Feminism in Our Times: Joy Interviews Kim Liggett, author of THE GRACE YEAR

Article by Joy

I’ve been waiting for Kim Liggett’s YA dystopian, THE GRACE YEAR, ever since I was lucky enough to read a very early copy from the publisher! Like so many of us these days, I think a lot about the state of society - about what happens when women’s voices are subjugated and about what happens when they are not. These thoughts come easily to mind, especially with Margaret Atwood’s just-released Handmaid’s Tale sequel, THE TESTAMENTS. So what a thrill to get to interview Liggett about her novel, to see its origin story, and ask her questions about the story and its fierce characters!

 

Joy Preble:   What drew you to tell this Handmaid’s Tale-esque story of rebellion against the patriarchy? What were your influences and inspirations? You’ve done such a thrilling job of making this story your own, but were you nervous about following in the footsteps of Margaret Atwood and probably a bit of Suzanne Collins as well? 

 

Kim Liggett: I suppose it’s impossible to write a feminist novel these days without comparing it to THE HANDMAID'S TALE or a survival story about a scrappy young woman without thinking of Katniss from THE HUNGER GAMES. Those two books are etched into the minds and hearts of the world, but if I ever approached my work like I was trying to follow in their footsteps, I probably wouldn’t have been able to write a single word. This book didn’t come about in a slow, deliberate fashion. The Grace Year hit me all at once - violent and swift - leaving an indelible mark. 

It was three years ago. 10AM at Penn Station in New York City:

I was staring up at the board, willing my train to arrive, when I noticed a girl in front of me. Probably thirteen or fourteen, long and lean, bouncing on the tips of her toes, thoroughly annoying her parents, grandparents, and younger siblings. She had the nervous energy of a girl on the verge of womanhood. Of change. 

A man in a business suit walked by, instinctively looking her way, stem to stern, as they say. I knew that look. She was fair game now. Prey. 

And then I noticed a woman pass, drawn to that same energy, but I imagined for entirely different reasons. As she surveyed the girl, a look of sadness, possibly disdain, clouded her eyes. Maybe it was a reminder of everything she’d lost…everything she thought she’d never get back, but this girl was now competition. 

As the family’s train was announced, they rushed to the gate and said their goodbyes. They were clearly sending the girl back to boarding school. She waved the entire escalator ride down and I couldn’t help but notice the relief on her parent’s faces. For another year, she’d be tucked away from the world. Safe. 

“The things we do to young girls,” I whispered under my breath.

In a daze, I walked to my train, and when I sat down in my seat, I started to weep. I cried for that girl. I cried for my daughter, my mother, my sister, my grandmothers. 

I opened my computer and by the time I got to D.C. the book was completely plotted. The beginning and ending had been written, and I knew I didn’t have a choice. I had to write this book. 

 

JP: Wow! That is one of those moments where your world shifts. I can see why you were so compelled to write! And in a follow up, I’d love you to tell us a bit about your world-building process for this society. How did you envision the historical run up to where they are as the novel opens, to how this whole system came to be and perpetuated, particularly in its rigid divisions between men and women, its ingrained misogyny, the veiling ceremony, etc.?

 

KL: The obvious choice would’ve been to tell the origin story or better yet, the triumphant conclusion. Instead, I really wanted The Grace Year to reflect where I thought we were in the present day with the women’s movement - smack dab in the middle. And the middle of any story seldom gets much love or attention, let alone its own book. In Garner County, this is their 47th Grace Year. These girls have never known a life without it. What’s most prescient in their minds isn’t how they got there, but how they can survive. I really grappled with how much backstory to include. I didn’t want it to be another excuse to blame women for how things came to be and I also didn’t want it to be a distraction from the real question at hand: we’re here now, so what are we going to do about it?

As for the rules of this society, I approached everything the men did to them, everything the women did to each other, under the guise of protection and care. There’s a line from the book that sums it up perfectly:

“What at first seemed like harmless tasks, turned into something infinitely more dangerous. But isn’t that how every horrible thing begins? Slow. Insipid. A twisting of the screw.” 

 

JP: I wish I didn’t agree with that, but I do. It’s like that story about the frog - how if you put a frog in boiling water he’d hop out. But if you put him in cold water and then slowly heated it, he wouldn’t notice until it was too late. 

Okay, so switching gears to flowers! I don’t want you to give away any plot points, but I would love to hear about your use of flower language, symbolism! Tell us something about that and how you worked it into THE GRACE YEAR.

 

KL: I’ve always been enamored by flowers - planting them with my mother in the fields, pressing them as mementos into a scrap book as a young romantic, but it wasn’t until I happened upon a little book on Victorian flowers and their meanings that I began to obsess over how flowers could tell a story. I thought about all the secret messages that had been sent over history, the messages that were misconstrued, the hearts that were broken in their wake. Because if you look at a flower long enough, you can see anything you want to see. That’s how beguiling they are.   

 

JP:  Fascinating! And now let’s talk main character. Tierney is such a fascinating and fierce character. Can you talk a bit about creating her? Did she come first or did the story? What do you hope readers find in her and her story? Had you always planned to include romance for her? 

 

KL: Tierney was always right there, in my head. She makes a lot of mistakes, but I never questioned her choices. They were hers alone. 

The thing I love most is her resilience. She keeps getting back up. She keeps fighting. There’s a line in the book, “It’s the choices you make when no one is watching that make you who you are.” It becomes sort of a mantra for her. I find so much inspiration from that. It’s the little choices we make, day by day, moment by moment, that add up to be something meaningful. No matter how lost or hopeless we feel, that is the one thing we can control. 

And yes, there was always a romance. 

Some people believe that romance shouldn’t exist in feminist literature. That it somehow makes a story less feminist. In my opinion, that’s a very limited viewpoint, and one that I don’t adhere to. There are a million ways to be a feminist. There are a million ways to fight. 

If you’re looking for an ‘all men are evil’ story, this isn’t your book. This is simply a story about a girl trying to find her way in a society that wants to break her. She is strong, she is brave, she is flawed, but above all, she is a survivor. 

And sometimes surviving is the bravest thing you can do. 

 

 JP: Agreed! And speaking of Tierney and all the girls and women - there is such a superstitious fear in that society of women’s power and ‘magic.’ Do you see this issue reflected in our own society? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

KL: I think growing up is one very long Grace Year. It’s brutal for girls. We place an impossible set of standards on them, project all of our fear and desire on them, and when they falter, they’re entirely to blame. 

And then when you get to be my age, some women feel invisible - used up - they’re discarded, traded in for a younger model. 

There isn’t anything in this story that I haven’t felt or seen or experienced on some level. Yes, it’s a heightened reality, but the scars remain the same.

Why do you think people hate women? What are they so afraid of? This is probably the question I ask most at any dinner table. And depending on how much wine has been consumed, the answers can get very interesting. 

But I don’t just ask men this question. Internalized misogyny was never more apparent than the last election. I always counted myself as a pretty decent feminist, but it wasn’t until I started writing this book that I took a cold hard look in the mirror. Like Tierney, I was always so quick to judge other women, sorting them into one category or another. So instead of settling for, “I just don’t like her.” I started asking myself, why don’t I like her? What is it about her? Do I feel threatened in some way? Is there a quality in her that I dislike in myself? And nine times out of ten, the problem was my own. And so, I softened my gaze. Instead of focusing on all the things that set us apart, I began to lean in to compassion and empathy, to everything that unites us. 

 

JP:  That's an interesting thought about ‘softening’ our gaze. But to do another pivot here, I’m ‘gazing’ at your wonderful book and wondering what’s coming next for Kim Liggett? What else would you like our customers to know about you and your work?

 

KL: I didn’t start writing until I was forty years old. I cut my teeth in YA horror - fast paced, dark stories that were a lot of fun to write, but THE GRACE YEAR is the first book where I personally had something to say. It changed me - not only the way I view the world and my place in it, but it changed the way I write. I’m currently working on two books, one for adults, the other for young adults, both centering around similar themes - the unusual circumstances that bring women together, and how we can find understanding in a world that wants to tear us apart. Call it a brand, but I’ve finally found where I belong.  

 

JP: As a late-in-starting author myself, I say bravo for finding your creative place!! This has been such a grand conversation, Kim! 

 

For more on Kim Liggett, click here:  https://www.kimliggett.com/books/

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The Grace Year Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9781250145444
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Wednesday Books - October 8th, 2019

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