Interview With Lesley Anne Cowan, Author of As She Grows And Something Wicked

4799081342 426926186a m Interview With Lesley Anne Cowan, Author of As She Grows And Something WickedLesley 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 4697827806 29fbb2e854 m Interview With Lesley Anne Cowan, Author of As She Grows And Something Wickedshould 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.4701142365 1ea7c86228 Interview With Lesley Anne Cowan, Author of As She Grows And Something Wicked

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!

  16 comments for “Interview With Lesley Anne Cowan, Author of As She Grows And Something Wicked

  1. July 17, 2010 at 9:55 am

    As I’m up earlier than probably many of your readers on a Saturday morning, I shall start the ball rolling. I’m happy to answer any questions about my interview or writing profession. As my novel just came out, I can assume most people haven’t read it. So I will ask you some of the key questions that I asked myself when writing Something Wicked:

    Is it possible for a 16 year old girl (legal age) to have a positive relationship with a much older man (say at least 5 years older)?

    Can a teenage girl who gets together with lots (and I mean lots!) of guys ever be doing it for ‘the right reasons?’

    Is it good to have a parent who doesn’t enforce rules and is more like a ‘friend’? In other words, as a teenager, what do YOU think the responsibility/role of a parent should be (even if you fight about it)?

  2. Season
    July 17, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Hi Lesley,
    I have a question that isn’t related to your questions. I read your first book
    “As She Grows” and thought it was awesome! It was a bit hard to read sometimes because of what Snow had to go through, but still really great. I can’t wait to read “Something Wicked”. I read that you have some characters (like Snow) who show up in “Something Wicked”, but that you have a brand new main character. Why did you decide to have a new main character for this book and put Snow more in the background?
    Thanks!!

  3. julie mitchell
    July 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Lesley –
    The end of Something Wicked is so bleak. Was your intention to depict the hopelessness of young people who find themselves in these situations? Melissa seems to get so much support from the community. What more should be done for her to help her find her way?

  4. July 17, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Hi Season (Can I steal your fantastic name for a character?). Thanks for compliment about As She Grows.

    To answer your question..

    I had a new main character (Melissa) because I wanted to write an entirely different story. Many readers have asked if I would write a sequel to As She Grows because they really want to know what happened to Snow. I don’t think I’ll write a sequel, but I feel I could write a ‘prequel’ talking about her dead mother’s life (with Snow’s grandmother raising the mom).

    You will see Snow only mentioned once in Something Wicked, even though she and Melissa share the same counselor and day program. The character Jasmyn, however, is a main character in both Something Wicked and As She Grows.

  5. Big Daddy
    July 17, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Hi Lesley,
    Is this a portrayal of a strictly “city urban” scene or do you think this challenging story could have been set anywhere?

  6. July 17, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Julie,

    I admit, I am creating a little bit of a reputation for having bleak endings but I DID try to give Something Wicked a more uplifting resolution. I mean, Melissa did grow a bit, didn’t she?

    Thing is, I think that when you are truly in the MIDST of adolescence, especially a really difficult one, the ‘end of the rainbow’ is a great distance away. I feel it’s condescending to my protagonists (and those people in real life who are like her) to give them happy, tidy endings. I think for people like Melissa and Snow, the ‘happy’ ending is in the more subtle hopeful whispers of future success (they are still connected with counselors, they still have people in their lives who care about them, they are still reaching out to others, they are not on the streets, etc).

    My message to my readers would be that just because your life doesn’t feel perfect and happy and complete at age sixteen, doesn’t mean that after some tough years, you won’t end up in the place (in life) that you aspire to be.

  7. July 17, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Big Daddy? Ha! Could you not have chosen a less obvious name, Dad? (my apologies if my guess is wrong)

    [to answer my own question in my first comment of the day: I think the responsibility of a parent is to NOT embarrass his daughter :) ]

    Generally, I’d say this is quite an urban story but I”m sure Melissa’s issues and activities are found in smaller communities too. I too make the assumption that teens in the bigger cities are more involved in sex, drugs and criminal activity however whenever I mention this in front of someone who resides in a smaller town they vehemently disagree.

  8. July 17, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Lesley,

    I think you’re right – Melissa grows quite a bit as a person in Something Wicked. I think that when people are suffering from depression, it takes a number of smaller steps to get to a place where they aspire to be. As you mentioned, Melissa is lucky in that she has a lot of supportive people helping both her and her mom. It’s as you said in the interview, it’s great to have a teacher or a parent, who is cool, but 16 year olds need role models and they need structure in their lives. Not having these things at a young age makes it more difficult to blend in with mainstream society as a youth and an adult.

  9. Cat
    July 17, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Hi Lesley,

    I read and reviewed Something Wicked on my blog a couple of months ago and I was captivated by your ability to write about something so difficult and make the reader really connect with Melissa. I’m curious, since your first two novels deal with major teen issues, are you planning to tackle any other issues or do you think your next novel might be a little lighter and/or completely different?

    (Also? This is a cool idea answering questions on the blog! And thanks for doing one of my 5 Question interviews, as well. ;))

  10. July 17, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Hi Cat.

    Yes, I am planning to write something completely different. In fact, I have! While As She Grows was my first novel, Something Wicked is actually my third ‘written’ novel. My second and fourth novels (completed manuscripts) are adult literary fiction, and they are very, very different!

    I plan to continue to write both genres (adult & YA). Since I chose the ‘series’ idea for my YA, I think my novels will always deal with tough issues ( I’m really trying to get some light humour in there!). I also plan to deviate a little from the more traditional narrative in my next YA novel.

    thanks!

  11. Melanie
    July 17, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    First, I want to say that I really enjoyed the interview. Great questions, Melissa!

    Lesley:

    I haven’t read “As She Grows” but I’ve read “Something Wicked” (won a copy on this blog, thanks Melissa!) and really enjoyed it. I look forward to reading more of your books. :)

    My question : As I’m studying to become a teacher, I’m wondering what is the best thing a teacher can do to help teens like Melissa or Snow?

  12. July 17, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks for commenting Melanie. I’m glad that you enjoyed the questions that I asked and reading Something Wicked. :)

  13. July 17, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Melanie.

    That’s a great question. I think reading these novels really help (if I do say so myself!). When you are teaching a large class it’s difficult to get to know each student and his/her background. Unfortunately, when teaching: what you see, is what you get. And so it’s easy to get caught up in the behaviours (ie: late for class, not handing in work, attitude, etc). I think a general awareness of the possible issues that may be behind a student’s behaviour can help.

    I would also contact the parent if there are real problems (you can get a real six sense about a parent too and get an idea if the problem is coming from home). Seeing the parent in person, as well as how the student responds to him/her can be very telling.

    In class, the best thing you can do as a teacher is be firm with the student who is slipping. Honestly! Put her on a contract for attending, call her home when she’s absent, etc. If you do this respectfully, then she will respect you for it.

    Of course, connecting her to a guidance counselor is pretty key. It’s fine to try to make a connection with her yourself, on a certain level. You can do this by giving her an ‘alternative’ assignment, like journaling (that you read) or something like that.

    Finally, look up her school record. There will be a history of absenteeism since childhood. There might be other patterns as well.

    Good luck!

  14. July 17, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    I wanted to address Julie’s last question (as I didn’t before). “What more should be done to help her find her way?”

    That’s a tricky one. Of course, funding is always key. I’d like to see more specialized behaviour classrooms inside the schools WITH youth counselors available all day to marginalized students. I also think social workers need to be paid more & be given lighter case loads.

    At the same time, a young person needs to WANT to be helped. She needs to WANT to change. Readiness is always such a crucial factor (and so frustrating!). Basically, there are enough resources ‘out there’ to help most young people turn their lives around. It’s often about getting through the ‘muddy’ years (ages 13-17) somewhat safely so that maturity (18) can bring some clarity and better decision making.

  15. Sophie
    July 17, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    Lesley,

    Since you are a teacher of at risk students, are the characters in both your books based on real people you have taught or know? If so, do you think they would recognize themselves in the book?

  16. July 17, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    My YA novels are completely fictional. This is important for me to ensure as I think it would compromise my professionalism in my teaching job. When I’m at my work I am one hundred percent “Ms.Cowan” and don’t think about my writing career. What you see in As She Grows or Something Wicked is my ‘reaction’ to the teaching population I encounter. I suppose, in that way, you could say my analysis is real.

    My characters may go through similar events and have similar problems but I’ve never taken something I knew directly from a student and put it into my book. Having said that, people (possibly ex students) will STILL think that I wrote about them or their friends (I’ve had people say this and I never even met them!). That’s because when you work in the specialized field that I do, you meet girls like Melissa or Snow and their parents/grandparents ALL THE TIME. Truly, they are so common in my world.

    I’m hoping that teens sharing similar struggles would find it assuring to know that there are others out there who are challenged with the same obstacles in life. The best criticism (and saddest) I ever received was from a young teen mom who read my first novel: “I thought it was boring. I read for escape and Snow’s life is just totally normal. It’s like the same as mine. I just didn’t find it interesting, sorry.”

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