Last week, I rambled about my love for Kirsty Eagar’s latest novel, Summer Skin. I’m delighted to welcome her onto the blog today to talk feminism, sex and all things Summer Skin. It’s a long Q&A, so settle back with a cuppa and your favourite snack and enjoy!
What was the inspiration for Summer Skin?
Probably the biggest thing was I wanted to write something for older teens with characters who were sexually active, because it’s relevant to a fair slice of that readership, and, in view of the ubiquity of porn, it’s also something we need to take an honest look at—explore the differences between ‘real’ and ‘screen’ sex.
Summer Skin seemed to have a very different vibe to Night Beach or Saltwater Vampires. Was this something you deliberately set out to achieve? How do you feel Summer Skin differs to your previous books?
Yes, it was deliberate. I wanted something that was snappy, dialogue-driven and fun. I like to mix my writing up, try something different each time, and I think part of the difference also came from the fact that the natural world isn’t really a factor in Summer Skin. With the other three books that was a big thing because of the surfing element (I always wanted the ocean in there as a character in its own right). But, for me, uni was much more about interior life than the natural world (playing pool at pubs, club life in the Valley, festering in your room with friends, enjoying all those long, meandering conversations that are about nothing and everything). And, on a personal note, I really needed to find the fun in writing again. It had to make me laugh, if nothing else.
(Now is probably a good time to say that the rest of my responses to Michelle’s excellent questions are LOOOONG. So at this point you might want to go get yourself a cup of coffee. With sincere apologies, Kirsty ☺)
How long did it take to write Summer Skin? Was the process different in any way from your previous novels?
It took two, maybe two and a half years (if you include the edits, and I do because they were hard!), but the time period between Summer Skin and Night Beach was longer than that because I took a year out in the middle to work on another novel I’d received a grant for (more on that below).
The process was quite different for me. Because I wanted the writing to be fun, not pressured, I made the decision not to worry about a daily word count, and instead I kept track of the hours I sat with the thing. I actually think it helped the novel a lot, because it meant that often I’d get past the obvious resolution for a scene and find something that worked better.
I love how you discuss sex and relationships so openly in Summer Skin. In particular, I love that you explore how women find pleasure from sex without shame. Why do you feel it’s so important to discuss these issues in Young Adult/New Adult fiction?
Thank you, Michelle ☺. And we shouldn’t feel ashamed. I sometimes wonder if that shame stems from the fact there’s a kind of social conditioning happening via so many stories where desire is presented as being ‘the male condition’ and girls and women are presented as being either submissive conquests, or struggling to stay virtuous. I mean, it’s utter bullshit.
I have a mother who talks very openly and honestly about sex and desire, and that not only helped me, it also helped some of my friends. And college was a game changer for me, because there were so many strong girls there, who just owned their sexuality and didn’t take shit about it—but what was great was that most of the guys in our circle had no issues with it either. But not everyone is lucky enough to have role models like that, so I very much wanted that energy in the story. The double standards that still exist annoy the crap out of me. Trying to shame women for nude pics, for example, when guys post a million dick pics every other day … I know some of my mates would have just pissed themselves laughing if someone had tried to shame them for taking a nude pic, and that’s powerful. I think if you find yourself in that situation, look to your crew for support, and shrug, and say, ‘So what?’
You know the other (related) thing I think is really important? Female pleasure. Because, thanks to porn, girls are now being requested to do a whole range of things that aren’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. I want expectations to shift back the other way. Instead of guys approaching things like, ‘What can I get her to do?’ We need more, ‘What’s going to make her feel good?’ And I want more open, honest discussions around these issues so that girls and women feel confident and safe enough to answer that question without fear of being shamed.
Summer Skin is undoubtedly a feminist novel. I hate the notion that feminism is ‘having a moment’ because it certainly doesn’t feel that way for me and my friends, but do you think feminism has become more palatable to the media and society in general?
Yes, I know exactly what you mean. What gets me down is that, as far as the mainstream media is concerned, feminism is still regarded as being somewhat contentious. Which is ludicrous. To paraphrase the title of that excellent book—women are half the sky. I think the other frustrating thing is that having the conversation doesn’t necessarily signify that real change is taking place.
You know what I think? I think stories are incredibly powerful in being agents of change. What I love about the publishing world is that it makes women’s stories available—and I sincerely hope that the diversity of those stories continues to widen; we need diverse stories and diverse voices. But if you look to our screens (television, film) the stories are still very much dominated by men, and made by men. That’s where we need to see the big change because it’s such a big reinforcer. The trickle-down effect of stories on our social perceptions is huge.
Clementine Ford described Summer Skin as a “feminist love story”. Why do you feel it’s important to explore the relationship between sex and feminism, particularly in a YA context?
In writing Summer Skin I had a strong sense that as well as it being a love story between Mitch and Jess, it also had to work as a love story between Jess and herself. Mitch puts her through the wringer. She’s attracted to him, which is something that can’t be controlled, and that messes with her head because there are so many aspects to his attitude that suck. He’s the antithesis of most of what Jess believes in. But she eventually redefines her sense of self; works out what she will and won’t stand for, finds her self-respect again.
That, to me, is so much more interesting than a female main character who gives up everything and signs herself over. It’s not even that I react to that stuff that strongly—most of the time, I can recognise it as being some kind of fantasy fulfilment—it’s more that I actually just find it incredibly boring. It’s unrealistic, it’s been done to death, and a lot of the time it’s bad writing—taking the easy way out.
The other thing that was crucial was, even though Jess hides her involvement with Mitch from her friends, she couldn’t just conveniently put all her other relationships on hold. When Mitch comes along, she’s got a group of friends that to her are the most interesting people in the room, so to speak. She digs her friends. I think that’s another aspect of life that’s really important: how amazing your relationships with friends can be, and how rewarding it is to try to be a good friend in return. In my case, I’m talking about newer friends, who feel like a gift from the universe, but also my long term friendships—people from as far back as primary school.
But, anyway, that’s why little subplots like the one between Jess and Allie, for example, are important. Jess is very all or nothing in her approach to people. But even though she doesn’t always understand Allie’s motivations, she does eventually recognise the need to live and let live, because, Allie, ultimately, is a good mate. (You don’t have to put up with toxic friends, though. Do yourselves both a favour and cut them off. I’m still learning that one ☺)
Each chapter title creates a playlist for Summer Skin, but if you had to pick one song to pair the book with, what would it be?
A-ha! I love this question. After giving it much careful thought and consideration, it’d have to be Thelma Plum’s ‘Young in Love’ because I adore her voice, and that song gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. It conjures up YEARNING, and doesn’t yearning just punch the sweetest hole in your heart??? (It also somehow captures the mood of Jess and Mitch going night swimming).
Jess is from Rockhampton, which is also my hometown. I love that the Beef Capital got a mention in Summer Skin and that there were so many familiar places for me in the novel. Why did you chose to set Summer Skin at The University of Queensland and around Brisbane?
In short, it’s because I went to Brisbane for uni, but all of my friends were from regional areas like me. Basically, I don’t think I could have convincingly set it anywhere else, but I also didn’t want to. I still go back there to visit family and friends, and when I was growing up my dad lived in Brisbane, so I have history with the place ☺.
Which books left their mark on you as a reader and a writer?
I’ve got a special shelf in my office for the books I’d grab in case of fire. Some of them are really important as touchstones, because they are the original copies I had as a child and teen, and I’ve taken them with me on every move I’ve ever made (and I’ve lived in seventeen different places, including London, and out of a four-wheel drive for a couple of years). They are: The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler—it got me thinking about style when I first started writing seriously); The Neverending Story (Michael Ende—Atreyu was my first literary crush), Moominpappa at Sea (Tove Jansson—my favourite book of all time); The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton), The Blue Castle (L. M. Montgomery—this one really resonated with me); To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee); I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou); The Golden Day (Ursula Dubosarsky); Heartwood (James Lee Burke), and … wait for it … How to Succeed in Business Without a Penis (I must confess, I’ve never actually read it, but my grandmother gave it to me, and the title alone, combined with her energy, have always been enough to make it very special).
In terms of writing, the book that got me to attempt my first novel was Stephen King’s On Writing. And, probably even more sustaining for me, has been Betsey Lerner’s Forest for the Trees. Lately I’ve been blown away by Jennifer Egan. I’m really interested in work that tells a story with a strong narrative voice. If you think about it, all the show don’t tell stuff doesn’t necessarily apply if the voice has authority and tells the story like a BOSS. J.K. Rowling has it, as does Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, Maya Angelou, Jane Austen …
What do you hope readers take away from Summer Skin?
If they are in their teens and twenties, I hope they get a sense of my absolute respect for them. Because I am awed by how beautifully they’re navigating what have been really rapid changes caused by online life. More generally, though (because it’s my fervent hope that my writing reaches lots of different age groups—and I found out yesterday that my local indie bookshop had sold a copy to an eighty-year-old—yeeeww!) I always hope that a reader finishes the story feeling positive, and a little bit braver about being themselves.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m writing a novel called Molasses. It’s a story about four teenagers and five escapes. It’s located in a fictional place that is AMAZINGLY SIMILAR to where I grew up in Capricornia, not far from Rocky. Rocky is very much a character in this story. And while I’m on that—I just want to say how good it’s been to get to know you, Michelle. There’s something really special about meeting someone else who is from the same place as you ☺.
Thanks for having me!