The absolutely wonderful Luisa Plaja, author of Extreme Kissing - and the wonderful lady who helped me come up with the idea for Sex in Teen Lit Month, and prepare for it - has been kind enough to answer some questions about her novel and the subject in general.
How did you come up with the idea for Extreme Kissing?
It was a combination of a few things. There was an article I read about people who travel the world, choosing destinations at random. There was my love of teenage magazines. And then there were two characters who popped into my head – girls who seemed at face value to be at opposite extremes in almost every possible way, but who really got on. I wanted to bring everything together into a random road trip adventure for teenage girls.
Extreme Kissing is quite a thought-provoking book when it comes to teenage pregnancy and the attitudes towards teenage promiscuity. Was it your intention to send out a message on these topics? Why?
No, I didn’t set out to send out any messages, but I did want to reflect reality. I wanted to look at attitudes to risk-taking and safety, in all its forms, and one of these was in the girls’ attitudes to sex. Bethany is, in her words, ‘a good girl – well, mostly’. She spends her life pleasing people and being ‘safe and sensible’, and she even follows all the ‘rules’ when it comes to sleeping with her boyfriend: she’s in a long-term relationship, she’s over 16, she uses contraception. Carlota is far more reckless in all things, she’d define herself as a risk-taker and she positively cultivates her ‘bad girl’ image, for her own reasons. I tried to describe two different attitudes to sexual behaviour in the context of the way it’s seen by people other than the girls themselves.
There’s possibly one message that I hope could radiate lightly from all the books I’ve written, though, and that’s something along the lines of ‘even if you make a mistake, it doesn’t have to mean the end of the world – you have the strength to deal with it’.
When Bethany is worrying about whether she’s pregnant or not, she doesn’t really consider the options she has if she is pregnant. Was there a reason you didn’t go down that route?
Extreme Kissing is a novel that’s set all in one day. I don’t think issues like that would necessarily come up at first for anyone who starts to suspect an unwanted pregnancy. I think the early reaction would undoubtedly be some form of denial. During the course of the day, Bethany swings between torturing herself with the possibility of pregnancy and forgetting about it completely, depending on what’s going on. I also think that really, deep down, Bethany has a fair idea of the truth right from the start, but she’s too caught up in her thoughts to let herself believe it – until she’s ready.
For the most part, you seem to steer clear from bringing up the subject of contraception in the novel. Did you not want the novel to seem too preachy?
Ah, I have to say that I thought I’d accompanied most mentions of sex with mentions of condoms... I’m glad it didn’t seem heavy-handed, then!
Carlota goes on an unexpected personal journey as the book progresses, and has some realisations. Before those realisations hit, was there a psychological reason behind Carlota’s behaviour and attitude towards boys, or is Carlota generally just a flirty person?
Well, Carlota is definitely a flirty person! I think, as with everything, it’s probably a combination of nature and nurture. Against her will, she has moved country twice in her life before the novel starts – once to Brussels and once to London. Both times she has left behind people she loves (her grandmother in Spain, and Yves in Brussels). She’s the kind of person who’d put a brave face on it, though, and just cope, and she certainly wouldn’t want any fuss made of her. She’d rather be seen as strong and a fighter, which is one reason she relishes her reputation and works hard to keep it going. She’s also a bit of an attention-seeker, of course, which isn’t helped by the fact that she feels pushed out at home.
Carlota puts a lot of trust in what is written in her favourite mag, ‘Teen Spice!’ What are your views on teenage magazines today in regards to what they say about sex?
I think the messages are responsible, on the whole – there’s definitely an emphasis on waiting until you’re ready, and using protection. Maybe there’s a slight danger that they give off an ‘everybody’s doing it so you should do it too, right now’ message, but I think that comes far more strongly from society as a whole, and actually teenage magazines often try to redress that in their problem pages. I love the way problem pages don’t criticise girls for having a sex drive, though. I think that’s important. I’m sorry to say that before the launch of J17 in the eighties, I think they did. Pre-J17, I think many teenage magazines either avoided the subject altogether as if it didn’t exist, or they gave off the message: ‘don’t even go there’. I think this ignores the fact that people might actually want to go there, and there’s a danger of making girls feel bad about natural feelings – feelings that boys, in turn, are encouraged to have and act on. I definitely prefer the more realistic attitude of today’s teenage magazines.
There weren’t any actual sex scenes in the novel. Was that because it didn’t fit in with the characters and the plot, or because you chose not to include any?
Bethany and Declan’s first time together was an explicit scene in the original first draft. It didn’t quite fit the story any more by the later drafts, and so I deleted it.
What’s your opinion of how YA novels are dealing with the topic of sex?
Most YA novels are wonderfully realistic, honest and thought-provoking on this topic, without moralising. There are some fantastic examples of this on your list.
Do you think there is a limit on what should be covered in YA novels?
No, I really don’t think so. I think it’s very important not to underestimate readers.
What books did you read as a teenager, and how well do you think they dealt with talking about sex?
Well, in terms of ‘explicit’ books, there was Forever by Judy Blume, and Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews. Both of these got passed around at school when I was about 12. The Virginia Andrews book was very entertaining but not exactly a healthy depiction of sex. (For those who don’t know, it describes an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister who are forced to live in a confined space together.) Let’s just say I think it’s great that there’s such a wide range of fiction available today! Though I’m not criticising Forever, which I think is a wonderful novel. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed its influence on contemporary teenage fiction, with titles such as Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky (dedicated to Judy Blume) and A Bad Boy Can Be Good For a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone (where Judy Blume’s Forever is instrumental to the story). I do wonder whether any boy since the release of Forever has been named Ralph...
I read all types of books when I was a teenager, though, including ‘bonkbuster’ style books by authors like Jackie Collins that featured lots of raunchy stuff, and horror novels like Carrie by Stephen King (a YA novel in disguise if ever I read one!) I also read sweet teenage romance novels, and plenty of them. They were great fun but very ‘clean’, some possibly to a fault – you could spot the ‘bad girls’ a mile off, and they’d be most likely to ‘go too far’. I don’t remember the boys involved ever being accused of the same ‘crime’. The double standard is still alive, of course, and still written about, but I think in the past it was sometimes perpetuated in novels, and nowadays I believe it’s nearly always highlighted in a critical way. This makes me happy.
What do you think about parents not allowing their teenagers to read novels with a certain sexual content?
I would never criticise anyone’s beliefs on this subject. However, I don’t agree with any form of book banning. I also believe that the world of Young Adult fiction is a wonderfully safe place to learn about sex and sexuality, to satisfy curiosity and to explore some of the issues surrounding these topics.
Anything else you wish to add/discuss?
I did want to add that when I first discussed the list of possible titles for this event with you, I accidentally omitted a trilogy that I think was ground-breaking in the world of UK teen fiction when it was first released in the 90s. The trilogy that starts with Diving In by Kate Cann was unique at the time in its depiction of a sexual relationship between teenagers without nasty, terrible consequences and/or glamorous sensationalism. I’d urge everyone interested in this topic (or everyone who likes a good book!) to read this series, and also to read what Kate Cann says on her website on the subject of sex in Diving In, which has recently been updated and re-released.
Also, I’d love to thank you very, very much for holding this month and all these great discussions!
Well, thank you for all your help, and for the awesome interview. Do any of you have any questions for Luisa? If so, ask! Luisa will be popping over to answer any further questions you guys may have, so get typing!