English Works: Writing Bestselling YA Fiction
MFA alum Kathleen Glasgow will
discuss her debut novel GIRL
IN PIECES with Professor Julie
Schumacher 7 pm September 7
at Magers & Quinn.
Kathleen Glasgow (MFA 2002) was known to over a decade of MFA students as the coordinator of our Creative Writing Program. In that position, for which she won a CLA Outstanding Staff Member Service Award, Glasgow supported students and professors with patience and creativity, coordinated visiting author readings, promoted faculty and alumni accomplishments, and in general kept the program spinning like a top (top ten, that is, in MFA national rankings). What many students didn't know was that she had her own writing project, a labor of early morning and late evening, plus three extended summer breaks made possible by Minnesota State Arts Board grants. Over years of work, she wove the "riveting" (Booklist) and "heartbreaking" (School Library Journal) story of 17-year-old Charlie, an abused and neglected teen who settles her ghosts by cutting her skin. In 2014, Glasgow found an agent, Julie Stevenson at Waxman Leavell, who gave her manuscript a crisp edit and shopped it to both adult and young adult publishers. Within four days, they had multiple offers. Glasgow clicked with young adult editor Krista Marino of Delacorte/Random House and signed a two-book deal. Published August 30, Girl in Pieces has already landed on several "best of" lists. We caught up with Glasgow via email; she now lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and two children.
In the book, several characters sport names with Creative Writing Program connections: for example, a fellow treatment patient bears the last name of Director Julie Schumacher, not to mention the novel's protagonist, "Charlie," otherwise known as Professor Charles Baxter's nickname.
I have a hard time naming characters, in general. I mean, when you have a book with a big supporting cast, like Girl in Pieces, you kind of find yourself wracking your brain after awhile. I remember that Julie once told me that she uses the names of real people for characters because 1) sometimes the name is interesting and sounds good, or 2) it’s a way of acknowledging people in your life. I worked with Julie for more than 10 years, as a student and as an employee in the Creative Writing Program, and she was one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met in my life. I would not have written this book without her, there’s no question. She’s also an athlete, so it developed rather organically that when Jen S. the basketball player popped into my head, and it was time for her to have a last name, the orderly Barbero (also a former athlete, and used to referring to people by their last names) might yell out, “Schumacher!” Because also? Yell that. It’s funny! And it sounds real. So, yes, the book is sprinkled with little homages to people I know in the program, like [coordinator] Holly Vanderhaar, [Regents Professor] Patricia Hampl, and Charles Baxter. So far, though, no one has mentioned the names of two characters who are clearly references to The Bad News Bears, one of my all-time favorite movies. [Editor: Okay, Tanner Boyle, but what's the other?]
You did your MFA manuscript in poetry here. To write a 400-page novel what did you have to learn re: the craft of fiction? What was hardest: creating characters, building a plot, writing dialogue, or . . . ?
I liked the MFA program at the U because you were allowed to take workshops in other genres, so I was able to take a fiction workshop with Julie, which was instrumental. She’s very good at parsing things down to their marrow, which is good for people like me, who tend to blather on. But maybe the sad truth is that in 2008 my sister died, and I couldn’t write poetry anymore. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but it’s true. I couldn’t write poetry, or anything, for an entire year. When I did start writing again, it was this book, and of course I had no idea what I was doing! So it was trial and error and a lot of words on pages. I did take workshops and seminars at the Taos Writers’ Conference, where I met writers Antonya Nelson and Summer Wood, and they were hugely supportive and helpful in shaping the book. Dialogue is very hard for me, because it has to function as two things: what people are saying and what they aren’t saying as they say it. I don’t think I have a problem building a plot so much as restraining a plot, if that makes sense. I’ve learned in the past year that some writers consider themselves “plotters,” and meticulously draft everything, and some writers are “pantsers,” and simply let it all out and then go back and carve and shape. I’m a proud wearer of pants, which is possibly why my second book has an alpaca farm, Earthships!, Blondie’s hat from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, skateboarders, a girl named Cake and a girl named Tiger, and Arabian horses.
Friends and acquaintances keep stepping in and saving Charlie, which makes it a terrible burden that she didn't perform the same kindness for her best friend Ellis. Did you always know you wanted to write about forgiveness?
Charlie is 17, and deeply traumatized, so she’s not particularly adept at kindness, yet. I did want to explore notions of forgiveness, and what that really entails, and how sometimes you need to forgive yourself if you want to try to forge a life for yourself. All the characters have things in their past that they need to reckon with on a daily basis. Some of them do it by helping Charlie, like Ariel and Linus. Some of them don’t address their behavior, like Riley.
"I don’t think I have a problem
building a plot so much as
restraining a plot." - Kathleen
You're so generous with the other characters: They have their own troubles they're working on; it's not just Charlie who is gathering her pieces together at the end. Did you ever get distracted with the other characters' problems?
I didn’t get distracted, no, though it was sometimes painful to write the relationship of Charlie and Riley, because as she’s becoming enthralled with him, I didn’t want the book to become about that, but I also worked very hard to give his character nuances, so a reader could perhaps understand his motivations a little better. Now that I’m a parent, I wanted to give some depth to the adult characters. When you’re a teenager, you don’t always understand the decisions and actions of your parents, and I wanted to make sure that adults reading this book could recognize themselves, too. And I like books with lots of characters. I mean, even the guy who slices and wraps your cheese at the deli is an influence on you, yes? Maybe he’s seen tears in your eyes on one of your bad days. Maybe one day he wasn’t quite as kind as he usually is. He is a presence in your life, even if you don’t recognize it, at first.
You reveal, in the author's note at the end, that you self-harmed as Charlie does, and that, indeed, you wrote Girl in Pieces in part for teen girls like you were who might benefit from knowing they are not alone. Had you thought about what it would be like to have to come out as a former cutter over and over again, every time you talk about the book? How did you prep for it?
I don’t mind talking about it. One of the things that interests me is that the conversation around cutting is primarily relegated to teenagers. And those teenagers? Grow up to be adults with a lot of scars, but we don’t talk about what it’s like to be an adult with harm scars: how you have to hide it for jobs, how difficult it is to explain. I mean, there’s a nation of adult women out there, either former cutters or currently harming, and you might not even know it. Long sleeves! It’s a lifetime struggle. My agent and editor did ask me if the book stemmed from personal experience, and I said yes. They were very supportive and said I could talk as much or as little about that as I wanted to, but that, because of the subject matter of the book, it would always be the first question asked. I’m fine with all of that—anything I say on my own, or in the book, has the power to help a lot of people who are currently harming, or who have harmed, and that’s a good thing. That said, the character of Charlie is not me. I gave her my scars, and the emotions behind them, but her story is fictional. So—not a memoir, but a rip-roaring novel.
You're involved in the online group the "Sweet Sixteens": How did that start? From the outside it seems YA authors promote each other and receive amazing support from a YA blogging world in a way you just don't see with adult fiction . . . .
The idea began several years ago as a way for debut young adult authors to support each other’s books and to help each other through the editing, marketing, and post-publication process. Every year, there is a different name, like “Swanky Seventeens” or “Fearless Fifteeners.” The YA world is completely different than the adult fiction world. There are a tremendous amount of YA book bloggers out there, sites devoted only to YA books, so many teen lit conferences, and a very, very vocal YA fandom on Twitter. But it’s great because I’ve met so many great people in the past year and a half and developed some real friendships. It’s also been great to meet YA librarians and educators who are very involved in what teens are reading and to hear them talk about the need for diversity, experience, and representation in young adult literature, in particular.
How do you spend nine years finishing a book and then meet a deadline to write a second one in a year?
Panic. And coffee.