Debut author Sarah McCarry says teens can handle All Our Pretty Songs, her heroin-injected tale of an Orpheus gone grunge.
Zola: One of the three main characters, a musician named Jack, is based on mythological Orpheus, whose music and words held power over others. What inspired you to retell his story?
Sarah McCarry: I’ve loved the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice since I was a child, and it’s just about the goth-est story ever: the musician whose music is so powerful it can move the god of the underworld; his willingness to sacrifice everything for his dead wife; her nearly following him out of darkness and being taken from him at the last minute—I mean, it’s totally delicious, it’s like a two-thousand-year-old Sisters of Mercy album. I’d known for a while that I wanted to write about adolescence, and Seattle in the nineties, and the power of music, and ecstasy, and love. So all of those different elements knitted themselves together very nicely, once I knew that I wanted to use the mythology of Orpheus as the architecture for the novel.
Zola: The narrator’s name is never revealed to the reader. Why not give her a name? Have you decided if her name will be revealed at any point in the trilogy?
SM: Most of the other characters’ names hint at their roles in the story. But the narrator is a cipher; you don’t know what part she plays in the myth until the very end. She does get a name of sorts eventually, but it’s not her real name (which, if it’s any consolation, I don’t know either).
Zola: Recreational drug use is prominent in the book. The narrator typically avoids the temptation to use, but drugs are a vice for her best friend, Aurora. What, if any, message do you hope the novel will convey about drug use to young adult readers?
SM: None, honestly. I don’t mean to be testy or hostile—I know those kinds of questions often get asked of writers whose work is labeled as young adult fiction, but I’m really resistant as a writer to the idea that I am responsible for anybody’s personal choices solely on the basis of how my work is marketed, and I tend to head those conversations off at the gate. We don’t make those demands of “literary” writers or “adult” writers—nobody is like, “I am concerned that middle-aged middle-class white men who read Freedom will en masse become really unlikeable philanderers”—and marketing categories don’t necessarily reflect the actual readership of books. Even if they did, I think it’s doing teenagers (teenage girls in particular) a serious disservice to assume they are malleable enough to fall under the sway of any media they absorb until some magical and indeterminate cutoff age, when they can safely read books for grownups without being irrevocably damaged.
There are always much larger cultural forces that factor into these kinds of conversations—we are very, very anxious, as a culture, about teenage girls’ sexualities, about their decisions (and their bad decisions), about the maintenance of their virtue. I don’t, personally, think of drugs as a moral force, or of choosing to use or not use drugs as moral choices. Drugs obviously bring up moral issues: I think it is certainly a moral failing to disproportionately prosecute, criminalize, and incarcerate youth of color for possession-related crimes, for example, or to defund treatment programs, or to force people to submit to drug tests before they can participate in basic assistance programs. And I do believe, absolutely, that we are failing teenagers as a culture—by denying them comprehensive sex education, by denying them full access to reproductive healthcare, by denying them objective and useful information about substance use and abuse, by basically failing utterly to give them the tools they need to make well-informed and proactive decisions about their lives, sexualities, and health.
But there is absolutely no way I can remedy that with a single novel, or a lifetime of novels, even if I wanted to; those solutions are huge, and collective, undertakings that demand the support of legislation and large-scale funding and community activism and a lot of other things. Accusations that literature is some kind of destructive force (man, if only!) are to me a huge sidestepping of the actual issues at stake, and an evasion of the labor needed to address them.
All of that said, I think there are a lot of unanswerable questions about addiction—there’s not a tangible, quantifiable reason why some people who use drugs destroy their own lives and the lives of everyone around them, and other people can use drugs recreationally for years with no real ill effects. In All Our Pretty Songs, for Aurora, drugs are an escape that becomes a trap, and the narrator understands that Aurora is unable to—or doesn’t care to—protect herself from harm. For me as a writer, the narrator’s relative sobriety stems from a desire to keep safe the person she loves most. A lot of the drug use in the book is specific, too, to the time and culture the book is engaged with. Heroin in particular totally devastated Seattle in the 80s and 90s, and was simultaneously a drug that was tremendously glamorized by the popular media once “grunge” blew up, and the role heroin plays in the book is a deliberate commentary on that, for sure. I am definitely interested in exploring different facets and consequences of addiction and damage, and I do hope the book does that in a way that is both compelling and complex. These issues come up in the second book in the trilogy quite a bit as well.
Zola: You were the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship. What was your favorite part of that experience?
SM: That residency was a transformative experience for me in a lot of ways, but I think probably the most powerful one was that it was really the first institutional validation I had that the work I was doing had some value to it, and it came at a time in my (then largely nonexistent) career when that support was sorely needed. I do not need to tell anyone who has tried to make it as a writer that it is a hard road, especially as you start to get a little older and start to wonder, like, at what point does this purportedly noble and valiant struggle become sort of pathetic. I mean, in retrospect, the answer is never—but that’s hard to remember when you are in the midst of a dark time. So that sudden ray from the heavens meant a lot to me. MacDowell in particular is a very magical place, and I don’t know that this book would have come into being without the time I had there.
Zola: You were born in Seattle, bicycled alone across two continents, did a stint as a traveling circus performer, and now live in Brooklyn. Is there any place you haven’t visited yet that you’d like to?
SM: Pretty much the whole rest of the world! I am determined to bicycle around New Zealand in the next few years, and after that there are about a million places I still have left to see.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.