CICADA: Can you talk a little bit about how Pen’s character took shape? Has she stayed true to your original vision of her, or has she evolved beyond what you expected?
M-E GIRARD: The idea for Pen first came to me as I quickly put together a submission for a writing contest. The early version of Pen was crusty and negative—people found her exhausting to listen to! It took several drafts for me to figure out how to strike a balance with her characterization. She definitely evolved beyond my expectations. I know the goal for any writer is to create realistic, authentic characters, but it’s still kind of mind-blowing to have created a character that you talk about as though they were real. I’ve already created many characters through my writing, but Pen is in a league of her own—and not just because her story is now a published book. In a little while, I plan to dig out my original first draft and give it a read, just to remind myself of where Pen came from.
CIC: There are many different types of masculinity portrayed in Girl Mans Up, both positive and negative. How can the concept of masculinity be toxic? How can it be positive? In what ways would you like to see masculinity explored in teen lit?
MG: I’m not always sure how I feel about femininity and masculinity, nor am I sure how I’d define them. Masculinity is toxic when we place expectations on those who practice it that reinforce harmful ideas about what it is to be masculine and why that’s superior to being feminine. I’m not sure I would deem masculinity or femininity as either positive or negative. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to create lists of attitudes, behaviors, and fashion/physical appearance choices and decide they only belong to a certain type of person. But at the same time, this is the world we live in right now, so many of us find comfort and empowerment in redefining our ideas about what it means to be masculine and feminine, in discovering our own versions of masculinity and femininity, and in letting each other decide what feels more authentic and what belongs to us.
You can’t possibly tell everything with just one story, so I took a few questions and ideas I have about these concepts and incorporated them into Girl Mans Up. I really wanted to lay different versions of femininity and masculinity out there for readers to see, and I wanted them to experience the good and the bad about it. I also wanted them to feel confused about the whole thing, the way I often do. Because it’s not cut and dried. So in teen lit, I’d love to see stereotypes and expectations for what is normal continue to be challenged.
CIC: At one point in the novel, Pen wonders, “am I queer because I like girls, or because I look the way I do? Maybe I don’t know enough words.” In what ways do you think language can be freeing or limiting, in terms of identity?
MG: I think learning new words and learning about new concepts is so freeing . . . until you realize there’s even more words and more concepts out there that you have yet to get into. Then you start reading people’s opinions, interpretations, and critiques about the new stuff you’ve learned, and you’re confused all over again. You’ll try to engage in conversations and assert yourself, but you’ll offend by saying the wrong thing, using outdated arguments and terminology, or by denying someone else’s experience or existence. But if you continue reading, listening, and paying attention to the ways others use words, you will come to a point where you realize you’re aware of things you weren’t aware of before. You’ll understand yourself and others in a more profound way. You’ll know that you’re in a better place now than when you sat there in ignorance. Despite the fact that gaining knowledge often leads to more questions and more confusion, it’s undeniably empowering. It can literally save you. And your use and understanding of language can also save others.
CIC: So you’re a gamer, and many of the characters in Girl Mans Up are pretty serious about video games, as well. Has gaming influenced you as a writer?
MG: I’m not sure gaming really has influenced me as a writer, other than by really cutting down the amount of time I have to dedicate to writing, since I’m known to spend entire days in my game room instead of writing in my office. I think my being a writer has actually enhanced my gaming experience, however. I’m a lot more aware of storytelling in gaming now. Although game play will always be the most important thing to me, when it comes to choosing a game to spend time on, storytelling is something I look at now. It’s why I gave a nod to The Last of Us in Girl Mans Up—because that game’s story and characterization are epic.
CIC: If you were a protagonist in a video game, what sort of game would it be? What kind of powers would you have?
MG: This question is interesting! And I feel like I could interpret it in several ways. First off, my favorite games are open world, first-person shooter type of games like Dead Island, Dying Light, Far Cry, and Borderlands. I would not want to hang out in one of those worlds for real! I’m not really into superhero games, so I couldn’t see myself in that kind of game (even though having a power would be pretty awesome). I love side-scrolling platformers but I imagine running from left to right in a 2D world would get kind of boring after a while. So I guess I’d probably star in a choice-based, interactive drama game like Life is Strange, where I’d be the main character of some mystery or thriller, and the player would decide how the story unfolds by deciding what I should be doing next.