Wilder Girls by Rory Power is the summer 2019 Kelly’s Pick, and we want readers to have everything they need for a fantastic book club meeting, including insight from the author! Bookish chatted with Power about her debut novel, which follows girls infected with a virus known as the Tox and quarantined on Raxter Island. Here, Power opens up about the inspiration behind the various Tox symptoms, the message she hopes readers take from the novel, and writing gore without being too gross.
Bookish: Wilder Girls has been called a feminist Lord of the Flies. How do you feel about this comparison?
Rory Power: On a basic level, the comparison makes a lot of sense, considering the elements the books share (an island, a gender-specific group, utter chaos). And I think that both books explore what people are willing to do to survive. But where to me Lord of the Flies always felt like commentary on the human psyche—I think we all had to write that paper about Freudian symbolism in high school—Wilder Girls is something I approached on an individual level. It absolutely talks about broader concepts, like girlhood and beauty, but it’s also deeply rooted in these particular girls and their choices.
Bookish: How did you decide which Tox symptoms to assign to each character? How do you think the Tox would affect you?
RP: Assigning symptoms to characters was partly based on personality and partly random. Reese, for instance, is a very guarded person, so it felt only right to give her actual armor-like scales. But for other characters, I used their symptoms as a chance to explore some of the research I did into evolutionary adaptations found in animals. Byatt’s vocal symptom is based on the pistol shrimp, for no other reason than that I thought it was really cool. If I had the Tox, I’d like to say I’d be bioluminescent the way Reese’s hair is, but I don’t think I’d be that lucky—I’d probably have fangs coming out of my ears or something equally unfortunate.
Bookish: What kind of environmental message did you want to convey with this story?
RP: Wilder Girls is obviously a speculative take on things, but it points to dangers that are very real. With this story, I wanted to look at the risks of ignoring climate change and its effects. Raxter Island has become hostile, and the girls suffer intensely because of it. But I also think the book portrays how interconnected we are with the natural world, and how what happens to one species happens to the others.
Bookish: The government sends supplies to Raxter, but they quarantine the girls on the island and do not try to rescue them. Do you feel like this book is about society failing girls and women?
RP: Hetty ostensibly has a lot of help in Wilder Girls—she has the government sending supplies, she has her teacher looking out for her, and she has friends who care about her well-being—but almost none of it is the kind she needs. At the end of the day, it’s just her. I think for a lot of girls and women, that’s a familiar feeling.
Bookish: Your female characters are all of the things society tells girls not to be: loud, selfish, and in-your-face. Is there a message in Wilder Girls that teenage Rory needed to hear? What message do you hope female-identifying readers take away from the book?
RP: For me, the biggest message in the book and the one that I think would’ve been most meaningful to my teenage self is just the power of our instinct to survive. Just keeping on, even when it feels like there’s no reason to or like it’s impossible. Sometimes that’s the only agency we have in our own lives. Of course, that’s something I think a lot of young people can relate to, regardless of gender identity. But especially for those who identify as female, the world expects such a performance of beauty. I hope readers leave Wilder Girls feeling the weight of that expectation a little bit less.
Bookish: You’ve written some very intense friendships in this book. What were you hoping to convey about female relationships?
RP: There are a number of female friendships in Wilder Girls, not all of them healthy, but what they have in common is a deep sense of devotion and an incredible power. Our friendships can make us better people; they can also consume us. In Wilder Girls, the line between those two sides is particularly narrow, but walking it is what keeps Hetty going. I hope that the book conveys the sheer power of the connections we build with other people, for better or worse.
Bookish: How did the dangers of the world around Hetty and Reese shape the blossoming romance between them?
RP: Hetty and Reese both come into their relationship with no sense of stability. Their lives are at risk every day, and their world is changing constantly—they’ve learned that to survive, they have to be willing to let go of things. Taking that into account as I wrote their relationship meant leaning into that fragility. Hetty and Reese mean a lot to each other, but they’re put under incredible stress. And when push comes to shove, they would both rather be alive than be together.
Bookish: “Gross” is a word you love to use on social media when talking about this novel, and sure enough, there are some effects of the Tox that are horrifying, and the details are uncomfortable to read. When writing the gore, how did you find the balance between showing the horror without overdoing it?
RP: I tried to be pretty matter-of-fact for the most part and to remember that Hetty has seen a lot of the gore before and isn’t surprised. Most symptoms of the Tox are run-of-the-mill for her now. There are absolutely moments that come as a shock to her, and for those I tried to lean in and really go for the horror, but overall, I approached the details of the Tox as an everyday thing for the characters.
Reader Beware: Spoilers Ahead
Bookish: Why did you write the ending the way you did? What do you hope readers take away from it?
RP: Wilder Girls definitely has an open ending. I wanted readers to get the sense that though we might not know where Hetty, Reese, and Byatt are going, we know they’re going somewhere. They’re continuing on, even though what’s ahead of them is completely unknown. That’s something I think I needed to hear when I was a young adult—I might be leaving things behind, and I might not know where I’m going, but it’s worth it to continue.
Rory Power grew up in Boston, received her undergraduate degree at Middlebury College, and went on to earn an MA in prose fiction from the University of East Anglia. She lives in Massachusetts. Wilder Girls is her first novel.