My fellow lab rat Carrie Mesrobian has a new book out this week. Her awesome debut Sex & Violence came out last fall and this year’s Perfectly Good White Boy is a fabulous successor, though not a sequel.
Carrie’s writing about teen sexuality is frank, open, honest and in my book quite refreshing. Here’s the little spiel from goodreads:
Sean Norwhalt can read between the lines.
“You never know where we’ll end up. There’s so much possibility in life, you know?” Hallie said.
He knows she just dumped him. He was a perfectly good summer boyfriend, but now she’s off to college, and he’s still got another year to go. Her pep talk about futures and “possibilities” isn’t exactly comforting. Sean’s pretty sure he’s seen his future and its “possibilities” and they all look disposable.
Like the crappy rental his family moved into when his dad left.
Like all the unwanted filthy old clothes he stuffs into the rag baler at his thrift store job.
Like everything good he’s ever known.
The only hopeful possibilities in Sean’s life are the Marine Corps, where no one expected he’d go, and Neecie Albertson, whom he never expected to care about.
“We’re something else. Some other thing. I don’t know what you’d call it. Maybe there’s a word, though. Maybe I’ll think of it tomorrow, when it won’t matter,” Neecie said.
What I loved about this book was the way the character navigated the worlds of sex and relationships -the ways they used each other and even allowed themselves to be used. Mesrobian explores these ideas with a thoughtfulness and nuance usually reserved for “so-called” adult fiction. Perfectly Good White Boy is a book about adolescents as much as it is written with them in mind. I can hardly imagine a more eye-opening and thought-provoking book for teens.
About the sex stuff: Mesrobian’s style sets her apart from other YA authors who may glitz or glamour over the messy, awkward, bodily fluids parts of things. I wanted to ask her about that part of her writing in an interview I jokingly titled the Squishy Bits. Here’s what she had to say.
You have a very frank, honest style when writing about “the squishy bits”. How did this develop for you? Particular influences? Hippie parents? Lots of National Geographic?
I grew with parents who didn’t talk about sex very much Neither were they very affectionate people. They did explain How Babies Were Made but it was all with a great deal of discomfort and seriousness that made me never want to discuss it ever again with them. It was sort of hard to believe that they had sex themselves, given the way they acted toward each other, actually. It almost made me think there was something fiendish about them, or about all grown-ups. Some secret identity they all had. Something depraved. Something completely at odds with their normal behavior.
Actually, my father never discussed sex with me. Ever. It was only my mother who did. I never ever saw my father naked growing up. It was all a mystery, male nudity and female desire and sex itself being this Thing that everyone giggled about but adults didn’t think was funny at all. My parents are progressive people about politics and what not, but they are personally extremely conservative in their own behavior and what topics they consider appropriate.
So I guess my honesty regarding sex is a reaction to that. To people withholding information. To people not wanting to talk about this thing that clearly EVERYONE wanted to talk about. My mother was quite insistent that my sister and I remain virgins until marriage. “Sex is for married people” was one of the first lies from my parents that I uncovered. And it was pretty much the beginning of the wall coming down in terms of Who Was Right. Because sex for only adults? That was so untrue! It was so GOOD. It was so FASCINATING. Once you uncover a lie that adults tell you during adolescence, it’s as if everything else is also worthy of questioning. At least that was the case for me.
In terms of influences, well, the same mother who spoke infrequently and uncomfortably about sex? She also took me to the library on a weekly basis. She loaded up on books and let me wander and do the same. She didn’t seem to care what I read, either. So I read a lot of romance and a lot of adult fiction that probably was way over my head, but she never said a thing. I don’t know if that was disinterest on her part or just hoping that these books would fill in the cracks or what. Either way, it gave me a special interest in how people describe sex or romance in general.
Wow, very interesting. As I mentioned before I grew up in a household on the total opposite end of the spectrum -everything discussed, nothing particularly taboo. I mean we went to nude beaches on summer vacation. You get the idea? But here we ended up in sort of a similar place in that regard. Curious, very curious.
Do you recall any particular books you read as a teenager that you were like “whoa” that! “That’s what I want to know more about?” Any books which were particularly sexually educating?
I read a lot of genre fiction as a teenager. Tons of Stephen King. I re-read his short story collections over and over. The thing I love about Stephen King is probably everything. His books also contain some sex but not in a breathy, goopy way. More in a way that says, “yes, we all fuck/want to fuck, here it is, relax.” Stephen King, to me as a teenager, was an adult I could trust to be honest with me.
I read Judith Krantz and John Jakes and Sidney Sheldon and Lawrence Sanders (the deadly sins novels!) and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. Like, if they made some sleazy TV movie of it, I read it. My mother has a pretty steep true-crime bent so things like that flew through our house without much incident.
Those books featured sex but mostly in a scandalous, gritty way. I don’t remember being particularly caught by any of the details. It was more the whole experience – there’s sex in here! woo! – that made those books memorable.
I also did a lot of reading that was all about me being snobby and hoity-toity about how smart I was. So I blew through Thomas Hardy, for example, even though I doubt I absorbed a 10th of what was going on there. I cannot recall one single assigned book in my entire high school career that I enjoyed, however. I suffered through most of that crap. Even when we read A Separate Peace in class – which I’d already read – the class discussion of that book managed to kill everything I loved about it.
I did discover Anne Tyler in high school and I loved her books so much. I loved how nothing seems to “happen” in her books. Yet everything happens at the same time. Small still moments. The kind of thing that puts my husband to sleep, to be honest.
Another relevant thing is that I re-read The Catcher in the Rye like a billion times. That book NEVER gets old to me. I can remember passages of it, exact phrases, even now.
Oh my goodness, Stephen King -totally! It’s funny but when people ask me what YA I read as a teenager I always scratch my head a bit because there was just so much less that was considered YA then. So you just kind of graduated to highly digestible adult stuff like Stephen King.
I’d love to know your opinion about age designations in YA? Personally I wear several hats in this regard as an author, 8th grade teacher and parent (even though my own kid is still in picture books). I struggle with it the most as an 8th grade teacher where a lot of kids are really ready to be reading heavier stuff and a lot are still really happy with more MG stuff.
So there’s a general question in there but more specifically do you think your books should be read by middle schoolers? High schoolers and up? Whomever is game?
I’m guessing most middle school librarians aren’t going to buy Sex & Violence. Or Perfectly Good White Boy, for that matter, even though the title isn’t as blunt.
(Incidentally, I’ve done a grand total of ONE school visit. ONE. Thank you, South High of Minneapolis! So, it goes with blunt, in-your-face titles.)
That said, I think there is no need to pull books away from kids. Certainly, librarians specialize in pushing books toward readers they think might enjoy or need them. But I feel like a kid’s readiness for certain content is something that’s already inside him or her. If you don’t have an interest in sexual or romantic relationships, you’re probably going to be bored by Sex & Violence and put it down.
If you have an interest in that, however, you might keep reading. Reading is a very low-risk way of engaging with high-risk behaviors. A very safe way of exploring risk, if you will. So I don’t know why people get so insane about books being banned or being “inappropriate” or whatever. There is also the claim that “kids don’t read these days!” Well, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t act as if books are unfairly influencing young people while maintaining they don’t actually read them.
Also, having an interest isn’t the same as behaving a certain way, though. A lot of times kids like to read about kids or concepts that are just a little bit above them. Like, their minds are maturing, but their bodies aren’t. And that growth among middle schoolers is wildly uneven, as I’m sure you know.
There are also kids that live lives that are not P-13, and this is not through any choice of their own, either. So those kids need librarians and teachers who can offer up the kind of content that might mirror their own experiences. Again – it depends on the experiences of the reader.
My kid, who is 11, has asked me: “When will you let me read Sex & Violence, Mom?” And I tell her, “Read it right now, if you want.” But she has yet to pick it up. And this is a kid who I’ve been talking to about sex since she was 5 years old and asked me what a condom was.
So when it comes to your middle school students, probably the kids who want a little something more, might not be getting all they want in the school library, and a youth librarian in a public library might be the one to advise.
This is assuming a school HAS a library, anymore. That’s a trend going on in my own district – getting rid of librarians and paper books altogether. Another topic!
As a fellow writer of YA who writes from the opposite gender POV I know I’ve been asked versions of this question before but as it pertains specifically to writing about sex, do you find that more difficult than say writing about eating a sandwich? More difficult? Or challenging? Or interesting?
I guess it’s not that different than imagining anything else, really. I mean, it’s not like I have to do pull-ups and drink Red Bull before hand. If you can imagine being a boy wizard or what dragons are like or life on other planets or whatever, chances are good that you can imagine being a boy having sex for the first time.
However, these are scenes that require male beta readers. No question. I don’t have a good handle on the specific equipment – like how long can you have an erection? How quick can a penis get hard? What does it feel like to put on and take off a condom? – so I did have to ask the husband some of those questions.
Mostly I thought about my side of things when it came to first sexual experiences: what I was looking at or not looking at, what I was worried about, what freaked me out or surprised me in a good way. It’s nice to be on the other side of that inexperience, too; it’s good to be an adult who has seen the panorama view of sex and can compare what I thought it was about to what I think it’s about now.
The act of first sex can be very symbolic for some kids. It’s not really about sex, per se; it’s more a referendum on their beauty or their competence. Their value, their capability, their “coolness” even – how do I handle this situation for which I have no previous experience? It might not have much to do with feeling good or understanding actual anatomy or even their emotional response.
One technical issue in writing about first sex from a young man’s POV involves how long your prose can expand the event in a way that’s antithetical to the actual real time event. It might be possible to be meditative and reflective and descriptive during some sexual activities, but I’m guessing there’s not a ton of brain space available for most young men when they are about to orgasm. So that’s a difference I had to attend to. When I was a girl, it wasn’t like I was that physically distracted by first sexual activities to the point where my brain stopped working. Unfortunately for me, I guess. But fortunate in other ways: I was able to take note of a whole of lot of details.
This is sort of a two-parter.
1. What parts of Perfectly Good White Boy do you think would have interested you most as a teen?
2. Who do you imagine as the “ideal” reader for this book? Who do you envision as your ideal reader?
1. The sex parts, definitely. Though I KNOW I would have been fascinated to be inside a guy’s mind at that age. To me, nothing was more opaque than a boy’s thoughts and feelings. I wasn’t actually sure ANYTHING was going on in their heads. To be fair, I tended to like silent boys who rarely spoke. But also, they just seemed so imperious. And cool. I had no idea that they were sitting there with their post-lunch boners in math class, twitching internally.
2. You know, if I had to pick, I’d pick a kid who doesn’t like to read, for one. And I’d pick a kid that isn’t that interested in college or academic life. I think we need more books for such kids. About such kids – kids who aren’t college-bound, kids who aren’t going to grow up to be writers or academics. Maybe that’s a crazy wish for a market – I want to write books about non-readers, for non-readers – but I think kids who are readers have plenty of opportunities to see themselves in books. Another way of looking at the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement could be this – we need books that aren’t just for the smarty-pants over-achievers. We need books for everyone, if we truly believe reading is an activity that all people can and should enjoy.
Okay, lastly, what books would you like to read/see in YA that aren’t out there yet or are under-represented? What topics do you think could be addressed more/better? It doesn’t have to be anything you would want to write yourself necessarily, but you know your hopes and dreams and all that good stuff.
I would like to see more characters that aren’t themselves readers. That would be an interesting challenge for in author voice.
I would like to see more girls enjoy sex that’s not about LOVE. Right now I’m working on a book with a girl, for the first time, and I’m hoping she’ll turn out to be a girl who gives a blow job and LIKES it, instead of being victimized or duped or manipulated by it.
I would like to see gay kids in stories that aren’t solely about them coming out or being bullied. I would like kids of color in stories that aren’t solely about racism or life in “urban” settings. And I want them to be the main characters, not best friends.
I love YA stories that include first jobs. I’d love to see more stories where the world of work as not just another quirky benign setting for the protagonist to pass through but as it is for many young people: a perilous, highly-fraught place where they meet and possibly bond with adults who they’re not related to, as well as learn about “adulthood” in a more hands-on way.
And, on a purely silly note, I’d like to see more Halloween activities, including trick-or-treating, depicted in YA. Halloween’s one of my favorite holidays and there are ALWAYS kids that are certainly teenagers who come to my door in half-assed costumes, asking for candy. I want to know their story!
Thanks Carrie for your candor and general fabulousness. You should all hustle out there and read Perfectly Good White Boy. You inner or outer teen will not be disappointed.
Carrie Mesrobian is an instructor at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her debut novel, Sex & Violence
, was called one of the best books of 2013 by Kirkus Reviews
and was a finalist for the American Library Association’s William C. Morris Award for best debut young adult novel. A native Minnesotan, she lives with her husband, daughter, and dog.