Author2Author: Colleen Curran & Martha O’Connor

When Whores on the Hill and The Bitch Posse, two novels that both feature teen girl trios getting into big trouble, showed up in my mailbox on consecutive days, I figured the gods of parcel delivery were trying to send me a signal about how I should be scheduling my website. So I sent word out to Colleen Curran and Martha O’Connor, and once the three of us had sorted through everybody’s tour schedules–well, okay, I’m not on tour yet—the conversation got underway…

oconnor.jpgMartha O’Connor: The teenaged girls in both The Bitch Posse and Whores on the Hill cultivate badass, take-on-the-world images, but scratch the surface and one finds heartbreaking vulnerabilities. In your novel, Astrid seems the toughest of all. What about that image draws Juli and Thisbe to her? What’s really going on beneath Astrid’s tough outer shell? And finally, in your opinion, how does toughness relate to vulnerability, not just in Astrid but in all three “Whores on the Hill”?

curran.jpgColleen Curran: I grew up in the Midwest during the late 1980s and early ’90s. Growing up, all the super cool girls were badasses. At least, in my estimation. These were the girls who listened to the Violent Femmes, the Smiths, the Cure, the Cramps, PiL, the Dead Kennedys, Siouxsie and the Banshees, etc. My friends and I thought it was truly the coolest thing in the world to be a badass girl. These were the girls who wore mohawks or had asymmetrical hairstyles or cut checkerboards into the backs of their hair and wore long underwear under their skirts with big black boots. For me and my friends, to be a badass meant that you were smarter than everybody else and you understood the world and you had a worldly wisdom about you and you were a true individual.

Now, looking back of course, I know this is all a pose. That just because a girl looks tough on the outside, doesn’t mean she’s tough at all on the inside. And that copping a certain style of dress or hairstyle doesn’t make you a better or bigger person; it might just mean you’ve got cool hair. But in high school, teenagers are struggling so hard to find a sense of identity. And clothes, hair, music–these exterior symbols signify identity. Teenagers value them so much because it’s the clothes and hair and music that gives them a sense of self.

In Whores on the Hill, Astrid, Juli and Thisbe want to be strong women. They want to be tough and indestructible and independent. But they really have no idea how to do that. So they turn to the only strong female role model that they have. Deb Scott is a legend at their high school, the baddest of bad girls, the girl who wouldn’t take shit from anybody, the true original. Astrid, Juli and Thisbe try to model themselves after the myth of Deb Scott, but they find it incredibly hard to live up to the legend–because really, that’s all she is–a story, an ideal that is impossible to live up to. And I think that’s a universal issue for all women (and men); how do we live up to the ideal versions of ourselves or who we want to be?

Mostly, I wrote about girls like Astrid, Juli and Thisbe because I didn’t see any other books out there where young women are grappling with sex and drugs and identity. Books like The Bitch Posse, actually, but of course I didn’t know about it at the time.

Your characters, Cherry, Rennie and Amy, form an intense, powerful friendship, but it also isolates them from the world. They smoke, drink, do drugs and have sex. They are the “darker” side of chick lit. Was that a conscious decision for you? Why did you want to write about girls like this? What are the positives and negatives of writing about “bad girls,” from a craft perspective? You allude to this in your first chapter which opens with a graphic sex scene where Rennie, also a writer, says to herself, “Don’t open with a sex scene, Wren. Readers will lose sympathy for your heroine.”

bitchposse.gifMartha O’Connor: I certainly didn’t plan to write this novel, and under other circumstances, it would never have been written. A different novel of mine was on submission in New York via a well-respected AAR agent. I’d written what I felt the market wanted at the time. People seemed to like chick-lit, people have always liked mysteries, let’s write… A CHICK-LIT MYSTERY. And this agent told me it’d sell in two weeks. I thought I was brilliant.

Well, four months later, we’d gotten ten rejections for this chick-lit mystery, and my agent told me we were running out of options. I sat around feeling sorry for myself for awhile. Then, I did what I always do and started something new. Much to my surprise, what came out wasn’t chick-lit. It wasn’t light and fun at all. It wasn’t even a proper mystery. Instead, it was what you’d get if Mary Gaitskill slept with Hubert Selby Jr. and their baby was cursed by Irvine Welsh. What the hell was I thinking? This was the definition of “will not ever sell and destined for iUniverse heaven.”

But Amy, Rennie, and Cherry compelled me. I couldn’t stop writing about them, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Fifty pages into the novel, I showed the work-in-progress to my then-agent. She hated it. She said it was far too dark and disturbing for today’s marketplace and no one would ever publish it. And she suggested I put it away forever and write another chick-lit mystery. By that point, though, I considered the Bitch Posse girls my friends. I wouldn’t abandon friends in the amount of trouble the girls were in at that point in the novel… and I couldn’t abandon Amy, Rennie and Cherry either. So I kept writing, ditched the old agent, got a new one… and the novel sold in four days at auction. What I learned from this whole experience is that it is a mistake to write for the market. You have to write the story only you can tell.

You use a lot of avant-garde fiction techniques in Whores on the Hill, from the demerits to the quiz to the interviews. In a lot of ways this choice reminds me of how teenagers’ brains really work, jumping from one topic to the next. It works really well, I think. Was this something you wanted to do all along, or did it just spring organically from the teen subject matter?

whoreshill.gifColleen Curran: It all started with the demerit slip. My boyfriend at the time (now husband-to-be) recommended I put a demerit slip in there. He’s a high school English teacher. So I did that and liked it.

Then I started buying teen magazines while I was working on Whores. Seventeen and Teen. All those articles about hair and makeup and how to interpret “guy signs.” I found what I really loved in the magazine were the things that I had loved in high school: the quizzes and the dating disaster stories, etc. When I was in high school, I loved taking quizzes in teen magazines. I would do them all, all the time, obsessively, and answer differently, trying on different personalities.

I started thinking how funny it would be to write a quiz: “What Kind of Whore on the Hill Are You?” Where my characters, Astrid, Juli and Thisbe would write their own quiz. But they’d redefine it and to be a Whore on the Hill would be to be the best kind of girl: smart and funny and quick thinking. So I wrote the Quiz fast one morning and had so much fun with it, I felt like I could do more. After that, I started adding in the “First Kisses” section and the “Dating Disasters” and the Q&A sections.

I love style. I love experimental fiction. These sections were definitely my favorite. And they were easy to write. Originally, my editor suggested that I cut these experimental sections from the novel. I resisted making that change and kept them in. What I like about these sections is that they still move the plot forward. The Quiz shows that Thisbe, the narrator, is coming to terms with that dark nickname, “whores on the hill,” and that’s she’s starting to own it, like Astrid and Juli do. Or the First Kisses section gets across that Thisbe has had a first kiss with Devin, her main love interest in the book, and it gets the information across in a new way.

curran.jpgYour plot really moved. I read The Bitch Posse cover to cover in two days and I almost never do that. Did you consciously plot it, or did it all come out at once? Do you outline? How did you make those pages turn? What do you think makes for a good, pageturning novel?

oconnor.jpgMartha O’Connor: Writing this book was like driving on a mountainous road with lots of blind turns, hairpin twists, and stark cliffs. I could only “see” about one chapter ahead. Although I knew the girls’ anger was spiraling into a dark event, I didn’t know exactly what the event would be and I didn’t work out the specifics in my head in advance. (However, later on, I revised the hell out of those last chapters!)

While the mystery I wrote before this was never published, writing it taught me a lot about plotting and building suspense. I did consciously leave my characters in trouble at the end of every chapter, a technique often used by mystery and thriller writers. It kept me interested, too, and made it easier to pick up the story thread when it was time for that girl or woman to narrate again.

Although neither a mystery nor a thriller, The Bitch Posse shares some things in common with both, more so with the thriller genre than with the traditional mystery. A mystery would have a crime at the beginning and a detective trying to solve it, where in a thriller the crime usually comes at the end and the suspense is in the reader’s quest to find out what the crime is going to be, how it’s going to happen, and its details. True, a pageturner has to have a fast-moving plot, but the most important thing it needs to have is compelling characters. I have to care.

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24 June 2005 | author2author |