Interview: Jeannine Garsee
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Jeannine Garsee makes her literary debut with BEFORE, AFTER, AND SOMEBODY IN BETWEEN, an unflinching look at a young woman's attempts to keep her head above water while being emotionally and physically toyed with by her mother and her peers. When tragedy strikes, she finds herself removed from an unsafe situation and placed in an upscale neighborhood with a well-to-do family. Just because her new life looks picture perfect doesn't mean it is, and just because she changes her name and her appearance doesn't mean she can escape from her past. The book will be released in June 2007 from Bloomsbury. ( Read my full-length review. )
Jeannine (Jen) spoke with me about her book, her own high school experience, and the importance of reporting abuse.
Your main character, Martha, must deal with verbal abuse and neglect from her alcoholic mother. If a reader sees a piece of herself or himself in Martha, or recognizes her family's situation, who should they tell? What if they are reluctant to report the abuse?
The abused child needs to tell a school counselor, a teacher, a trusted family member, or even the parent of a friend. If there is no one to tell, call the child abuse hotline. Just tell SOMEONE! They can call the police if they have to. The only way things will change is if they take that first step.
I know some kids are afraid to bring attention to their abusive situations for several reasons, including:
1. The fear that nothing will be done and the abuse will only worsen.
2. The fear they might be taken away from their family.
3. It's embarrassing to admit you have such a screwed-up family.
4. They blame themselves for the abuse, and feel that if they could only change their own behavior, the abuse will stop.
#4 especially pertains to children of alcohol and drug abusers. Like Martha, they may feel they are the root of their parents' unhappiness. Maybe if they were 'better' kids, their parents wouldn't be forced to rely on booze or drugs. Martha's afraid she'll be put in foster care if people find out. Yes, this happens, and it's never easy -- but it's far more important to be safe. Abuse, whether it's physical or emotional, has lasting effects that can be carried far into adulthood. Kids need to know that they're NOT to blame, and they are not responsible -- not for the abuse, and not for their parents' addictions. This is where Alateen comes in. It's been a lifesaver for so many.
Martha is a complicated, somewhat quiet protagonist. She is younger than her classmates, having skipped a grade. I skipped up as well, as many times as was permitted, then graduated early. How would you summarize your own high school experience?
Well, to sum it up -- I was NOT a scholar. I stumbled through
high school with grades ranging from A's in English to D's
and F's in math and science. On the popularity scale, I probably
hovered in the bottom ten percent. I was a book geek, and I don't
mean 'school' books -- I
devoured novels. I had a couple of close friends, but never dated. I loved the
drama club, but usually worked behind the scenes. I blew off a lot of my homework
because I was too busy either sucking up novels, or trying to write one of my
own. When my parents wanted to ground me for...oh, like, really bad grades,
they didn't confine me to the house -- they
banned my typewriter. I'd sneak it back after hours and place
it on a pillow to muffle the sound.
Martha's school smarts aren't a match for her classmates' street smarts, and she finds herself the target of a very imposing female bully. Were you ever bullied? What advice do you have for readers suffering from the wrath of a bully?
Yes, I was bullied. Although I never felt my life was in danger, I was verbally abused and sometimes physically threatened by a group of girls over a prolonged period of time. Back then, I don't think schools had any official 'rules' against bullying; if you complained to an authority figure, you were encouraged to 'ignore' the abusers -- and if word got out, you were labeled a fink, which usually caused the bullying to escalate. Parents and teachers didn't step in as they do now. I sometimes regret not 'fighting back' a bit harder, but this isn't always smart (especially nowadays) and doesn't always work, so I'm NOT recommending it. But because I didn't fight back, I was an easy target. As it was, I ignored them the best I could.
If someone is being bullied, please--speak up! Draw attention to yourself,
stay in safe areas and with other people, and let everyone know you're being
harassed. Everyone! Don't keep it a secret. Bullies usually tend to back off
a bit when they know people in authority are keeping a close eye. Be as vocal
What inspired this story? How did you attempt to balance her bad fortune with good fortune?
The inspiration, I guess, came from the old Cinderella story. I doubt there's person alive who, at one time or another, hasn't wished for a fairy godmother. The Ball, unfortunately, never lasts forever. The greatest makeover in the world can't change the person you are inside.
Balancing the good and the bad was definitely a challenge. There are many 'good' things about Martha's life -- her friends, in particular. Her inner strength, though she doesn't recognize it at first. And, of course, she's a genuinely good person, with compassion for others. This all hangs in the balance, though, simply because of the nature of her mother's lifestyle. Martha knows her life is 'wrong,' yet she has no idea how to change it. It would've been easy to allow her to be taken in by a 'perfect' family and live happily ever after, but as she finds out, no family is perfect. As Gina, she's given everything she dreamed of -- but, most importantly, the rare gift of learning two important things: That she is capable of loving, and being loved; and that even the most 'wonderful' people in the world are not without fault; rich or poor, educated or not, everyone has problems and everyone makes very bad decisions, often with permanent consequences.
Whether things are good, bad, or in between, Martha escapes by playing her cello. What instruments do you play?
None. I'm a klutz. I took violin lessons for, like, six
whole weeks back in the seventh grade till the music teacher, not-so-kindly,
suggested I find another outlet for my creativity. I do have an enormous passion
for music, but no performing ability whatsoever.
Where do you see Martha in ten years? Will she be Martha, Gina, or both?
I see her as Martha, but with a part of Gina inside her. Gina's
the one who will ultimately help her achieve her musical goals -- but Martha's
the one who will help her survive the world. I want her to go to Juilliard.
I want her to play professionally. But more than anything, I hope she's
BEFORE, AFTER, AND SOMEBODY IN BETWEEN had at least one cover prior to the final selection. Had it any other titles? Does the finished cover look like Martha/Gina* to you?
This is most perfect cover my publisher could have chosen. The direct gaze of Martha/Gina into the camera made me go 'WOW' the first time I saw it. As I wrote the book, I only had the vaguest idea of what she really looked like. Only when I saw that photo did I recognize her for the first time.
As for the title, it was originally called "The Cloud Factory" which stemmed from the conversation Martha once had with her dad.
* I say Gina because I see that "version" of Martha there - no glasses, new contacts, new hairstyle - more than the Before-Martha. What do you think?
I think of Gina as the 'in between' because her life is kind wedged between the 'before' and 'after' although Gina does follow Martha through to the end. Martha clings to her; she can't bear the idea of parting with that life, although that life, she learns, wasn't hers to begin with. Gina is the 'what-if?' in everyone's life.
At your site, you reveal that you wrote a book series while you were in high school. Have you any plans to write series in the future?
Occasionally I toy with that idea, but I have no definite plans at this time. Plus I have an absolute horror that a second book would never live up to the first.
You also state that you were addicted to Harriet the Spy. Who are your favorite fictional spies other than Harriet M. Welch - or does no one compare?
NO ONE compares to Harriet, not even Nancy Drew (although Nancy was technically
a detective, I guess). I loved Nancy Drew, but while she solved mysteries, it's
Harriet's 'spying' that gives us a glimpse into an amazing slice of humanity.
List your top ten books.
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Member of the Wedding
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
House of Sand and Fog
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
The Catcher in the Rye
The Joy Luck Club
Lord of the Flies