Monday, July 17, 2006

Sarah Grace McCandless, The Girl I Wanted To Be

I was quite eager to dig into The Girl I Wanted To Be by Sarah Grace McCandless. I love coming of age books, because I so identify with the awkwardness of being a teenager. Even to this day, well out of my teenage years, I connect with those angsty feelings and painfully embarrassing moments. So it was with great delight that I tore into the novel and finished it within a day.

This is the story of fourteen year old Presley who learns her favorite aunt is not as perfect and cool as young Presley has grown up believing. Aunt Betsi was the girl Presely wanted to be....hence the title. However, it's Aunt Betsi who contributes to a tragedy that effects Presley and her family, something so terrible it cannot be undone. Presley must find her way through a tangle of unchartered emotions without her dear aunt to help her. Sarah's book is so good- well written and touching and emotional.

The Girl I Wanted To Be has some tender moments and it's with sharp precision that Sarah writes about the pressures of being fourteen years old.

Sarah is the only other person I know who can identify with a love of all things Sassy magazine. She is very cool and fun and has a great blog, take a look after you read our interview!

How would you describe your teenage years?

Hm…periods of sun followed by a mixture of clouds and storms? Partly cloudly with a 30% chance of rain? Why am I talking like a meteorologist? I guess from my perspective, I’d include the following descriptions: tricky, embarrassing, acne-prone, eyebrow tweezing-challenged, silly, melodramatic, and finally, profoundly significant. I remember often being told, “Don’t worry – none of this will matter when you’re older.” This, of course, is total bullshit.

I think the teen years serve as a blueprint, good or bad. And some of those experiences develop into foundations of your character, the way you react to things, why you make the choices you do. At the same time, I think you can control what parts of that blueprint you keep, and what you throw away. But don’t tell me none of it matters – it ALL matters.

Did you plan an alternate ending to the book? Or did you know right away how it was going to end?

For The Girl I Wanted to Be, I did actually know exactly how it would end as soon as I wrote the first chapter. That first scene came to me during a workshop in Abiqui, New Mexico – Georgia O’Keefe country, no less – and at that moment, I could see the beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t know how I was going to get from point A to point B to point C, but I knew the points. The primary characters of Presley, the 14 year old who narrates the story, and her two family heroes Betsi and Barry – they were all instantly real to me, like people I’d grown up with or know for years.

Now, that said, I rarely have that kind of clarity when it comes to writing. But there was something different with this story. The only thing that changed slightly was how far things would go during a confrontation scene at the end between Presley and Betsi. Without saying too much, it had to do with an actual roadtrip to Graceland, but I realized it would’ve been the wrong direction for the story. This of course won’t make much sense unless you’ve read the book, but I don’t want to spoil it.

What are your favorite teen movies? John Hughes so defined ages thirteen to sixteen with Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club and all those movies that made teenage girls swarm to the theaters.

Both of those are definitely in my top ten. “Look Fred, she’s gotten her boobies!” – story of my life. Also on that list, in no particular order: Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Better Off Dead, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Mean Girls, Thirteen, Say Anything, Bring It On, Never Been Kissed, The Outsiders, Weird Science, and Just One of the Guys.

And while these aren’t movies, I think both My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks did an amazing job of capturing life from the teen perspective. Of course, the shows I love always end up getting canceled. Mr. TV Network Executive, get ready, because I’m coming for you – one of these days.

I also consider 13 Going on 30 a teen movie, at least for part of it – or, as I like to call it, the Sarah Grace McCandless E! True Hollywood story. I was so much like the main character at 13, even down to the aspirations to work for a magazine – for me, that would’ve been Sassy, of course. I also took a dance class – wow, this is embarrassing – but I actually took a dance class to learn the choreography from several Michael Jackson videos, including “Thriller.” When I saw that dance sequence in 13 Going on 30, I just about lost it.

You mentioned Sassy magazine in another interview. Was that not the best magazine of the time? After Young Miss became YM, Sassy came along and I loved it.

Best. Magazine. Ever. These are the girls I wanted to be: Jane Pratt, Christine Kelly, Karen Catchpoole, Kim France. The list goes on. The fact that I can still rattle off many of the names from the original masthead speaks volumes (without Google assistance, I might add). I think one of things that made Sassy so special was how it became the first magazine I read that connected me as the reader to both the writer of the article and the story they were working on, whether it was a quick blip on the new Church album or an interview with Johnny Depp.

The staff’s personalities were so evident and inspiring, and I think this made for better stories within the magazine overall too. Maybe I can convince Jane to round up the old gang, if only for the sheer purpose of allowing me to apply for the Sassiest Girl in America contest. I just know I could win. (I totally remember those names too. I wanted to be Christina Kelly--- I grew up wanting to write for Sassy and hang out with all the editors.)

This book can easily be for an adult or a teenager. Who did you want to connect to with this novel?

I love that I have both adult and teen readers. Just last week, I received an email from a 17-year-old girl in Ohio and a 33-year-old woman in New York. I guess I wasn’t thinking so much of, “I’m going to write a book for adults” or “I’m going to write a book for teens.” It was more like, “I’d like to tell this story.”

Sometimes I think people automatically assume if you have a teen narrator, it means the story is primarily – or even only - for teens. But I would argue that by pointing to several examples, from classics such as Catcher in the Rye and more contemporary works such as The Lovely Bones. Not that I think I’m of that caliber or anything (mentally bowing down to JD Salinger and Alice Sebold). But there’s definitely many works out there that cross paths in terms of audience, and I feel really privileged to be considered one of them.

Do you have a favorite "coming of age" book?

Oh sure. The ones I cherished growing up include Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret and The Bell Jar. More recently, I adored Blake Nelson’s Girl, Joe Weisberg’s 10th Grade, and Shawn McBride’s Green Grass Grace. Both Joe and Shawn’s books were told from the male perspective, which I found particularly engaging – like I got to spy on what was happening from the other side of the fence.

It’s kind of sad because I think “coming of age” has developed for some people into almost a negative phrase of sorts – like if you’ve read one, you’ve read ‘em all. Of course, I couldn’t disagree more with this statement. I also think “coming of age” doesn’t always have to be directly linked with adolescent years.

I’m working on a new novel right now, and even though the narrator is in her 20s, it’s definitely reflects another type of a “coming of age” period.

I want to hear about how you became a published author. I wonder if people realize the hard work it takes not to just write a good book, but also deal with rejection from agents and publishing houses. How was it for you?

It’s definitely a difficult process– in some ways, it’s like applying for any job. You have to present yourself well on paper and even in person. And, like many of the responses to my early job applications, I have a STACK of rejection letters, particularly from some journals I tried to get published in fresh out of college.

My process for actually getting published really kicked into gear about six years ago. You might want to fetch the beverage of your choice and settle in for this story. I was living in Portland, Oregon, having moved out west after graduating from Michigan State where I studied English (with a writing emphasis), Communications and Theatre. I was paying the bills by working in marketing, while sort of producing some stories and poems here and there, and doing a little theatre on the side. But I realized there wasn’t really any forward momentum in terms of my writing career.

Sure, I’d spent a lot of time at some very valuable and rewarding workshops while in Portland, but I was getting to the point where I was just going to become a workshop rat with no actual finished complete project to show for it.

At the time, I’d also become friends with a wonderful writer and actress named Ritah Parrish. She was then married to Kevin Sampsell, and they helmed the independent press Future Tense Books. Ritah decided to create an imprint on the press called Heavy Flow, which as you might have guessed was geared toward women writers. Ritah already a few small press books under her belt but decided it was time for another one, and invited me to do the same with my first collection.

This is what ultimately ended up being version one of Grosse Pointe Girl – a slim volume, maybe 80 pages or so, of six short stories and two poems. These initial stories were more memoir than fiction, all based on my personal experiences growing up on one of the most notoriously affluent suburbs in the U.S. Ritah acted as the editor, Kevin helped with some of the distribution, and I did the layout and invested some money in the printing to make it look as professional as I could. I called in some favors and had one friend to the cover design and another build a website for me. I also put my marketing skills to work and created my own media plan and press kits. My goal was to sell 200 books within the year, but ultimately just to have something on hand to serve as a “demo tape” of sorts, so I could send a good example of my work to potential agents or editors.

The small press version did way better than I expected. I think I ended up going through three print runs, which translated to about 1500 books or so. That’s pretty solid for a small press. The first version was even used as text in a class at the University of Michigan, and the fact that I was someone’s required reading made me laugh. Anyway, I used the small press version of Grosse Pointe Girl in my queries as I was trying to obtain representation for what would become The Girl I Wanted to Be.

I had feelers out to several agents, and there were a few who were receptive at different levels. One wanted to see the novel I was working on when it was complete, one was interested in seeing it after 100 pages, etc. etc. I also had some experiences with agents who were NOT so receptive, and some that were even downright rude. I’ll keep specific names out of it, but one in particular told me he was very busy and was screening potential authors to rep by giving things to his 13 year old daughter to read. I still wonder to his day if she got an actual paycheck.

Oddly enough, the agent I ended up going with, Jenny Bent, found and contacted me via my website. She also came to me with the idea that Grosse Pointe Girl still had legs, and that we should resell it as a full length fiction novel. She had previous success doing the same thing with Laurie Notaro’s best-seller The Idiot Girl’s Action Adventure Club.

I loved Jenny right from our first email exchange and phone conversation. She got me, she got my writing, and most importantly, she completely supported me. I’m still with her, and I’m fiercely loyal. She’s always got my back.

If you’re a writer and you’re getting to the point where you want to investigate representation, I think it’s crucial to do some homework first. Find out where the agent is based, and not only who they represent but look at actual examples of books by these authors. One trick in terms of figuring out where to start is by looking at the writers you like or think you’re in line with in terms of style and then check out their acknowledgements page. Most writers always thank their editors and agents, and it’s a good way of getting names of people who are much more likely to be into your type of work.

What is the last book you read?

I’m currently reading The Apple’s Bruise, a short story collection by Lisa Glatt – she’s incredible. She’s also a poet, and that background is so evident in her prose. Her writing is mesmerizing – her characters and scenes stay with me long after I’ve closed the covers.
I also recently finished Jodi Picoult’s The Tenth Circle. I was particularly interested in reading her book because it incorporated elements of the graphic novel with the story – from the profession of the father character to actual story segments told in comics format. Jodi’s book was very powerful and heartbreaking, and I was really impressed with how well she wove the industry into her story. I worked in the comics industry for about five years as the Marketing Director for Dark Horse Comics, and I still have strong ties to the comics community.

Who would you cast in the role of Presley and her Aunt Betsi? No Olsen twins, right?

I’ve actually thought about this a lot, because I think this novel really lends itself well to film, but of course, I’m not exactly impartial. But I like that this book offers strong female roles, particularly for a late 20s/early 30s actress that is something outside of the typical best friend, girlfriend, or wife roles.

For Betsi, I can see a number of actresses – Rachel McAdams, Judy Greer, Radha Mitchell, Samantha Morton. I also love Carly Pope, who was in the magnificent but unjustly axed series Popular. (I wasn’t kidding when I said I’m coming to get you, Mr. TV Network Executive!)

I think Presley provides an opportunity to introduce a new young talent, but I’ve often thought of her being played by a young actress named Abigail Breslin. She’s only 10 or so, but by the time everything would get rolling and into production, she’d be just the right age. She played the little girl in Signs and she’s also in the soon to be released Little Miss Sunshine, which I think looks terrific.

And of course if that fails, there’s always the Olsen twins, circa 1998 or so of course. They could take turns playing Presley. And I could take turns stabbing myself in each eye.


Anonymous Anonymous said...
Oh my g-d. I'm so running out to buy this book, just b/c she referenced Sassy. I still have my "Sassy" t-shirt that I'll wear around the house. Years ago, when I was interning at a PR firm, one of the girls mentioned how she won a Sassy contest!

I too, wished to be on staff at Sassy and hang out with Jane Pratt. Do you ever read Jane? I pick it up from time to time. Just not the same as Sassy... @ 2:29 AM  
Blogger Manic Mom said...
Hey DJ, you are running with these interviews! Another great one, another great recommendation!

BTW, picked up Come CLoser, blogged about it and linked to Famous Writers. @ 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Jenny Bent said...
OMG, POPULAR was the BEST, most subversive show ever. I LOVED that show. I think it only lasted as long as it did because the network execs weren't watching it and didn't realize what a raunchy, hilarious spoof it actually was. (this is Sarah's agent--great interview, by the way!) @ 12:24 PM  
Anonymous guile said...
the lovely bones.. i love that book :).. @ 11:52 PM  
Blogger Manic Mom said...
Wow Jenny Bent is leaving you comments! You're getting famous! @ 11:57 PM  
Blogger gkgirl said...
siiiiigh of nostalgia....
i had every issue
and i so regret ever
getting rid of them...
although i do still have
one folded up well worn
hysterical article about
what life would be like
if we really did the things
suggested in mags like YM and cosmo
to get a boys interest
and the scary/hysterical results...

and great site,
will definately check into the books! @ 7:10 AM  
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