Robin Wasserman’s novel Girls on Fire tells the story of three high school girls stuck in a dead-end small town in Pennsylvania in 1991 in which a high school basketball star shot himself in the woods on an October night. The town is shaken by this tragedy, but is shaken even more by the whisperings that the town’s teenagers are practicing Satanism.
Fourth & Sycamore writers David Nilsen and Katy Goodwin-Bates recently had a conversation about the emotionally gripping novel. Enjoy.
David Nilsen: Girls on Fire is set in a small, rural town in western Pennsylvania in the United States. You’re from a city in England. I’m curious (as I am with other books you read that are set in very specific cultural settings in the U.S.) about your perception of this setting, and how you picture these settings. Is there any corollary in England for the type of regressive, insulated setting we see in Wasserman’s novel? What are some of your thoughts about small town, rural America as an outsider?
Katy Goodwin-Bates: I’ve been pondering this question all afternoon. As an outsider with a lifelong fascination for America, I’ve grown so used to reading about the big cities that, on finally visiting the likes of New York, Sam Francisco, and Chicago, I felt strangely like I’d already been. Small town locations like that in Girls on Fire increasingly fascinate me since visiting the US, because of the more enigmatic place they have in literature; for example, I just read Lions by Bonnie Nazdam, which is about a dying one-horse town gradually losing all its residents. There are plenty of small, rural towns over here but, perhaps because this country is so small, none of them have the same sense of isolation as the settings I read in US-set literature. I also think religion plays a far smaller role in the shaping of attitudes in the UK these days, so the regressive insularity and aggressive morality of Wasserman’s novel isn’t, as far as I’m aware, such an influence.
If set over here, I’m confident Dex and Lacey’s story would have consisted entirely of drinking supermarket brand cider on a park bench before getting the last bus home. I think somewhere along the line with all my reading, I’ve developed this idea that everything in the US is just that bit more exciting and “big,” and I think Girls on Fire backs this up.
Does that actually answer your question? I think maybe I started writing a thesis there.
David: I think that makes sense. America has a lot of weird images of itself, and one of them is that we are close to the land, which is sometimes true and sometimes not. Since the popular national mythology is that the country was wrested from the uncivilized frontier (the reality is more than it was wrested from the humans already living here), there is this image that all Americans have a close tie to our wild spaces. The reality is more that we just have a lot of land, and so far we don’t have the population of some other countries with similar acreage, like India or China. There are still huge swathes of the country that are only lightly peppered with villages, small towns, farms, and the like, and the teens in those areas live a strange double life of being connected to the world through the internet and phones and popular media just like everyone else, but also walking in the woods and getting stuck behind tractors on the highway and being able to identify different crops on sight and having bonfires in fields. Greenville, the town Fourth & Sycamore is based in, has about 13,000 people, and we’re the biggest town in our county by far. The landscape and lifestyle of Girls on Fire was intimately, seamlessly familiar to me.
Katy: So, another question. I read this book a few weeks ago, so my initial sense of shock and awe has subsided. What remains, however, is a real fear of what it is to be a teenage girl in this era (I know the novel is set in the 1990s, but the nature of female friendships does not change). I still can’t decide whether or not Girls on Fire glamourises all that it describes; yes, all the rebellious girls are pretty miserable, but there’s something attractive about the chaos they cause. What do you think of how their rebellion is presented?
David: I think there’s definitely a tension there between glamourizing the choices of the girls in the novel and making them cautionary. Ultimately, I don’t think the intention was either: it was, as it should be, to create believable characters and put them in shitty situations and see what they do. I think when an author shows real characters, particularly teenagers, getting into real, actual trouble, we, as readers, bring a lot of our own junk to the reading and we can project glamour, and fear, and excitement, and revulsion, and a hundred other things on to the characters. I think there is a particular way in which popular art can be obsessed with attractive teenage girls fucking up their lives in beautifully tragic ways (the opening two-page introduction read like the lead-in to a Lana Del Rey interview), but I don’t think that’s Wasserman’s crime or fault here, because sometimes attractive teenage girls fuck up their lives, and we bring our own twisted perception of beauty to those tragic situations.
Katy: Your point about popular art obsessing over beautiful girls fucking up their lives is spot on; the Lana Del Rey example is perfect. I think my response is based on my recognition of myself in Dex–that naivety she has and the desperate way in which she lets Lacey shape her identity resonates with the awkwardness I felt until I was about 21.
David: Talk to me about Kurt Cobain. His role as a talisman and a life-raft for Lacey is obviously a huge part of the book. What’s been your own interaction with Nirvana, and how did you respond to that aspect of this story?
Katy: Right, the Nirvana question. I have a confession to make which is at odds with my carefully constructed persona of alt-rock aficionado: I have never actually been a Nirvana fan. My excuse is primarily that I was 11 when Cobain died (I remember hearing the news while in the car with my parents, so I obviously knew of him) and still pretty much a teeny-bopper. By the time I did discover “proper” music, it was the Manic Street Preachers, then Britpop arrived. My experience of Nirvana, consequently, is peripheral; I’ve read a lot about Kurt Cobain, including his journals, and I’m a big fan of Courtney Love and Hole, and although I own a copy of Nevermind, it hasn’t been a big influence on me. However, I did identify with Lacey’s love of Kurt, because it’s similar to how I feel about The Clash and Joe Strummer; there’s a point in the book where Lacey talks about listening to bands because Kurt loved them (making my lack of investment in Nirvana particularly weird because she mentions Sonic Youth and Pixies, both of whom I am into), and the Clash definitely had that influence on me when I discovered them at the age of 20. This was definitely where I found common ground with Lacey, particularly in her need to force her passion on Dex. I don’t think I know anyone who I haven’t at some point bullied into listening to Clampdown. For Lacey, the disenfranchisement Cobain sings about is key to her character. I’ve never particularly felt that way, whereas the more directed anger of the Clash’s early records is something I find easier to identify with.
David: I’m right there with you on the Nirvana issue. I was 12 when Cobain died, and didn’t even know about it at the time. Of course, I later discovered them as a teenager, and I liked them, and what they represented, but they seem like a band that definitely meant more if you experienced them in real time, as a system-shock to the rest of popular rock. I like them. I don’t love them. In terms of their role in the novel, I had to remind myself Nirvana and Cobain weren’t a cliche yet at the time the novel is set (1991-1992), and so wasn’t a cliche as an idol and totem for Lacey.
Katy: I think the book perfectly depicts the intensity of friendships between teenage girls, which leads me to another question; my own experiences and what I witness with the kids I teach lead me to believe that female and male friendships, especially as teens, are fundamentally very different, so I’m intrigued to know how that theme in the book played out for you.
David: Answering your question about the difference between male and female teenage friendships is really tough. For one thing, I lean pretty heavily against any notion of gender essentialism and implications that “this is how girls/women are” and “this is how boys/men are,” but I acknowledge that because cultures do definitely encourage and even enforce gender rules and roles, there do end up being differences, even if they aren’t organic. In my own experience though, I don’t think I feel like my high school friendships varied greatly from the experiences of Dex and Lacey. Internally, I was a mess as a teenager. Emotional, depressed at points, suicidal at points, and really lonely, for a lot of reasons. When popular guys would befriend me, I molded myself around them for as long as they allowed me to stay in their orbits. I was very much a Dex. At the same time, I was aware how emotionally dissatisfying those friendships were, and I sought out female friendships concurrently. Most of my closest friendships throughout my teenage years were with girls, and were strictly platonic. My biggest influence growing up was my older sister, and I think a lot of how I relate and communicate and emotionally process came from her, so being friends with girls felt safer than being friends with other boys. I think for a lot of people, though, you are probably right.
My question goes along with my first one about rural America: how does the extreme religious stuff in the book strike you? It was, just as with the setting, not weird to me at all. Not in the sense that it wasn’t troublesome, but just that it wasn’t out of the ordinary. You live in a more secularized country. How did you react to Lacey’s stepdad, and where he sends her? Do y’all have Jesus jails over there for wayward teens?
Katy: I was quite shocked by the response of Lacey’s stepdad and the camp he sent her to; while reading, I don’t think I really recognised this is as something that actually happens. I am not entirely sure what people do with their troublesome teens in this country but I don’t think religious reform camps are a thing. It’s only you mentioning this that makes me realise this kind of thing is a reality over there. I know we have camps which you can send overweight kids to, but I think they’re more about star jumps than Jesus.
Religion over here is a strange issue. For example, our Prime Minister-elect (although by the time you read this, she may well be in the job) is a Christian and that’s been presented in the media as something really significant which could affect her work (higher moral standards, apparently), whereas my understanding of the US is that it would be pretty unthinkable for a President not to be openly religious. I tend to forget how different our countries are in that respect.
In revisiting Girls on Fire during our discussion, I’ve been struck again by how powerful the writing is. There’s such a clear distinction between the different voices, which isn’t always the case in multi-narrator stories, and Wasserman moves so seamlessly between lyricism (like in the prologue with its slightly creepy and voyeuristic tone) and the visceral rage of Lacey’s sections. Did you share my admiration for the style, and which sections in particular stood out for you?
David: Absolutely. I thought the writing was electric. At multiple points in the book I felt kind of depressed, as a writer, because I sort of despaired of ever being able to achieve the kind of emotional effect Wasserman evokes and maintains. I haven’t read anything else by her, so I don’t know how versatile she is and if she can write in other styles, but she nailed this. I was especially impressed, as you were, with the ability to not only make both Dex and Lacey’s voices in their passages unique, but to make both as emotionally affecting in different ways. And that damn climax. Wow.
If I have any complaint with the book, it’s the couple of ways in which the story works almost too well, too conveniently. There were points at which the dialogue felt too polished, too television-like, like I was hearing Lacey’s lines come out of Eliza Dushku on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and subsequently could only see Faith whenever I read about Lacey). Also, Dex’s dad. He feels like a stock character. Did you feel like that at all?
Katy: Yes, I completely agree about Dex’s dad. The “cool dad/uptight mum” trope is such a cliche (and, as someone who will inevitably fall into this sooner or later in real life, a very distressing one). It was a bit disappointing that Wasserman pulled such a predictable move. Nikki’s mum was a similarly stock character; I’ve seen the snobby, vapid, bitchy mum in so many books and, while I don’t dispute that these people exist, I think it’s too easy as a piece of characterisation.
Something I did like, which links back to our discussion about the significance of Nirvana, was the ’90s setting. Aside from anything else, modern books about teens, by necessity, are full of texts, emails and IMs, which I find relentlessly annoying. The lack of all that in Girls on Fire was, for me, really refreshing. I also feel like I was perhaps born 10 years too late because Wasserman’s depiction of grunge fashion had me longing for flannel shirts to come back into style. Like me, you’re too young to properly relate to the ’90s references, but did you find the recent-history setting immersive?
David: Actually, since my older sister graduated high school in 1993, I feel like I did catch a lot of the cultural stuff in the early ’90s. I had no awareness of grunge music, but the fashion trickled down even to the wider culture. My dad hated my open, untucked flannel shirts when I was in junior high. You bring up a really good point about the lack of technology though. I hadn’t thought about it at all until you mentioned it, but you’re absolutely right. It is nice to not have that stuff encroach on the narrative. It streamlines it, and it allows for types of tension and suspense that just wouldn’t really be possible nowadays. Aside from that though, I felt like this story could have been set in 1971 or 2011 as easily as 1991, because the characters are so true, and the basic hell of being a teenager is so universal. It evoked its time, but we forget people don’t change as much as we think they do across eras.
Lacey gives Hannah the name Dex. For the rest of the novel, both names are used as weapons, as shields, as collars, as badges. Do you think names actually have that power? Was Wasserman leaning on a device here, or did this feel true?
Katy: This name question gave me a moment of clarity just before falling asleep last night. This is the kind of English-teacher-genius which nerdy kids scribble down eagerly and tattoo on their faces, but which too-cool-for-school ones roll their eyes at and wish they were dead.
Are you ready?
Before Dex becomes Dex, she is Hannah: slightly dull, uninspired and predictable. What else is predictable? Palindromes! Which, obviously, is what “Hannah” is. Man, it’s tiring being this smart. This is when my cynical students moan, “But, miss, surely the writer didn’t do that on purpose?” and I say, “who cares? Just WRITE IT DOWN.”
Phonaesthetically, the name shift works so well. “Hannah” is soft and breathy, while “Dex” sounds tough and abrupt. I also found it significant that Dex’s dad adopted the nickname for her too, but quite transparently just to impress Lacey, just emphasising the control she wielded throughout the book.
I think the idea of names possessing this kind of power is interesting and realistic; like modern day Twitter users, Hannah is able to hide behind her new name and this gives her confidence and power which, without “Dex,” she wouldn’t have.
David: I agree they have power, though I’m not sure they have the kind of stark and convenient power Hannah/Dex’s name usage does in Girls on Fire. But yes, I think the things you point out here are correct, though the palindrome thing might be a reach. Hannah is also a Biblical name. In the Old Testament, Hannah promised God she would give her child to his service if he would allow her to conceive. She kept her promise and left her son, Samuel, at the temple to learn to be a priest. Her personality and actions matched the sound of her name: gentle, subservient, submissive. Dex couldn’t be much more different from this, both in personality and phonetics.
Katy: This book was one of several I’ve read since becoming a parent that have made me want to fit my daughter with some kind of tracking device. I would hope that by taking every parenting decision made in the book and reversing it, I’ll be able to avoid sending my little girl to Jesus camp.
Girls on Fire is available now at Greenville Public Library.