story weren’t very satisfying. Anna just kept running and looking and it took an act of will to get her to stop and stay and see what happens when she takes the story she was given and rewrites it.
That said, there’s a tremendous amount of young adult fiction that is startling and human and curious and visceral. Brooklyn Burning by Steve Brezenoff is a favorite. And, Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.
HS: I stated before that I love Anna like a friend, or a sister, or even a part of my teenage self, even though I had a much better and different childhood. Did you intend to make her such a relatable character?
ELS: I can relate to her. God, she seems so relatable to me. She’s me, she’s my best friend, she’s my goddaughter—and yet she’s also not. I was so heartened when a young reader said:
>>>> “I’m 13, and I’m reading this book…It’s definitely one of my favorite books. It’s so real, so poetic, and it’s the fact that everything in this book, all the wonderful and all the terrible little things, can happen to anyone.”<<<<
And I have to say, I didn’t realize how dark everyone would find the book. I saw Anna as always trying so hard to be true to herself and to make a place for herself in the world.
HS: I have to confess to feeling quite angry when I read some of the negative reviews of Uses for Boys, some of which are basically victim-blaming and slut-shaming. Were you surprised by this reaction to Anna as a character?
ELS: I don’t know if I was surprised, because honestly I didn’t know what to expect. And I knew the story was more raw and explicit than most stories about adolescent girls. I was saddened by a few reader comments about the sexual assault—I wondered, is it because we don’t talk about the unsettling, unexpected reactions of survivors after a sexual assault? I know we all want there to be this clear marker: this is rape and this is what a survivor feels after rape. But I was much more interested in the messy complexity of Anna’s experiences.
HS: By the end of the book, I felt very protective of Anna. She inspires a raw, visceral response. Could you talk a bit about how she came to be – how you shaped her as a character and what inspired you to create her.
ELS: I don’t know if I could have done that on purpose. A lot of readers say things like they just wanted to hug Anna or hold her or protect her. I do think writing—and reading—is a form of empathy. And that it’s the mix of our unexpected frailties, strange resiliencies, problematic desires, and misguided actions that make us such empathetic creatures.
HS: Anna’s friendship with Toy is particularly interesting. I also found Toy’s name very interesting and thought about its significance. I was wondering of Toy acts as a type of ‘foil’ for Anna, or whether for you she has a different role in the story.
ELS: I was very angry at my best friend when I was writing the book. I felt like my real life would never measure up to her fantasy life and even though I was in my late thirties, and we’d been friends for more than twenty years, I felt like I couldn’t get this friend to really see me. That’s the genesis of Toy.
But as she became a character, I thought of Toy as a child who had suffered things so horrible that fantasy was her only possible response. I don’t know if she’s a foil. I saw her and Anna employing different, though both learned, responses to their loneliness.
I have no explanation for the name. It just came to me. And I’m inexplicably charmed by the name Toy, although I’m not sure that’s warranted.
HS: One of the saddest things for me about Anna’s childhood is her lack of family. And by ‘family’, I don’t mean some stereotypical image of the traditional nuclear family, but simply, a sense of belonging or enveloping, and love. Or in Gail Jones’ better words in Dreams of Speaking, “a space into which her self could be poured, without erasure.” Was this a clear theme you had in mind when you first started writing Uses for Boys, or is it something that developed along with the story and with Anna?
ELS: Hila, yes.
And that’s exactly what the book became about—I didn’t know it when I started. At first I thought the book was about boys, and then I thought it was about best friends, and then about the mom, and finally, only when I was finished with the final revisions and it was at the publisher’s, turning into a book, did I realize it was a story about family.
Family is a talisman-like word to me. A magical word that’s about belonging and being claimed. It’s no surprise that as I was finishing the book, I fell suddenly and startlingly in love with a woman and her daughter and we three made a space where our whole selves are poured without erasure.
HS: It’s hard not to talk about gender with regard to Uses for Boys, as it seems to so truthfully highlight the gender roles boys and girls are expected to play out as they get older. Is this a deliberate critique in the book?
ELS: Yes. Sometimes I feel like my whole life and all of my actions are a deliberate critique on gender roles. And especially now that I write for and work with girls—how is that that sexuality has become our one innate power? That sexuality is the last thing that the powerless can trade on? That we can be sexualized by others without our consent? How did this happen? I both want to work to dismantle it and so often I cannot stomach it. I feel a dark, bleak, grief in how our girls are systematically sexualized and made to feel powerless. I know you know what I mean. I know it’s one of the things we connect on, Hila, across continents, that sometimes our grief for the human race is something we are wailing and wailing and yet our voices are tiny and without weight.
HS: One of the most honest things for me about this book is its attitude to sex, especially in relation to teenage girls. Could you talk a bit about this and why you felt it important to portray sex so honestly?
ELS: Thanks for this question. I really love to talk and write about the weird, visceral, reality of two bodies together—especially when you’re young and you’ve never had that kind of intimate exposure to another person’s body. Our own bodies are so mysterious, but then, under the umbrella of “sex” we get to touch all these strange foreign parts of another person’s body. It’s comical, and nonsensical, and mystical, and really, just damn cool.
HS: Storytelling plays as important role in Anna’s relationship with her mother as well as with Toy – could you talk about the significance of telling stories in Uses for Boys?
ELS: A lot of the motif of storytelling comes from how I see the world. Our families give us stories to understand the world, and over time these stories change, or they don’t fit, or they do. And we tell ourselves stories about ourselves, and those stories change over time, and they become outdated and they don’t work anymore, and we need new stories.
A lot of Uses for Boys follows Anna as she learns to rewrite the story she’s been give. I’d love to think that’s our one great power, that we can write our own stories. That telling our stories is a brave and powerful act. That telling our stories makes us less alone.
HS: What young adult fiction do you love and recommend? What’s the first book you remember making a strong impact on you? What general books do you think every girl should read, or be given?
ELS: Here’s a few. The first one, the one I feel like I’m always writing toward, is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. That was the most powerful book I read as a child. As a teenager, I read Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr., and it was astonishing. I had no idea you could do that with language and story and character. I’ve read The Lover by Marguerite Duras dozens of times and it contains so much about the slipperiness of language and memory and how we tell the same story over and over. More recently I was heavily influenced by Exquisite Paine by Sophie Calle, which manifests how our stories change over time and in relation to others’ stories. I am bowled over by The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve read it twice in a row now and it feels like the only thing I want to read. I’m also rereading the essays in Madness, Rack, and Honey by the poet Mary Ruefle. Especially the title essay. And Mary Oliver’s Stag’s Leap, the book about her divorce. This essay, by Bethany Rose Lamont, called “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, has been hugely influential in terms of thinking about how our stories change over time. It appeared in Rookie.
Rookie has the writing that most gets under my skin lately. It’s written for teenagers. The other YA that gets me: I already said Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. I love AS King, especially Everybody Sees the Ants, and Ask the Passengers. Her books don’t pretend that everything makes sense. Also Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry is the book that I would have carried and around and read out loud and dogeared the pages when I was a teenager.
This is not YA, probably, but maybe it is. I love this essay by Roxane Gay, “What we Hunger for.” Maybe anything by Roxane Gay.