Words on Words: An interview with YA novelists Madeleine George and Carley Moore

13 mins read

On Friday, April 13 Young Adult novelists Madeleine George and Carley Moore will be appearing at Emery Arts Center. Earlier in the day they will be discussing their latest books with students at Mt. Blue High School. Apart from being sensational fiction writers they have both excelled in other fields. George is also a highly accomplished playwright and a founder of the award winning 13P Playwrights Collective.  Moore, An NYU Creative Writing Professor and poet, is a founder of the Brooklyn Writer’s Collaborative. George’s new novel, The Difference Between You and Me, and Moore’s debut novel, The Stalker Chronicles, are two of the best YA novels one will ever encounter, for their superb prose, their thoughtfulness, their compelling characters, and their engaging and satisfying narratives. To top things off Madeleine and Carly have stepped forward to handle a hard hitting Daily Bulldog interview.

Kenny:  I noticed that nobody’s parents died in either of your books, a state of affairs which is almost beyond belief for the family of a young adult lead character. Can you explain this bizarre occurrence in your book?

Madeleine: But Kenny, one of my characters does have a dead parent! Esther–who’s admittedly sort of the third-wheel in the not-quite-love-triangle at the center of THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN YOU AND ME–lost her mom about a year ago, and Jesse, my protagonist, ends up bonding with her in an awkward way over this, because Jesse’s mom had her own brush with death when she battled cancer last year. I guess I wanted to make sure my book would be properly shelved in the YA sections at bookstores, and since I wasn’t going to include 1) sexy but emotionally distant vampires, 2) vicious cliques of wealthy girls, or 3) a futuristic dystopian setting with inexplicably Celtic place and character names, I had to include the dead parent trope.

Carley: Ha! You’re right about this—so many novels rely on the death of a loved one to work as the narrative catalyst or the event that sets the plot in motion. It really never occurred to me that the protagonist of The Stalker Chronicles, Cammie, would lose a parent or have already lost one. Cammie’s struggle to stop stalking, to try to be more normal, and stop scaring people away is in some sense hereditary. Her father is also a bit of stalker, and when her parents’ marriage starts to fall apart, his own pathologies become visible to Cammie. Of course, he’s not nearly as reflective about being a stalker as Cammie. So, in a sense, I needed Cammie’s parents and brother to be very present in the story. They are part of the reason she is such a stalker, and part of the reason she wants to get better. She loves her father, but she doesn’t want to be like him—closed off and a little bit inaccessible, someone who profoundly doesn’t get the emotional happenings around him.

Kenny:  Thanks for pointing that out Madeleine. I’m definitely going to move your book from Self Help to YA now. Now then, each of your books explores tensions found in a conflict between strongly felt impulses and a character’s desired personal identity. In both case the character was able to achieve an important measure of self determination. Did this exploration develop during the writing of the story, or was it a solid kernel to begin with around which other things developed?

Carley: I like the way you put this—Cammie and Jesse (the protagonist of Madeleine’s book, The Difference Between You and Me) are full of strong impulses that in some sense they must master in order to become self-determined individuals. I suppose, like many writers and creative folk, I fancy myself (and I know this is a bit of cliche), as a person of intense feelings. I feel my impulses very strongly, and there is a course a bit of me in Cammie. But in terms of the plot, I think I wrote that first chapter very early on, and its in this chapter that Cammie names herself as a stalker, acknowledges that it’s a reputation that she has earned and probably deserves, and tells the reader than she wants to get better. So I suppose it was a solid kernel. I thought it might make for a good story—to have a very reflective girl who wants to change and control her impulses. The tension would be in waiting to see if she can do it, and in watching her mess up along with way.

Madeleine:  I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write a story about what it costs a young person to stand up for what she believes in. I initially planned to write about a girl who takes a heroic stand when everyone else in town is against her, but as I worked on the first draft of the book I started to complicate that idea. I found that my protagonist, Jesse, was in love with a very attractive antagonist, Emily, and that both girls were equally passionate about their diametrically opposed convictions. In the story, Jesse, an out and proud lesbian, is having an intense affair with the overachieving Emily, but Emily insists that the affair must be kept secret. Even though keeping her relationship with Emily a secret goes against everything Jesse believes in, she can’t help herself–she’s so attracted to Emily that at the beginning of the book she’s willing to compromise her most deeply held beliefs just to get more one-on-one time with her. But as the story unfolds, and Emily and Jesse get embroiled in a larger political conflict that involves their school, Jesse becomes less and less willing to sell herself out.

I’m interested in the heroic–what it takes to be brave in the world and live according to your beliefs–but I’m equally interested in what’s so hard about that. We worship heroes, in part, because it’s virtually impossible to be purely ethical in the world; in some ways, trying and failing to do the right thing is the most human act of all. Looking at Jesse and Emily together allowed me to explore these murkier questions about what it costs to stand up for what you believe in, the ways in which we all fall short of our own expectations and ideals.

Kenny: In her memorable introduction to Mrs. Dalloway Virginia Woolf put forward that “The author’s mind has another peculiarity which is also hostile to introductions. It is as inhospitable to its offspring as the hen sparrow is to hers. Once the young birds can fly, fly they must; and by the time they have fluttered out of the nest the mother bird has begun to think perhaps of another brood. In the same way once a book is printed and published it ceases to be the property of the author; he commits it to the care of other people; all his attention is claimed by some new book which not only thrusts its predecessor from the nest but has a way of subtly blackening its character in comparison with its own.” I have to admit, after your having written such satisfying new books, filled as they are with so many well turned phrases,  that I’d like to imagine a kinder outcome for them: that a few years from now you may even pick up The Difference Between You and Me and The Stalker Chronicles respectively and enjoy a few sensational passages now and again. Is there any hope for that?

Madeleine: Hm, I don’t know–what an interesting question. I don’t hope that I’ll revile my own book in the future or anything, but I think it’s true that writers crave the feeling of meeting the next project, getting to know it, becoming immersed in its surprising, unpredictable puzzles and challenges. I’m just beginning my next book, and I know that fizzy, thrilling feeling is starting to take me over. Along with that feeling of excitement comes the wish to overtake the previous project, to use the next project to solve the previous project’s problems. So if I look back at the last book, I imagine it will be partly as a primer for what not to do next time. But I think I’ll always love a couple of lines from the manifesto that opens THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN YOU AND ME–it’s a piece of writing that expresses how I felt about the world for much of the time I was in junior high and high school, and I wrote it as a belated gift to myself at that age.

Carley: Oh, how I love Mrs. Dalloway! I haven’t thought about that introduction for some time, so thank you for reminding me of it! It’s true that my writerly attention has turned a bit away from The Stalker Chronicles towards newer projects. But I’m excited to re-engage with the book on an entirely different level as I promote it and do readings and meet new readers. I think that will make me appreciate some of the prose in new ways. I hope so, anyway! I’m also very new to novel writing. I’ve been a poet for years, and I’m really teaching myself how to write novels as I go, and sometimes I’m delighted by what I’ve been able to figure out, and other times I’m horrified by all that I don’t know how to do. That said, I’ve already learned a lot since I wrote The Stalker Chronicles, especially about plot, scene, and point of view. So, I hope in four years, I can read it and enjoy some of the language, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be slightly horrified by some of plot decisions and sequencing of scenes.

Kenny: Thanks so much. We’re looking forward to your presentations!

Carley: We can’t wait to be there!

Madeleine: What Carley said!

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