YA Pride: Interview with Madeleine George

In 2010 at the YALSA Literature Symposium, I heard Madeleine George reading from a work in progress. That reading was so funny and sharp that I couldn't wait to read the book that it came from. The only problem? That book, The Difference Between You and Me, wasn't due to be published until 2012. It was definitely worth the wait! In The Difference Between You and Me, Madeleine tells the story of two girls at one high school. Jesse wears big green fisherman's boots and cuts her own hair with a Swiss Army knife. Emily is the student council vice president and wears sweater sets — plus she has a boyfriend. You wouldn't think Emily and Jesse have anything in common, but they do: They're having a secret relationship that involves making out in the library bathroom once a week. That's just the beginning, though. The book also tackles politics, capitalism, and protests while delivering some zingy dialogue that I'm convinced has been honed through Madeline's other job as a playwright.

She is a founding member of the Obie-winning playwrights' collective 13P, and is now a resident playwright at New Dramatists. Madeleine's plays, which have been performed across the United States, include The Zero Hour and Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England. I invited her to talk about The Difference Between You and Me, the difference between writing young adult novels (her first was Looks, published in 2008) and plays, and what's coming next.

Malinda Lo: One of the questions I get all the time, because I've written novels about lesbian main characters, is whether I faced any homophobia when trying to get published. Your first novel, Looks, wasn't about an LGBT character, but your second novel is. What was your publication process like for The Difference Between You and Me? Did you face any homophobic pushback during this process? 

Madeleine George: I had no homophobic pushback whatsoever from my editor or publisher on The Difference Between You and Me, which was a great relief since I had such a terrible time getting to the story in the first place.

When I started my second book, I knew I wanted to write about heroism and the price of standing up for what you believe in, and I came up with this story about a girl in a small town who's obsessed with basketball and who ends up taking her school to court on a Title IX violation and becoming the town pariah (Title IX is the law that says schools have to treat boys and girls equally in all educational activities, including athletics). I came up with the story all at once and all of a sudden—while waiting at a red light at an intersection, actually—and I felt totally confident that this was going to make a brilliant, compelling book. I wrote a treatment for it, synopsizing every chapter, and submitted it to my editor, who blessed it and told me to start writing. So I dove into research and writing, and immediately I encountered two big problems.

The first was that I learned that, since the 1970s when it became law, Title IX has totally worked. All across the country, in small towns and big cities, girls play sports now and people are pretty chill about it. Of course there are still pockets of gender discrimination in athletics and education, and girls' games don't always draw the same crowds as boys' games, but it's the rare town that gets torn apart over funding for girls' athletics these days. This is a triumph for feminism, but it sucked for my novel, since that was supposed to be the main conflict of the story.

The second problem I encountered was closely related to the first: I didn't have the first clue about basketball, or anything to do with sports or athletics. I'm an anti-athlete, a jock-repeller, the kind of person who spent four years of high school making up increasingly desperate and far-fetched excuses to get out of gym class ("I couldn't get to my sneakers because we had our floors stained and my sneakers were on the other side of the room with the wet floor," I actually told my 10th-grade P.E. teacher, who wearily waved me away towards the bleachers).

As a writer, I wasn’t about to let my appalling ignorance stop me; I'm very much of the write-what-you-want-to-know, not the write-what-you-know, school of thought. But as many girls' basketball games as I attended, as many youtube videos as I watched, as many coaching manuals as I read to try to understand the game, I had an extremely difficult time getting inside the mind and body of a skilled player. I even made my patient friend Gary meet me at the gym to try to teach me how to handle a basketball (does it seem incredible that I had basically never touched a basketball when I decided to write this book? But I hadn't). I could barely keep the ball in my hands while I was standing still, let alone "dribble" it down the court and "shoot" it through the mounted string bag that is apparently the holy grail of this game.

So as ardent as I was about my story's basic shape, I was doing a very bad job actually writing it. I slogged through about sixty elementally awkward, unconvincing pages before my editor called me in and told me that I was barking up the wrong tree and had to start again from scratch. I went into temporary free-fall, mourning the idea I had become attached to during a year's worth of work and feeling aimless and depressed about the project of writing novels in general.

But my friend Carley Moore, a brilliant poet and YA novelist and one of the sanest sources of writing advice I know, walked me through the process of returning to my original impulses. Basketball had just been the vehicle for me to write about my real topic: heroism, and the sacrifices people make in order to lead a principled life. So I broke my bad story down to its basic elements and put them back together in a new form, with new characters whose personalities, habits, and motivations were just a little bit closer to my own, and which I could therefore render with a more truthful, vivid hand. I may not know a layup from a layover, but I know all too well what it's like to get spun around by a girl you can't help craving even though she's guaranteed to break your heart. And my editor didn't bat an eye when I pitched the new story, which had the protagonist falling for another girl instead of for a team sport.

That's a long answer, and it's all about writing process, not about struggling to overcome homophobia at all. I guess that's a nice comment on the political climate of YA publishing right now!

ML: One thing I love about Jesse, one of the girls in The Difference Between You and Me, is that she's not traditionally feminine. In YA, you don't find too many girls like her. Have you heard from readers about how they feel about Jesse? How do they react to her?

MG: A number of young readers have told me that they like reading about an openly lesbian teenage character, but I find that they're more focused on what Jesse does in the book than what she looks like. They tell me that they admire Jesse or are frustrated by her—kids who are out have often told me how angry they are with Jesse for liking someone who persuades her to stay in the closet, which I totally appreciate. But I haven't had one young reader talk to me specifically about the fact that Jesse is butch.

Maybe this is because you have to be pretty brave to talk about butchness when you're a teenager—I know I didn't have any vocabulary to talk about gender presentation when I was a kid, only the vague, inchoate sense that I wasn't properly a girl and couldn't pull off the clothes, gestures, and behaviors that made other girls "normal." Adult readers have mentioned that they liked reading about the bathroom problem in a YA novel (Jesse gets gender-checked in the girls' room, a pretty common experience for masculine girls and women), but I've never had a young reader discuss the gender identity of my protagonist with me.

Here's one interesting thing about gender that came up during the publishing process, though. The cover of the ARC of The Difference Between You and Me was very pink and purple and sweet, designed around a photograph of two pairs of feet facing each other, one in ballet flats and the other in big green boots, like the ones Jesse is described as wearing in the book. The image was super cute but somehow coy—without the rest of the bodies in the photograph, the picture couldn't be read for gender, and instead of seeming gender-neutral it ultimately made the cover feel like a bait-and-switch: I had one reader tell me that she assumed at first glance that the book was a romantic comedy between a girl and an outdoorsy boy, and was stunned when she opened it and found an anti-corporate lesbian love story inside.

When the book went to print, the cover was changed to a much bolder, graphic image of a single boot over a single ballet flat, and that iconic image of two different shoes is much sexier and more obviously queer to me than the photographic cover ever was. It telegraphs something important about the mystery, fluidity, and dynamism of gender, and it also plays up the meaning of the title—the differences between Jesse and Emily may ultimately be the downfall of their relationship, but they're also what draws them together in the first place: Jesse loves Emily's hyperfeminity, and though she can't admit it to herself, Emily loves the boyishness of Jesse, more than she loves the boyishness of her actual boyfriend.

ML: I have to ask a nerdy writer question. Why did you choose to write Emily and Esther's chapters in first person, but Jesse's in third person?

MG: I did this very deliberately, though from what I hear from readers it's the most controversial aspect of the book—way more incendiary than the girl-on-girl love scenes.

I know a lot of people believe that first person is the closest, most intimate mode of narrative, the one that reveals the deepest truth about a character. But as a playwright, I have a different perspective. In a play, every character speaks in the first person, but the audience sees that each character's perspective is necessarily limited—the world of the play is much bigger than any one individual, and each character can only see her own narrow sliver of what's around her.

As a playwright, whenever I hear a character launch into a first-person monologue about who they think they are, what they believe, etc., I automatically hear it with skepticism, knowing that the play itself—if it's any good—will ultimately reveal the holes in that character's claims. So for me, first person has always been the most narrow mode of narrative, often deluded and self-serving, or at the very least isolated from the world.

I gave the deluded first person to Emily, the character who's least in touch with her own motivations and most involved in fabricating elaborate self-justifications to allow herself to continue to act hypocritically. And I gave the third person to Jesse, the character who's more integrated and aware of who she is, because I wanted to give her version of the story more cred and legitimacy. Even when Jesse is making a conscious decision to lie about her relationship, she always knows the truth, and I wanted her chapters to feel like they were taking place in the real world, while Emily's chapters take place inside her own fevered mind.

ML: Do you consider your plays to be for adults? How do you feel writing plays differs from writing young adult novels?

MG: I do think of my plays as for adults, though only because they're about adults—there's nothing in them that teenagers couldn't see. Plays vs. novels is an interesting question. There are lots of distinctions between the forms, of course, but at heart I think playwrights have a different relationship to time than novelists do (and poets, and screenwriters, and short story writers—often think of the different genres of writing as differing mainly in terms of time signature).

Characters in plays live very breathless, moment-to-moment lives—we follow them in real time as they experience unexpected events, get knocked for a loop, transform, start again. In novels, we can be told a story in retrospect, and the sense of time is much more expansive and elastic. Some moments blow up big and vast and significant, other moments are edited out of the chronology completely.

I guess I'm a naturally breathless, real-time storyteller, and I've been allowing myself to write pretty theatrical novels—in the present-tense, for example, with shifting perspectives from chapter to chapter. So in my third book I'm setting myself the challenge of trying to write more like a fiction writer—expanding and compressing time to suit my story—and less like a playwright, stuck on the idea of real-time scenes. We'll see how it turns out!

ML: Do you have another YA novel waiting in the wings?

MG: I'm so early in the process of working on my third YA novel that I can't say much definitively about it. I'm sure there will be queerness in it, in some form or other, and romance, and probably the struggle to become independent from your parents. There might also be questions about God, and what it means to be a spiritual kid in a family of atheists. Mostly I'm spending my time right now reading everything ever written by Nick Hornby, whose generous, witty style and crisp plotting I hope to slavishly imitate in book three. It's a pretty fun way to "research" a book.

Thanks, Malinda, for inviting me to visit, and for asking me such interesting questions!

ML: You're welcome!

>>>

As part of my YA Pride celebration, I'm giving away a copy of Madeleine George's The Difference Between You and Me to one lucky winner!

The fine print:

  • To enter, simply enter your email address in the Rafflecopter widget below so that I can contact you if you win.
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  • The deadline for The Difference Between You and Me giveaway is July 3, 2012!
  • Winners will be notified by email, and prizes will be mailed in July 2012.

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Writing About Kissing

I took a week last week "off," and it was glorious. The only way I could convince myself to get back to work today was by deciding to finally write this blog post about kissing. Not real kissing, but fictional kissing. I've been thinking about fictional kissing for a while now because, let's face it: I'm a young adult author, and all of my books have fictional kissing in them. ((Also, there is a lot of fictional kissing in my next two books. Much more than in my first two, so that's another reason I've been thinking about fictional kissing so much.))

Then I read a book called The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George and I thought, damn, that is the best example of fictional kissing I've ever read in a YA novel. And because I'm a writer, I started to poke at what exactly made that fictional kissing scene so good. Why did it work so well? That made me pull out other YA novels that I remembered also contained excellent examples of fictional kissing, in order to dissect them from a writerly perspective. And I discovered that there is quite a variety of fictional kissing, from which we can learn some lessons. ((As always, writing "rules" are made to be broken. These aren't rules; they're observations, and there are always exceptions.))

[SPOILER WARNING: In in this post I discuss kissing scenes in The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George, "Goblin Fruit" by Laini Taylor, and Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare.]

It's So Bad It's Good

Madeleine George's The Difference Between You and Me is about two girls, Jesse and Emily, who come from very different social circles and political beliefs, yet find time to make out together once a week in the library's bathroom. Emily narrates the chapters from her perspective, and it's in her very first chapter that we get to the kissing scene that made me sit up and take notice. It begins, however, by describing a very bad kiss, with her boyfriend, Michael:

"When me and Michael kiss, it's like I'm making out with a cut cantaloupe. He is the wettest, squishiest kisser on the planet. He's so cute from a distance, you know, he's such a good-looking guy, like a male model practically, but then when he goes to kiss me it's like all the muscles in his face go slack and his lips get all spongy and loose and he opens his loose face and sort of lays his spongy lips all over me and drools his melon-juice spit into my mouth. It's horrible. I don't mean to criticize him, I'm sure lots of other girls would think he was a totally amazing kisser, it's just … sometimes I have to pretend he's getting too powerful and intense and I push him off me, but really I'm pushing him off me because he's getting too disgusting."
The Difference Between You and Me, pages 20-21

Things that I love about this kiss:

  1. Voice: Emily's voice is hilarious. There's such a wonderful combination of grossed-outness and bizarre pride in her voice. She thinks Michael is a horrible kisser, but she takes time to praise Michael for how attractive he is. This says so much about Emily, who continues to date Michael even while she's secretly making out with Jesse.
  2. Simile used very effectively: How perfect is the cantaloupe simile? I'd guess that most people reading this scene have eaten cantaloupe (or melon) before. That means the reader is right there, instantly, in Emily's memory. You know exactly how kissing Michael feels to her, and I bet you all just went, "Ewww!"
  3. Contrast: This kiss sets up the next kiss that Emily describes, which is far from disgusting to her.

The Kiss That Makes Your Knees Weak

A few lines later, Emily describes kissing Jesse:

"When Jesse Halberstam kisses me, she's really focused and really intense. She puts her hands on the sides of my face to hold me where she wants me, or she winds her fingers up in my hair and tugs it tight, and somehow, just by the way she touches me, she makes my mouth open, she makes my eyes close, she makes me breathe faster and faster until I feel dizzy and I think I might black out. Sometimes when she's kissing me, I swear to God, the edges of my body melt and I become sort of part of her. Sometimes when she kisses me I forget my own name."
The Difference Between You and Me, page 21

Why does this kiss work?

  1. Feelings: The focus is on Emily's feelings. How the kiss makes her dizzy, how it makes her forget her own name.
  2. Contrast: This kiss has the benefit of being contrasted with the horrible one with Michael. Clearly, Jesse operates differently. Where Michael was sloppy, Jesse is focused and intense. Michael drools, but there is no drool here.
  3. Power: Emily's physical experience is definitely referenced, but rather than focusing on her mouth — which is where a lot of kissing descriptions tend to center — it focuses on Jesse's fingers tugging her hair and drawing a response out of Emily ("she makes my mouth open, she makes my eyes close"). This description brings up something that appears over and over in effective fictional kissing scenes: power. Not necessarily in a Fifty Shades of Gray way, but every time two people come together in a kiss, there is a physical and often emotional negotiation going on. Who is in control? Who is totally swooning? Are they both completely bonkers for each other? Or is one less bonkers than the other? This relationship negotiation occurs in every kiss and without it, the kiss can often feel flat.

The Deadly Kiss

That power negotiation comes to bear most obviously in kisses that aren't meant to be good for the character involved. In Laini Taylor's beautifully written story "Goblin Fruit" from her collection Lips Touch, Kizzy encounters a gorgeous man who, she discovers, is not exactly looking out for her best interests. He is a goblin, or perhaps a fairy — the kind who puts on glamours and seduces young girls. The wolf in sheep's clothing. But what does Kizzy (and isn't her name so perfect?) do when she discovers this?

"Kizzy knew, but she willfully unknew it, and the plangent voices of the dead were lost to the drum of her hot blood and the tingle of her ready lips. She wanted to taste and be tasted.

She didn't reach for the knife. Heavily and hypnotically, with her soul flattening itself back like the ears of a hissing cat, Kizzy leaned in and drank of Jack Husk's full, moist mouth, and his red, red lips were hungry against hers, drinking her in return. Their eyes closed. Fingers clutched at collars and hair, at the picnic blanket, at the grass. And as they sank down, pinning their shadows beneath them, the horizon tipped on its side, and slowly, thickly, hour by hour, the day spilled out and ebbed away.

It was Kizzy's first kiss, and maybe it was her last, and it was delicious."
— "Goblin Fruit," page 54

Here we have a truly deadly kiss, and several things are going on:

  1. Character revelations: Kizzy knows that Jack Husk isn't good for her, but her desire for him overrides her desire for safety. This shows that Kizzy is complicit in her own demise — which tells us a lot about her.
  2. Describing the mouth is almost always disturbing: There is something overwhelmingly lush and simultaneously off about this kiss, and I think that comes from the description of Jack Husk's "full, moist mouth, and his red, red lips," which Kizzy drinks from. What does that sound like? A bit vampiric, no? If there's one thing I strongly believe to be true about fictional kissing scenes, it's that physical descriptions of lips and the mouth in action should largely be avoided … unless you want to make the reader feel a little squicked out. And that's exactly what Taylor has done in this scene.
  3. Anticipation: This kiss comes at the very end of a 41-page story, which means there were 40 pages of buildup before it. Throughout the story we get to know Kizzy and her urgent desire to be kissed, but she isn't kissed until the very last page. "Goblin Fruit" is about the power of wanting something deadly — in Kizzy's case, this kiss — and every word that comes before the last line is used to aim us toward that moment when Kizzy kisses Jack Husk. Creating this sense of anticipation in the reader is one of the best ways to make a fictional kiss effective.

The Thrill of Anticipation

The Queen of Making You Wait for the Kiss is, in my mind, Cassandra Clare. In Clockwork Angel, Tessa Gray meets Will Herondale on page 35, but it isn't until page 290 that It Happens:

"Her whole body ached; she ached as if there were a terrible hollow emptiness inside her. She was more conscious of Will than she had ever been of anything or anyone else in her life, of the faint shine of blue beneath his half-closed lids, of the shadow of light stubble across his jaw where he hadn't shaved, of faint white scars that dotted the skin of his shoulders and throat—and more than anything else of his mouth, the crescent shape of it, the slight dent in the center of his bottom lip. When he leaned toward her and brushed his lips across hers, she reached for him as if she would otherwise drown.

For a moment their mouths pressed hotly together, Will's free hand tangling in her hair. Tessa gasped when his arms went around her, her skirts snagging on the floor as he pulled her hard against him. She put her hands lightly around his neck; his skin was burning hot to the touch. Through the thin wet material of his shirt, she could feel the muscles of his shoulders, hard and smooth. …"
Clockwork Angel, pages 290-291

Some things to note:

  1. Escalating tensions: From the very first time that Tessa sees Will, you know she finds him attractive ("He had the most beautiful face she had ever seen." — page 36). What happens between page 35 and page 290 is a series of escalations that (hopefully) makes the reader become invested in bringing the two of them together.
  2. Kissing is about more than the mouth: Will's mouth is described, but only before the kiss. After the kiss begins, the mouth is not described. Instead, Clare describes Tessa's encounter with Will as a whole person—hands, arms, body. Kissing uses the whole body, not just the mouth. (At least, good kisses!)
  3. Physical specificity: There's nothing I hate more in a kissing scene than vagueness; that sense of pulling a gauzy veil over everything. Kissing is usually not a vague experience — and if it is, there is a reason for that vagueness. ((Drugs? Bad memory? The main character didn't want to be in the moment?)) Therefore, kissing scenes shouldn't be vague, either. But you do want to avoid making a character's physical actions sound like a medical textbook. A good trick for doing that is to choose part of the body to describe (preferably not the mouth) and describe it from the perspective of one character. In this case, you have Tessa's experience of touching Will's shoulders through the "thin wet material of his shirt." Specific! But not clinical.

In Conclusion

Whether a fictional kissing scene is effective can be a matter of debate. Some of it does certainly depend on the reader: whether they're invested in the couple, whether they like romance, whether they like the writer's style. But there are some things that I think every effective kissing scene has in common:

  • They reveal something interesting about the characters involved.
  • They acknowledge that a power dynamic exists between the two kissers.
  • They're specific without being clinical.

What do you think makes a good fictional kiss?

The Difference Between You and Me

Back in December 2010, I attended the YALSA Literature Symposium in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At one of the panel presentations, I had the pleasure of hearing author and playwright Madeleine George read a scene from her work in progress. It was one of the funniest, sharpest readings I'd heard in a long, long time. I remember everyone in the audience—everyone—demanding to know when that scene was going to appear in a book. She told us, apologetically, that it wasn't likely for some time, probably not until 2012. Well, 2012 has arrived, and the book that scene is in came out last week. It's called The Difference Between You and Me.

This is a book about three very different girls: Jesse, Emily, and Esther. Jesse cuts her hair with a Swiss Army knife and wears green fisherman's boots to school every day. Emily is the vice president of student council and should be a card-carrying member of the Young Republicans. Jesse and Emily have absolutely nothing in common—except Tuesday afternoons in the handicapped bathroom of their local library, where they make out.

The scene that Madeleine read at YALSA? It was only one of the best kissing scenes I have ever read in a YA novel, and I do not say that lightly. This scene is hilarious and touching and sexy, and it illuminates who Jesse and Emily are as individuals, and as a couple. It is awesome. (Hmm, this is making me think about what goes into a great kissing scene.) It also occurs very early on in the book, so I'm totally not spoiling you.

Esther is a somewhat rumpled but enthusiastic peace activist who also goes to school with Jesse and Emily. Though Esther is aware of Jesse and Emily, she's friends with neither until she and Jesse have detention together one weekend. Jesse, you see, is something of an activist herself. She posts manifestos all over the school for her organization NOLAW (National Organization to Liberate All Weirdos, with membership consisting of one so far), and it was her postering the girls' bathroom that landed her in detention.

Jesse and Esther bring their very different activist styles together to protest a big box store that wants to sponsor their high school's formal dance. Who convinced the big box store to sponsor it? Emily, of course.

Did I mention that Emily has a boyfriend who doesn't know that she's making out with Jesse? And that Emily's totally okay with the making out as long as it stays secret? Jesse, on the other hand, is completely out as a lesbian and has lefty liberal parents who would be appalled not that she's dating a girl, but that the girl is a conservative.

I loved a lot of things about this book: its sense of humor, the witty dialogue, Emily's snobbish yet crazily innocent voice. But what I loved most was Jesse, because she's a butch girl who doesn't apologize for it. She is who she is, and it's eccentric (fisherman's boots!) and idealistic and sexy all at once.

The one drawback of the book, to me, was the fact that while Emily's and Esther's chapters were written in the first person, Jesse's chapters were in third person. I wanted to be more in Jesse's head because I found her so interesting and warm and likable. But I can understand, from a writer's perspective, why Madeleine George might have wanted to keep Jesse in the third person. I just wanted more of Jesse! There just aren't nearly enough gender-bending girls in YA these days. (Or ever, frankly.)

The Difference Between You and Me is such a smart, engaging, funny book. And Jesse is totally a keeper! I highly recommend it.