February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Adele Griffin On Creating a Beach Read That Boils with Tension

Photo credit: Charles Aydlett

Though Adele Griffin’s latest YA novel, Be True to Me (Algonquin, Jun. 2017; Gr  8 Up), takes place at Sunken Haven, a beach town reminiscent of Fire Island, NY, this is no lighthearted romp. This is a turbulent read, featuring calculating protagonists who give Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley a run for his money. It’s 1976, and Jean, who’s just stepped out from her gorgeous, popular sister Daphne’s shadow, and Fritz, who’s an outsider to the wealthy, old money world of Sunken Harbor, set their sights on new boy Gil during a summer that will change all of their lives forever. SLJ spoke with Griffin about crafting the setting, why readers are so hard on flawed female protagonists, and the importance of “power-dressing.” 

The 1970s details are spot-on. How did you decide which to incorporate?

After Addison Stone, I wanted to create another visual book, and when I submitted the Be True manuscript, it was a PDF of images—a David Bowie album cover, shampoo advertisements, candids from bicentennial parades. Then as my editor and I dug into the story, these visuals became less vital, more like a mood board—and when I finally scrapped them, I probably had a better sense of what descriptive details needed to stick.

The various references to outfits and hair and makeup aren’t merely descriptive; they’re how characters build themselves up and size one another up. Can you talk about the role of fashion in the novel?

One of the most intriguing pieces of writing this book was falling into another time. I devoured 1970s magazines: Playboy, Gourmet, Teen. It struck me how at that time fashion and lifestyle magazines sent such conflicting messages to young women who also wanted to be modern “libbers.” Fritz is a more authentic hip feminist, but then she’s tripped up by money, embarrassed by not knowing the dances or having the clothes for Sunken Haven parties. Jean has a different struggle, because she’s more obedient to etiquette and fashion tips—how to match her bag to her shoes, how to ask a boy all the right questions—yet she knows it’s coming off prim and fuddy-duddy and isn’t an embrace of the new feminism.

It also felt like a more modest time in America. Early in the book, I have two different scenes of packing—Fritz is leaving the army base and Daphne, a Park Avenue girl, is off to Spain. But with both girls, I also wanted to give a sense of their personal possessions as valued and less disposable per that period. You’ve got your one pair of sunglasses and flip-flops, two wrap skirts, your best blue jeans. Each girl packs a whole summer into one suitcase.

But my favorite fashion statement is Gil’s evolution. Over the summer he grows out his hair and trades his beloved concert T-shirts for the khakis and Izods of a boarding school boy. He gets power-dressing better than either of the girls.

Jean is often unapologetically selfish, but she’s always relatable. How did you navigate the tension between making her sympathetic and highlighting her poor decisions? And why is it that female characters come under such scrutiny for being unlikable in a way that male characters don’t?

I think Jean is really hard on herself, and I hope readers can feel empathetic about that. She’s so frustrated and unhappy in her own skin that her selfishness also seems pretty naive. We see how she wants and wants and wants—but we know she’ll never deliver herself any true happiness. She’s either stuck in the wistful past or in the ache of anticipation, but she’s never enjoying a moment.

Claire Messud’s line about unlikable characters always makes me laugh: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.” I do think there’s a male/female confidence/vulnerability balance that we’re renegotiating in storytelling. I just saw Wonder Woman and was fascinated by how much vulnerability they allowed the male romantic lead, while Wonder Woman was defined by confidence. And both characters played very likable.

All that noted, the quickest way to get me to buy a book would be to have the words “warning: unlikable female” on the jacket.

The characters also grapple with the stigma of seeming unlikable (for instance, Fritz says, “Privately, I vowed never to mention Jean Custis again. It brought out something low and a little bit pitiful in me”).

I really did enjoy putting Jean through a lot. She has the most unrelenting, self-scolding voice in her head. The nagging, “don’t be like this, be like that, girls” imperative was also a through-line in those old Seventeen and Cosmo magazines. Fashion and style magazines are still all about aspirations, but back then there seemed to be less self-advocacy and self-acceptance than what you might see in Teen Vogue today.

 The trope of the love triangle is a common one, but it feels original here. How did you approach the various relationships among Jean, Fritz, and Gil?

Love triangles are such a fixture in YA, and I’ve been writing YA so long, maybe for me it was like covering a classic song. But yes, I was uneasy knowing that the story might be dismissed for its girl rivalry and love triangles. At the same time, since I’d chosen the 1970s [as a setting], I wanted the story to be relatable—and intimate. You can pull in readers hard when there’s so much sharing of secrets, and Fritz and Jean share a lot—their first-time sexual experiences, for example, are pretty personal. My hope is that these moments stay big and raw and real in any time period.

How did you develop two such different voices? Did you alternate as you wrote, or did you write all of Jean’s chapters and then all of Fritz’s?

They both came up together, and I think bouncing the voices off each other helped me hone a sense of each. My first thought on voice was to have a character so grounded in her trappings that it’s hard for her separate her personality from a persona, and another who doesn’t really belong anywhere but holds a strong core sense of herself. A good trick I’ve learned is to find-replace first names. Fritz was Jill and Heidi. Jean was Martha and Sabrina.

I had to go back a lot to revise and untwine those voices, since I wasn’t always thinking about voice. Sometimes a revision [means reexamining] dialogue or pace or throwing out extraneous characters. I got Fritz’s voice quicker because she’s loose and more accommodating. In early Jean drafts, she was too guarded.

What was it like writing a romantic summer beachy read that has such dark undercurrents?

This makes me laugh—the sunshine and darkness are probably wrapped up in how I personally experience the beach. I can never relax and enjoy the sun and surf. I’m always squeezing out more sunblock, scanning the horizon for shark fins, fretting that the line to the bathroom is too long or that someone will bring a Frisbee that will smack me in the head. I don’t think I could harness a true romantic beachy feel. A book of boiling tension and turmoil, set at the beach, is as close as I get.

Was it always your intention to write a book that dealt with social class, or did that come up by chance?

I love writing about impostor syndrome. So many of my characters are Ripley-esque—maybe with less sociopathy. It feels like such a youth thing—to use everything you’ve got to [get] to the right party or the cool table. In college, I had an abject fear of being exposed as a work-study, financial aid student. I remember how I didn’t own the right winter coat, so I took one from a friend’s friend who was away that semester, then fretted endlessly that she’d want it in January. As much as I shake my head at that bygone me, I can recall with such clarity all that yearning and envy. In the book, I foisted a lot of those desires on Gil.

So many plot points in the book hinge on such subtle moments: a word unsaid, a tone of voice, a glance. How did you incorporate these elements into the overall story?

As a reader I’m always thrilled when I can feel lost to story. I’ve never experienced it so masterfully than in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and, more recently, in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Be True is not a huge, sprawling epic, but I really went deep into that summer of 1976, on that island with those families. All I want is to capture and immerse my readers the way I’d want to be caught and sunk in a book, and if it means rewriting a sentence a hundred times to hear a voice just right, that’s a good day’s work.



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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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