just_a_girl is Kirsten Krauth’s debut novel, published earlier this year by UWA Publishing. It’s a story about the tensions between 14-year-old Layla and Margot, her mother, as they both recover from the trauma of Margot’s separation from Layla’s dad in the wake of his coming out.
Margot has found refuge in prescription medication and the messages of an evangelical church, and Layla has retreated to her bedroom where she uses online technology to secretly immerse herself in the intertwined worlds of teenage social politics and adult sexuality. Neither of these things have done anything to bring Margot and Layla closer together – in fact, they have driven a wedge between them.
Thrown into the mix is Japanese Australian Tadashi, a commuter who occasionally encounters Layla on the train and who decides to use Layla as the physical inspiration for his newly acquired sex doll.
The novel is told from the individual perspectives of these three characters, the narrative voice jumping from chapters featuring the manic run-on sentences of Margot’s incessant internal monologue to others showcasing the choppy, confident and almost dismissive train of thought in Layla’s head to a calmer third-person-narrated look at Tadashi’s perspective on things.
The three stories run in parallel, intersecting only occasionally as each protagonist searches for something to hold onto that will give their life, if not more meaning, then at least something solid to hold on to. As it turns out, both Margot and Layla are looking for the same thing – from the same person, even – but rather than giving them common ground and closing the distance in their relationship, their quests come very close to setting them against each other as rivals.
just_a_girl is a pretty unflinching look at contemporary sexuality and the way that online technologies influence our relationships, both physical and emotional. It looks at the way that the internet can bring people together, but also how it can isolate us and make it harder to establish meaningful relationships.
Recently I ran a little email interview with Kirsten, asking if she’d answer some of the questions I had about the book. Here’s what she said.
Disclaimer: Kirsten’s a mate of mine, so heads-up up-front about that by way of declaration of interest. That doesn’t make the interview any less interesting, but I thought it was worth pointing out.
Also: Mild spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t read just_a_girl yet.
Are you at all worried about the pace of change in technology rendering this story out of date in a short period of time? Is there anything in there that you think might already be at risk of dating the story?
I thought about this the whole time I was writing it. In the end I chose to keep it to a very specific time frame, starting in 2008. Many of the Facebook references I wanted to keep quite specific (eg writing on walls, poking) even though FB has moved on. I felt, otherwise, I would keep having to chase my own tail and rewrite to keep up! I’m not really worried about being dated. Most contemporary novels these days prefer to pretend the digital doesn’t exist, but I’m trying to tackle its impact on the lives of teenagers and parents.
I think most of the issues covered by the book are big talking points at the moment and will be for years to come, as long as parents pretend their teens aren’t sexual beings. Also, depressingly, many of the attitudes (boys to girls in terms of sexuality, the idea of the ‘slut’) haven’t changed much (perhaps have even got worse) since I was a teenager 20 years ago, so being just_a_girl continues to be a challenge.
You set up a blog for Layla as part of the lead-up to the book’s release. What’s the response been?
I didn’t ever do a blog. I set up a page on Pinterest. Is that what you mean? It’s something that I was having a bit of fun with, but never got around to promoting! The thing with social media is that you need so much time to focus, and that time slipped away. It’s something that I’d like to return to and have a bit of a play with at some point. I like the visual take of Pinterest, and it seems to combine really well with narrative/teens.
Sorry about that – so why did you choose Pinterest in particular to create a profile for Layla, and not another more 2008-authentic form of social media ?
It was mainly because I wanted something new to play with. I thought about Twitter, but Twitter requires a lot of time in terms of building up followers from scratch, and essentially would have meant working out how to tweet from a new viewpoint.
Then again, I haven’t really pursued Pinterest because I need to work on the whole follower thing. I thought with Pinterest I could set something up initially and then come back when I had time to have a bit of a play. That time is still in my head!
What do you think of social media as an author? Is it a tool for empowerment or a distraction from the work of actually writing?
As always, my feelings sway between ‘it’s a complete waste of time’ and ‘I love it’.
Like anything for me, it’s immersive. When I spend a lot of time in one area (like Twitter), I start to get the hang of the intricacies – but it’s something I struggle with focusing on for any substantial amount of time (having a young family).
Blogging at Wild Colonial Girl has been instrumental in getting readers and more writing work. Facebook seems to be the place to direct people to the blog and book. Goodreads is brilliant for gathering and collating responses. When it feels too much like work, though, I lose interest.
I feel more excited about discussing issues on my blog (wrapped around writing) than trying to promote the book directly. It’s difficult to say how much all of this translates to actual book sales (no-one seems to have the answer to that question), which is why I prefer to keep it fun.
I think social media works as a distraction and an empowerment, but if you’re not the kind of person who can get on the phone to promote yourself, doing it in writing can be wonderful (with that sense of distance).
I’ve certainly learnt that you need to factor in time for it once your book is out (block off three months to focus on it) and set yourself limits. I’m looking forward to starting on the next book, but I feel like I’ve got to get some closure and do everything I can to promote this one first. At the moment I’m starting to look at the digital and ebook side of things (as the physical book has a limited time on bookshelves).
When you say goodreads is good for “collating and gathering responses”, you mean responses to your book, yes? How much and what kind of response has there been?
Yes. On Goodreads you get in a nutshell whether people are enjoying the book, what themes are interesting them, how they are perceiving it (where they are putting it on their shelves), and how much they are influenced by other people recommending it. It’s been a wonderful response. I’ve read many insightful reviews and comments about just_a_girl, comparable to mainstream newspaper reviews.
What are some of the more memorable reader responses you’ve received?
I had a response from a 13-year-old girl who said she was doing a talk on just_a_girl in her class. It was like Layla had come to life (in the book Layla worries about doing a talk on the Long Island Lolita for her class) and I felt in a bind because the book is clearly for adults.
I got back to her and answered her author questions and then mentioned that she might like to talk to her parents and teacher about it too. But when I think about me reading Puberty Blues at that age, the last thing I wanted was to talk to my parents and teacher about it.
I also got a message from a social worker who was going to use it in her sessions with clients, and that’s an outcome I had never considered.
Do you think that young adult books and books with teenage protagonists are better placed to use social media to engage with their audience?
I call my book “Adult with Teenage Themes”. Even though I never considered my book YA, it crosses over in terms of content and voice.
I’m discovering that the YA community online is loyal and voracious. Many YA blogs are hugely popular, and it’s an area that doesn’t get enough mainstream media attention, even though the writing can be contemporary and literary (I’m thinking of the work of Simmone Howell and Martine Murray, two other writers here in Castlemaine).
As a mother and former teenager (to coin a clumsy phrase), who do you identify more with: teenaged Layla or Margot, her mum?
I identify with both of them at different points. Layla was much easier for me to write. The way she thinks comes easily to me! I share many of her contradictions. I was lucky enough to have more resources (and people I could trust) at my disposal when I was a teenager, so I wasn’t so isolated.
Margot and I are very different, but some of her worries about parenting have come to me over the years, especially as a first-time mum. It can be hard, and she is a single mum with no real friends, so she doesn’t have anyone to vent with.
I am much more cynical than Margot. I could never be a part of the Church she is in, for example, and so I probably side with Layla on most things.
How do you see the character of Tadashi and his sex doll fitting into Layla and Margot’s story?
I was interested in the idea of people who struggle to find connections, who keep ‘missing’ each other in some sense. I saw Tadashi as a sensitive, contemplative character, and thought the book needed him as a kind of counterpoint to the other two intense and often loud narratives. He created space for readers.
The connection between Tadashi and Layla is tentative. I’m not really interested (as a reader or writer) in neat narrative threads. I like the idea of the reader having to figure things out a bit (I’m a big fan of David Lynch and Murakami), but I don’t always want answers. Like Layla, I am more keen on the questions.
All three characters are in a sense looking for the perfect relationship too, as unrealistic as that is. There’s also the idea of projecting your fantasies onto another person – while it’s clear that’s what Tadashi does, Layla and Margot often do it too.
What made you decide to end the story at a crisis point for Layla and Margot instead of a more traditional resolution?
Actually, that’s my idea of a happy ending! I felt there was some sense of hope in the final scene for each character. Margot starts off the book talking about a foot massage and returning to the womb. All of the characters in the book end up in a womb-like environment where they have finally confronted things head on and let themselves be vulnerable: Layla in her concrete hug with Marco, Margot in her doona tunnel after seeing the light (so to speak) and Tadashi safe in his cave.
Is there anything that you see when looking back at the writing of this book that you wish you hadn’t done, or that makes you wince just a little?
When the first structural edit came back from the publishers, I had a big cry and agonised. “No-one gets my work!” I’m pleased to say I bounced back from that and after a week I was working solidly on the suggestions.
It’s hard to separate yourself from characters you’ve grown attached to (I can’t just kill my darlings). When a few editors start saying the same thing about your work, though, you need to drop your ego a bit and at least think about it.
I also made the mistake of being extra polite with publishers and agents, letting them take months (and even years) to respond to me before I approached the next one. Nowadays I would be much more upfront about moving things along a bit.
I’m working on an historical meets sci-fi meets contemporary realist meets romance (sounds like David Mitchell, doesn’t it?). I still need to sit down and begin the thing. I don’t plan my writing, so we’ll see where it ends up.