A Conversation with Bennett Madison

Bennett Madison is the author of The Blonde of the Joke and September Girls, a pop-punk remix of The Little Mermaid that's equal parts dreamy beach read and wicked sharp commentary on sex, gender, and growing up (and which I cannot recommend highly enough). He's also very clever, as you will shortly discover.

You’ve said elsewhere that it took you a long time to write this book—did you have any idea what you were getting into when you started it? Did you sit down to write a radical and complex subversion of The Little Mermaid or were you like “Okay, cool, gonna write a nice summer beachy read” and then September Girls happened?

Well, the thing that happened with September Girls is that I was already under contract and I was working on a book that wasn't September Girls. It was not going well and I got into real trouble; I mean, that book came really close to really ruining my life.

That book was called Apocalypse Blonde and it was supposed to sort of be a loose follow-up to my last book, The Blonde of the Joke. It was about just about a bunch of kids lying around by the pool getting drunk, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the end of the world, which they had a vague sense was on the way. While I loved (and still love) what I'd written of it, I got about halfway through and hit a major wall. It was both too simple and too complicated and while I was amusing myself, it didn't really have anything driving it to a conclusion.

Meanwhile, it was really late to my publisher and I was living temporarily with my parents while I tried to finish it. I was completely out of money, and every day I would have a new solution on how to fix it. You know, the kind of solution that's like, "Maybe I should rewrite the entire book from page one from a totally different character's perspective." You know you're in trouble when you start thinking like that. None of it worked;it was just pulling me further and further into it in a really discouraging and quicksandy way.

So when I was talking to a friend and came up with the idea for September Girls sort of as a half-joke, it only took me like a couple of hours to realize that I should just switch gears and jump right into it. I called my editor that day and told her I was starting over. She seemed skeptical but also open to the idea.

Part of the initial appeal of September Girls was that I could sort of see most of the major beats of the story from the outset. It seemed like it wouldn't take that long to write, and like I wouldn't get stuck in the weeds the way I had with Apocalypse Blonde.

I wanted to write something beachy and summery and light, but definitely something complex and weird and subversive too, because that's just what I'm into. At a certain point several months later, I did start to feel like I'd bitten off more than I could chew again. There were times during writing it when I started getting really tripped up because certain necessities of the plot were leading me in a direction where I wondered if I was saying something I didn't want to be saying. It took a really long time to sort all that out and untangle it.

Plus, it ended up being really hard for me to write a love story. Attraction is so hard to articulate, and I think I made it even harder for myself because I wanted this to be a weird kind of love story where the characters' attraction to each other was sort of beside the point.

One night while eating dinner with my parents I made a joke about The Shining and my mom gave my dad a look that was like, shit, we were worried this was a Shining situation.

So basically, yes, I started it because I thought it would be easy, and while it wasn't easy, it was definitely easier than the book I'd been writing. (I would probably still be working on that one if I hadn't thrown it away when I did.) And I narrowly avoided going completely insane, although I probably did come pretty close.

One thing that’s interesting to me as both a writer and a reader is the totally disparate ways in which many readers and online reviewers react to books that are marketed as YA as opposed to “adult” fiction--a moral panic that’s usually applied to books with female teen narrators, so congratulations, I guess, on breaking the mold. Do you think September Girls would have provoked the same anxieties over Sam’s frank discussion of his sexuality (which, for the record, I found hilarious, endearing, relatable, and totally real) if the book had been marketed to adults? And if not, do you have any theories as to why?

It's a tough question. No one has really settled yet on the definition of what YA even really is, or on what separates it from "adult" fiction. Even among YA authors, there doesn't seem to be a strong consensus about this. I tend to just consider it a marketing category, but other authors I know think that there are different "rules" for teen fiction--that it has a set of conventions and aims all of its own.

There are also all these questions of influence when it comes to YA that I don't think are asked (or asked nearly as much) about books marketed to grown-ups. Do YA writers bear an added responsibility to educate or inspire because our books are aimed at younger readers? Are there ideas and themes and language that can be dangerous to our readers, who (some would argue) might not have the capacity to understand it?

These questions hinge, to me, on what's an essentially false premise: that adults are going to think critically about a book while teenagers will sort of just receive it unquestioningly. I don't think that's true at all--to me, teenagers are just as critical as any other readers. Maybe more critical.

Personally, I don't think a ton about the fact that I'm writing for a YA audience while I'm writing. I just try to write the book I want to write. Anyway, I'm not sure there's a huge difference between teen books and adult books in terms of the actual readership, at least not these days. Adults read YA and teenagers read adult books, so it's like, who cares? Especially when it comes to books like mine, which are pretty clearly for an older teen audience.

Even so, I wasn't totally surprised that there's been some controversy around the book, because I think it's a weird book that maybe is at odds with people's expectations. Nothing makes people madder than having their expectations confounded.

I think the thing that the publishing industry has done really, really well in the last ten years is that they've been able to present YA books as entertainment. This is in a lot of ways great. It's a big part, I think, of why YA has been selling really well, and why so many adults are turning to YA. People want to be entertained, and adult literary books--even when they're super-entertaining!--have for so long been pitched to the public as difficult but good-for-you. Like an eat your spinach kind of thing. YA, because of the way it's marketed, doesn't seem as scary. People pick it up more easily, because it's not as intimidating.

This is great in a lot of ways. It means sales! But the one bad thing about it is that readers can sometimes get upset when they come to a book looking for a really breezy read and it ends up not being so breezy. I think that happened to some extent with September Girls --people were thinking, this isn't what I thought I was signing up for. I don't know that there's a lot I can do about that, but I've certainly thought about it.

It's hard to know how people would have responded to the book if it had been officially aimed at an adult audience. I do think that a lot of the sex stuff--which is really fairly mild--is probably more shocking in the context of a "teen" book. But I also think that the really strong reaction also has to do with the way the internet has changed in the last few years. Controversies become memes much more quickly than they used to; they take on a life of their own. I guess it's probably a good thing in the end, but I wasn't so prepared for it.

Traditional ideas of gender are huge barriers for most of the characters in September Girls --Dee Dee recognizes that she’s going to be the “ho” in any story told about her; the Girls are literally unable to leave the beach; Sam’s dad, brother, and best friend all have difficulty building actual relationships with women because of their varying degrees of misogyny; and Sam understands that the men around him aren’t exactly ideal role models but he doesn’t have the tools at the beginning of the book to figure out a different way of being in the world. Technically, that’s not a question. But I wonder if you could talk about gender and how it gets constructed and deconstructed in the book.

I came up with the idea for September Girls when I was having a discussion with my friend Bob Berens about Twilight. I think we were talking about the way virginity and abstinence operates in those books. On a practical level it's a story complication: Bella and Edward can't have sex because she'll become a vampire if they do, so it's part of the romantic push-pull thing, where the characters who are supposed to be together can't be together. But it's also a thematic concern: Bella's supposed "purity" is part of what makes her special. It's part of her magic. We see these tropes a lot, not just in Twilight.

I wanted to see what happened when the poles of that story were flipped--for it to be the boy who's the Magical Virgin and the girl who's the Magical Lothario. I really had no idea what that reversal would lead to; I just thought it would be interesting to work with.

On top of that, I knew I wanted a boy protagonist who stymied some of the stereotypes about male sexuality. There's this idea that boys always want sex and girls have to be pushed into it, and in my experience, that's just not the way it works a lot of the time. Sex can be really scary and stressful for guys--there's pressure to perform, pressure to be macho, to be the aggressor and know exactly what you're doing, to have the biggest dick. I wanted to show all that that, and I wanted to show how all these expectations about manhood and what masculinity entails are both a consequence of patriarchy and something that ends up perpetuating it. Patriarchy harms both men and women, and in doing so, it feeds itself.

Obviously The Little Mermaid was on my mind a lot too. In both the Disney version and the original Hans Christian Andersen version, the mermaid's only chance for survival is to make the prince fall in love with her.

I realize there's a lot of other stuff going on in the story too, and that what it all means can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. But I was interested in it in a sort of acontextual way--or at least in the story as something independent from the original text. And when I think about The Little Mermaid, I can't help coming back to the whole seduce or die thing.

So many mermaid (and "mermaid-adjacent") myths revolve around seduction and the danger of female sexual power. Sometimes the mermaid (or Siren, or Rusalka) is cast as a femme fatale; in other stories she's turned into a sex object and then imprisoned or punished because of it. Either way, there tends to be a degree of misogyny in the most traditional sense--mermaid stories are about fear of female sexuality as well as a desire to tame and control it.

It was important to me in September Girls to confront those things, as well as show that they're two sides of the same coin rather than opposites. The Rapture, as the mermaids are called in my book, use sex and seduction as a survival tool and a weapon, but they're trapped by their sexuality too. They seem to understand that the world wants them to be objects and rather than fight that, they're trying to use it to their advantage. How effective is that for them? It's like all those old arguments about stripping, or the arguments about what they were briefly calling "do-me feminism." When are you gaming the system and when are you buying further into it?

These are really tough questions, and there was absolutely a point while I was writing the book that I started to get concerned about that they were too complicated for me to grapple with in the way I wanted to--especially because I'm a man. Was I deconstructing patriarchal structures or was I just replicating them?

In the end, I decided that I had to be okay with some ambiguity. I mean, that's part of what I love about the way fiction functions. Fiction doesn't have to make an airtight argument. Fiction can raise questions without always having the answers; it can ask readers to make abstract connections and approach things from sideways angles. In the end I wanted the reader to be thinking about what's problematic in the story.

Even so, I couldn't help worrying that the Girls were being punished in an unrelenting way--that, even if I had the best intentions, I was creating torture-porn disguised as critique. Because of that worry, I ultimately decided it was important that there be at least one character who beats the system and wins on her own terms, but in an unexpected and not straightforward way. I don't want to say which character it is, and I do think it's very possible to miss it, but--by my reading at least--one character in the book cracks the code in a way that the others don't. (I point this out because I don't think I've seen anyone mention this character or her fate much.)

September Girls is stunning and fresh and not remotely derivative, but at the same time, it had a total nineties vibe for me--there’s something about its aesthetics and language, its seamless mashup of the real and the surreal, pop culture and mythology, that brought to mind Weetzie Bat and Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch (and, inexplicably, Blake Nelson’s Girl, and Bett Williams's criminally under-read Girl Walking Backwards, maybe because it deals with sex so openly? I honestly don’t know entirely). I’m curious if that reading seems accurate to you or way off the mark. The poetics of the Great Nineties Adolescence Novel? Is that a thing? Do you have feelings about it?

Thank you! Weetzie Bat is one of the most important books I've ever read for so many reasons that it's hard to even articulate all of them. And I still remember reading that excerpt from Girl in Sassy and being completely blown away and inspired by it. So I am very flattered to be compared to those things. (I will definitely have to read Girl Walking Backwards.)

One prevailing attitude during that time, which I think a lot of my characters share, is this kind of jaded optimism. I think my characters have that too, but perhaps it's maybe in contrast to some other YA characters these days, who are often more straightforwardly decent and accessible. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

We talk about irony and sincerity as opposing forces now, but when you look at pop culture in the '90s--Nirvana, the Riot Grrrls, the Brady Bunch Movie, Sassy magazine, zines in the vein of Teenage Gang Debs, etc.--so much of it was about using irony as a rhetorical tool to say something really sincere and deeply felt. They were being funny, but that didn't mean they weren't being serious. And I sort of think that my taste and style was sort of inspired by that. I refuse to accept that irony is dead, or that we live in an age of sincerity. Can't we have both?

It also seems to me like the '90s were when postmodernism really became part of the mainstream aesthetic. There was all this playful juxtaposition, all this mixing of genre and of high and low. Everyone seemed to be doing this sort of collagist thing. I would add Neil Gaiman to your list too--he may be more famous than ever these days, but he was definitely mixing things up in a really important way with Sandman. [GOOD CALL. --ed.] I was certainly soaking all of it up.

What did you read as a kid? What are you reading now?

I read so much stuff as a little kid--I mean, I read everything. I was always getting in trouble for reading too much, because when I was really little I did it at the expense of everything else. I loved Narnia, Prydain, Pippi Longstocking, Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry's Anastasia [ANASTASIA KRUPNIK!!!!!!!! --ed.], the Great Brain books, plus a bunch of other stuff I barely remember. The Girl With the Silver Eyes. Oddball stuff that maybe only I remember, like Elizabeth Enright's Melendy series. Edward Eager. For awhile I just read everything I could get my hands on.

I had a couple of real, true obsessions though: first, I was obsessed with L. Frank Baum's Oz books, of which there are secretly a zillion. (Other people took over the series after he died, and they kept being written well into the 40's. Maybe the '50s?) When I finally got bored of those, I moved on to The Baby-Sitter's Club. Although obviously a lot of probably true things can be said about why a little boy would be begging his parents to drive him to the bookstore on the first of every month to buy the newest BSC book, I think my love for the BSC had a lot in common with my Oz thing. Both series gave you a huge fictional world that had tons and tons of colorful characters and not that much else going on. The lack of any particularly compelling plot actually just meant that these worlds were your imaginary toy boxes. You could spend a lot of time moving the characters around on your own.For a dreamy child who spent most of his days not paying attention in class, this was very important.

At a certain point it got embarrassing so I got sick of books for awhile and discovered the X-Men, who I think held a very similar appeal, along with a bunch of extremely fun coded gay subtext.

As for these days:

I just finished reading my friend Filip Noterdaeme's T The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart. Filip's a very genius artist who, in the spirit of Gertrude Stein, decided to write memoir on behalf of his longtime boyfriend. I know that doesn't necessarily sound immediately appealing, but the book is charming and hilarious and gossipy in addition to being a pretty searing critique of the dumb art world.

Oh, and I just got around to reading The Family Fang, which I thought was super-funny. And the new Heidi Julavits book, The Vanishers, which I really liked a lot even though the experience of reading it was sort of unpleasant. (Purposefully, I think.) The Woman Upstairs was obviously great, although I didn't think it was as outrageously fun as The Emperor's Children. My favorite book that from the last few years was Skippy Dies. It seemed like it had somehow been engineered to appeal to all my personal interests.

I haven't read as much YA this year as I should have; I'm just behind on it. But I really enjoyed Erica Lorraine Scheidt's Uses for Boys and I'm looking forward to Natalie Standiford's The Boy on the Bridge and Anna Jarzab's Tandem and probably a bunch of other stuff I'm forgetting.