M-E Girard’s Girl Mans Up tells the story of Pen, a gender-nonconforming high-school student, as she navigates a tumultuous year that involves breaking free from her domineering friend Colby, staking her independence from her overprotective parents, and embarking on a romance with her alluring classmate Blake. Pen’s vibrant and funny voice will draw readers in and has already garnered much creative praise. The New York Times praised it as “compulsively readable, by turns wrenching and euphoric” and it was recently named a finalist for the William C. Morris Award: Best Young Adult Debut of the Year. M-E Girard spoke with Brendan Dowling via e-mail on December 15th.
Public Libraries Online: Throughout the book, Pen seeks to define herself on her own terms, and consistently runs up against problems with how other people perceive her. What were the challenges of tackling such a profound issue while still staying true to the book’s very funny tone?
M-E Girard: I find that the act of witnessing someone else’s hardships and pain through hearing their story will sometimes give the outsider this sense of devastation that’s exaggerated. Someone might read Pen’s story and think, This poor thing—this is awful—how can life be this way for a teenager? It’s so unfair! Like, yeah, it’s pretty unfair and awful what Pen has to deal with—and the point of the story is to make the reader aware of it—but to her, it’s just life. She knows it sucks, and she’s tired of it, but she’s been doing her thing despite it all. She’s resilient, and she’s adapted, so there was no question that throughout all the handling of unique difficulties, she was just going to be some regular kid with her own qualities, flaws, and interests. So I never had any conscious thought about balancing the heavy issues and the funny, lighthearted moments because I just felt like I was writing Pen’s life, the way she experiences it, and Pen is naïve, and funny, and a bit insensitive, and playful—so that stuff was just going to be there in the words.
PLO: Pen and her girlfriend Blake are gamers and both use video games as a means of self-expression. How did you decide to make gaming such a significant component of the novel?
MG: My girlfriend and I are pretty big gamers, so I was definitely going to pull on my knowledge and experience of gaming for something! But besides that, gaming fit so well for this story and for Pen’s characterization—she’s just a little geek-culture dude in general. Gaming—well, a lot of geek culture stuff, really—is something we’ve traditionally seen as belonging to boys, so that was a great way to strengthen the gender norms theme of the story—and also a great way to put more gamer girls out there in the world! Gaming figures in almost all the relationships Pen has: the idea of the different gaming styles between Pen and Blake (how they mirror their ways of handling life in general), the way her brother has her back in co-op mode, the competitive nature of gaming with Colby—there’s so much. It’s like, once I opened the door to gaming, it was everywhere.
PLO: Pen struggles with the concepts of respect and loyalty throughout the novel, especially with her male friends and her Portuguese family. How did these concepts come into play during the creation of the story?
MG: These things came out through revision. At first, I was just concerned with telling this story about how difficult these boxes and rules are to deal with when you don’t quite fit and others are expecting you to bend and conform. Then, as I revised, more specific things—things that were really particular to this character—came out. It’s kind of the same way I handled gaming. Once I sat back and examined what I had, I was able to pick out the important seeds that had been planted into the story without my full awareness. Then I could really water the crap out of them and watch them spread across the whole narrative. So respect and loyalty became much more important during revision, when they suddenly guided the way scenes played out. Revision is so where it’s at, in terms of writing!
PLO: On your blog, you write about the many rounds of revisions that Girl Mans Up underwent before its publication. What was helpful to you about such an extensive revision process?
MG: Speaking of revision! The first couple drafts were me getting to know the characters, trying to say certain things but not executing it very well. I’m a new writer, and I did a lot of learning with Girl Mans Up. Like I talked about in the previous question, revision allowed me to find the little things I had inserted in there, bring them out, and thread them through the narrative. I’m hoping I’ve done enough learning so that the next book won’t require quite so many rounds—ha!
PLO: Besides writing novels, you also work as a pediatric nurse. Has your medical career had any influence on your writing career or writing style?
MG: When I turned 27, I had this moment when I was like, Wait—am I going to do nothing but be a nurse for the rest of my life? I’m grateful to have the nursing career I have, but I’ve always had a creative side, and I’d never really done anything with it. The nature of my job—one-on-one night-shift community care—meant that I had some time at work to read or write (depending on how stable my clients were), so that was one of the reasons I decided to try getting serious about writing. The company I work for is also very supportive of my writing endeavors, and they’ve been incredibly accommodating with my schedule which allowed me to attend writing events, retreats, and, more recently, plan a variety of book tour events. So in that way, my medical career has completely influenced my writing career by making it possible!
PLO: You’ve twice participated in the Lambda Literary’s Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices. What have those experiences been like for you?
MG: I don’t think Girl Mans Up would be what it is—and where it is—today without the Lambda retreat. I applied seeking exactly what the retreat was established for: to fill a void in the development of LGBTQ writers. Until Lambda 2013, I’d had trouble getting specific feedback and critique of my work because I didn’t know any queer writers who could critique what I was doing. I had a narrow view of the world, and of queerness—I mean, I had no awareness of privilege and oppression! I also met Malinda Lo at the 2013 retreat (she was my workshop facilitator) and having her input was such an amazing opportunity. The retreat delivered on what it offered: having my manuscript workshopped, attending presentations, meeting other queer writers. But it paid off long after the week was over. It sent me home with awareness, and words and concepts to research. I did so much learning the six months after returning from the retreat, and I ended up revising Girl Mans Up into the version that hooked my editor. There was so much to gain from attending the retreat, and I am so glad I took a chance and applied.