Jennifer Mathieu is the author of The Truth About Alice (Roaring Brook Press), a Summer/Fall 2014 Indies Introduce New Voices pick for young adults and a top 10 title on the Summer 2014 Kids’ Indie Next List. Mathieu started writing stories when she was in kindergarten and now teaches English to students in middle school and high school. She lives in Texas with her husband, her son, her dog, and two cats.
Rumors abound about Alice — that she slept with two guys in one night, that she caused the death of super-popular Brandon by sexting him while he was driving — but is any of it true? “Told from multiple perspectives, The Truth About Alice details what it means to be bullied and what it takes to stand up against it,” said Emily Ring of Inklings Bookshop in Yakima, Washington. “At times harshly funny, at times heart-wrenching, this ultimately hopeful novel will appeal to fans of Jay Asher and John Green.”
What inspired The Truth About Alice?
Jennifer Mathieu: Several things inspired The Truth About Alice. I’ve always been fascinated by small towns, and I wanted to write a book set in a small Texas town. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with the movie The Last Picture Show, and I still think small towns are so interesting because people seem to either want to stay forever or leave as soon as they can.
I was also inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems “from beyond the grave” told by the voices of people from the small town of Spoon River. I read it as part of a drama class in high school, and I loved how the reader only knew the full truth of this town by reading these short pieces that weaved in and out and were interconnected. So that gave me the idea of writing from multiple points of view. And finally, an article I’d read in Seventeen magazine — also while in high school — told the story of a girl in Minnesota who’d become the victim of vicious graffiti of a sexual nature in one of the stalls of her high school. The administration did nothing to stop it, and this poor young woman was isolated and bullied because of these awful rumors about her. All of these past experiences sort of swirled together in my mind, and The Truth About Alice was born.
Much of the early reaction to this book focuses on the issue that not only “good girls” deserve to be respected. What are your thoughts on the concept of “good” versus “bad” girls? Do you think these labels play a part in bullying?
JM: I would love to see a day when we no longer label girls as “good” or “bad” because of sexual behavior! It says so much about our culture that we use those words, and I think we’re very accustomed to think “bad girls” deserve what they get. So yes, they do contribute to bullying and shaming. I think the first time I understood this concept was when the movie The Accused came out way back in 1988. I was in junior high and was not allowed to see the film, but I read about it and was very curious about it. Eventually, I did watch it when I was older. Jodie Foster’s character is the victim of a vicious gang rape, but others seem to think she was “asking for it” because she was a “bad” girl drinking in a bar alone and allegedly flirting with men. I didn’t have the language yet to understand why this made me so angry, but I remember being so upset on a very deep level. I’m still upset. Girls are given such mixed messages. They’re given this very fine line to walk between being a slut and a prude, and the line seems to be constantly changing. I would love to see the day when boys and girls, men and women, are raised to make responsible, safe, and mutually fulfilling decisions about sex. I want labels like good girl and bad girl and slut, player, tease, and so on, to be words of the past.
You’ve mentioned that The Outsiders is one of your favorite books. What about S.E. Hinton’s book do you think makes it a classic for teen readers?
JM: Oh my, I could speak forever about S.E. Hinton, but I will try to be brief! I first read The Outsiders in sixth grade, and as a teacher I have taught the book to hundreds of students. Young people still universally love it. I’ve taught kids from all races, ethnic groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, and they all adore it. First of all, in The Outsiders S.E. Hinton created incredibly memorable characters and a plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat. But beyond that, it’s a book that truly captures that raw intensity of being young. Of wanting to belong. Of dealing with family conflicts. Of falling in love and having your heart broken. Of loss. You don’t have to be a greaser or a Soc from the 1960s to get all of that. I tear up just thinking about this book. Whenever I have a student who read The Outsiders ask me for “a book as good as this one,” I always say, “Well, I have a hard time recommending one because that’s the perfect book.”
Why do you think young adult fiction is so important?
JM: Fiction for young people is critical because the teenage years are often full of anxiety, sadness, and of feeling weird or strange or just disconnected from your peers or your family. Even the most well-adjusted teenager is still going through a period of self-discovery. When you’re a teenager, you’re starting to realize your parents don’t know everything — in fact they may have serious flaws. You’re starting to face The Big Questions, like what you want to do with your life, what happens after high school, who am I, who do I want to be with, and so on. So young adult fiction provides lots of things for teenagers. Sometimes it’s about just escaping and forgetting your troubles. Sometimes it’s about finding a story you can relate to and finding some peace or comfort from a character who is going through something you’re going through. And sometimes it’s about learning about complex issues like sex and relationships within the safe environment of a story.
What is your earliest memory related to reading?
JM: My earliest memories are connected to my mom and dad. Fortunately, my parents read to me from a very young age. My dad is Chilean and reads with a Spanish accent, and I used to correct his pronunciation and demand that he read “with more feeling.” When I was about seven years old, my mother read me Charlotte’s Web. I broke down in tears when Charlotte died — I cried and cried. I remember my mother didn’t know what to do with me. I was so moved.
What advice would you give a young adult interested in writing?
JM: There are three simple pieces of advice I would give to any young adult interested in writing. One is to read for pleasure and never apologize for what you want to read. Read anything you want to read. The next piece of advice is to put away your smart phone and start spying. Watch the other people on the bus, listen to the conversations going on around you, stare out the car window while trapped on a road trip with your family and imagine the stories behind the people and places you see. Collecting all this information about how humans operate can be very valuable when you start writing. The last piece of advice is to keep a journal. Don’t worry about what you’re writing. Just write. Keep lists of words you like, write a scene or two that you can’t get out of your head. Play with language. Just write.
Did a particular teacher foster your interest in writing?
JM: My junior high English teacher, Mrs. Santer, was memorable. She once wrote William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” on the board and recited it to us, and it sort of blew my mind. She had us complete some very creative assignments, including writing our own obituaries! My senior-year AP English teacher, Mrs. Gilbert, was so enthusiastic about language and so passionate about teaching literature. She would write inspiring quotes on the board every day just to get us thinking. I would copy my favorites down in my notebook.
When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?
JM: Oh, yes, I love to stop in at bookstores. I remember visiting City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco back when I was in college, and I had my picture taken in front of it. It has such a celebrated history. I bought a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl while I was there, of course! My favorite local indie is Blue Willow Bookshop. They hosted the launch of The Truth About Alice and have been so wonderfully kind.
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three titles would you want to have with you?
JM: No, no, you cannot make me do this! I will try, but it’s tough. Well, The Outsiders, of course. That would have to be number one. My second is Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas. I could read his essays over and over again — I love smart writing about pop culture. And my last choice would be Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine. It’s the perfect beach read!
The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu (Roaring Brook Press, Hardcover, 9781596439092)
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
Learn more about Jennifer Mathieu at jennifermathieu.com.
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