Interview with SONYA HARTNETT, Author of BUTTERFLY
I fell in love with Sonya Hartnett’s work the very first time I read her novel, Surrender. From that day to this, I wait patiently for each of her books, knowing that I will be rewarded with something unexpected and beautiful. Naturally, when Gigi and I started crafting our selections for Girls of Summer, I knew that Sonya’s work would be here. The characters in this novel were complicated and not easily dismissed into any category. I asked Sonya to talk to us about Plum and the razor-sharp world of girl friendships. ~ MM
Your novel explores the social world of girls at 13, particularly as it applies to the term ‘friends’. Can you share some thoughts on depicting Plum’s social group as you did?
I did not want Plum to be friends with the coolest girls at school – the group she hangs around with is very middle-of-the-road and they know it. I didn’t hang around with a group when I was at school, but I noticed that each group, no matter their place on the Ladder of Cool, usually had a lowest, always desperate, fearful and simpering member, and this is who I wanted Plum to be – the whipping-girl who believes the idea that without friends you are nothing. But I did not want the friends to be utterly horrible girls – I wanted them to be smart and sometimes sensitive, and also to each have their own fears about being social outcasts. I wanted them to feel very alive and individual, but to lose that individuality when they are together as a gang. I found it very draining to remember what it was like, to be 13 or 14. It is a hard time of your life, and your so-called friends don’t always make it easier. Young girls have always been viciously nasty to each other when they want to be – it’s such a consistent trait that I think such behaviour must be hard-wired into the species. And so I wanted Plum’s friends to be almost helpless in their meanness – they can’t be anything other than ghastly, because they are biologically programmed to be that way.
Can you tell us a little bit about Maureen as a character? On the one hand she offers such wisdom and support, but on the other she is reckless and calculating.
Maureen was never meant to be as crazy as she is – she got crazier and crazier the more she featured in the novel. As with all of my characters who are disagreeable, I tried to understand her and sympathise with her, if not exactly like her. She is a bored and desperate woman who feels she has made major mistakes in her life and is now trying to change her world in a kind of frantic way – there’s nothing she won’t do, because there’s no limit to her desperation and fear of a grey future. She thinks she deserves better than the life she seems destined to live. In her attempts to change that life, she behaves in a deranged fashion – she’s afraid, and se’s madly in love with someone who doesn’t love her, and she’s also genuinely nutty, so it’s not surprising her behaviour is extreme. But I also wanted her to be a rounded character, so she has a good and normal side. I think she likes Plum, if only because she recognises in her another hopeless case.
Plum’s brothers offer an interesting perspective on the role of brothers of girls. What role do these young men – each mired in private trouble – fill for her?
She hugely adores them, of course, and thinks the sun revolves around them. Justin and Cydar are sufficiently old enough to see Plum through kindly eyes – she’s more an object of curiosity to them than anything else, but to her they are pinnacles of cool and wisdom, as well as being sources of frustration and teasing. They should really teach Plum that the world is bigger than she knows, and be sources of strength for her, but they are young men busy living their own lives. They want and expect her to be happy, and though they do love her, they don’t think about her much or very deeply. She is very much on the periphery of their worlds, whereas they are at the heart of hers. She’s a kind of pet to them, but they are idols to her. I guess she will spend years putting her hopes in them, only to be disappointed over and over again before finally realising that they are just human, not gods.
One of the things I admire about this book is the ultimate support Plum receives from her family as she moves through her teen years. What is it about Plum’s family that works, despite the many faults of each of the family members?
They aren’t a particularly close or loving family, but I think they are all independent spirits, and respect each other’s freedom to be the person they each wish to be – Cydar doesn’t want to be the kind of person Justin is, but he nonetheless has a lot of respect and liking for Justin. They are forgiving of each other, they don’t take the business of being a Family too seriously, and this allows them to see family-life as fun and curious. They aren’t a close family, but they are all good friends, and that works for them.
You chose to tell this story from alternating points of view, sometimes those of Plum, other times from the eyes of the adults. Why did you choose that format vs staying strictly with Plum?
It was mainly the demands of the book – the story couldn’t be written if it was confined only to seeing things through Plum’s eyes. People see a novel as a very romantic, dreamy, artistic kind of thing, but in fact a book (or a painting, or a symphony) must operate very logically, as logically as a maths equation. Plum was a great character to write and I became surprisingly fond of her, but she could not be everywhere and see everything, so to fulfill the demands of the plot the novel had to have several points of view. It was purely a cold logistical decision.
You write courageously without much regard for the conventions of what we define as YA vs adult. Was that always the case with your work, or did you develop that style as you became more experienced?
I’ve always written whatever the book has required. I am not interested in the conventions of YA or adult novels – I am barely even aware of what they are. When I write, I think of no one and nothing except the demands of the book. Whatever the book needs, it gets. If reader have a problem with that in any way, I am happy for them to go and find a different book – it’s a fair trade-off. I would much rather know I had been utterly true to all my books, rather than changed even one word to suit some rigid idea of what can and can’t be. I don’t know what has made me be like this – possibly ignorance of those very conventions, possibly bad-tempered stubbornness, possibly the example of writers I read in my youth, people like Robert Cormier and John Wyndham, whose work always seemed unexpected and defiant and strange.
You began publishing as a teenager. What advice would you offer young women under 18 who are writing today?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Throwing stuff out and beginning all over again is part of learning how to do it right. Nothing that goes in the bin is wasted.
What are some of your favourite books for young girls?
The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin; The Outsiders, by SE Hinton; The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham; After the First Death, by Robert Cormier. And anything by the Australian writer Ursula Dubosarsky; she’s great.
Finish this sentence: Strong girls … know they are just as good as everyone else.