Tuesday 14 July 2009

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Interview with Laura Ruby

YA author Laura Ruby was kind enough to give us a few minutes of her time for an interview about her novel Good Girls, and the topic of sex in YA.

Where did you get the idea for Good Girls?

I was in between projects, reading a lot of books and magazines, watching a lot of bad TV, just letting my mind wander. At the time, the tabloids and the TV shows could not shut up about Paris Hilton and her sex tapes. (I’m probably the only one in the universe who thought this, and perhaps I was na├»ve, but when that story first hit the news I wondered if it really was a publicity stunt, or if Paris H. had been seriously and publicly ripped off by someone she trusted. She wouldn’t have been the first.)

Anyway, the media’s obsession with Paris’s love life got me thinking about cell phones, how so many of them had cameras. I thought that it was only a matter of time before teens – and a lot of other people – started using those cameras for all sorts of reasons, not all of them good. I tried to write about it immediately, but I had no voice, no characters, no story, until the day my stepdaughter came home from high school and told me that someone was spreading vicious rumours about her. It didn’t matter that they weren’t true; the more she protested the more people believed what was being said about her. It was terrible to see her struggle, to witness her pain, to feel helpless to stop it.

But her experience got me to thinking again cell phones and computers, how rumours could be transmitted so quickly and exponentially. And then I remembered the cameras on those phones. I wondered what a regular girl, a “good” girl would do if someone spread not just a rumour but a photograph using a cell phone, an explicit photo that seemed to say more about this girl than she could ever say about herself. I wondered how such a girl might retain her dignity and self-respect in the face of that kind of public humiliation, how she might fight, how she might grow. It’s Audrey’s story, but I also think it could be the story of any girl grappling with sexuality, privacy, bullying and sexism.

In regards to the sexual scenes in Good Girls, you didn’t leave anything out. Did you ever worry about whether or not you were going too far?

Hmmm. I’ve heard some readers say that they found the book quite frank, other readers claim that the book wasn’t explicit at all, and still others that come down somewhere in the middle. I wasn’t as worried about going too far as I was about being dishonest or irrelevant. In general, my teen readers are a lot less shocked with the content than adult readers.

Was it important to you to depict Audrey’s first time for the readers?

Yes, but I was more interested in the reasons she decided to have sex in the first place, especially since she wasn’t sure of her feelings for Luke. I think her own temperament, coupled with the fact that she truly believed that casual, no-strings-attached interactions were the only way she could get affection, really messed with her ability to relate to, to even talk to, a guy she liked. On the surface she was experiencing intimacy, but she wasn’t emotionally intimate. She didn’t know how to be; she didn’t feel safe enough. That’s a personal thing, but also a cultural, friends-with-benefits thing. I was fascinated by both.

There’s a fantastic scene where Audrey visits the gynaecologist, and every step of the consultation is down on paper. Why did you decide to include such a detailed scene, and how did you research for it?

I included the scene because I think that the response of many middle-class American parents, upon learning that their kids might be sexually active, is to cover up their own ambivalence and anxiety by medicalizing the issue. They pretend that their concern is solely about the child’s physical health and nothing else. And because the pelvic exam can be so invasive, embarrassing and uncomfortable, it can be experienced by a teen girl as a silent, powerful rebuke for being a sexual person. In GOOD GIRLS, Audrey understands the importance of caring for her health, but the exam still serves to further shame and humiliate her.

As for the research, well, I didn’t have to do any except go to my own regularly scheduled doctor visits. Yuck.

Good Girls talks a lot about how girls will have the finger pointed at them for promiscuity but not the boys, and what would actually make a girl a “slut”. What is your opinion on this sexism, and today’s “hook-up” culture in general?

Except for the technology, I don’t think there’s much difference between today’s hook-up culture and the hook-up culture that I grew up with. I was passionate about writing this book because I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a thousand years. I can’t believe that there’s still such a double-standard, that girls are still called sluts and ho’s while “boys will be boys,” and that so many adults who should know better still subscribe to such notions. It’s idiotic and infuriating.

What do you want your readers to get from this book?

I guess the adult and/or parent and/or feminist in me would love it if readers came away with the idea that sex is so complicated, and so personal. Our culture hits us over the head with the idea that sex is the sole purview of men, that it’s a woman’s job to please but not necessarily enjoy, that you have to do certain things to hold on to your guy or you risk losing him, that guys have no feelings. This, forgive my language, is crap. Girls can have powerful physical feelings and guys can have powerful emotional ones. Sex concerns women as much as men, love concerns men as much as women. As soon as young women understand that they count, that sex is not about service, it’s about reciprocity, they can make better, safer, more empowered decisions about their lives and sexuality, even if their decisions include not having sex at all, or delaying it.

That said, the writer in me wants the story to resonate with readers, to speak to them in some deep, meaningful way, even if they couldn't care less about the cultural issues I'm interested in. Yes, GOOD GIRLS is about double standards and friendship and empowerment and blah and blah and blah, but it's also the best story I could write at the time that I wrote it. So.

What’s your opinion of how YA novels are dealing with the topic of sex?

Depends on the novel. There are some amazing books out there, and there are some not so amazing ones. The fans that write to me mention all sorts of books as their favourites — the good, the bad, the ridiculous. Even a book that you find mind-numbingly stupid can help you figure out who you are and what you think.

Do you think there is a limit on what should be covered in YA novels?

I was on an author panel recently and a member of the audience asked us if we thought we introduced certain material into teen culture, or reflected back what was already in teen culture. I almost threw myself over the table to answer this one. Authors are observers. We write about what we observe, reflecting back what we see. If it seems that some teen novels are becoming more explicit in content, I think it’s because teen culture has become more publicly explicit. (See Myspace, Facebook, middle school, etc).

So when I’m asked about what kinds of topics are appropriate to cover in YA novels, I think, well, what’s going on in teen culture right now? Is it pervasive? Should we talk about this?

That’s not to say that an author can’t be considerate of the age of his/her readers, and be gentle with them. Language need not be blisteringly aggressive, scenes need not be eye-wateringly graphic, etc.

What books did you read as a teenager, and how well do you think they dealt with talking about sex?

I guess the most sexually frank book I read as a young, not-yet-teen – I was twelve – was Judy Blume’s FOREVER. I think JB did an excellent job of depicting the relationships and the sexuality. Everything seemed so real to me, so authentic. There’s a good reason that FOREVER is still read today. As a matter of fact, I consider GOOD GIRLS a sort of homage to FOREVER. (Uh, FOREVER with cell phones and a lot more questionable judgment).

What do you think about parents not allowing their teenagers to read novels with a certain sexual content?

It’s okay that individual parents tell their teenagers what they can and can’t read…as long as they don’t try to tell the rest of us what we can and can’t read. : ))))

I do worry, however, that some of these parents, especially the parents of teens older than 13 or 14, are not only fooling themselves, they are robbing their children of the safest way to explore sexual issues. Simply because their kids aren’t allowed to pick up the latest GOSSIP GIRL doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about sex, not hearing/seeing all sorts of horrifying crap at school every two seconds, not looking at porn on a friend’s computer or cell phone, not experiencing any sexual wishes/desires of their own. And I worry that some parents who censor their teen’s reading material are robbing their kids of a safe way to sort out confusing feelings without having to go out and try a bunch of stuff in the real world long before they’re ready.

Plus, these parents are also robbing themselves of a way to begin talking frankly about sex with their kids. What easier way to introduce the subject than to hand your teenager a book and then ask him/her about it afterward? Maybe have a real discussion?

I was at a dinner party not too long ago, talking to a smart, interesting woman who had a 19-year-old son. She mentioned that her son wasn’t all that focused on college, that he seemed distracted. One of the men at the table made a joke about the son being distracted by all the girls. “OH NO, HE’S NOT LIKE THAT! MY SON ISN’T LIKE THAT!” the woman practically shrieked, shaking her head over and over, hands gripping her wine glass, stricken with some deep, unnameable fear. I thought: “Uh…he’s not like what? Human?”

As a teen, I was allowed to read anything I wanted. Books made me think. Books made me feel less alone in the world. I think it’s sad that certain people are so terrified that they’d attempt to deny their kids something so amazing and so important.

Anything else you wish to add/discuss?

Just to say thanks so much for exploring this topic on your blog this month, and asking me to be a part of it!

Thank you, Laura, for such an insightful interview, it really was awesome! Do you have any questions for Laura? Well, Laura has kindly agreed to pop over today to answer any questions you guys might have, so get cracking!


  1. Fascinating interview. Thank you so much, both of you. I loved this book and reading the author's thoughts on this subject is just brilliant.

    I'd like to ask Laura whether she's writing, or would consider writing, other books in the same genre as Good Girls? (I know about Play Me, but I just wondered whether there would be more!)

  2. Thanks Luisa, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview!

  3. That was a brilliant interview! I especially like what Laura said about parents censoring their teenager's reading.

    Question for Laura:

    With all the UK discussion surrounding Tender Morsels, which is a book that includes rape and, amongst other things, use of the word "slut", what do you think is too far? And do you think YA books should include age warnings?

    I personally don't, but that's just me!

  4. Great question, Jenny! If you go back a few posts, there's a discussion on that very question. It would be awesome to hear your thoughts!

  5. I agree - that's a great question. And I forgot to ask something similar myself! There's a 'parental advisory' band around my copy of Good Girls (bought in the UK) which warns about "mature content". I've seen similar stickers on my own book (Extreme Kissing), which doesn't contain anything explicit (the ones I've seen on mine say "unsuitable for younger readers"). I'd be interested to hear what you think about this kind of labelling, as prophecygirl asked.

  6. Hi Luisa:

    I'm glad you liked the interview! I do have a new book coming out in October called BAD APPLE. It's about a girl accused of having an affair with a teacher, with the main accuser being her own mother.

    But if you're asking whether or not PLAY ME or BAD APPLE explore the same sorts of issues that GOOD GIRLS does, I'd have to say yes and no. PLAY ME is sort of the opposite of GOOD GIRLS. Where Audrey in GOOD GIRLS has to integrate her physicality into her emotional life, Eddy in PLAY ME has to add a little emotional depth to his rather libertine physicality. With BAD APPLE, I was more interested in how technology -- cell phones, Facebook, online journals, etc. -- sometimes can interfere with our ability to think for ourselves. (It's so easy to poll people and get everyone's opinion on things rather than come to our own conclusions.)

    Thanks for asking!


  7. Hey Prophecygirl:

    I hadn't heard about the TENDER MORSELS controversy, but when people ask me if this or that topic is appropriate for inclusion in a teen novel, I always ask, "well, is this something that is a part of teen culture? Does it happen to teens? Is a concern for them?" I'd be more interested in how a subject is handled in a novel than in deciding whether a certain topic is off limits. The subject of rape was handled brilliantly, for example, in Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK. I would hate to think that teen girls would be denied such a book.

    As for your age labels question, well, we do that in the U.S., and it hasn't helped much. People still get confused and angry when they discover that material of a "mature" -- usually meaning sexual -- nature is in a book for people under 18.

    But just yesterday I was on a panel at the American Library Association's national conference with the librarian/writer Lynn Biederman and developmental psychologist Marty Klein. Lynn surveyed hundreds of teens to ask them about how they viewed sexual material in books they read, and the overwhelming majority of them said they were not disturbed at all by it, and no, reading about it did not make them run out and do "mature" things : ). The developmental psychologist said that books and/or information simply is NOT harmful to teens. He said that sexuality is the only topic about which we seem to feel that the less we know the safer we (or more specifically, teens) are. He said that's like saying that if we don't tell teens about oral hygiene, they'll never get cavities.

    I was allowed to read anything I wanted as a teen. I think that reading allowed me to explore things that I wasn't prepared to experience in the real world. Neil Gaiman talked about this in his Newbery speech. He said, and I'm not quoting directly of course, just off the top of my head, that to a kid, reading a book is a bit like being a poisoner back in the day. Poisoners took a tiny bit of poisons to become inured to them. And books can help kids deal with things that they're not ready to deal with in a safe way.

    I hope that answers your question!


  8. Thanks, Laura! BAD APPLE sounds brilliant and I can't wait to read it. I also need to find PLAY ME.

    More thanks for the great answer!

  9. Oops, I posted that before I read your *other* great answer. Thank you very much for that, too! That's so interesting, and I love what Neil Gaiman said.

  10. Hi again, Luisa,

    Re: the "mature content" labels. In the case of GOOD GIRLS, I think it's funny that we have to say the word "mature" rather than just say "Listen, there's SEX in this book!" Because that's what they mean, no? I can't be sure, but I don't think they're putting warning labels on books with violence in them, are they?

    But I don't think we're going to get around labels or book challenges or whatever until we address the real problem, which is this: parents are clearly terrified of something. What are they so scared of? What do they think will happen? Do they REALLY believe that an adolescent won't have a sexual thought unless someone introduces the idea to them?

    So, what's the answer? I don't know. When I get emails from concerned parents or have discussions with teachers and librarians at conferences, I try to explain why I wrote what I wrote, why I used specific language, etc. Most of the time, just telling them that I had a reason for doing what I do besides, "Oh, I wanted to write a sexy novel and make a jillion dollars!" which is what most people believe motivates writers, is enough. Sometimes, though, it isn't. In that case, my response is tell people, "I'm sorry my book isn't for you. I hope you find a book that is." In other words, I don't apologize for writing what I write, but I respect any individual's right to read what they want to read.

    -- Laura

  11. Thank you very much again. I love that approach.

  12. Thank you, Laura, for answering the questions! They were very insightful! Thank you for popping over! :)

  13. What a great interview! I am a huge fan of Laura Ruby and this book. In my opinion, it is a book that is especially relevant for teenagers today.

    And I applaud you for creating Sex in Teen Lit month. The posts have been exceptional and important. Keep up the great work, and I look forward to reading future posts this month.

  14. Thank you so much! I'm so glad you like what I'm doing! Seriously, thank you! :D

  15. And thanks from me, too, Shalonda! I'm thrilled you liked GOOD GIRLS!

  16. Thank you for a superb interview!

  17. You're very welcome! :)