Kathleen Glasgow discusses her debut novel, "Girl in Pieces," and the importance of finishing your drafts
Kathleen Glasgow’s debut novel, Girl In Pieces (Delacorte Press, 2016), has been touted as “Girl, Interrupted for a new generation”. The book follows Charlie, a seventeen-year-old cutter struggling to construct a new life for herself in a world she feels cut off from. The first time novelist discusses with Editorial Assistant, Ashley Lopez, the particulars of writing for a YA audience and the delicate lines writers cross (or maybe don’t cross) when attempting to construct a first book.
AL: What was it like writing about an issue you yourself struggled with in the past?
KG: The biggest difficulty was reaching back into some painful emotional boxes that I keep tightly clasped and far away. But I also knew that if I wrote a story about a girl who hurts herself, and if I used to do that, then I have a responsibility to the reader to be as completely, gut-wrenchingly honest about what that experience is like.
AL: Do you censor yourself at all as an adult writing for younger readers?
KG: I didn't censor myself when writing Girl in Pieces because the subject demanded that I not. I don't think you can write about something like self-injury and not go there; that's not respectful of what harmers, and the ones close to them, go through. And it was important to me to present this act as honestly as possible. That said, I did make a deliberate choice to not make the entire book about self-harming. There needed to be a balance. I'm not for holding back when writing realistic fiction for teens, for the most part. You're trying to accurately portray daily life in a certain set of circumstances, so some realistic details have to be there. That said, there are some issues that don't need to be explored in a mallet-pounding sort of way—there are ways to be delicate, yet truthful, if that makes sense.
AL: You’ve talked about your writing process and answering “what if?” questions as a way to start stories. What was the “what if?” question you asked to start Girl In Pieces?
KG: I like to pose "what if" questions to myself when I start a story. It's a way of helping me work through plot and motivation and feels less strenuous to me than a pure outline. For Girl in Pieces, some of my "what ifs" were: what if a girl cuts herself? What if her mother doesn't want to care for her? What if she falls in with some homeless kids? What if she's a little unformed emotionally and can't see that she's being taken advantage of? Generally, I write about five pages of these, and then I just...start. I'm a pantser, first and foremost, not a plotter. I don't have a problem with making plot; I have a problem restraining it.
AL: Can we talk a little about title? I know originally the book was called The Tender Kit. Why did you change it and how much of an effect do you think titles have for authors in prepping readers for the work?
KG: The first real, real title for the book was Sink or Swim, and then it was The One That I Want, and finally, around the fourth or fifth draft, when I really hit on what the book was going to be, and who the character of Charlie was going to be, it became The Tender Kit, which is how it sold. I think it was the right decision to change the title to Girl in Pieces—for one thing, it puts the subject, or at least the idea, of the book right on the cover—you know right away this read is not going to be easy. That, combined with the very brave cover design, lets potential readers know what they are in for. It's not an easy book, but it's not hard, either. There is hope.
AL: How many drafts of Girl In Pieces did you go through before you started sharing it with people? Are you extremely private about your writing or constantly getting feedback?
KG: I went through three drafts before I shared it with my first workshop group at the Taos Writer's Conference. Antonya Nelson was the instructor for the workshop and she said that a book can really only be in first person if the voice is strong enough, so she asked me to try third person. I spent the next couple of months doing that and while it ultimately didn't work for this story, it did help me strengthen the setting and the backstory to some of the secondary characters. I'm not too private about my writing, though I generally wouldn't show anything to anyone until I had at least a full draft. I'm not a fan of getting novels workshopped in bits and pieces. I think you need a whole draft, something to work with, and finishing a whole draft gives a writer a chance to see the big picture. How can your peers give you feedback on twenty pages? So many things haven't happened, yet!
AL: What are some rules or guidelines for how to be a writer sitting in critique of your novel in a workshop? How do you decide what advice to take?
KG: I did take a workshop in graduate school in which we discussed portions of novels-in-progress. Everyone in that workshop was very respectful, but it did make me wonder how helpful it is to workshop something that kind of depends on its middle and end in order to make sense. I mean, how do you accurately critique something that hasn't actually been written, yet? I did see some writers go through this and though the workshop participants were respectful, you could also see the writers kind of deflate—they had to defend ideas instead of actuals, if that makes sense. And it seemed like then they'd do a lot of rewriting the first twenty pages over and over, rather than surging forth and getting 250 down. So maybe the best way (and maybe it's done this way in some workshops) is to make sure to ask the writer what their plan is for the rest of the novel and to listen to, rather than workshop, that plan. I loved my novel workshops at the Taos Writers Conference because everyone was required to have a whole draft of a novel prior to workshop—it made the discussions much easier—you could see the whole view, rather than imagining it.
AL: What do you do to stay motivated when you’re working on a longer piece? Were there ever times when you were writing Girl In Pieces that you wanted to put the manuscript away?
KG: I don't have a problem being motivated! I love writing. It's painful, sometimes, sure, but I really do actually want to spend all my time alone, writing. I do! I did think about shelving Girl in Pieces at one point—some people said it was just too dark and painful. But I rallied—life can be dark and painful. People have dark and painful lives—literature should reflect that. People should be able to see themselves in books.
AL: Was Girl In Pieces your first manuscript or are there other previous novels tucked away in a drawer?
KG: I was working on an adult novel about familial abuse and the effects it had on a sister and a brother. I finished it! It is in my closet. It was told from four different perspectives. I still love it.
AL: Do you think you'll ever go back to that novel?
KG: I think of that novel all the time! Those characters are never far from me; I think about them every day, so in a way, I am writing that novel even as I complete some other projects. I initially put it away because I wasn't sure how to end it; I know how to end it, now.
AL: Speaking of endings, congratulations on making the New York Times Bestseller list. That’s like every author’s happily ever after. What was your reaction to the news and how it’s affecting your writing life?
KG: I was sitting in Barnes and Noble working on my day job, which is writing for The Writer's Almanac, and I had turned off email and my phone. I took a break, and saw the email from my editor. I actually started shaking and crying because I never, never, ever, ever expected something like that to happen. Ever. And then two people at the next table asked me what was wrong—because I was crying!— and I showed them, and they started crying, too. And then we all went back to doing our day jobs and sipping our lattes, mine now coated with tears. And then I texted my husband, who freaked out, but then promptly told me our daughter was having a tantrum, so I had to handle that. And then I had to go to Target, because dish soap and milk and batteries still matter, even if you are a New York Times bestselling author.
I don't think it's affecting my writing at all. If it has, I haven't noticed. If it does, I'll let you know. I might need you to knock the tiara off my head.