Lesley Anne Cowan is the author of As She Grows and Something Wicked, which I really enjoyed reading. These are hard, ‘gritty’ novels, but among the ugliness that surround the main characters’ lives, there is a real beauty that they hold in their hearts.
I am so excited to be able to present to my readers this great interactive interview. Yes, that’s right – I said interactive, which means if you have any questions for Lesley about her novels, her job teaching at-risk youth, or even if you just want to know more about something she answered in this interview, then go ahead and leave a comment. She’ll be answering questions that you leave all day long! I was asked to remind you of one thing: although Lesley teaches at-risk youth, she isn’t an expert on mental health issues, so she can’t answer any personal questions on these topics.
YA Book Shelf: As She Grows and Something Wicked focus on two different troubled teens, but they form a series with some characters showing up in both novels. Can readers expect (or at least hope for) another book or two in the series?
Lesley Anne Cowan: Yes. My hope is to write a few more novels depicting the lives of contemporary, urban young women who struggle with unique challenges. The characters will continue to share involvement in the same ‘system’ (Ie. social worker, group home, classroom, probation officer, etc), but they will not necessarily know one another.
YABookShelf: What was the most difficult scene for you to write in both As She Grows and Something Wicked?
Cowan: This question is very easy for me to answer because I clearly remember writing the two most difficult scenes. In As She Grows, it was the assault scene that took place in the washroom at a part. In Something Wicked, it was the scene with Giovanni. Both of these scenes were two rare times when I actually lost control over my writing and the book wrote itself. Of course, later, the discussion with the editor was “Should we tone it down?” Admittedly, these are ghastly scenes, but whenever we tried taking them out or softening them (and I did tone down the Giovanni scene, by the way) the books seemed to lose something essential.
YABookShelf: Have you always imagined yourself writing novels that deal with difficult subject matter? Were there any books that got the ball rolling in that direction for you?
Cowan: I never thought I would write novels that deal with this subject matter, just as I never thought I would work with at-risk youth. When I graduated from university, I targeted girls’ private schools. By chance, I ended up in a social / emotional / behavioral classroom in the public system. And who would have guessed — it was the PERFECT job for me! It also ended up leading me the subject matter of my first two novels. My drive for writing both novels has been to answer questions I personally struggle with about the behavior of young people I’ve met – as you can see, I don’t find many answers, only more questions!
YABookShelf: Have you ever recommended your novels to one of your students? What was their reaction to a voice that is similar to their own experience?
Cowan: For many years, my students never knew I was an author. That’s because I firmly believe my job in an isolated behavior classroom should be about helping students get back to the ‘mainstream’ and thus, graduate from high school. When I first started teaching, my students did really well in their courses (I teach them all day), but I soon realized the success was only because I was doing all the hard work and learning! I observed their needs, I adjusted my behavior, and I catered the work to their interests. Problem was, they didn’t learn a thing about themselves or their individual obstacles to learning. They just ‘did better,’ and they thought it was just because they were in a small classroom. Then they’d go back to their regular schools and fail because they hadn’t changed their behavior to ‘fit’ into the regular system. Now I think I best help my students by being a somewhat 1-dimensional teacher, who can help them role-play resolving conflict with teachers in a positive, empowering way. Being a cool, fun teacher, who writes books is interesting (and good for my own ego), but it doesn’t help them prepare for the world outside my classroom.
Having said all that, lately I’ve been sharing my ‘author identity’ more, when it’s appropriate. I have also, through the years, given my book to a few young women, who I thought would really benefit from reading it. On the whole, they really enjoy the novel and sometimes, I make it into a classroom assignment. It was important to me to write a ‘literary novel’ that appealed and respected the intellect of my readers. To answer your second question, I think the voice might be similar to their own experience. However, I’m sure if any girl who had actually lived through these experiences wrote a similar book, her voice would be far, far more accurate.
YABookShelf: You’re the author of two books for teens and you also teach troubled teens. What inspired you to teach at-risk youth rather than work in the regular school system?
Cowan: Like I mentioned in a previous question, I fell into the job. I suppose I could elaborate on what ‘kept me in the job’ rather than work in the regular system. There’s so much that I love about my unique employment. In a nutshell, I work in a substance abuse treatment program for teens thirteen to eighteen. Because my class is small (only about 8 students) I get to know (and help) my students on a far deeper level than in a regular school. I really value and enjoy those closer connections. I also enjoy the challenge of human psychology. I find human behavior limitless in its depth of enlightenment, while marking the same Shakespeare essays from year to year might have an intellectual ceiling for me.
YABookShelf: What would you suggest teens do if they suspect that their friends are struggling with depression? What should parents do?
Cowan: Find help.
The problem is, figuring out that it might be depression! When a teen is clearly depressed (Ie. sad, withdrawn, apathetic), then it’s much easier to ‘see.’ As is the case with Melissa and Snow, I wanted to write about the more common ‘deceptive’ symptoms of depression that I encounter in young men and women.
If I was a young person who thought my friend might have depression, I would try to get her/him to go see the school counselor or her/his family doctor. I would actually go with them to the appointment. The doctor or counselor should refer the friend to another counselor/ psychiatrist/ hospital for assessment. If my friend refused to go, I would get her/him to at least call Kids Help Line AND I’d tell his/her parents and make sure the family follows up with connecting my friend with someone for assessment.
If I was a parent, I would basically do the same thing. I would take my son/daughter to the family doctor who should refer on. If the teen is showing behavioral signs of depression like Melissa (Ie: anger, violence, sex, drugs, etc), then she must be connected with a social services program. Canada offers so much in terms of resources – there’s no excuse nowadays to NOT know about them with ‘Google’ at your fingertips.
YABookShelf: Even though I remember hiding some things from my parents while I was growing up, I was amazed by how well hidden Snow kept her pregnancy and cutting and Melissa kept her depression and its causes from others. Why is it so difficult for girls like your characters to have trust in adults.
Cowan: You’d be amazed at what teens can hide! Of course, every girl is different. It depends on the events and relationships of your past, among other things. I think Melissa and Snow both have a hard time trusting adults because they are a little familiar with ‘the system.’ Once you have met and talked to a few counselors, and you’re shuffled around after divulging your inner truths, then I think you start to put up a wall. And frankly, not every counselor or social worker is competent. When so many people come and go in your life, you learn there’s no real value in mustering the courage to confide in someone who, in the end, will leave you. It’s just not worth the effort.
YABookShelf: Your books are side-by-side some of the biggest names in edgy, first person YA lit through Penguin Canada’s POV program. How does it feel to be counted among writers like Jay Asher, Laurie Halse Anderson, Gayle Forman and John Green?
Cowan: Of course, it’s an honor. I’m excited for YA fiction to continue pushing boundaries and move beyond a sort of ‘coddling’ past to a more age-appropriate and intellectually stimulating future.
YABookShelf: North American parents have often challenged books for their depiction of sex and drug use. Have your novels ever been challenged? How would you defend them should the need arise?
Cowan: I haven’t been challenged directly, but I can imagine what parents would say! My books are definitely showing, to say the least! I do find myself apologizing to potential readers about the ‘gritty’ content of my books. I admit my novels are not for everyone and I certainly wouldn’t give them to my pristine, sheltered 13 year old. No way! I would, however, give the books to a daughter who either is experiencing some trouble or is attending a high school in an urban centre. I don’t think there is anything in my books that she would not be already familiar with. My books have sex and drugs in them, but I think it’s fair to say that I don’t glamorize the experiences at all – in fact, I think these would be good books to scare a teen, not inspire her to partake.
I think the potential of my books lie in the mother/daughter connection (both for readers and for thematic content). I really encourage mothers to read these novels with their daughters, and then discuss them. As She Grows was first published as adult literary fiction. I think the crossover appeal can really be helpful to parents who want to connect with their teenage girls, who might be involved in a more ‘concerning’ social scene. In fact, since my novels have potential ‘triggers’ in them for more vulnerable teens, I would suggest that they both be read with an adult who can check in on the reader’s feelings.
At the same time, there can be an advantage to a teen having her mom read the same book. Something Wicked deals directly with ‘mother as a role-model’ and it can raise some good discussion as to a parent’s role and responsibilities.
YABookShelf: The Myth Of Sisyphus, Macbeth, and “The Lady of Shalott” inform Melissa’s personal mythology and become overriding symbols in the book. How did you decide on these particular texts and the images associated with them? Did they come to you when you first imagined the story and/or Melissa’s character or did these poetic elements figure in later.
The poetic elements were there from the beginning. Like Snow in As She Grows, I wanted Melissa’s external ugly world to contrast an internal beautiful one. Melissa’s beauty (and imagination) can be found in her refuge in literature; Snow’s is found in the ruminations of her mother.
I chose these particular allusions because they were of interest to me. I personally enjoy Sisyphus and Echo. And I love the Lady of Shalott! As well, I know that a typical grade nine or ten English student (reader) would have access to these references. Also, Melissa is smart and she reads, but I thought it was more in character if her inspirations were from something she probably learned about in school.
I hope that you enjoyed this interview as much as I enjoyed doing it. Remember if you have any further questions or comments for Lesley, she would be thrilled if you leave them as a comment on this post!