Unlikeable Women, Poetry, and Trauma: Laura G Interviews Jessie Ann Foley

Article by laura g

As my friends and colleagues know well, I keep a very strict bed time. I read from 9:30-10 (or maybe 10:30 if the book's especially good) and then it's promptly lights out. I tell you this so you understand the significance of the fact that I stayed up until midnight reading You Know I'm No Good

Achingly raw and stunningly real,You Know I'm No Good is the tale of one girl's climb out of the wreckage of her life. Exploring themes of trauma, both personal and generational, Mia's story is fully dimensional and painfully realistic while also battling for hope and acceptance. Foley's latest is a reclaiming for teenage girls everywhere: of their bodies, of their minds, and of their souls. 

I was so pleased to be able to chat (virtually) with Jessie Ann Foley and explore this book further!

 

 

Laura Graveline: Teenage girls are the beating heart of this book, especially their relationships with one another. I don’t believe I’ll ever tire of reading about female relationships (at any age). They hold within them the potential both for unparalleled cruelty and unimaginable compassion. Many of your books explore these relationships (The Carnival at BrayNeighborhood Girls). What do you think keeps drawing you back to the subject?

 

Jessie Ann Foley: I’m just fascinated with the complexities of female energy, for all the reasons you just described. I especially love exploring the dynamics of exclusively female spaces where, for one thing, girls can often find respite from the constant awareness of their outer appearances. 

Because of the double standards for sexual behavior and the persistence of slut-shaming, Mia is a girl who, all throughout high school, has been defined by her relationships with boys. I wanted to see how she would start defining herself when she was removed from that environment and placed in Red Oak Academy. 

 

 

LG: That idea of taking Mia out of her regular environment is such a fascinating way to explore her character. I loved how Red Oak Academy became a sanctuary of sorts for Mia to grow.

And yet, despite most of the book taking place in a secluded area of the Minnesota wilds, society’s expectations for young women were like an ever-present ghost. We’re currently living in the era of the #metoo movement. What do you hope your book will add to the conversation about our society’s treatment of women both young and old?

 

JAF: I was in the midst of writing this book when the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings occurred. Many of my friends and I had these visceral reactions to Kavanaugh’s entitled, arrogant behavior. It was so obvious to us that his rage stemmed from the fact that he genuinely believed Christine Blasey Ford was lying, that the sexual assault never happened. To us, it was obvious that of course it happened; he just didn’t remember it. Not even because he’d been drinking, but because it wasn’t an important enough event in his life to even form a memory.

It’s frightening to me, how patriarchy and privilege can cause one person’s actions to destroy another’s adolescence while rating so little in their own consciousness so as to not even leave an impression. Something along these lines occurs in You Know I'm No Good, which I hope will invite frank, honest, and nuanced conversations with young men and women about the nature of consent. 

 

 

LG: Hopefully books like this will serve to expand that conversation on consent. I think there's also a conversation that must begin in society about the trauma of these types of events and the effects it can have on people's lives and even personalities.

At the beginning of the book, Mia is (perhaps) not the most likeable character. She’s brash and judgemental and self-destructive. Even though I immediately recognized her behavior as a traumatic response (and therefore not always logical) I still had a hard time liking her. I sympathized, certainly, but like? Not at the start.

I know there’s a phenomenon that occurs regularly with female protagonists where writers or editors feel a deep need to make them likeable. Was there ever an impulse (from you or your editors) to change Mia in this way? 

 

JAF: Thankfully, no! Some of my favorite contemporary novels—Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, Scarlett Thomas’s Oligarchy, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet—seem to specialize in the lives of difficult, unlikeable women. 

There’s also the fact that when I was younger, I was very much a person who wanted everyone to like me. When I was fourteen, I had a toxic relationship with a cruel, manipulative boy. One time, he called my house (remember the days of landlines?) to yell at me for refusing to let him come over with his friends and drink beer while my parents were out. My mom, who’d always had a bad feeling about this kid, picked up the other phone and eavesdropped on our conversation. Later that day, she confronted me. She said, “What bothers me the most isn’t the fact that your friends are drinking, but that you kept apologizing to him. He was taking advantage of you; why did you keep telling him that you were sorry?” She was right. I was so ashamed of myself because my parents had taught me better than that.

I still get embarrassed when I think about that incident today. But one of things I love most about being a fiction writer is that I have a unique opportunity to fix things on the page that I can never go back and fix in real life. Likeable or not, Mia is a character who doesn’t simper, pander, or apologize. Which may be a way of reckoning with my own past mistakes. 

 

 

LG: I fully support the idea of using fiction to vicariously fix our past mistakes! There is something so cathartic about watching Mia's unapologetic way of dealing with the world.

As I alluded to in the last question, Mia is dealing with more than her fair share of trauma. Your portrayal of it was so realistic - not just the trauma itself but Mia’s reactions to it. What was the writing process like for this? Were there any resources you found especially helpful for research? 

 

JAF: Garth Greenwell says that making art is dangerous because it “is about plunging oneself into the abyss, and any time you plunge yourself into the abyss there can be no certainty that you will return.” That’s what this writing process felt like—it was often wonderful, but just as often it was painful, because for me it dredged up some deeply buried stuff.

One of the mechanisms that Mia uses to deal with her pain is to tell herself that emotional suffering is nothing more than chemical signals to the brain; it doesn’t actually mean anything. This is a strategy that I’ve used myself in times of grief or pain, but I have learned (as Mia does) that it never actually works. Instead, the grief has to be faced. The way I face it is through my fiction writing.

 

 

LG: The psychology of grief and trauma really is a fascinating thing. Mia’s therapist brings up the idea of generational trauma: the idea that pain can be passed down from one generation to the next (especially from mothers to daughters). It’s an idea that Mia grapples with throughout the story. Where did you first hear about the concept? What made you decide to incorporate it into the book?

 

JAF: When I was deep in my final rewrite of You Know I'm No Good, Fiona Apple released her incredible and long-awaited new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. The one track that really got me was “Relay”, especially the chorus: “Evil is a relay sport / where the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch.” When I heard that, I thought, yes! This is part of what my book is trying to explore.

When you are branded by the cruelty of life, it becomes far more likely that you will go on to brand someone else. It’s not inevitable, of course, and I want to be careful about promoting a narrative of hopelessness, especially because the concept of generational trauma is still fairly new and controversial. Basically (and with the caveat that I am NOT a scientist!) it argues that parents can pass down the effects of their suffering not just psychologically but epigenetically. Studies in stressed/ traumatized mice show that their pups go on to demonstrate both molecular and behavioral changes—one example is the pups show a higher probability for risk-taking—for up to five generations!

But like I said, this isn’t necessarily a reason to be hopeless. If anything, I think it confirms something that so many of us have always felt—a deep and intense connection to our ancestors. If their pain can live on through us, I think, then so can their joy.

 

 

LG: That's a very hopeful way of looking at it (and accurate, too, I believe). 

Fiona Apple's work has touched so many people. I love that it inspired you as well. Poetry (and even song lyrics) play an important role in this story. At the end of the book we even get to see Mia’s Red Oak Poetry List (complete with Joy Harjo and Adrienne Rich). Why do you think Mia (and many young women) are so drawn to poetry as an art form? Why are you drawn to it?

 

JAF: When Jack Gilbert was dying of Alzheimer’s, mostly unable to talk, a performer read his poem “Looking at Pittsburg from Paris” out loud at a nursing home event. His brain was nearly destroyed, but as the reading began, he sat up in his wheelchair,  turned to his caretaker, pointed to himself and asked, “me?” I love that story because it shows us the power of poetry—that it can sometimes, just for a brief moment, clear away even the cobwebs of dementia.

Poetry has an immediacy to it that allows access to our deepest, most inarticulate thoughts. Certain moments of my life are inextricably linked with lines of poems. High School, having my heart broken for the first time and finding solace—and power—in Lauryn Hill: “you might win some/ but you just lost one”.  In college, when I began to think seriously of becoming a writer, it was Adrienne Rich: “I came to explore the wreck./ The words are purposes./ The words are maps.” The moment I knew for sure that I would marry my husband was when, out of the blue, he texted me Yeats: “I have spread my dreams under your feet/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” And at the moment of the births of my three daughters, seeing them for the first time, it was Rita Dove: “When you appeared it was as if/ magnets cleared the air.”

With Mia, I knew that her time at Red Oak would weigh heavily in the rest of her life, and I wanted to provide her with her very own poetry “soundtrack” to one day look back on and associate with her time there.  

 

LG: That's absolutely beautiful. Poetry truly has a way of defining our lives if we let it!

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about You Know I'm No Good. I absolutely cannot wait for its release when I can put it in as many people's hands as possible!

 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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You Know I'm No Good Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9780062957085
Availability: BACKORDERED
Published: Quill Tree Books - October 13th, 2020

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