Uses for Boys is one of those books I read in one sitting and can’t stop thinking about. Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s writing is sparse and unusual. She explores the psyche of a young girl, Anna, who is growing up without much connection or adult guidance.
The voice of Anna captivated me. Her innocence is part of what makes the book, for me, so poignant—the dissonance between Anna’s naiveté and the mature nature of her experiences.
I am deeply grateful to Erica for allowing me to ask her “anything I wanted.” Since I first finished the novel weeks ago, I had so many questions for her. To be able to actually talk to Erica has been a great honor. I can’t wait to read the novel she’s currently writing.
Thank you, Erica!
MM: How did the character of Anna come into being for you?
ELS: The voice of Anna was, in many ways, born out of a chapter called “slut.” In the chapter, which was originally much longer, she says, “I’m a slut before I ever touch a penis. Before I ever have sex…The girl I am now, at sixteen, was always present. She haunted the twelve-year-old me.” Anna’s voice grew out that language, out of the character in that section.
MM: I’m curious about your process as a writer. How did the story come together? How long did it take to write?
ELS: Uses for Boys took me three-and-a-half years. I was in grad school at the time. When I started, I thought the story was about boys and then about best friends and then, in a later draft, about mothers. It wasn’t until I finished that I knew it was a story about family.
The structure was challenging. For a while the book was in two halves, and later, when I was reading playwright David Mamet’s Three Uses for the Knife, the book had three parts, like a three-act play. The story mostly takes place when Anna is sixteen, but the childhood scenes are critical—I couldn’t cut them—and it didn’t work to weave them in later. I was trying to write Anna’s story in the form that memory takes; the narrative circling around a central image. But I was all tangled up. It was the writer Lynn Freed who encouraged me to tell the story chronologically.
MM: Talk to me about Anna’s friend Toy.
ELS: Toy changed a lot in the writing. I said the book was about boys when I started, but after forty or so pages, I knew the book was about best friends. I’m fascinated by the way we cleave to our best friends. I love the double meaning of cleave. There’s a way we compare ourselves to our best friends to see if we are normal and we belong. Our friends are doing the same thing.
Early on Anna was angry at Toy. Not until later drafts did Anna get to that hurt and betrayal. And also that longing. There’s so much going on under the surface. Toy is such a curiosity. People have asked me about Toy’s name. I never saw her name as dismissive, but as a name she really inhabited. She is mysterious to Anna. And to me.
MM: I loved what I call the “micro-chapters” and the sparse, tight writing style. Is the final form different from early drafts?
ELS: The book always had tiny chapters with lots of white space. I’m interested in what happens between scenes—what’s not written—where the reader goes in the white space. In a book like Justin Torres’ We the Animals, you expect spare language and lyricism, but I doubt my readers expected the spare-ness of the prose and the rawness of Anna’s story.
MM: What inspired and influenced Uses for Boys?
ELS: I hadn’t written for a long time. But when I found Francesca Lia Block, she reminded me of the ferociousness of the interior lives of girls. Her books made me want to write again. I thought about the urgency and longing and unbearable waiting of adolescence. And I saw a path for myself.
I was lucky during the time I was writing Uses for Boys to be surrounded by amazing women writers. Pam Houston was one of my professors and she must have read half-a-dozen early drafts. Pam’s an incredibly generous reader and something about the story resonated with her. The childhood loneliness Anna feels. Just being in the company of artists like Pam and Lynn and Lucy Corin, writers who are thinking about language, was important. Also that Pam believed that Anna’s story mattered—had a huge impact.
There were a few books I was reading and rereading too, when I was writing, like Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm.
MM: Reactions to your novel vary from “I will never forget it.” To “I just couldn’t handle this book.” Why do you think that is?
ELS: I knew, even as I was writing, that it would be a risk. But I always believed there was a place for Uses for Boys on the shelf. It is more explicit about what the character is going through than many other YA books, but young people hunger to know what other kids are going through, to make sense of their own experiences and understand the experiences of others. The book fights against “fade to black” where there’s sexual intimacy. How can you explore the complexities of consensual versus non-consensual sex if you’re unable to really talk about it?
MM: Why is YA important? What responsibility do you think YA writers have to their readers?
ELS: I read a ton of YA. I love these stories—the world that happens between 13 and 17 is everything. I appreciate the importance YA gives to the interior lives of young people. I can get frustrated with easy resolutions, but I understand the desire to resolve these stories.
I think my responsibility as a writer is to turn experience into art, to make the story shapely and satisfying. To make a beautiful thing. I’ve been surprised by how dark people see the story of Anna. I see Anna and her experiences as complicated and at times sad, but also hopeful.
MM: What are you working on now?
ELS: I’m working on a story about a teenage girl becoming an artist. The central theme is still very much how do I find out where I belong? I think both artists and teenagers don’t find where they belong, they have to make space for themselves. Even in the novel I’m working on now, the main character finds that answering her one big question doesn’t actually solve anything.
MM: Any advice for those of us writing female coming-of-age stories?
ELS: In the traditional bildungsroman, the boy leaves home, goes away to learn something about himself, and comes back changed. The girl’s journey is often more interior—the story of our experiences—how we make sense of home and the greater world. It’s a weaving together of the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we are told. I think girls learn to pick and choose from the stories we’re given and write our own stories.
MM: What female coming-of-age stories would you recommend?
ELS: There are so many I love. Here’s a short list off the top of my head:
- Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
- In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- How I live Now by Meg Rosoff
- Cruddy by Lynda Barry
- Diary of A Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
- Skim by Mariko Tamaki
- Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson
- Burning by Elana K. Arnold (to be release June 2013)
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