An Interview with Carolyn Mackler
September 26 - October 3, 2009 marked Banned Books Week. In honor of this celebration, launched in 1982 to bring light to the subject of censorship and the ongoing battle to fight challenges around the country, where books are pulled out of libraries, bookstores, and schools, I talked with an outspoken author who is leading the fight to end book banning. Carolyn Macklerís four young adult books have been challenged all over the country. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, winner of the Michael L. Printz Honor for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, has received critical acclaim for intelligently addressing tough issues including body image, sexuality, and family trauma. Only days away from giving birth, Mackler took time to talk to Bookslut about her experience as an author of challenged books.
Where did the idea for The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things come from?
I had published my first novel, Love and Other Four-Letter Words, in 2000. It was about an average girl who has an average body. It was such an aside, not the thrust of the book. I got so many fan letters from girls saying that they really related to that aspect of that book. I thought, what if I wrote a book about a girl who has much bigger body issues than just feeling average? She wouldnít be the loser or the sidekick. And thatís how I got the idea.
When you wrote the book, did you expect it to become controversial?† What was your intention?
No. Not at all. As a writer, at least for me, I write a book without thinking about an audience. I write about peopleís inner thoughts and traumas or vulnerabilities and if I thought about my audience, I think I would probably freeze a lot more while I was writing. When I wrote The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, I certainly did not think about how it would be controversial and so widely challenged. And all along I get emails every day and every week, I get responses from readers who saw themselves as Virginia and who said theyíre not so bad after all. Itís surprising to me when itís been so widely challenged when it seems to have helped girls feel a lot better about their bodies.
When did you first learn that The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things became a challenged book? What happened? Why do you think this book was considered threatening?
Love and Other Four-Letter Words had been challenged. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things came out in the summer of 2003, and I didnít hear about any challenges for a few years, and then suddenly in 2006, I got an email from my publisher saying that the first time I heard about the challenge was the biggest challenge, too. It really started with a bang where the book had been banned in Carroll County in Maryland. The Baltimore Sun wanted to write an article about it and interview me about it. The superintendent had banned the book from an entire school district. And he was responding to a parent who was offended by some words, who had not read the book, but had flipped through it and seen profanities. Generally thereís a process with a panel. They convene, read the book, and they discuss it, and they decide whether or not it should remain in the schools. The superintendent overrode the panel. Generally, that just happens. In this case, hundreds of students started signing petitions saying "You canít take away our right to read." At that point, I was interviewed for the Baltimore Sun. It was on the front page of the Baltimore Sun with my picture. Then the Maryland ACLU wrote a letter, and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter, and they had to revisit the issue in the school meetings. The superintendent kept saying that he hadnít read the book. So they kept trying to encourage him to read the book. But read within the context of a story, and there are going to be choice words when itís about teensí experiences. Iím not sure if the superintendent ultimately read it. But he allowed the book to go back to the high school, but not the junior high, so they called it a partial reprieve.
The American Library Associate Office of Intellectual Freedom puts together a list of the most challenged books in the country. The reasons, they said, were profanity, inappropriate language, sexual content, and anti-family [content]. Virginia stands up to a family who really treat her badly. If thatís anti-family, Iím okay with that. A lot of teen novels have similar situations. I donít think itís more or less graphic than other teenage books. The title makes people think, ď'Butt,' whatís in there?"
Iíve heard people who meet me say, how could you write that book?†Youíre not fat. You donít have a right to talk about my body.
How has writing a challenged book changed your writing? Are you more intentional about your topics?
It doesnít change the topics. For me, inspiration is nebulous. I donít know how I come up with the ideas for books. I just feel very lucky when ideas come into my head. If I worried about books being banned, I would never come up with another book idea. I was writing the first draft of Guyaholic when my book was banned in Carroll County. Guyaholic is about a girl who is addicted to boys, and itís a book about a not squeaky clean character. And there are hard moments. I have a scene where the character is masturbating. But if I donít put it in, Iím not being true to my character and her situation. But that book gave me more pause because I was thinking, why do I want to write a book just to have it kicked out of schools?†Being true to my characters also means being true to my readers.
Talk a little about the ending. Do you think that this book is left more open-ended than most young adult fiction?†
I always like to leave my endings a little open. I consider my job as an author to get my character to the point where they are headed in a new direction. In the end I want to feel like theyíve made it somewhere. I donít want them to complete the process. I want them to end it from a new beginning. I want to tie up all of the plots. Any ball in the air, I catch. I hate it when I read a book and thereís a ball in the air and it never comes back down. Thereís always some ongoing drama. I like the idea of getting to a place where itís good to say goodbye to the characters and that you still can ask about whether things will continue in the same direction. In the beginning, Virginia was ashamed to be in public with a boy. In the end sheís able to kiss him in public in the middle of Central Park.
As a reader, I found one of the many amazing things about this book is that Virginia models the right to assert how her body is talked about with her parents. She insists that her parents stop commenting on her body, whether they perceive their comments as positive or negative. Have you received feedback about this scene from parents or teenagers?
That scene means a lot to me, too. Girls have used those exact lines from the book to talk to their parents. Itís not a compliment or an insult to talk about bodies. Everyoneís body is her or his own. Itís not something to talk about or discuss. Iíve gotten comments from India, Germany, all over the world. I donít want people to talk about my body. I think that our bodies and how we feel about them is such an evolving process. The changes are so dramatic and unpredictable.
What kind of research did you do in order to tell Virginiaís story?†
I do research as needed. For Virginia, I interviewed a family friend who went to an elite private school in Manhattan. (I went to a public school in western New York.) I had a long interview with her. It was great to hear her perspective. I think I wrote about 30-40 pages of the book and then I talked to a few friends who were or are plus-sized. I was especially interested in talking to women who were plus-sized over the teen years. I read online. I read various teen girl accounts. I didnít necessarily use them in the book. I read accounts about girls who have to step on a scale in front of the whole family.
Will you talk a little bit about your decision to have Virginiaís brother, Byron, accused of date rape? How has this been received by readers?
So when I originally thought of this family, I thought of this sister, Virginia, who is a good girl, who is an awesome girl, and yet she doesnít have this perfect body. And thereís this brother who looks so perfect on the outside. Mainly before the date rape, Virginia is not aware of how badly Byron has treated her. I wanted him to have a fall from grace. I remember thinking at some point: I could have him go to prison. This is an upper-middle-class family. Itís not his demographic. It would be just such an extreme for him to go to prison. Iím always aware of the date rape statistics from college campuses. The statistics are huge. Itís got to be someone. Someoneís got to do it. I decided that would be a really character-appropriate thing for him to do. It would tie into his disrespect of women. He hasnít abused Virginia but heís mistreated her. I think Iíve read a few novels from the victimís perspective. There is also a novel from the date rapistís perspective. I was curious about the family of the person. What about the family? I went to Vassar, which is very wonderfully accepting of sexual orientations and lifestyles, and a progressive school. There was this guy who was kind of popular and cool and he left some sexually harassing messages on a gay personís answering machine. The school eventually found out it was this boy who had committed the crimes. I was sitting in my dorm room one day and I remember looking out the window to see this boy and his parents carry his bags to their car. He had been kicked out of school. And I remember thinking, what must that feel like for the family? You have to still love that child. And yet youíre extremely mad at him. Itís such a strange place to be. You still have to come to terms with loving them. Also it raises questions for family members to think, if my relation treated other people this way, how have they treated me? Itís really an opportunity to think about family dynamics.
Is there anything that didnít end up in the final draft that you wished made it in?
No. Iím always happy with all my cuts. I write and rewrite all of my cuts. That book came out pretty organically. I didnít have to change a lot. Iím pretty obsessed with language and getting the words just right. †
Do you have a favorite challenged or banned book?
I think that one of my favorite books is Forever... by Judy Blume. I read that book when I was a teenager. That book was so upfront about sex. It took all the shame and embarrassment out of sex. And I needed that. I grew up in a family and a community where sex is a really awkward and blushy thing. This book allows sex to be a lot of fun and can lead to a lot of really intense moments. To me, it was a very, very meaningful book. It has been widely challenged.
Any upcoming projects?
On December 29, my new Young Adult novel, Tangled, will be published. Two boys and two girls who meet on a vacation in the Caribbean, at a resort called Paradise. After the four teens encounter each other, their lives are forever changed. This is a book about keeping secrets, taking risks, and learning how to live and love. Each of the characters is challenged to look within and bring their true selves out into the world. You can read more about it on my website.