March 2007

Chris Zammarelli

banned bookslut

What's Wrong with Being a Sex Kitten?

In May 2006, Maryrose Wood received a phone call from St. Petersburg Times reporter Tom Marshall asking for her reaction to her first book, Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall In Love, being removed from the shelves of a Florida high school's library.

Sandra Nicholson, a member of the Hernando County School Board, included Wood's novel on a list of books she wanted to be removed from a book order for the Nature Coast Technical High School's library. Sex Kittens was included on the list based on its title. Nicholson had not read (or apparently ever even seen) the book.

Ultimately, the subcommittee formed to review Nicholson's list decided after reading the 10 titles, that only one book was inappropriate for high school students. According to an article by Marshall on the subcommittee's decision, "Maryrose Wood's Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love prompted chuckles, but the committee quickly agreed there was nothing in the young-adult novel remotely worth banning."

Banned Bookslut recently chatted with Wood about the challenge, her writing process, her life in the theater, and her new novel, Why I Let My Hair Grow Out, which comes out on March 6, 2007 from Berkley Books.

Banned Bookslut: What inspired you to write Sex Kittens?

Maryrose Wood: Well, basically I wanted to know the Secret of Love! I think often story ideas come out of a "what if?" or other provocative question. Love is a subject I find endlessly fascinating.

In my own actual real life, I'm a single mom who goes out on dates and what not, and so the idea of "chemistry" -- what makes it happen or not -- is a kind of ongoing science experiment.

Can I ask you how old your kids are?

My son just turned nine, and my daughter is almost twelve. It was a lovely moment for me when she started middle school this year and came home excited: "Mom! They have your book in the library at school!"

That's awesome. Was she involved in the writing process? Felicia (the main character in Sex Kittens) is a bit older than her, obviously, but you're writing juvenile fiction so I thought I'd ask. This could lead into a broader "how do you write" question.

Well, I have to say that having a middle-school aged daughter is a very useful reference point overall. It's such a great, in-between sensibility, that mix of sophistication and real silliness.

My daughter is always eager to be my "first reader," too, but I don't let her or anyone read anything until I have a complete finished draft. Sometimes we chat about ideas I'm mulling over, "Would you be interested in a book about xyz?" for example.

As for how do I write -- one word at a time, like everybody else. It's always a bit of a mystery, isn't it? Where does it all come from? I had a non-writer friend comment recently on the way I and my colleagues obsess about word counts -- a thousand words today! Five hundred words today! Only fifty thousand words to go!

It's like we're building the Pyramids and counting the bricks as we go.

This is true. But in a way, you're setting goals that you need to make for yourself. If writing is your profession, word counts [are] something that give you focus, aren't they?

Absolutely. They break a huge task -- I Must Write A New Book -- into achievable chunks. Sometimes working in very small chunks is necessary! To fend off terror and despair.

Do you do outlines, do you have a general idea of where you want to go in your head, or do you just let the story go along as you write?

I both do and don't outline, so I will explain.

My background as a writer is grounded in playwrighting and screenwriting, so I have a kind of Aristotelian reflex coded into my DNA at this point: Beginning, Middle, End. Exposition, complications, crisis, resolution. So for me, as soon as I start to bat around a story idea in my head, I try to find the ways in which it might be developed along those lines.

I will make notes to myself about what those key moments in the story are, but I find that the creative process once I'm actually writing is so much richer and more unexpected than the kinds of things I would come up with sitting there creating an outline.

So I start writing, and the unexpected things then start getting plugged into the outline, and I keep the manuscript and the outline both going simultaneously, as a kind of weight and counter-weight to each other. So I keep making discoveries but also keep thinking about what role they serve in actually telling the story. Prevents too many digressions! Although there are always some. Those have to be sliced out painfully later!

Did you have the title Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall In Love in mind when you were writing it, and did you wonder if it would prove to be controversial?

I did have that title fairly early on, and I will honestly and naively say that I never thought it would be construed as racy or controversial. To me it was blatantly silly, and so many books out there have titles full of bras and thongs and snogging and big round butts and all that, I just felt this was in the same ballpark.

How did you find out about the Hernando County challenge? By the way, those books with snogging and thongs in the titles get challenged a lot too!

When I got an email from a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times! It was a very funny moment, I must say.

Did you ask if the reporter was kidding?

No, I believed him! It was Florida, after all. Things like this seem to happen down there. I did some Googling on my own and found the same county had tried to ban Freaky Friday a number of years back.

Did you consider any sort of action, like writing a letter to the board or even visiting in person, or did you feel that the situation would reach a sane conclusion?

Well, I have to say, the particulars of this book challenge were quite well-defined: one person, a member of the school board, made a big stink about a list of books that she herself admitted she had not read. She did this, by the way, during a televised school board meeting, and did it by reading the raciest passages she could find out of a few of the books on her list. Live. On TV.

I wish I could write comedy like this! You've got the conservative school board member merrily f-wording into the microphone with the cameras running.

So the rest of the board, to shut her up I imagine, swiftly resolved to put those books aside and actually READ them and come to a rational decision. Which they did. The process was quite respectful and sane, in both intention and execution.

That is brilliant. This reminds me a lot of Charlton Heston angrily reciting offensive Ice-T lyrics to, I think, shareholders of Ice-T's record label a few years ago.

See, now that is really awesome. When you have Moses rapping, I think you can really capture those hearts and minds.

If anything, I think it's a story about how that one squeaky censoring wheel can really distort the terms of the debate. This f-word spouting school board member was not representing her community. She was repeating stuff she found on pro-censorship websites, like PABBIS.

PABBIS is my favorite website. It really helps when I need column ideas.

It sounds so harmless, too, doesn't it? Like a brand of baby food. "New: Mashed bananas and yogurt!" From PABBIS. Your source for mush in a jar.

See, and then the kids click on the links and find all this offensive material! Won't someone think of the children? Putting stuff like that on the Internet.

Think of the time it saves! In my day, kids had to thumb through pages and pages to find the dirty parts.

I need to wrap this up. This is a bit off-topic, but do you have any Merrily We Roll Along war stories? (Wood was a cast member of the ill-fated Stephen Sondheim musical.)

Oh Lord! You have outed me. Tons.

Should I save that for another interview then?

That would be fun, but let me just say this: I just finished writing a YA book that will be out in Winter '08 from Delacorte, titled My Life: The Musical. It draws very heavily on my days as a Broadway baby.

Good to know. I'll look forward to that one.

And of course I have a book coming out momentarily, Why I Let My Hair Grow Out from Berkley, which got its inspiration from a single joke in a musical I wrote book and lyrics for. So the theatre is never very far in the distance with me.

What was the joke?

The musical is called The Tutor, and the main character is a 16 year old girl who has all sorts of misadventures. Unbeknownst to her, her mother has been secretly planning a summer bike tour across Europe, as a kind of surprise present. And at the end of the show, after all kinds of nuttiness has happened, the mother finally unveils the whole thing to the girl, who cries out in despair, "I have to ride my bike? Across Europe?"

It always got a big laugh. Anyway, the bike tour never happens in the show, but I was left with that what-if -- what if a snarky kid got sent, unwillingly, to ride her bike across Ireland? Can faeries and enchantments be far behind? I think not.