Emily Pohl-Weary is an award-winning author of five books, an arts educator and an editor. Her latest teen novel, Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl (Penguin Canada), was released in September, and she stopped by the BWS blog this week to answer a few questions about it.
BWS: Before Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl, you wrote a novel for adults (A Girl Like Sugar), a poetry collection (Iron-on Constellations), and a novel for young adults (Strange Times at Western High, the first Natalie Fuentes mystery). Any particular reason you’ve returned to YA?
Emily: Nothing conscious. I may have a bouncing around problem. Or an attention problem. Or a lack of business sense. Or something. Every book I’ve published has been in a different genre. I’ve also written the biography of a 73-year-old woman, a feature screenplay, and a series of comics about a girl pirate.
BWS: Is there something inherent to adolescence that keeps you coming back?
Emily: I’m perpetually rewriting my teen years – probably because high school was a ball of trauma. Frankly, I’m surprised when kids who are a little beyond usual (shall we say) make it through the public school system intact. If my heroines make that dramatic time of life a little easier for a few misfits and creatively minded kids, that’s a benefit.
BWS: What do you make of the classifications “young adult,” “teen fiction,” “new adult,” etc.? Are they useful? Are you conscious of them when you’re working on a project, or are they afterthoughts, labels placed on the work only once it’s finished?
Emily: The reading level doesn’t particularly factor in during my first draft. It’s all about the story at that stage.
In many ways, the age rating is the publisher’s call. Most of the readers who’ve written to me about Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl are adults. In stores, it’s categorized as 14 years and up, mostly because the main character Sam Lee is 18, her bandmates are a little older, and there’s some swearing and a few violent situations (she is a ferocious monster!). Strange Times is a little younger (12+) and though Sugar Jones was 24, most of the readers who wrote me about that book were in the 18-22 range. Sugar would be classified “new adult” now, but we didn’t have that term when it was published.
BWS: Sam Lee is 18 and plays in a rock band; Natalie Fuentes is 16 and publishes her own zine; Sugar finds herself only once she gets a camcorder into her hands. What does it mean to you to write about young, strong, creative women? Are you consciously putting forth good role models for girls and young women, or are these just the kinds of characters that interest you most?
Emily: Confession time. I try to come up with non-artist main characters every time I sit down to start a new novel, but I just can’t figure them out. There’s something missing to me: the drive to create something bigger than themselves. Maybe I need to talk to more people who aren’t artists? It’s also probably the workaholic in me surfacing—what do people who don’t make art do with their free time? How do they process, relax, connect, find meaning? You’ve also made me remember something I’ve frequently thought about while reading Haruki Murakami. His male narrators never seem to have much going on in their lives outside the story, (i.e., they’re writers without the actual long hours of writing woven into their days). He’s one of my favourite authors, but there’s this funny gap in his work that he simply fills with existential malaise and the allure of strange women.
BWS: Did you always imagine yourself writing for teens?
Emily: Thus far, my novel-length story ideas seem to skew young. Early in my career, I got this piece of advice: it’s best to keep the action in your story focused around characters and situations that are true to their age group. In other words, if you’re writing a mystery about a 16-year-old detective, the “bad guys” should also be teens. I struggled with this, as it goes against the wisdom of all Nancy Drew mysteries (which I devoured when I was young), but it makes a lot of sense. Teens are obsessed with their friends and their hormones and the looming big choices in their lives. I know I was.
BWS: You and your publisher fearlessly present Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl as a “teen werewolf novel.” What drew you to this genre? Did you have any reservations about it – genre stigma? populism? – or any fears that the trend would pass before your book was finished?
Emily: I grew up in a family of science fiction writers, so I’m not afraid of genre and think “populism” is a good word. My previous novels were a mystery and a ghost love story. I’m more worried about picking a story and characters that I will be able to hang out with for the four years it takes a book to be finished.
BWS: Do you see your novel doing anything others like it don’t, or was there something lacking in books of this type that you could see your book correcting?
Emily: In terms of Wolf Girl doing something other novels in the genre don’t, well sure! All authors probably feel that way about their books! Otherwise, why write them?
When I started working on this novel, the monsters in the genre were mostly male and the teen girls were simply objects of desire. In some cases, they can barely stay on their feet, allowing for the love interest to swoop in and save them repeatedly. That drives me nuts because I can’t figure out what the guys see in them! Honestly, why would a beautiful, immortal, all-powerful guy fall for a scrawny, helpless lump? Happily, that trend seems to be changing thanks to heroines like Katniss in The Hunger Games.
BWS: Did you read much about werewolf lore, or the origins of werewolf stories? Which elements of “werewolf protocol” did you respect, and which did you disregard? For instance, the point is made in the novel that female werewolves are very rare, suffer mutations, etc. Was this to open a space for a female werewolf, or is this too part of the mythology?
Emily: I did some reading about wolves and werewolves for research, and though I’ve purposefully stayed away from other werewolf novels for the past few years, I had read some before starting this novel. Only a couple had female lycanthropes in them; as I mentioned above, female monsters are few and far between in popular culture. So I decided to come up with a reason for that and wove it into my story. I’m currently working on a sequel to Wolf Girl. The werewolf mythology, and why many girls who are bitten get “stuck” as half-mutated wolves (or die) will likely play a more central role.
BWS: Sounds exciting! Thanks for taking the time, Emily.
Emily Pohl-Weary visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 13, 2013 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Daniel Perry, Richard Scarsbrook, and Josh Smith. Come early (6:30) for a talk by Michael Callaghan about Exile Editions and their publishing program, including the $15,000 Carter V. Cooper/Exile Short Fiction Competition.
Watch this space for more with each of our readers in the month leading up to the event!