I came across Erica Lorraine Scheidt's Uses for Boys by chance recently, and what a happy chance it was: it's been a long time since I was so moved by a book. Its narrator, Anna, is left increasingly alone as her mother pursues a string of men; Anna soon realizes she can fill the empty space of her mother's absence with boys of her own. Her new friend, Toy, pulls her into a world where both girls invent the kinds of selves they want to be, but Toy has secrets even Anna doesn't know. When Anna meets Sam, a boy whose joyful and caring family is the kind Anna didn't even know existed, she begins to understand that love--as Francesca Lia Block says--is a dangerous angel indeed, and that trusting other people can be one of the scariest things of all. Scheidt can pack acres of meaning into a single, spare sentence, but even more compelling than the beauty of her prose is Anna herself: vulnerable, resilient, resourceful, and so real. Uses for Boys is the kind of book that that shifts the tint of the world around you long after you've turned the last page.
One of the many things that Uses for Boys does beautifully is explore the ways in which sex can be both empowering and damaging for teenage girls--often at the same time. There are so many moments in this book that just killed me, they're so perfectly framed. You've said that you "started out thinking [you were] going to write about all the reasons a teenage girl has sex" and that the book went somewhere completely different, as books are wont to do--can you talk about that shift a bit?
I did. I wanted to write about a girl who makes all of the mistakes you can make after becoming sexually active and how your experiences might be good and affirming and surprising or they might be confusing or disappointing and some are regrettable or awful and how it's a mix and it's new and you have all these desires and worries, all tangled up.
And maybe, in some ways, I did. But as I wrote about Anna, she became so much more than a string of her experiences with boys. She wanted to know where she belonged and her mom played a huge role in architecting that question, but then didn't help answer it. And then, for a long time in writing this story, I was most interested in Toy. Because having a best friend means that you do belong somewhere.
It’s funny how you end up with the book you end up with. I was asking questions that only writing the whole book could answer.
It's interesting to to see the book described as "dark"--to me, it's incredibly hopeful. Anna is such a strong and complex character--there was no point where I doubted whether or not she was going to be okay. There also seems to be some pushback in terms of Anna's sexuality, and it is exhausting to me (as both a writer and a human being) to see that the idea that some girls do work through loss or loneliness or pain or any number of things through sex is still this completely horrifying idea--like, god forbid we recognize that teenage girls have sex, period, let alone promiscuous or complicated or sometimes troubling sex. Were you surprised to see those reactions?
I so appreciate that. I see her story as hopeful, too.
That some see the book as dark, unrelentingly dark, was a surprise. I think Anna has some terrible experiences--nobody even comments on the street harassment, which to me is one of the really dark moments in the book--but I don't see her story, the way that she tries and reaches and keeps moving forward, as dark.
And sex, I don't know. I guess I expected some of that. Sex is just like that. Sex is physical and messy and intimate and complicated and talking about it makes us uncomfortable.
Right; I think one of the things the books also deals with is how hard it is to figure out your own sexuality as a teenage girl when the world around you is so unsafe. Anna's mom is such a heartbreaking character, too, as someone who's never learned any of the lessons that Anna is already figuring out. Did you know all along that Anna's mom would be so dependent on men, or did she evolve as the book evolved?
Exactly. That's what's dark--when a kind of sexual interest is imposed on us, whether we're participating or not.
[As for Anna's mom,] I don't know, Sarah. So much changed in the drafts and redrafts. I always knew the adults in Anna's life would not be there for her. One of my earliest notes about the book, from 2007, reads: "Anna takes on a kind of mock-adulthood with her own apartment, her own friends and her own love affairs."
So probably. Probably I knew that Anna's mom would be looking for a husband or boyfriend to change her circumstance. I was very influenced by Ang Lee's film (based on the book by Rick Moody), The Ice Storm. The adults in The Ice Storm have no idea how their actions and obsessions affect their children. It's so starkly portrayed. I think that's what I was going for with Anna's mom, that kind of willful blindess.
I LOVED The Ice Storm. Yeah, you can't hate Anna's mom, as much as you want to, as a reader--she's so lost and so oblivious.
You've talked a little bit elsewhere about your own path to being a working writer, which was a bit circuitous, yes? Would you describe yourself as someone who does things the hard way? How do you think that affected you as a writer?
Right? That film is perfect.
Do I do things the hard way? Probably. When I was younger, It was very important to me to be seen as alternative, so when everyone went one way, I obstinately set off in the other. It's not bad, but it doesn't always serve you, you know?
And I studied at a place where being an outsider was highly valued. I was at Naropa at a time when all these amazing folks were there, like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Marianne Faithfull and Jim Carroll and Diane DiPrima. But after college, I had a hard time. I had no idea how much of writing was just keeping your butt in the chair.
And, I gotta say, I do. I write the hard way. I lean into the question of what I'm writing, instead of knowing where I'm going. I try and try and try to outline, but that never works. What fascinates me about a story is what I don't know. Circuitous, actually, might be an apt description.