By Kim McCullough
One Good Hustle, your latest novel, burst out of the gates and blew away the barriers between genres; it was long-listed for the Giller, as well as short-listed for the prestigious CLA award for Young Adult Book of the Year. What do you think it is about One Good Hustle that has such a cross-generational appeal?
These nods from juries have been a big surprise for me. I don’t gravitate toward the sort of “Big Themes” that juries tend to enjoy. The wars I write about take place in the living room. They involve people close to home because that’s where I find my sense of immediacy.
Telling this story in a 16-year-old’s voice was something of a leap of faith. It felt natural and visceral, but I wondered if somehow that voice would place the whole thing in a kind of neither/nor place and find no readers whatsoever. It’s surprising to me that teenagers are interested. The YA books I hear about usually involve witches and vampires —or at least a dystopian future.
One Good Hustle follows some of the tropes of a YA novel: Teen protagonist, lack of parents, a bit of romance — yet it was never specifically designated as YA. Was this a deliberate choice, or not even an issue?
I wasn’t trying to appeal to a young reader at all. The first scraggly draft of One Good Hustle was a completely different story told from the point of view of Sammie in her 30s. It wasn’t working. The only chunks that did work were the flashbacks, all of which were about Sammie as a young girl. My editor suggested that I put it aside for a while and let my subconscious work it out. I came back to her a year later with a hundred pages of 16-year-old Sammie — which came out in a finger-flying rush. She loved that version — it felt to her as it did to me: visceral and furious. I always intended an adult reader. And from what I understand Random House rejected a lot of cover ideas because they looked too YA.
It’s interesting to me that the relationship between Sammie and Drew could be considered a romance. From Sammie’s point of view, it’s a bit of an anti-romance. She’s not interested in sex, she’s interested in knowing one human being with whom she can’t take down the mask, divulge the truth of herself.
How do you feel about the marketing labels required by publishers and bookstores?
In a way, it’s odd that a 16-year-old narrator causes people to assume a 16-year-old reader. I wonder if it’s because of the female voice. Nobody suggested that Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha or David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green were young adult books. Both stories told by young protagonists.
I find the creation of a YA genre a little ridiculous, frankly. Catcher in the Rye was certainly never written as a “YA novel”. It was adult fiction. But teens related. The issues that were being tackled, themes like social class, poverty, wealth, external judgment, isolation, prostitution (sexual and otherwise) — these are things that affect us all regardless of our age. The thing I find annoying about YA fiction is the perceived need to write down to a younger mind.
There is a movie based on the character Marlene (Sammie’s mother) that is being filmed right now. Tell me a little bit about that. Are you involved beyond writing the original novella?
When I was first re-writing One Good Hustle, I was banging out short stories, putting Sammie through her paces to make sure I knew her. Meanwhile I got an email from Melanie Little who was editing a new YA series and she was looking for “edgy”, “gritty” stories told in the first person by a teenager. I had several of them in front of me so I thought what the hell, I’m broke. I reworked one and sold it. Before the story came out (as half of a flip-book), I heard from Ana Valine, an old acquaintance from the film business. She was interested in optioning my first novel, Going Down Swinging, with an eye to directing and producing it as a feature film. In the end, she wondered if the novel was too ambitious for her first and asked if she could read a few of my short stories. I showed her the Marlene story. She fell in love and bought the film option a few weeks later. I was not involved with the process beyond that.
Does your acting career influence your writing?
I don’t have an acting career anymore. I used to audition and do small roles here and there, but these days I just use film as a fall-back. I’m a union member so extra-work and stand-in work are the best paying unskilled labor jobs I know of. I suppose, though, that what you learn as an actor are tools similar to those you need as a writer. The actor’s notion of using “emotional recall” in order to generate a parallel for the characters he or she plays is really important when you are trying to create a character who feels authentic and fleshed out.
I once had a writing instructor (Peter Oliva, who wrote The City of Yes) who taught the importance of searching out the subconscious obsessions in our writing: themes that repeat; symbols that come back time and again; characters we revisit in different ways. Have you noticed any obsessions in your own writing? Any underlying similarities in your characters?
I write about families over and over. The novels have tended to have an emphasis on mother-daughter relationships: wild-child women, mothers who don’t “behave,” addiction, social class, religion, vulnerable kids.
Who is your author crush?
Flannery O’Connor is a big one for me. She is funny and pointed and ferocious. She takes no shit and no prisoners.
What is the best writing advice you’ve been given?
Use the AIC method: Ass In Chair. It’s the only way it’s going to get done.
(See Kim McCullough’s review of One Good Hustle here.)