November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Julie Murphy and Aaron Hartzler Chat About Self-Image, Media, and Their New YA Titles

Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ celebrates body acceptance, and Aaron Hartzler’s What We Saw (both HarperCollins, 2015) tackles rape culture. SLJ sat in on a conversation between the two authors about what inspired their latest YA novels and the importance of self-image, body acceptance, and media for today’s teens.

Photo by Christy Archibald

Photo by Christy Archibald

Julie Murphy: Both of our books delve deep into how society sees girls and body-shaming. What inspired you to write a book about a girl whose body is so violated when she is raped?

Aaron Hartzler: What We Saw isn’t written from the victim’s perspective but from the perspective of a girl named Kate who is a bystander at a party and not directly involved in the assault that happened. The story is gently tugged from the headlines. The Steubenville case was very present in my mind, especially when a couple of years ago it was all over social media. A hacker collective, Anonymous, was involved and its members leaked videos from the incident. My youngest sister was a senior in high school at the time. She also lived in a small place in the middle of the country and I just thought, “What must it be like to be coming of age in the middle of a conversation about sexual violence in a small town like that, especially when you’re not directly involved in the event?”

In What We Saw, Kate goes to the party and she wakes up the next morning at home and she sees it all over social media. At its heart, this is a story about a young woman who is learning to define herself. When I was a teenager, nobody sat me down and told me, “Hey, the actions that you make in the next couple of years will start to define who you are.” I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so fond of writing books about teenagers. The number one thing I hear when talking to kids is that they feel like they don’t have much power over their decisions—whether that’s overt because of the adults in their lives telling them what to do, or whether it’s feeling like they can’t upset the confines of their social circle. The heart of this story is Kate: How she finds her voice and then makes the decision about whether or not she will use it, and whether her silence makes her complicit.

AH: What inspired you to write Dumplin’?

JM: Being a plus-size or fat author writing about a plus-size protagonist, the contrast and comparisons to [my protagonist] are kind of unavoidable. People want to know if this is inspired by my own life events. It isn’t directly ripped from my life story, but there were a lot of things I could relate to in writing this book. This is the kind of book I wanted to read for a long time. I can really relate to Willdowdean and her struggles. It was almost painful to write it, as a woman in her late-20s, and to be able to say, “Oh this is what I needed at the time.” I’ve lived my entire life in this body. I wanted to write for other people who feel that same way—who feel that their voices have been neglected because they haven’t seen a reflection of themselves in the fiction that they read.

AH: To see yourself [in books] gives you a feeling that you’re not alone. Seeing yourself is one of the most important parts of reading books—it saved my life.

DumplinJM: Yeah, I totally agree. I didn’t realize how important that was until recently. While I wrote Dumplin’, I felt this kinship with the main character.

AH: One of the biggest things that struck me is the great feminist message in your book.

JM: I definitely see this as a feminist book. So many of the messages that women receive about their bodies are from men, which doesn’t make any sense. We’re the ones who live in our bodies. We take ownership of our bodies. Why is it that we turn to the opposite sex for approval? Guys struggle with this issue, but in a totally different way. Women are so trained to take up as little space as they can and men are trained to take as much place as they can. And so when a woman’s body automatically ignores that rule—her hips are too wide, her shoulders are too broad—she automatically breaks the mold. I think when a woman accepts herself as she is, that’s an act of feminism.

JM: Do you think your book speaks to the feminist ideals?

AH: I definitely do. Kate and her friends have a discussion about what it means to be a feminist. They’re in a small town in the middle of the country. I grew up there too. I was surrounded by women who didn’t work and women who said submit in their wedding vows. A couple of the characters have very negative views about the word [feminism] and they pull up [the definition] online. They find that it just means believing that men and women are equal. It’s like a new window in their brains opens up. Growing up a gay in a small Midwestern town, all of the homophobia that I experienced was rooted in sexism. If calling somebody a girl is the worse putdown you can think of, then we have a cultural problem.

JM: There’s nothing I love more than hearing a man speak feminist rhetoric.

AH: It’s in my Twitter bio: Feminist homo. I love the reactions that I get when I speak up about that. It’s amazing to me how many adults don’t even know what the concept is.

JM: I love talking about characters in books and I think the concept of “unlikable” characters is relevant to the feminist discussion. Do you feel like some of the characters in your book could be perceived as unlikable? Did you do that on purpose?

small_Aaron Hartzler credit Christopher Sowers

Photo by Christopher Sowers

AH: This whole concept of “unlikable character” bothers me, and especially the other characteristics that usually accompany that description: shrill, whiny, and whatever terms that guy characters don’t have to put up with. I love unlikable characters. I love watching the protagonist make the worst choice possible and then seeing how they get out of it. Guys get a pass on that kind of stuff all the time. Think about the last 10 years of television—from Walter White to Dexter. A lot of those people made despicable choices. If you have a girl in that situation, she can’t get away with even half of what they do, because she’s supposed to be all of the things that girls are “supposed to be.” In my book specifically, Kate has some friends that are awful, but a bunch of them are very well-meaning even though they make the wrong choice. I don’t care if people like my characters or not, I want to tell the best possible story I’m capable of writing.

AH: What about you?

JM: I’ve definitely written a book with unlikable characters in Side Effects May Vary (HarperCollins, 2014). I don’t think Willowdean and her friends would be considered unlikable. They are shocking in that they’re willing to accept themselves just as they are and they’re willing to put themselves out there on the beauty pageant stage in a very unabashed way. I’m interested in the public’s reaction and how people will first view that. Everything that Willowdean does was done on purpose, and the way I presented her body was done on purpose. I hope that if it does come to a shock for some readers, it will be a good shock. We’re so used to seeing fat characters as sad, the butt of the joke, and as the foil for main characters. She’s not any of those things. I’m excited to see Willowdean meet young readers, and hopefully she’ll find a place in their hearts.

AH: I also love that it’s set around a beauty pageant. Do you have pageant experience?

JM: No, but I was a theater kid. Every leading lady I’ve ever worked with has done a beauty pageant at least once. I live in Texas, so there are so many resources in here. I have a lot of friends who did pageants. I have this totally unreasonable love of beauty pageants. There’s obviously something fundamentally wrong with them, but also fundamentally ridiculous. And you have to respect these women who are brave enough to get on a stage and say, “I feel good about myself and I’m a contender.” Then there’s the other half of the equation that says, “Why do you have to get on a stage to even seek approval in the first place?”

AH: I love the social media stuff that you’ve been doing on “What’s a bikini body?”

JM: It’s been so much fun. I think that for me what the biggest surprise through all of this is how people have been sending me pictures of themselves in swimsuits. And the book isn’t even out yet. That’s incredible.

AH: Absolutely. Well, you’re tackling something that’s really important that no one has talked about loudly enough or in this way.

JM: Thank you. I just want to start a conversation. Going back to social media, a lot of the way my book hinges on a beauty pageant, your book hinges on social media and media in general. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Part of the reason why I chose to focus on media in What We Saw was [that] it was such a big part of the Steubenville case and the most recent instances of sexual assault on high school and college campuses. There are adults who are still in court proceedings because they tried to help the teens delete the media. That’s why the Anonymous hacker group got involved and started releasing videos of the teens talking about what they did. These stories have been happening forever in this country, but now the internet and social media has made it something that we almost immediately hear about. In fact, it’s being chronicled. That’s one the things that made the story so fascinating. There was no way to tell this coming of age story taking place right now, without [showing] how quickly and permanently something can be reported.

In the social media firestorm that happened around Steubenville, a lot of the bystanders, [similar to] Kate in my book, lost their humanity, at 140 characters at a time. Steubenville became synonymous to this evil place where people did terrible things. And there was a terrible, evil thing that happened in Steubenville. One blogger mentioned that drunk teenagers are the worst decision makers in the world. That really hung in my head, because there were other drunk teens at the party who didn’t decide to rape someone and were not assaulted. And those teens are the ones who got lost and erased.

JM: A few weeks ago, the often contested “1 in 5” statistic [referring to] young women who are sexually assaulted on college campuses was confirmed by several studies. What do you think educators, especially librarians, can do to help raise awareness?

Hartzler_What We SawAH: Be the adult willing to start the conversation. There are so many authors who have already done the work for you: Courtney Summers with All the Rage (St. Martin’s, 2015) and Laurie Halse Anderson in Speak (Farrar, 1999). I want this book to be a conversation starter for not just young women but guys as well. There’s so much work that needs to be done with young men: in teaching them to be present and aware of that statistic, knowing their role in those kinds of situations, and knowing how to step up.

AH: What’s your take on the kind of conversation that your book can start with educators?

JM: Just respecting one another’s bodies in general, is what I hope people can get from Dumplin’. I’m a total self-proclaimed fat girl and I want fat girls to see themselves in this book. I want everyone to read this book and find that one thing about themselves that they’re always doubting—too many freckles, teeth, your skin tone is uneven, whatever it is. If it’s not your body, it is not yours to comment on. Our only job as human beings is to love and accept each other. For a long time we’ve gotten used to the stereotypes that fat people are dumb and slow, and we use these horrible insults that we automatically roll the word fat into. We have to reevaluate the way we use that word. It definitely starts at a young age. Reading books is a very good jumping off point. I hope educators and librarians will have conversations with their students and patrons and that they examine themselves to see if they have made these judgements about people. I hope that conversation lasts longer than the life of this book.

AH: The relationship between the Willowdean and her friends is tight and amazing and incredibly realistic. The only reason I survived high school was because of my friends. It also feels fresh in a YA world in which girls’ relationships are often portrayed as catty and cutthroat. Did you make a conscious choice to present these friendships in this way?

JM: I’ve been on both sides of the coin. I had girls who were catty and rude, and to be honest, I was catty right back. But like you, I survived high school because of my best friends. The bonds that I have with them are so distinct. And it was great to finally write about it in Dumplin’. In this book, Willowdean creates new friendships while trying to maintain her friendship with her old best friend, while they’re undergoing changes in their bodies. This book is about bodies and it’s conversation that I want women have with each other. This is my book for the girls. It was really important for me to show their friendship in a positive light and that we as women can uplift each other.

AH: In What We Saw, one of the running themes is that everything changes. Kate is interested in geology. She’s learning how gradual change [takes place] within nature. Sometime it’s very slow, and sometime it happens at a blink of an eye. Her relationships start to change because she’s asking questions about what happened. She starts to question her friends’ reactions. Sides are taken, and an interesting dynamic happens. I really wanted to write about how precious friendships are. How much they should be valued. I’m also still really good friends with my high school friend. She was the one black girl and I was the one gay kid at our Christian high school. I feel wildly lucky to have found her.

JM: I always forget about our Christian high school connection. It’s like an entirely different world. Your memoir does an incredible job of explaining it. I think it’s important that we’re showcasing religion in our books. I was deliberate about mentioning church and making a part of the character’s world. There are mentions of what the Bible says a woman should be. I wanted to have those conversations in the book. I wanted to share that stark contrast to show that there are other ways to think about things.

AH: It’s important to do that in YA. I try to infuse as much as reality in my books. There’s a Christian character in What We Saw who is constantly questioning things in science class. Those teens still have to see themselves in books. There are still teens who are going to church twice a week.

JM: What are you working on next?

AH: I’m working on my 2016 book, Twitch. It’s also gently tugged from the headlines and loosely based on the 11 girls and 1 boy in New York in 2011 who were showing signs of Tourette’s syndrome, which turned out to be a case of conversion disorder. I decided to set it in a tiny town in Southern Arkansas, similar to where I was born. It’s my love letter to the southern gothic. It’s about a teen boy whose older sister is the Queen Bee of the school and she sleeps with his boyfriend. She becomes the first girl in town to get hit with the disease. As the story plays out, all of the family secrets come out. There are a lot of people from my life in the Midwest who have cameos in this book. It’s a novel about the little bumps and jolts that life throws your way.

JM: That sounds fantastic. My 2017 book is called Ramona Drowning. It’s set on the Mississippi Gulf coast and has a beach vibe, but at the same time it’s oily and dirty. It’s about a teen who has identified as a lesbian for a long time and is falling for her male best friend, and she doesn’t know what that means. You can sort of call it the YA Chasing Amy. I’m still drafting it. She lives in a trailer park and she’s not ashamed or upset about it. She’s very tall. And that’s basically all I can say right now.

AH: I want you to hang up write now and finish writing it; it sounds so great!

JM: You and my editor both.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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