Jennifer Mathieu Talks Slut-Shaming, Fanfiction, and The Truth About Alice

Jennifer Mathieu Talks Slut-Shaming, Fanfiction, and The Truth About Alice

When she was writing her first novel, The Truth About Alice, about four years ago, Jennifer Mathieu didn’t know what slut-shaming was. Or rather, the term hadn’t yet come into common use. Now, movements like the SlutWalk encourage women to proactively assert the right to their sexuality. In that case, the timing of Mathieu’s cautionary tale is perfect: Told in multiple (unreliable) narratives, four characters erect and then destroy the reputation of the eponymous Alice, who—rumor has it—had sex with two guys at a party and was later responsible for one of the guys’ deaths.

We sat down with Mathieu—a former journalist and current English teacher—to talk about the importance of sexually confident YA heroines, dirty fanfiction, and who should play Alice in the movie.

Bookish: “Alice” seems to be the go-to name for an innocent girl thrust into a potentially dangerous, transformative situation: Alice in Wonderland, Go Ask Alice, etc. Did you have these characters in mind when deciding what to name your heroine?

Jennifer Mathieu: I just love the sound of it—old-fashioned, classic. Even though we don’t hear from Alice until the very end of the story, I wanted to name my character something that I loved because I wanted to root for her. But I didn’t even think of Alice in Wonderland or Go Ask Alice! Of course, I read [the latter] in middle school and it scared me.

Bookish: What made you decide to structure the book from four different perspectives, none of which are Alice’s?

JM: I had two seeds for the story. One was a Seventeen magazine article I read in high school. The other was [also] when I was in high school; I was in a drama class, and we had to perform scenes from Edgar Lee MastersSpoon River Anthology. It’s a series of poems, voices from beyond the grave, in this small town, Spoon River. I loved the idea of all these voices in this small town, all telling their own truth as they believe it to be, not realizing that their stories intertwine and interlock with other characters’. And only by reading all of them do you get the real, total truth. I had this idea that I wanted to do some Spoon River Anthology of a high school.

Bookish: In a previous draft, you had more than four characters. How did you narrow those down?

JM: Early on, I had twenty-something crazy characters; I didn’t even have a plot, just all these voices. Then I narrowed it down—initially there were seven, then I merged two into one—and over several drafts, [got] the four main characters, who share alternating points of view.

Even at the end, [the characters] all believe [certain] things in their heart, but only the reader really knows everything that happened.

Bookish: Did you use your day job as an English teacher to study students for inspiration?

JM: I always joke with my students [that I’ll put them in my books]. The story itself is completely fictional, but being around teenagers… When I’m around them every day, I’m reminded of how timeless adolescence really is. “Timeless” meaning, they’re trying to figure out who they are, they’re starting to realize life isn’t all black-and-white, and hypocrisy is a part of life. They have to start admitting all this stuff to themselves even when they desperately don’t want to.spying on them, but just by being around them I’m reminded of the immediacy and the intensity of adolescence.

Bookish: Even though Alice never explicitly describes herself as such, she’s clearly very comfortable with her sexuality. Which YA heroines did you draw from as inspiration?

JM: I love E. Lockhart; she has a new book out called We Were Liars. [She wrote] the Ruby Oliver series, which is what really got me into writing young adult. In the last book, it’s intimated that [Ruby] decides to lose her virginity to her boyfriend. What I love about that series is that it’s about all this high school drama, but she’s really honest with herself and she really owns what happens. She’s such a fully fleshed-out girl who was really honest with herself as far as the way she’s perceived—this perspective of how girls are perceived, the choices they make about boys they want to be with.

There’s a really great book by Rachel Cohn called Gingerbread—that’s another one where the girl has been sexually active, she has a boyfriend that she’s really into, and she’s really honest about who she is.

Bookish: You wrote Alice similarly. There’s a scene partway through the book, from the POV of Alice’s ex-best friend Kelsie, where she confronts Alice about giving a boy a blowjob. And Alice is somewhat embarrassed, but also somewhat matter-of-fact, about it.

JM: When you’re growing up and you’re in your teens and your twenties, and you’re trying to make choices about who you want to be intimate with, sometimes you do things you wish you hadn’t done. That’s what part of growing up is about: making responsible choices. Boys are given this narrative—it’s part of their journey—but girls are [prohibited] from having sex in a way that’s appropriate.

I went to the Austin Teen Book Festival, and Lauren Myracle was there. On a panel—I can’t remember how it got to this point—she yelled out, “Guess what! Girls masturbate!” There were girls and women laughing, because nobody talks about it. Here it is, 2014, and we’re supposed to naively assume that girls just don’t have sexual [urges]; they’re not sexual beings unless it’s to pleasure a guy or give away her virginity.

I think that Alice, as a character, looks at some of the things she does, and I don’t think she’s necessarily proud of everything. But in my mind, she’s a girl, she’s trying to figure out who she wants to be; and part of that is figuring out who you’re going to have sex with, and when do you have sex, and when do you not have sex.

Bookish: If The Truth About Alice were to be adapted into a movie, do you have a certain actress you’d like to see play Alice?

JM: No, but I would really hope that they would get someone with short hair. I don’t think you see enough of short-haired girls in YA. But no, I don’t have an actress in mind. I’m more thinking about who they’re going to cast for the Eleanor & Park movie. I hope they go for two complete unknowns; it should be someone we’ve never seen before.

Bookish: Right, I saw that you’re a big Rainbow Rowell fan. I really liked Eleanor & Park, but my favorite of hers has to be Fangirl.

JM: Oh, I loved Fangirl. She has such a knack for writing characters you feel you relate to… I’ve said it before, but I wish I could [take] her brain. I don’t know how she does it. I have a student who writesSherlock fanfiction; I gave her the book, like, “You’ve got to read this.”

Bookish: Speaking of kids exploring sexuality, that’s a lot of what fanfiction is. I think people dismiss it because they think it’s so pervy or porny. Growing up, I learned “the birds and the bees” from fanfic.

JM: Right, right. I think fanfic is a safe space for kids to learn about that and wonder what’s going on and ask questions. They’re not vulnerable, necessarily, to getting hurt or making a decision they’re not comfortable making.

Bookish: What can you tell us about your next book—about a girl in a cult-like, religious community?

JM: One of my obsessions is small-town stories; another is extremes in religion. I’m curious about what makes somebody become a part of—or people who are born into—extreme religious communities. This is a story about a girl growing up in a semi-rural part of Texas—set in a similar area [to Alice]: She’s homeschooled, she doesn’t wear pants, she doesn’t cut her hair, it’s very religious; she’s not expected to do much more than get married and pop out a lot of children. She starts questioning, What is this? and Do I want something more? Of course, there’s the trigger to help her start exploring the outside world.

Bookish: Sounds exciting!

JM: I’m enjoying it! It’s different. She’s not in high school, but, again, since the adolescent experience is timeless and universal, she’s still asking, Who am I? and searching for her tribe.

Bookish: Last question: What’s your favorite indie bookstore?

JM: There used to be a bookstore in Chicago called Women and Children First. I think it’s closing, which breaks my heart. My favorite here in Houston, TX, is  Blue Willow Bookshop. It’s a phenomenal bookstore; it’s where I’m having my launch on May 30. They’ve been so supportive.

Jennifer Mathieu started writing stories when she was in kindergarten and now teaches English to middle and high schoolers. She lives in Texas with her husband, her son, her dog, and two cats. Nothing bad has ever been written on the bathroom stall about Jennifer. At least, she doesn’t think so. This is Jennifer’s debut novel. Say hi to her on Twitter @ jenmathieu and at jennifermathieu.com.

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