This is one of the many interviews I've conducted with authors of MTV Books for teens.
Such a Pretty Girl, Laura Wiess' foray into teen fiction, tells the story of a survivor of sexual abuse. She thought she would be safe - at least, until she was grown up.
At the age of twelve, Meredith was a fairly well-adjusted child. Then her father did the unspeakable. Her own mother didn't believe her, choosing to side with her father, who swore he was innocent. Meredith found the courage to testify against him in court. The judge and jury put him away for nine years. She thought that she would be a high school graduate and live far away by the time he got out of jail.
After only three years in prison, Meredith's father is released early. He comes home to his loving, naive wife - and his terrified fifteen year old daughter.
Such a Pretty Girl is a darkly realistic story. One could see it as the backstory of an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but only from the victim's point of view. It moves along quite rapidly, beginning the day he comes home and ending a few days later.
Due to its content, Such a Pretty Girl is recommended for mature readers.
Thanks to Cynthia Lord, I was introduced to Laura and her publicist, who gave me a copy of the book in advance. Laura was kind enough to let me conduct her very first interview.
How did it take you to write the actual book?
The first draft of Such a Pretty Girl came quickly. The rewriting took a lot more time. Subtracting real life, other projects and side trips, actual writing time probably totaled around a year, maybe a little longer.
Was your book written before or after you landed the book deal? Did you or your agent approach MTV Books or vice versa?
Pretty Girl was written beforehand, and when I signed on with my agent Barry Goldblatt, we agreed this story would need just the right editor, one who really "got" Meredith, and who didn't shy away from controversial issues. Luckily, Jennifer Heddle at MTV Books was out there, and we found her.
Why write for teens?
Because the characters that show up on my mental doorstep are usually teens with pressing stories to tell. And because that age group has so much to get into, out of, through and around. I love it. It's such an intense time, chaotic and transitional. Uncharted territory. "Firsts" happen here. Good, bad and mortifying events occur by the hour. The best and the worst sit side-by-side, taking their turns with you. Everyone and everything is evolving, and evolution, even when it's painful, is exciting. It's a great place to (re)visit, even if it doesn't always feel like it while you're there in real time.
Did you write your book specifically for the teen fiction shelves?
I didn't really think about where Pretty Girl might end up while I was writing it. It was all about Meredith, and her story. She brought it to me, and she just happened to be a teen.
What age range or grade levels do you feel your book is suitable for - or not?
When I was younger I always read up, mostly to see what possibilities the future might hold, so I think I'm going to leave that decision in the hands of the individual reader. So far, the age range seems to be teen through adult. Would I be surprised to find middle school kids reading it? No. Will they get all of it? I think that depends on the maturity level of the individual, and, unfortunately, any personal experience with the subject matter.
What inspired the title of your book?
The manuscript had a different working title -- Victim Soul -- which wasn't as memorable, so my editor asked me for alternatives. After brainstorming with my agent, my mom (a thriller reader from way back) and the YA writers over at the YACraft list, the title Such a Pretty Girl surfaced. Several others did too, but Such a Pretty Girl struck a nerve. It reminded me of an ominous murmur, the kind of predatory, manipulative verbal stroke that acts as a prelude to the more dangerous, physical one to come. Such a Pretty Girl topped the list, and was agreed upon by all.
Do you (or did you) watch MTV?
I was glued to the TV for its debut, and spent countless hours watching music videos.
Who are your favorite authors?
I'm always adjusting the list, so as of today and in no particular order: Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, James Herriot, Betty MacDonald, Dave Barry, Erskine Caldwell, Diana Gabaldon, A.M. Jenkins, Sarah Bird, Amy Tan and James Thurber.
What are some of your favorite musicians, songs, actors, or TV shows?
I like a pretty wide variety of music and a lot of different artists, but these are the ones I usually turn to when I'm writing, and want to woo strong emotions: Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Lenny Kravitz, John Mellencamp, Melissa Etheridge, Counting Crows Actors/Actresses -- Greg Wise, Graham Greene, Denis Leary, Michael Chiklis, Jason Leigh, Dennis Franz, Adam Beach, Ben Browder, Evan Adams, Claudia Black, Diane Farr, Mare Winningham, Emma Thompson, Carla Gugino, Alex Kingston, Tantoo Cardinal. Oh, and Johnny Depp. TV Shows -- The Shield, Rescue Me, My Name is Earl, Medium, 20/20, Primetime, Animal Precinct, Intervention, Masterpiece Theatre,
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
The Painted Bird by Jerzey Kosinski
The Blood Countess by Andrei Codrescu
Tregaron's Daughter by Madeline Brent
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman
It by Stephen King
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Such a Pretty Girl deals with heavy issues, to put it mildly. Did you do any research on abuse, or did you just tell the story as you saw fit?
Pretty Girl was born in a nuclear flash of anger while watching a news story about yet another kid being sexually abused by an adult. The first draft came fast, without research but with Meredith, the main character, speaking loudly, clearly and in detail, desperate to tell her story. Once I had it down on paper and cooling off, I went back and researched pedophilia, childhood sexual abuse, Megan's Law, incest, recidivism rates and more, and was lucky enough to talk with some very candid survivors of sexual abuse.
So many kids don't make it through adolescence unscathed, me included, and while my personal experience was small change compared to a lot of the others out there, it was still a very rude awakening. When I was twelve, I had the disgusting experience of being groped-in-passing by the father of one of my middle-school friends. It shocked me, as I'd grown up believing fathers were protectors, not predators, and up until that point I had no idea anyone's father would ever do something like that.
I'm sure the residual emotion from that experience fed into the story, too.
Oh, and one thing that really blew me away was director James Ronald Whitney's Just Melvin: Just Evil. A more stunning documentary I've never seen, and the thing is, it stays with you. Once you see it, you can't shake it. You can't un-see it. Powerful stuff.
Meredith's clothing (frequently overalls), her hair, and other physical traits are mentioned here and there, but her basic features are barely described. Was this a conscious choice, so that readers could picture her however they wished? If so, I commend you.
I don't know that this was deliberate, and I don't remember consciously pulling back on Meredith's physical description while in the heat of the story. (The tension and the stakes are so high during those three days.) I saw everything through her eyes, and never stepped back to look at her from a distance. It was all too immediate.
There is physical description, just not in a laundry-list kind of way. What she does, how she moves, what she reaches for all, I believe, show us who she is and what she looks like. How her friends treat her, the fact that a guy asks her out while she isn't even trying to attract his attention -- just the opposite, as a matter of fact -- and even the bra she wears shows us something.
Plus -- and this may sound odd -- but I rarely, if ever, see my main characters' faces, especially when I'm writing in first. I see all the other character's faces, usually through the main character's eyes, but if I step out of the story and try to envision the main character's face, I can't. It's always a blur. I know hair, eye color, body type and clothes. I know what she loves, hates, how she feels about herself, and how she hopes the world feels about her. I know that she wakes up sometimes in the middle of the night, breathing hard and too scared to move, and that she likes crushed-up Ritz crackers in her tomato soup. I know how others feel about her, and because of those feelings, what she looks like to them. I get all the emotions, goals and desires, but I can never quite see her face.
I don't know, maybe that's my way of writing for the reader in me, the one who wants to curl up with a new book and get so engrossed that I slip right into the main character's shoes, and it's easier to do that when the face is hazy. That way Meredith could be anyone and anyone could be her.
The story is contemporary, but void of just-this-minute brands or trends are visible, making it a tale that won't feel dated a year. Except for the use of "Heaven" by Los Lonely Boys in a flashback scene - a song which was popular on US radio during the summer of 2004 - no years are stated. In your mind, when and where did you set it?
Such a Pretty Girl takes place in a fairly upscale apartment/condo complex in central Jersey, similar to the fictional Cambridge Oaks. The real complex turned into all but a ghost town in the summer, like everyone had bailed as fast as they could, and headed down the shore or something. What always intrigued me about the place was that on the outside, it looked so genteel, pristine and manicured, while on the inside all sorts of madness and mayhem occurred.
The "when" for Pretty Girl is actually "whenever the reader opens the book." Today, tomorrow, eight months or two years from now. I'm not trying to be coy; I just never pinpointed it any further than the present, because to Meredith, her hell is happening right now.
How far in advance did you know the ending?
Ah, great question! By the third draft, while I was writing like a crazy person, through frantic terror and desperation, right there in it with her, heart pounding, near tears, not knowing where I was going or what was going to happen and suddenly, it was just . . . THERE. It all came together, and was just there.
Remembering that moment still gives me the chills. I was so astounded that I called my parents (my mom had read the previous drafts), and blurted, "I know! I know what happens, and oh my GOD, you're not going to believe it!" The terrible part was that after I got them all excited, I wouldn't tell them what it was I knew was going to happen, only that I had to go and finish writing it, lol. Bad daughter.
What books, websites, or other resources do you recommend for survivors of sexual or parental abuse?
Author Carolyn Lehman's recent nonfiction book Strong at the Heart: How it Feels to Heal from Sexual Abuse, is a must-read. In addition, her website strongattheheart.com is a goldmine of resources, including hotlines, websites, fiction, nonfiction, films and more. It's all there, and I can't recommend it highly enough.