March 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

‘Dear Nobody’: SLJ Chats with Coeditors Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil

One of the best things about being the editor of SLJTeen is the flood of galleys that flow my way. One of the worst things, well, is the same. How to decide what to read, put on the list, or just set aside? When Dear Nobody: The Real Life Diary of Mary Rose arrived, it haunted me—I usually look for escapism in young adult literature, and here was a work that wanted to bring me back to the raw gritty reality that teens die every day from very real things. Adults and teens will find this to be a very compelling, heart-wrenching, throw-the-book-across-the room sort of read. The coeditors, Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil, experienced many of the same emotions I did.

Dear NobodyPlease tell SLJTeen readers how you came across this remarkable diary.

Legs McNeil (LM): It all started when my postmaster’s daughter came over my house to borrow a book on Charles Manson for a high school class. I live right across the street from the post office, and had struck up a pretty tight friendship with my favorite mailman and his family.

As is my usual habit, I asked the postmaster’s daughter what books she was reading while she was browsing through my extensive Manson library. She rattled off a few popular titles, and then added, “But you know Legs, the best thing I ever read were these journals my best friend’s older sister wrote, but unfortunately she died…”.

I was immediately interested. Ever since I’d read Go Ask Alice (Simon Pulse) when I was 11 or 12, I knew the book was a fake, though it took me a few years to trust my instincts. I intuitively realized that no one ever used the slang the Avon editor invented in order to make the book appear authentic. And I also knew that no one ever died of an LSD overdose, as it is suggested that Alice succumbed to. Go Ask Alice made me furious because not only was the book a complete hoax, but it sold millions of copies to unsuspecting teenagers wanting to believe in the tragedy.

We’d all been duped. So I’d always been on the lookout for the authentic version of Go Ask Alice, and was delighted to recognize that I had finally found it in the journals of Mary Rose. To say that I was amazed by the story that unfolded in front of me would be an understatement. I was seduced at how Mary Rose could be so sharp, intuitive and dead-on one moment—and ridiculously bratty the next. And, for me, these contradictions seemed to capture the essence of adolescence.

So I quickly photocopied selections from the journals and sent them off to New York to Gillian McCain, my writing partner, and asked her, “Am I crazy, or is this one of the best things you’ve ever read?”

“Yes, you are crazy,” Gillian told me, “But the journals are extraordinary!”

Much of the first half of the book gives readers a chance to “meet” and try to understand Mary Rose. I almost felt like Mary Rose was trying to get to know herself, as well.

Gillian McCain (GM): I think most people keep journals because the practice is cathartic. And often its only years down the road when you reread them do you learn a lot about yourself, or how much you have changed. Unfortunately Mary Rose did not have that opportunity.

LM: I never kept a journal, so I don’t know. I love the contradictions though. I love how Mary Rose is so thoroughly committed to something in one entry, and totally dismisses it in the next. These contradictions seemed to me to capture the roller-coaster ride that is adolescence.

When Mary Rose writes about “getting good at this whole ‘sex thing’” she speaks about it like a drug. I’m wondering if this is a common response from teens with chronic and physically debilitating conditions?

GM: Not more than with anyone else.

LM: I think sex is so new to her that she almost takes a mechanics view on the thing—“Does this go here? What if we do this?” And I think she’s frustrated by her partner’s lack of interest. I think she should’ve been with someone who was as fascinated with the process as she was.

Mary Rose writes about how she is 17 and “OLD”—though she goes on to say “I look great for my age.” What did you learn about cystic fibrosis (CF) and how it affects the teen body in your research for this book?

GM: We did no outside research on CF for this book. Our job was to present the disease as Mary Rose told it, and how she experienced it. By the end, I felt like I knew a lot about the disease, the suffering it caused, and some of the treatments it required. I learned that one’s voice can get deeper, and that the lack of ability to digest food makes their weight go up and down a lot.

LM: I knew nothing about CF before reading the journals. I still don’t know a lot about it. It’s just so horrible—I almost can’t wrap my mind around it. I thought it was just a disease of the lungs, but the whole body’s freaking out. But as far as writing about it—I thought Mary Rose did a great job of explaining the symptoms—both physical and psychological—because I don’t think she would have made so many stupid choices unless she knew the clock was ticking. Mary Rose knew time was running out. If she didn’t have CF, I don’t think she would’ve been in such a hurry. I mean, for her, a month really was like a year.

Mary Rose is traumatized and scared after making a very bad decision involving drugs, alcohol, and being with the wrong people. She then starts rationalizing it—“Maybe it’s like a test, and I’m Job from the Bible or something?”  Were you surprised that she led herself down this path?

GM: Mary Rose essentially suffered from two diseases: CF and addiction. My gut feeling is that she knew she was on a downward spiral with her CF, so why not do the same with her addiction—and have what she perceived as fun along the way. Mary Rose was not going to leave this world without a party.

LM: When I was 13 my girlfriend got hit by a car and was killed, so I used to sit around in school all day and think about dying. As I got older, I believe I was not alone. Many kids go through some very severe trauma in their teen years and, in many small towns across America, the language and the faculties for communicating these traumas does not exist. Given that I was a healthy kid, I really should not have been thinking about death all day—but if I knew that my time was as short as Mary Rose’s? I don’t have a clue as to what I would’ve done—probably something similar to her.

Tell me what your impressions are of Mary Rose’s relationship with her friend Hayley.

GM: I think Hayley is probably Mary Rose’s most intimate friend, even though they don’t see each other after rehab. Hayley knows about her CF, and I assume she is supporting Mary Rose in working on her sobriety. Some of the letters MR wrote to Hayley were cut out of the book—they were amazingly funny (at least to me; I have a sick sense of humor), but we assumed a bit too crude for most readers. She would have been the only person who could really mourn with her over Dylan’s death. She’s the one she wanted to give her kitty earrings to. She the one she wanted to show her photographs to. I love it when MR says [paraphrasing], “I’m only telling you this because I know you’d understand.”

LM: Gillian liked Haley more than me, and wanted to include more letters from her, but I thought they were more of a distraction to the already-choppy narrative flow

When Mary Rose is at the Children’s Clinic, the doctors hint to Mary Rose that “the reason I’m here is because I don’t take care of myself” and she tosses that assertion aside. That has to be very difficult for readers, who have experienced her drug and alcohol abuse.

GM: She’s like the heck with you, what do you know about my life? I mean, she wasn’t avoiding her treatments, or starving herself, or cutting herself or being wildly promiscuous. Maybe she thought that what she WASN’T doing WAS taking care of herself?

LM: Mary Rose probably thought, “Yeah, right, why?”

Any final statements you’d like to make?

GM: I fell in love with this girl after reading the first page. She was a great writer, and I am certain that she would have been successful. My fantasy is that if she lived now, she would rarely use Facebook; she would not have a blog; she would definitely be on Instagram, and she would continue writing a diary—but the notebook might change from Disney spiral notebooks to Moleskins (medium size).

LM: Once we finished the editing process, we discovered that since Mary Rose died as a minor— her parents inherited her estate—which meant that Mary Rose’s dead-beat dad was entitled to a share of the profits of the book. Since her dad left his family year after Mary Rose was born and played no role in their life, we didn’t want him to receive a penny.

We hired a lawyer to go to court and have her father removed as a beneficiary, leaving only her mother to benefit from the sales of the book.

Sounds easy, right?

Five years, three male judges, and $35,000 in court fees later, a female judge finally removed Mary Rose’s father from her estate and made publication of the diary possible.

I sat in the court room as Mary Rose’s mom testified that her ex-husband had failed to pay child support after he left them. Even more shocking was that he had taken out an insurance policy on Mary Rose and urged his ex-wife to take their daughter off life support systems in the week before Mary Rose finally passed away. I was sobbing in the courtroom as her mom finished testifying.

Now we would finally have justice—and it almost killed me. It seemed like Dear Nobody would never get published and Mary Rose’s voice would once again fall through the cracks, as it had her entire life.

Just before the lady judge made the final ruling, on Easter 2012, I drove to the rope swing where most of the book takes place and decided to talk directly to Mary Rose.

During the editing process, I had objectified her to the point where I was cursing Mary Rose on a regular basis for not writing more so that my job was easier, or not clarifying a confusing situation. I’d become another jerk—in long line of jerks—who treated her with indifference and scorn. It was time to make amends.

I’d brought with me some personal items that I’d been holding on to for way too long—a hat I’d bought for a dead girlfriend, a returned engagement ring, stuff that represented all the tragedy of my life—and the manuscript of Dear Nobody.

I sat at the base of the tree, where the rope swing was still tied to one of its thick branches overlooking the river. The first thing I did, after I tossed the items into the water, was to say out loud to Mary Rose, “Listen, I know this doesn’t count for much, compared to the life you had, but we’ve edited your journals into a diary and I’d like to read some of it to you…”

“But before I do that, first I’d like to apologize to you for what a truly shitty life you had. I’m sorry you were in so much pain. I know this book is no compensation for what you lived through, but hopefully it will get published and people will have a chance to read your story. So thank you for letting me and Gillian bring it to the light of day…”  And then I read from Dear Nobody

In honor of Mary Rose, I also tossed a can of beer into the river.

Legs McNeil and Gillian McCainThe only thing I know in my heart is that I am prouder than anything else to have my name on this book—and that Mary Rose will live through the words she wrote down, hopping some idiots like me and Gillian would discover them.

Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose (Sourcebooks, April 2014, ISBN 9781402287589)


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Dodie Ownes About Dodie Ownes

Dodie Ownes left the glamorous world of retrospective conversion and disco to jump on the library vendor train. Since then, she has been learning at the feet of the masters about all things library. Dodie lives in Golden, Colorado, where even the sign which arches the main street says "Howdy."

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  1. Mary Rose….is she really Maryrose Tobin who died on February 12, 1999 in PA at age 17? Just curious. :)