Today’s the first day of a new feature here at the Adventures in Dorkdom blog (yes, I know, I should stop trying to make that blog title happen–deal!). One of my favorite YA blogs, The Book Lantern, has been posting great interviews for about a month now, and I just adored Cory’s interview with Hannah Moskowitz about Moskowitz’s book, Invincible Summer. Reading over it, I realized that this was something I wanted to see more of in the blog-o-sphere: conversations with authors, focused on textual questions about their books and particularly on issues of race, class, and gender.
I figured I might as well be the change I want to be–so welcome to the inaugural interview of the Asking the Hard Questions monthly (or thereabouts) interview series! Today, I talk with author Kody Keplinger about her debut novel The DUFF and her upcoming sophomore work Shut Out.
Just a note: these interviews are meant to enrich your understanding of the author’s work. In keeping with that, Kody and I discuss events that happen at the end of The DUFF. So SPOILERS AHEAD!
Phoebe: You’ve talked pretty extensively on your blog about the importance of teen sex in young adult literature. Accordingly, your debut novel, The DUFF has a sexual relationship at its center. However, Wesley and Bianca’s relationship isn’t always a happy one—in fact, they seem to despise one another at the outset. What were some of the challenges you encountered in writing about an unhappy sexual relationship between teenagers?
Kody: I can honestly say that I wasn’t nearly as passionate about sex-positivity when I wrote THE DUFF a few years ago. Really, it was in the months after it sold that I started to think about my feelings regarding sex and YA literature. Those questions for me began popping up in the editing process, where I seriously started to think about the relationship between Bianca and Wesley. My main concern was that the message here not be, “Casual sex leads to true love! Yay!” Because that wasn’t my point. I worked hard for Bianca to realize that her relationship with Wesley was, in many ways, exceptional because it could have so easily gone in other directions. They have ups and downs, and ultimately the biggest challenge was emphasizing that Bianca had made a mistake in choosing this method (sex) of escape, but that in no way made her a bad person nor did it mean she didn’t deserve a happy ending. Hopefully I was successful.
Phoebe: Bianca sees herself as a feminist. Do you? Would you say that her journey is a feminist journey?
Kody: Bianca sees herself as a feminist at the start of the book, but I don’t think she’s fully grasped the ideas of feminism yet. I know that I called myself a feminist at sixteen or so, but I knew very little of what that really meant. In fact, I’m still learning. Though I would definitely say her journey is a feminist one in that she learns a lot of lessons about girls and sex – for starters, she learns how damaging and wrong labels are. My feeling is that by the end of the book, Bianca is a lot closer to being a feminist – and is a little more open minded about the different points of view feminism contains.
Phoebe: Wesley isn’t Bianca’s first sexual partner, and Bianca sure isn’t Wesley’s. This is a fairly rare choice even in YA where the characters have sex—more often than not, protagonists will be virgins at the beginning of a book. Was the decision to make them sexually experienced a purposeful one for you? What made you go this route?
Kody: I knew from the start that Wesley would be sexually, um, experienced. There wasn’t a lot of thought behind that choice – it was just a huge part of his character and played a huge role in his relationship with Bianca. As for Bianca, though, I actually hadn’t thought about her sexual history until I wrote the first romantic(ish) encounter between the two. Once I really sat down and thought about her character, I realized that her cynicism came from somewhere, and after figuring out that subplot, I knew that Bianca would most likely not be a virgin. This actually worked much better for the plot than if she had been because, to be honest, I think it would be really heartbreaking if this casual, meaningless encounter with Wesley was her “first time.” And in a book that is, on it’s surface, a comedy – that would be too distracting and too upsetting. So I gave Bianca a chance to have had a romantic, loving first time – even if that relationship from the past ended badly. Honestly, at the time when I wrote the book, I had no idea that having non-virgin characters was so rare. It was pointed out to me much later.
Phoebe: Some readers have taken issue with Bianca’s abrasive nature. Do you feel that she’s unlikeable? How does the pressure that female characters, particularly, be “likeable” inform your writing?
Kody: I think there is a difference between “likable” and “relatable.” Is Bianca likable? Well, I think so. Is she relatable? Yes, I know so. The fact is, not everyone is likable all the time. Characters that are always seem unrealistic to me. I always think of Parker Fadley in Cracked up To Be by Courtney Summers. Parker was definitely not always likable – but I LOVED her. I related to her so much, and I cared for her so deeply. I think part of why I loved her was that she could be so mean, make so many mistakes. Real people aren’t perfect, and characters shouldn’t be either. So, when I write a book, I definitely think about how relatable a character is, but if sometimes the character isn’t likable? I think that’s totally okay. But that’s just my taste, perhaps.
Phoebe: Class seems to be an important component in The DUFF. Wesley’s a rich kid and Bianca comes from a fairly modest background (her father is a manager in a retail store). Were you conscious of these class components when writing The DUFF? Did Bianca’s relative poverty, or Wesley’s relative wealth, have an impact on how you wrote them?
Kody: It wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind when I wrote. Personally, I grew up in some degree of poverty. We made it by just fine, but after taking a few sociology classes at college, I realized, “Whoa, we really were poor.” But, you know, most of my community was. We had a few wealthy kids, but looking back, they were very much “middle class” rather than “rich.” I just didn’t know it then. I just intended to write a realistic scenario – a mostly lower middle class small town with one or two rich families. (Wesley’s big house is actually based on a big house in my town that I always wanted to go inside because it seemed so out of place next to all the tiny houses near me.) Bianca is somewhat aware of the class differences, though, in some scenes in her home, which was intentional because it seemed natural. But, to answer your question, no – it wasn’t actually something I consciously intended to address.
Phoebe: Your next book, Shut Out, is a contemporary reimagining of Lysistrata by Aristophanes. For those readers unfamiliar with Lysistrata, it’s a comic play about a group of Greek women who withhold sex from their husbands in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War. Much of the humor of Aristophanes’ work was based on Ancient Greek attitudes about sex, which saw women’s libidos as insatiable. In light of our modern attitudes—which usually cast men as the sexual aggressors—was it difficult to adapt this work for a contemporary teenage audience? How did modern mores change your approach to the source material?
Kody: What’s great about Lysistrata is that the story works either way. Whether the attitude is that women are insatiable and therefore this strike is a trial for them or that men are insatiable and therefore this strike is something they must combat. But the book deals a lot with attitudes toward gender and sex. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that the characters in SHUT OUT spend a lot of time discussing views on sex and societal attitudes. My idea was to set Lysistrata in a modern day high school and use the scenario of a girls strike to tackle all the different outlooks on sex, labels, romance, and desire. It was definitely a challenge, which is why the book is a reimagining – looser than a retelling – of the source material, but it was also really fun to explore all the different ways this strike could be seen – from the Greeks outlook to modern America’s.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Kody! I love how your own growth toward sex positivity and maturation as a feminist mirrors Bianca’s. Just a note, if you’re an author whose work I’ve reviewed, and you’d like to be interviewed, feel free to drop me a line at phoebeATphoebenorthDOTcom.