Teenage angst, anyone? Surely you had some. Surely some of us still do. In her new novel, Girls on Fire, the writer formerly known for her YA work, bursts out with a chilling, creepy tale of two best friends who would do anything to each other. Oops. I meant “for” each other. Or did I?
Robin Wasserman tells us why she wrote this story of two Cobain-crushing, parent-hating, high schoolers and the trouble they get up to.
Girls on Fire is a May 2016 selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.
Author Robin Wasserman on Girls on Fire
Among my high school friends, I am known as the one who remembers. Need to remember why we got yelled at by our AP French teacher? Who played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof? Who made it all the way to second base, in the back row of The Cutting Edge? Just ask Robin, she always knows. It’s amazing, they say, that I can remember so much—but they say “amazing” the way you would to describe an elephant that can do upper level math: What a wondrously impressive freak of nature.
My friends aren’t amnesiacs, they remember the essentials—who they crushed on, who they feuded with, even, occasionally, why. But they remember these episodes as they would an old sitcom—with hazy detail and emotional detachment. Vague somethings that happened someone they used to know.
This is not how my memory works.
I remember what happened in high school so well because I remember how it felt when it happened. I can still conjure up my visceral longing for the preppy boy with the blue eyes and the bedraggled poet with the southern accent. I can shudder with the horror of that day in eighth grade, when unbeknownst to me, acid-washed jeans met chair smeared with red paint. I can summon, once more with feeling, any grudge: If I hated you twenty years ago, chances are good I hate you still.
Maybe it’s not surprising I write so much about adolescence, about the loneliness and fear that always threatened to drown me—and about the friendships that kept me afloat, the bright, bold girls whose seeming fearlessness was both life preserver and swimming lesson. Friendship, in those days, offered the assurance of not being alone and the possibility of transformation. Pairing your fate to someone else’s made you powerful. But it also made you vulnerable—overpowering need can turn so quickly into overpowering loss. That double-edged sword of friendship is where Girls on Fire began. At heart, it’s the story of two girls lost in each other. One is wild, teetering on the brink and reaching out for someone who can root her to solid ground; one is confused and afraid, boiling over with feelings she doesn’t want to feel. Both of them are desperate to transform themselves. Both of them are desperate to hold on—if they drown, they will at least drown together.
I’ve written fiction about teenagers before, but I’ve never written a story set in my own past, the ‘90s of my adolescence. To remember not just how it felt to be a girl, but how it felt to be a girl in the age of Kurt and Courtney, Bill and Hillary, Thelma and Louise—it gave the story more immediacy, and at the same time, weirdly, more distance. Embodying the apocalyptic agonies and ecstasies of my teen self also meant acknowledging the years between us. It meant writing not just about teenage girls, but about girlhood itself, about the threads of connectivity between the girls and the women in their lives, the girls their mothers used to be. It meant finally putting words to the inchoate anger I felt then, because now, from a distance, I can see so clearly what we do to girls, the weight of our assumptions and expectations. It meant facing up to the gap between my selves past and present, the ways that adolescence always, inevitably turns alien once we leave it behind.
I don’t miss being a teenager. I don’t miss the lack of autonomy, the loneliness, the terror that the nebulous future, the one in which everything was mysteriously supposed to be better, would never arrive. I certainly don’t miss the way my friendships were rooted in desperation, the suspicion that if I ever stopped holding on so tight, everything would fall apart. But I admit, I do sometimes miss the unquestioned primacy of those friendships—the assumption, in those days before jobs and husbands and kids, that your friends were all you had. That there was no other way to live.
It can be disconcerting, sometimes even a little lonely, being the only one who remembers. Is there that much difference, really, between something only I remember and something I imagined? Maybe that, in the end, is why I wrote Girls on Fire, why I write about teenagers at all. The characters are fictional, but their emotional experiences are real, and mine. Writing them down is the best way I know to give them life outside my own head. To escape remembering alone.