Thursday, April 16, 2009

Author Interviews, part II: Terra McVoy

Okay, so, a good friend of yours writes a book. And it's a girl book--full on, pink cover and everything. But you want to be nice, so you read it so you can give her your opinion. But then something weird happens. You like the book, despite the pink, despite the teen girl characters. Even, it seems, despite the fact that the author is your friend.

This is what happened to me with Pure, Terra McVoy's new YA novel. I like it enough that I've actually said to a mutual friend, "I like Terra and all, but Pure is a really good book!"

Anyways, she's now in the midst of a full-on book promotion blitz, but I had some time to ply her with a few questions. Interview after the jump--

Terra Elan McVoy's first novel, Pure, is about a group of high school girls who, back when they were in middle school, took purity pledges--promised before their friends and their church youth groups leaders and their parents, to keep their virginity until marriage. They all wear "purity rings," symbols of this pledge, and in a way, symbols of their friendship. Only now they're in high school, and things have changed--like the fact that one of them decides that she doesn't need to be quite so pure...

From the description, and from the book cover, you can probably tell that the guyslitwire readership is not exactly the main audience for Pure. But I love this book for two reasons, and both are tied into the fantastic characterization on the author's part. First, these girls are real. They've got their drama, but they aren't the empty, one-issue, one-care, one-dimensional characters that seem to populate books in the same category. Second, as much as the plot screams S-E-X!, the book is really about faith, and I can't think of another YA book that handles characters with faith quite as well as this.

Guys, I may not be able to convince you to go out and buy this book, but if you have a chance--if you see it in the library, or your sister or friend has it lying around, then make a cover for it (like this, or maybe design one on a website like this, where I made this funny image) and read it. Anyways, here's what author Terra Elan McVoy had to say:

Justin: Given that this is primarily a book directed at a teen girl audience, what might a teen guy get from reading Pure? Put another way, nowadays there are so many books for so many different demographics of teens and adults, why read outside that at all?

Terra: I totally agree that there is a lot of amazing stuff out there to read, and honestly far be it from me to keep guys from those books! But I do hope that some guys read Pure, mainly because I know that they struggle with all kinds of pressures to fall in line with everyone else, just the same as girls. So since this book is mainly about making your own decisions—about how hard it can be to figure out what you really believe without the influence of friends or family, it’s my hope that there are one or two guys out there who can relate to that. (Even if it is wrapped in a superpink cover.)

Justin: I connected so much with the characters in your book, especially the direct, honest way they wrestle with their faith. It felt very fresh to me, in part because other books I read that touch on religion or faith, whether aimed at a YA or an adult audience, seem to treat the subject in a very pat way--religion is either good or bad, it either has all the answers or none at all. What's up with that, and was that in your head at all when you wrote Pure?

Terra: Well I think you say it perfectly when you mention that people often think of religion as either good or bad, all or nothing, without acknowledging the whole messy gray lot in the middle that most people of faith find themselves in. I think that in the last decade we’ve heard very loud voices from both extremes, while the sort of “normal” person—the person who’s wanting to be true to his faith (or perhaps discover it), but is finding that occasionally kind of difficult—doesn’t get heard much. Before I started writing I found this crazy statistic that said some huge number of teenagers were actively involved in their churches. And I was like, “Where’s the book for that kid? The one juggling youth group and mission trips and getting a driver’s license and sports and dating and curfews and all that?” That’s a hard kid to be, and is who I wanted to give some voice to in Pure, absolutely.

Justin: Pure, from the book description, sounds like it could be a "social issue" novel, but I write above how you steer clear of having the "hook" define the characters and everything they do, and instead let the characters stand on their own. Why do you think there are so many books coming out now that are based around "problems with teens today," and, to be frank, why are a large number of these books so bad?

Terra: Well I’m not sure I can speak in great sweeping statements about the quality of what’s out there, but in my long life with literature, it’s been my impression that teen books love to focus on teen problems in general, partly because that’s what teens have always wanted to read. Look at The Outsiders, or A Separate Peace—there’s some high high drama in those books! And melodrama is hard to pull off, no matter how you slice it. But to get to the root of your question, I think the difference now is that teen culture has become popular culture, so us adults are a lot more aware of all of it. Also there are fewer obstacles now to writing about more extreme problems—problems like suicide and sex and cutting and drugs—so you see more books about those topics. But I don’t think teens are necessarily more troubled today than they used to be. Look at Holden Caufield! He’s essentially the first teenager in literature, and he’s in a mental institution! We are just in a freer society where we can discuss the issues more openly, and in more gross detail.

Justin: When we were teens, I think there were more books aimed at guys than at gals. Nowadays, that seems reversed. Were there any books you read at the time that might have been considered "boy books" that you loved or deeply affected you?

Terra: Well I always kind of associate fantasy books with boys—even though I know a lot of girls who are into fantasy and sci-fi —and when I was in high school I of course got into Stephen King (his short stories were my favorite) and also Dean R. Koontz. One of my favorite books then (that is still one of my favorites now) was The Talisman that King co-wrote with Peter Straub. In so many ways that’s like the perfect fantasy novel. I also read this book by Robert McCammon called Swan Song that is, I swear, one of my top 20 favorite books, ever. Lord of the Flies is pretty boyish and that had a big affect on me too of course. But I realize these are all “adult” books that I’m saying. To be honest, I don’t think I ever read any “YA” books for boys, except maybe A Separate Peace—but I don’t even know guys who like that book.

Justin: Finally, you also manage a kidslit bookstore. What do you say to the whole notion that guys don't read? Is it about the books being written, the books being published, the way books are presented to teen guys, all of the above or none? Or, asked another way, who or what is standing between guys and great books: parents and their expectations? Teachers and their crappy assignments? Booksellers and librarians for their misguided assumptions? Give us a scapegoat.

Terra: For one thing, guys do read. I know they do. But I think they are shier about it than girls. I mean, one of the biggest differences that I’ve observed (not that I’m an expert) between boys and girls is that girls often like to be more socially vocal about what they’re doing, and how they feel about it. And books are kind of one of those things where everyone wants to know all about what you’re reading and, more importantly, what you think about it. So I imagine that part of what can turn guys off from books is all the talking that can go on around them. You can’t just, like, read a book and love it or hate it. If your mom sees you reading something she’ll be all like, “What are you reading? What do you like about it? Who’s it by?” and try to engage you for 45 minutes. But if she sees you playing a video game she’ll just roll her eyes and tell you your 20 minutes are almost up or whatever. So, if you aren’t reading, you can be left alone a little more. I mean, a book can kind of be an invitation for a conversation, right? And one of the things I really dig about a lot of guys is how they really can handle their own solitude—how they are just okay with it in this great way instead of constantly needing some chattering companion. And while I’m not thrilled about making big sexist generalizations, I think if we just give guys access to books that they care about (and there are tons and tons of possibilities), and then leave them alone and not bug them with a bunch of discussion questions about how they feel, then we’ll see them reading more. It won’t have to be a big secret for them.

At least, that’s what I think. And you know what they say about opinions! But thank you so much for these questions, Justin—this was really fun!

Thank you Terra. Especially for the clever and graceful way you avoided the pitfalls of my leading questions, leaving me exposed as the curmudgeony ass I'm getting to be in my late thirties!

You can find Terra's website here, and her book anywhere books are sold (including your local independent bookseller). As a final aside, she has the most expansive knowledge of picture books, chapter books, middle-grade and YA books of anyone I know, and if you're ever stuck for a recommendation, she's the best at coming up with exactly the right book for whatever mood you're in.


tanita davis said...

Great interview! I think I need the "manly" cover too -- yikes, pink! -- but the book sounds great.

Colleen said...

This was an excellent way to present what seems to be a "girl" book to a "guy" audience. Thanks Justin!

Justin Colussy-Estes said...

Thanks! I try...

Actually, thinking back, I probably read lots of "girl" books for various reasons. Hell, I read (and loved!) Pride & Prejudice* because my girlfriend at the time loved Jane Austen. Later, a guy friend said he couldn't believe I liked it. I guess I didn't know I was supposed to until it was too late...

*I should add, this was before it had zombies...