Elana K. Arnold was a National Book Award finalist for her novel, What Girls Are Made Of. She is the author of numerous novels for Middle Grade and Young Adult readers, including A Boy Called Bat and Infandous. Her latest novel is Damsel, which may best be described as a fantasy novel for the #MeToo era. The author graciously took some time from her busy schedule to answer my questions.
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your work, specifically about Damsel. First, what was the inspiration and/or impetus behind Damsel? Why this book? Why now?
Damsel is its own creature, but, like all creatures, it’s also its mother’s child. In other words, it’s an extension of my previous work–What Girls Are Made Of and Infandous, especially–which both weave interstitial stories through present day narratives. Those short pieces are my retellings of the goriest, worst fairy tales, myths, martyr stories, and more. Damsel is my first novel-length fairy tale/fantasy novel. In some ways, I wrote it when I did because of the political climate; I felt I’d woken, on the morning of November 9, 2016, into a world I didn’t recognize. I admit this with some measure of shame; my own privilege had blinded me to the real possibility that the election could swing the way it did. I woke–disappointed, fearful, ashamed, and angry. In other ways, Damsel is the result of growing up female in a world that asked me to take up space, all my life, in a very specific way that I didn’t have the vocabulary to dissect until I was an adult woman.
How do you feel about Damsel going out into the world during the week of the Kavanaugh hearings? It obviously couldn’t have been planned that way, but…
Honestly, I feel that if it hadn’t been the week of October 2nd and the Kavanaugh hearings, Damsel would have come out at a different time, with a different disgraceful thing happening, but into the same world, a world in which women are still fighting to be seen as whole people–not as someone’s wife or daughter or mother or girlfriend, but simply human people in their own right.
Although it’s dressed up in the trappings and tropes of a fantasy novel this is not a “And they lived happily ever after…” sort of tale. Without completely spoiling it for readers, how would you describe the story? What, in short, would be your handsell hook?
I like to say that Damsel, though set in the long ago and far away, is about the here and now. It’s a book about princes and dragons, a wall of eyes and a kingdom of men. It’s about gowns and feasts and falcons. It’s about misogyny and rape culture and gaslighting.
All of your books address important issues facing young people today, but manage to avoid the good-for-you, lecturing feel that “issue” books sometimes have. How do you strike that balance between accessibility/readability and still getting your message across strongly and clearly?
My job is to tell the best story I can tell. My job is not to teach a lesson or convince others to believe the things I believe. I think if a writer sits down with a “lesson” in mind, she will write a terrible book. I write the stories that occur to me, and as I’ve been stewed in rape culture, that’s the material I have to work with. The truth is, I don’t have answers–I have questions, and emotions, and fears. I write from these questions, emotions, and fears, not from a place of knowing better than or more than. Maybe this is why my books don’t feel “preachy”–I am not a preacher. I am a storyteller.
I think something that I took away from writing Damsel (and Infandous and What Girls Are Made Of) is that I own my experiences, and I can do whatever I wish with them–I can forget them, or I can pick them apart; I can transform the ugly things into art. It would be satisfying to me if readers left my books feeling the same way about their lived experiences–that they own the things that have happened in their lives, and that they don’t need anyone’s permission to do whatever they wish with those memories.
As far as ideal reader–I want everyone to read my books.
For readers who have read Damsel and would like to follow it up with other books in a similar vein, are there any you can recommend?
I know you’ve been touring a bit for this book, so what is your favorite part of that experience, aside from the opportunity to meet and interact with readers? Road food? Hotel housekeeping (one of my absolute favorite parts of travel, bless them all)? And your least favorite part?
Honestly, the worst thing about traveling to promote my book is the weird shame/guilt I feel, centering myself and my work. After every event, I return to my hotel room and deconstruct what I said, how I messed up, and I imagine people thinking and saying terrible things about me. Who am I, the voice hisses, to think I am worthy of taking up space? Why should I believe that readers should spend money on my book, and spend time on my stories? I may live my whole life accompanied by this voice. I have gotten better in my regular life at telling it to shut up, but centering myself on a stage awakens the beast.
My favorite part has been feeling the energy in the room. The anger. The rage. The bitter sadness, and the hope. The hopelessness, too. Listen. Many of us have been asleep for a long time. Some, longer than others. But now, all across the land, we are waking up. Watching that stirring is electrifying.
Are you working on something new right now? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it?
I am waiting for notes from my wonderful editor on my next YA. It’s another fairy tale-inspired book, and this one has werewolves.
I just finished reading Jane Yolen’s Mapping the Bones, which was so good. On my bedside table is Ibi Zoboi’s Pride, Randy Ribay’s After the Shot Drops, and Meg Medina’s Merci Suarez Changes Gears. I’ve dipped into all three of these and they are all wonderful so far.
What was your favorite book as a child? Have you re-visited it recently? If so, does it hold up?
I have so many favorites. Anne of Green Gables was such an important book for me; I was a lonely kid without a lot of friends, and with a deep hungry need for connection. As a teen, I discovered Beloved, and it was the first book to truly break my heart, though many others had made me sad. I’ve always been a huge fan of Agatha Christie’s books, and return to them often; my wonderful Nana introduced me to Christie’s work. She and I both cycled through these books over and over again, and one thing that’s surprised me as an adult–something that went over my head as a younger reader–is the occasional anti-Semitism in them.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with whomever is reading this?
Just this–thank you for reading my work, both my responses here and my novels. I know that when you give time to a book, that is time you won’t get back. I value and appreciate each reader who spends a portion of their life with my stories, and I hope you find the time to have been well spent.
On a personal note, the interviewer (that would be me) would like to add that this book absolutely wrecked me, in the best possible way. It is dark and beautiful and important and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is, however, not an easy or comfortable book so when you read it (yes, when not if), give yourself permission to take a break every now and then to look at baby animal pictures. You’ll probably need it. I did. –Billie Bloebaum, Third Street Books