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An interview with Patricia Smith, author of ‘The Year of Needy Girls’

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Patricia Smith’s debut novel, “The Year of Needy Girls,” takes place in a small town in Massachusetts upended by the murder of a young boy. In this charged atmosphere, Deirdre, a high school French teacher, loses her job after one of her students surprises her with a kiss. Meanwhile, Deirdre’s relationship with her partner, SJ, is teetering, and SJ herself finds that she has ties to the boy’s killer.

The author Stewart O’Nan called Smith’s novel “a study in hypocrisy and small-town secrets,” and Publishers Weekly said “Smith’s crisp prose and dedication to realistic moral ambiguity make for a provoking read.” Smith received an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Department of English in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences. She teaches American literature and creative writing at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School.

 

“The Year of Needy Girls” examines homophobia, false accusations and community unrest. It’s been described as the story of a contemporary witch hunt. What inspired your premise of a small town engulfed in controversy?

I was teaching in Cambridge, Massachusetts, years ago, in a fifth/sixth-grade classroom, when a young boy in Cambridge was abducted, sexually molested and murdered — by his (male) next door neighbor, much like Leo Rivera in the novel. There was a lot of fear in the LGBTQ community that as a result, there might be an anti-gay backlash because of it. In real life, there wasn’t, due, in large part to the gracious parents of the murdered boy. That story and feeling have stuck with me for a long time, and I often wondered “what if” the parents hadn’t been so generous? What if people had reacted viscerally and gone after LGBTQ adults who work with children, however misguided? 

I also teach American literature and I love “The Scarlet Letter!” I think my re-reading and teaching of that book influenced me more than I realized — and perhaps, by extension, “The Crucible,” which I don't teach but which I have read. 

Can you talk about the relationship between Deirdre and SJ and how circumstances ultimately test them as both individuals and a couple?

Deirdre and SJ are, truthfully, not a great couple in the sense that they are together for the wrong reasons, really. They serve a purpose for each other, though, and the challenges they face after the accusation against Deirdre are just too much for them to handle. They both have their blind spots and have an inability to see things as they are. I see SJ’s inability to tell Deirdre about Mr. Freeman [a teacher SJ had a relationship with when she was a high school student], for instance, as evidence that she is unable to truly be intimate with Deirdre. And Deirdre — she doesn’t know herself well enough yet to even show that self to SJ or anyone. She certainly doesn’t see SJ for her true self — she sees what she wants, and though they aren’t cruel to each other and do nurture each other for a while, they are both better off out of the relationship. The accusation against Deirdre reveals all of that, as hard as it is for them to acknowledge. 

Tackling the attitudes and behaviors of a community can be a difficult proposition. How did you approach that task?

Well, one of the things I was really interested in for this book was the idea that a place can seem liberal, can have a veneer of being open-minded but deep down, people can still harbor quite strong prejudices. I found that to be the case when I lived in Cambridge — a city known for its liberal attitudes. I often thought that sometimes those attitudes were a façade, and that if asked point-blank, many people would admit to something else, something more narrow and judgmental. So I wanted to explore that idea.

I handled it narratively by interspersing third-person omniscient sections throughout the book as well as using letters to the editor. 

Your novel tackles relevant social issues with complex characters but also has an engaging plot that generates the momentum of a page-turner. Was it important to you to make sure your book both challenged and entertained readers?

First and foremost, I hope “The Year of Needy Girls” tells an engaging story. 

Definitely. I’m not sure I would say I consciously wanted to “challenge” readers, but I definitely wanted and hoped that the book would be both thoughtful and entertaining. First and foremost, I hope “The Year of Needy Girls” tells an engaging story. If readers find it a “page-turner,” then I think I’ve done my job in that regard. Earlier in my writing days, I wasn’t as focused on story or plot at all. I was more concerned with language. While language is still very important to me, I learned something crucial, I think, about storytelling from a couple of sources. Tom De Haven was important to me in that respect. One thing I took away from his fiction workshops was the importance of story. What makes a reader want to turn the page? They want to find out what happens next, right? The second way I learned something important about plot was, I have to admit, from reading Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code.” I was not enamored of the language at all and even found myself cringing from time to time, but I couldn’t put the book down. That experience taught me something about plot and its necessity. Of course, in the best of worlds, a good book has both evocative language and an interesting plot. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.

So, I’m not sure you were really asking about plot per se, but for me, I think it goes hand in hand with pacing.

You have been a teacher for more than 30 years. Did that experience influence the direction your novel took?

If you mean did it influence the fact that Deirdre is a teacher, then yes, definitely. It’s funny — it wasn’t until recently that I realized my book is as much about teaching as it is anything else! Again, Tom De Haven — I remember in his fiction workshops, he talked about how little is written about work, how we spend so much of our lives doing it, but there is not much fiction devoted to it. And teaching is definitely something I know about, so I thought, ‘I might as well use what I know well!’

“The Year of Needy Girls” has been in development for a while. Did the novel evolve much over the years?

Yes, sure. I struggled with its structure for a while. I knew from pretty early on that I wanted the book to be divided into three sections — September, October, November — but the various short, omniscient sections came to me much later in the process. After the book had been accepted for publication and I was working with my editor, I also had to drop one character that the editor felt pulled attention away from Deirdre’s central conflict with Anna [the student who kisses Deirdre], so I did that, which involved a bit of revision. There were other, more superficial changes, too. For instance, originally, Deirdre’s school wasn’t an all-girls school. 

Are there any authors or novels that you view as particular influences on you and this book?

Another interviewer mentioned a similarity to Jodi Picoult — and I did read one of her books, “Salem Falls,” while I was writing “The Year of Needy Girls. I was interested in how she handled the portrayal of the teacher in that novel. Talking with Ramona Ausubel when she was at VCU for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award influenced my thinking about point of view. My students know that point of view is a particular focus of mine, but after talking with Ausubel about her book “No One is Here Except All of Us” and what felt like a shifting point of view to me and my students when we read and discussed it together, I started loosening up a bit in how I thought of point of view and how I used it in the book. I have to give credit to fellow VCU alum and friend Michele Young-Stone who, after reading an early draft, asked me, “Who are these needy girls?” which prompted me to write sections entitled “The Girls.” Other writer friends Virginia Pye, Nathan Long (another VCU M.F.A. alum) and Susann Cokal read the manuscript at various stages and were definitely helpful and influential. I’m sure there are many, many other books I’ve read that have become part of the way I think now about writing and story and have become unconscious influences. 

You’ve said that you haven’t always thought of yourself as a writer but as “a teacher who wrote.” What shifted for you and how?

That’s a good question. When I was in the M.F.A. program at VCU, I also studied with Bill Tester, who told us that the hardest thing about becoming a writer is believing that you're a writer. I think I scoffed at the time, but it turns out to be true in my case for sure. I guess things shifted for me when, at long last, I decided that the only thing preventing me from having a book out in the world was me, and if I wanted to finish the book and get it out, then I had to make that a priority. I was used to making other things a priority — teaching, and later on, working out, training for long bike rides and triathlons. I thought that if I could make those things priorities, if I could take this non-athlete self and train for and complete a triathlon, then I could certainly sit my butt down and finish my book! Once I prioritized my writing — which meant for me getting up at 5 a.m. and writing before school as well as sometimes leaving things to be graded at school if I needed the time at home to write — then the way I started to see myself shifted, too. 

What has been the most rewarding part of the novel’s publication and its reception by readers?

I have loved hearing from readers! I love hearing that they can’t put the book down, that they have had to read it long into the night or throughout the day. A few different readers have written to thank me for having a book about a lesbian character where the fact of her gayness isn’t the main focus of the book. A couple of others have written to thank me for talking about teaching and its challenges. Several have mentioned how the book left them with a lot to think about, and that is certainly gratifying. 

Did your experience in the Creative Writing Program at VCU help you become a published author? Were there professors or classmates who were particularly influential in your development as a writer?

Definitely! I think I’ve mentioned most of my VCU influences earlier, but in addition to Tom De Haven and Bill Tester I’ll also add here Marita Golden who was my thesis advisor and also a great encourager of my work. The students in Tom De Haven’s novel workshop were especially helpful, too — that’s where the seeds for this book began. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on another novel — I don’t want to say too much about it yet — it’s in the early stages, but I’m hoping it won't take nearly as long as “The Year of Needy Girls” to complete.

 

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