A different duck takes flight
Gabrielle Prendergast’s young adult novels reveal boys can be more civilized than girls: “A lot of the worst bullying is not cross-gender, It’s within the gender. I think girls and boys are mean to each other in different ways. But the bullying, the psychological bullying, is particularly nasty sometimes with the girls.”
June 11th, 2014
Here is an in-depth interview with Gabrielle Prendergast, a UBC Creative Writing grad who takes the verse-novel into new territory with Audacious (Orca $19.95) and Capricious (Orca $19.95), both about an outsider named Ella.
BCBL: Steven Spielberg steps into an elevator with you in Los Angeles and you have sixty seconds to make a pitch for a movie about your two books. What would you say?
PRENDERGAST: I would say it amounts to a character study of a very unusual and socially rebellious girl who, in her grade eleven year, does a piece of artwork for a school art show that is basically a picture of her twat.
BCBL: So Ella can be an anti-social teenager, but there’s also a part of her that thrives on being rejected or an outsider. To what extent does Ella create her own alienation?
PRENDERGAST: Being a teenager is largely about finding your place in the world and figuring out how you fit in. I think that when you are a teenager, if you don’t automatically slot into a particular role then it becomes your role to be outside of the acceptable crowd. I certainly did it when I was a teenager.
BCBL: At the same time, Ella in Audacious and Capricious yearns for some of the respectability of being part of the accepted girl group. Is that how you were when you were growing up?
PRENDERGAST: By the time I got to be Ella’s age, I had kind of gotten over that. I had accepted that role of the outsider, largely the way that Ella does. But the story is only autobiographical to a certain extent. Much of it is made up.
BCBL: I happened to run across someone who attended SheldonWilliams High School in Regina with you. He described you as “a different duck.”
PRENDERGAST: Right. Well I was. The older and more mature you get, you start to realize that everybody has a position, and you become more accepting of what your position is. Through these books, Ella is coming to terms with the fact that she is this different duck. And she’s starting to understand what it’s going to take to be an artist. She’s never going to be the mom on the corner who everybody goes for recipes about apple pie. She’s always going to be that weird woman with her weird family. I think that’s what young adult literature is about. It’s about coming of age and finding your place in society. Ella’s role in society is the rebel.
BCBL: You’ve not only given her a realistic sexual life, but she has two boys that she’s very involved with, not just one.
PRENDERGAST: I look back on my young years and realize that I wasted a lot of fidelity on boys and men who weren’t worth it. I’m married now, and my husband is worth it, but you know, I’m older. Many times young people commit their lives to one person, or another, for a year, or two years, or six months, and are turning down lots of opportunity for friendship and fun with other people. And then it turns out the first person is not worth it cuz they turn out to be a jerk.
BCBL: The second book, Capricious, explores this in a much more explicit way. In what other ways are the two novels different?
PRENDERGAST: If I’d had more time, I probably would have written Capricious more by the seat-of-my-pants, like the first one. But at a certain point, Orca said to me, we’ve changed our mind, we want to publish it in the Spring. That hacked six months off my writing time. I was like, fine. But I felt rushed. And I had to plot it a lot more for that reason.
BCBL: When you are writing do you ever stop and ask yourself, is this too adult?
PRENDERGAST: As far as content goes, I have a fair understanding of what is acceptable in young adult literature, and what I would want my daughter to read when she’s a young adult. And what she would be interested in reading. As for swearing, well, it’s too late for my daughter and most kids. They’ve heard it all. And as far as the sexual content, well, by the time you’re 16-years-old you’re already reading 50 Shades of Grey. Mainly I don’t want them to be embarrassed while they’re reading the book. That kind of thing still grosses you out when you’re 13, 14 or 15-years-old.
BCBL: Both novels are written as so-called verse novels. Why?
PRENDERGAST: I heard about young adult verse novels for the first time in about 2005 and I thought it might be like Paradise Lost or something like that — an epic poem. So I bought one of them—Sonya Sones’ book, the one called One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies—and I loved it. It wasn’t an epic poem at all, it was a collection of poems the way Audacious and Capricious are. I was captivated, so I read a lot of her books, and verse novels by Ellen Hopkins and Lisa Schroeder. Then I just set myself a challenge to write in verse.
BCBL: Arguably the term verse novel is inappropriate, especially with your writing. It’s not poetry and it’s not verse.
PRENDERGAST: Yeah. I’m not a poet. I’ve never really been one of those people who likes to write poetry, but it just seemed to work for me. I felt really creative and comfortable when I was writing. I do think the term verse novel is inadequate. It just doesn’t quite capture what we’re doing. These are not like Dante’s Inferno, as I said. It’s a new way of approaching narrative, and we’re kind of making it up as we go along.
BCBL: How did you get these two titles, Audacious and Capricious?
PRENDERGAST: Audacious came from the scene where Ella makes a joke about the art of Jackson Pollock. Then she says, “I’m just kidding. I really like him. He’s so audacious.” That’s when her friend Samir says, “Audacious should be your middle name.” It set Ella’s heart on fire to have someone say that to her. It was an incredibly romantic thing to say. I did not know before I wrote that scene that the book was going to be called Audacious. Once that word was attached to Ella, the whole concept of what was going to happen in the book just came to life. And it was very easy to finish that book after that. It took me two years to write it to that point, and about three months to finish the book after that point.
BCBL: Were you audacious in high school?
PRENDERGAST: I don’t remember really ever using that word. It probably was used on me. I did do some fairly crazy things in high school. I was a bit more easy-going than Ella is and not quite so judgemental, but I certainly did some bonkers things.
BCBL: Were you capricious as a teenager in terms of who you were involved with?
PRENDERGAST: I didn’t really have boyfriends in high school. Between high school and university, I don’t know what happened to me or to the boys that I knew, but when I went to university literally two months later, I didn’t have enough time to go out on all the dates that I was asked out on. I literally had three dates in one day. I wasn’t a great beauty, just like Ella’s not a great beauty, but I think men were attracted to me for the same reason, because I was kind of kooky. And I liked them and I respected them and I didn’t put on any kind of performance for them. I was just myself. But yes, I definitely was capricious with men when I was a little bit older than Ella.
BCBL: Why did you choose Orca Books over another publisher?
PRENDERGAST: I’ve always liked them since I started reading their books. I like that they produce things that are appealing to so-called reluctant readers and to struggling readers. And I like how unpretentious they are. Their goal is to get those books into the hands of readers, and get them into libraries and get them onto bookshelves in school libraries. That’s a more serious job than trying to have some stupid bestseller. I mean, as much as I would like to have a bestseller, and maybe I will one day with Orca, it’s more important to me that my job is to engage young readers. That’s what I want to do.
BCBL: How important has Sarah Harvey been as your editor?
PRENDERGAST: It’s fantastic working with her. I love it. Sarah and I were really on the same page as to what the books were about. The second book was harder than the first. The first book was a very polished draft that I submitted to Orca and hardly anything changed. Whereas the second book was more collaborative and more substantial changes were made from the first draft. But I loved that process of having my work torn apart. Some people hate it; I love it.
BCBL: Female bullying part is an integral part of Ella’s story. It motivates her to become a different duck.
PRENDERGAST: Yeah. When I write, I’m trying to subvert tropes. One of the tropes in young adult books about girls is the way they’re mistreated by boys. That was not my experience in high school. I certainly had the typical experiences that young girls have, being groped. But, sadly, I found that girls and women can be quite hostile to each other. At Ella’s age, and into the twenties, there’s a lot of competition for mates which might sound cave-mannish, but that is actually what’s going on. And that becomes pretty hostile. I think that a lot of the bullying between girls—even at my daughter’s age, and she’s ten—comes from that kind of jealousy.
BCBL: Certainly in your two novels, the girls are far more destructive.
PRENDERGAST: Yeah, well, that was my experience in high school. I had wonderful friendships with boys. Over the years I’ve had many best friends who were boys. My best friend in grade 11 was a boy. So I wanted to write about these friendships. Mind you, I didn’t have a lot of boyfriends because I was awkward and chubby and I thought that that mattered. But once I got into university, I realized it didn’t matter that you were awkward and chubby. Boys were still going to like you.
Again, one of the things that I try to do in my writing is to subvert the tropes. One of the big ones in young adult literature is this hostility between men and women, or boys and girls. It’s often expressed in what I call the rape recovery narrative. There’s a lot of books about teenage girls who are raped or sexually assaulted, often by a classmate. The story is about her dealing with it. It’s not that I don’t think that those books are relevant, it’s just that I wanted to do something different. There are many terrible ways to treat people.
There have been cases in the news about people who have been bullied to suicide. I think that a lot of the worst bullying is not cross-gender, it’s within the gender. I think girls and boys are mean to each other in different ways. But the bullying, the psychological bullying, is particularly nasty sometimes with the girls. Considering the state of the world, girls and women should be more supportive of each other than we are.
BCBL: Were there ever two boyfriends at once?
PRENDERGAST: Definitely not in high school. So a lot of my writing for young people is a kind of an idealization, or renovation, of my own childhood and my own youth. I would have loved to have had two boyfriends in high school. So I can do that in a story. I’ve created this character who’s kind of an autobiographical me, but she has a much better run at it. Ella has a little bit more intention; and she’s a little random. She’s also prettier. And skinnier.
Audacious (Orca 2013) $19.95 978-1-45980-530-9
Capricious (Orca 2014) $19.95 9781459802674
Interview from a video by Alan Twigg, recorded in June, 2014.