Margie Gelbwasser is an author dear to our hearts. She was our very first Author Q&A, taking the leap of faith to talk to us when we’d barely launched. When we first interviewed Margie last year, we discussed her debut novel “Inconvenient,” and now we’re talking to her about “Pieces of Us,” her powerful new book that is available in bookstores today.
“Pieces of Us” is not an easy read. It deals with serious themes about bullying, abuse, violent (and sexual) relationships, and slut shaming. The four teen characters make some horrifying choices and cause a lot of self harm. The parents are either oblivious or useless (for the most part), and the two sets of siblings are so stuck in their dysfunctional relationships they can’t be honest with one another.
Despite the heavy issues Margie explores, she does so with authenticity and a non-judgmental compassion for all of her characters. As a mother, I’m so thankful for books like “Pieces of Us,” because I was, as it will surprise absolutely no one, a real goody-two-shoes in high school. It’s a reminder that no matter how well you know your kid, they might be suffering and lonely and in need of support.
Every summer, hidden away in a lakeside community in upstate New York, four teens leave behind their old identities…and escape from their everyday lives.
Yet back in Philadelphia during the school year, Alex cannot suppress his anger at his father (who killed himself), his mother (whom he blames for it), and the girls who give it up too easily. His younger brother, Kyle, is angry too—at his abusive brother, and at their mother who doesn’t seem to care. Meanwhile, in suburban New Jersey, Katie plays the role of Miss Perfect while trying to forget the nightmare that changed her life. But Julie, her younger sister, sees Katie only as everything she’s not. And their mother will never let Julie forget it.
Up at the lake, they can be anything, anyone. Free. But then Katie’s secret gets out, forcing each of them to face reality—before it tears them to pieces. (from Goodreads)
Your debut novel, “Inconvenient,” has a seven-year journey from idea to print. How about “Pieces of Us”? What gave you the idea to write it? It took me a few months to figure out what I wanted to write about, but once the idea for Pieces of Us came to me, the process was quick. I wrote the first draft in three months (but it was super short—like 70 pages). Once my editor gave me my revision notes, which were great and definitely needed (although I told myself that 70 pages could indeed be all this book needs—silly Margie), I revised for another two months. Then came copy edits, which took me about three months total for the various revisions. As for the idea, it started with Katie, a girl with a horrible secret who escapes her life each summer in the safety of lake houses in Upstate, NY. There, no one knows about her school year life. The idea evolved from there as to what she would want to escape. I thought of rumors and bullying and variations of that. I thought back to my own high school days, where some boys spread rumors about me and called me a whore and a slut. I thought about how much worse it is for teens today with the Internet and texting and Facebook. I thought about how bullying and abuse don’t just affect the victim, and I kept that in mind when I wrote the other three characters.
Pieces of Us was an intense read with so many mature themes about sexuality, abuse and sibling relationships. It’s difficult for me to read, and I’m an adult. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote it? When I write, I get a story and then put it on paper. I consider my books YA lit, but YA spans age groups. Adults can read YA as well as teens. I think this is definitely a book with mature themes, but I do not find it inappropriate for teens ages 14 and up. However, I also feel there are books that a certain 14 year old may be mature enough to read, but not a 17 year old. Whether the book is for a person depends a lot on the person herself, and what s/he can handle. Flux says their house is “Where Young Adult is a Point of View, Not a Reading Level.” I think that speaks volumes.
One of the themes in the book that struck such a nerve with me was the slut shaming. Why do you think it’s still so much harder for a girl to navigate high-school sexuality than a guy? Why can’t Katie see the difference between choice and date-rape? These are great questions. It is depressing that this society—evolved as it is—still views women as “whores” or “sluts” because they choose to have sex outside of marriage or—perish the thought—be ok with a relationship that is not monogamous. A guy still gets high fives and is praised for “getting some.” There is more to a woman than whether she chooses to have sex or not and that choice shouldn’t play a role in how she is viewed. Yet, people with a voice—most recently Rush Limbaugh—continue to perpetuate these antiquated beliefs, further shaming young women. Regarding the second question, as far as things have come for women’s rights, a woman who is raped will still wonder what she did to deserve it, especially when it is at the hands of someone she trusted. When alcohol is involved, as it was in Katie’s case, the lines become even more blurred. She doesn’t fully remember the night so she questions if she consented. Furthermore, even when she may believe she didn’t allow the sex to happen, because she was drunk, she further blames herself for putting herself in that situation.
I loved how throughout the book, my feelings for each of the four characters changed. Whereas I felt sorry for Julie at the beginning, I had a hard time with her by the end. The opposite is true of Katie. But of all the four, my heart belonged to Kyle, who tried so hard to retain the innocence. How did your own feelings change about your characters? In the early draft, this was Katie’s story, and the other characters’ roles were not as established. But the more I wrote, the more I saw the distinct stories and backgrounds of the other characters, especially Kyle. I feel, in many ways, this is his story, and he’s the one who changes the most from beginning to end. Kyle is my favorite character in POU because, like you, I felt he was the most innocent and so much was out of his control. The other characters, however, had more of a responsibility in their actions. As for Julie, I knew there was a sibling rivalry but the extent of it and Julie’s transformation was not visible to me until later. And then there’s Alex. I knew his character well because I knew guys like this both in college and high school. However, I never really understood why they did what they did. Writing him helped me see this, and how the actions of these type of males are solely based on their skewed beliefs and not on anything the girl may or may not have done. I think that’s important for girls/women to know.
The “chicken man” butchering was such a vivid metaphor for the way the teens were approaching their lives. Was there really a chicken man when you grew up going to the bungalows? There was! But we didn’t watch the way Julie and Alex do. I saw it a few times, kind of in passing, but not with fascination. Mostly, in the bungalow colony, the grandmas gathered to watch—and again not because they were enthralled—but because they needed to pick the best chicken for dinner.
Do you ever think about your characters’ futures? I ask this, because JK Rowling once announced the “canon” for her Harry Potter characters’ future lives, and I wonder if other authors also decide – “this is what will happen” but don’t necessarily share it with their readers. I do but not as I’m writing. Once I finish, I look back and think about where they’ll be. For POU, I’m not exactly sure what will happen with two of the characters, but I definitely see hope for the two characters on the last page of the novel. I see them getting the help they need and becoming strong adults and survivors.
A friend who also read the book on netgalley thought you were trying to end the book with a hint at more romance, but I didn’t think it was about romance for those two characters – just about surviving the damage together. I think it can go either way. I can see them getting together, but it would be in the far future as neither of them would be ready for that for awhile. I think, at the least, the friendship and bond they formed will last for a long, long time. They truly understand each other and will get each other through difficult times.
Although this time your characters are also Russian, you didn’t emphasize their religion like in “Inconvenient.” Was there a reason you moved away from the Jewish roots so evident in “Inconvenient”? Well, I saw INC as a story where the Russian-Jewish roots were something I wanted to address. I felt there weren’t books that showed Russian-Jews as just regular teens. I felt Russian-Jews were often depicted as either the off-the-boat types or Holocaust survivors and I wanted to see a book where it was just one aspect of the character’s persona. Just a regular teen who had other things going on, but she also happened to be Russian-Jewish. I would have loved a book like that as a teen. For POU, the story was not about Russian culture at all. That identity wasn’t important. None of the characters speak the language in their homes or really associate themselves with that, but I liked the concept of two settings and two identities and that little detail (them being partly Russian—not even fully) lent itself to the lake house element.
The last time we interviewed you, we discussed sex in YA books. With the exception of one sexual encounter, the discussion of sex in this book is raw and violent. Can you talk about what you wanted to convey about teenage sexuality? I don’t see this book as one about teenage sexuality. I see this book as evidence of what can happen when people are forced to stay silent. I see it as a book about bullying and abuse and dating violence—too painful realities for many teens out there.
Personally, I think this is an important book for parents and teens to read together – I recommended it to a mother-daughter book club my friend runs with her older teens. The messages outweigh any discomfort with the sex scenes. Do you think parents should read it too? Thank you! I am so so glad you feel this way. I do too. I know there are parents who are very uncomfortable with the material and feel it is inappropriate for their teens to read. Every parent certainly has the right to determine what her child reads/sees. But I also feel the reality in this book is one many teens face and I think parents SHOULD read it and then discuss the book with their children. Maybe it can be a starting point about what their teens are exposed to and the need to speak up for yourself and others. Bullies bank on their victims staying silent, but the abuse does not get better with silence (like the victims are made to believe). Breaking the silence heals.
What is your advice to kids who find themselves in similar situations? Tell someone. Do not keep silent because you think there is no other choice. There are many fantastic organizations out there, both online and ones teens can go to in person. I listed them in the back in “Pieces of Us” as well as on my website.
Thank you so much for having me and your support!