SUBSCRIBE

'Girls on Fire' author Robin Wasserman sees parallels between '90s and today in politics and women's empowerment

Robin Wasserman is no stranger to teenagers in trouble. Many of the prolific author’s novels for young adults have dealt with adolescents making morally questionable decisions, or being forced to survive in inhospitable landscapes.

“Girls on Fire,” the first adult novel from the Brooklyn-based writer, tackles similar themes, but it’s definitely not a book for kids. The novel follows two teenage girls, Dex and Lacey, who live in a small Pennsylvania town in the early 1990s. Dex is lonely and a bit of a square; Lacey is a brash bad girl with an undying love for the music of Kurt Cobain. After the suicide of a popular schoolmate’s boyfriend causes the town to plunge into a moral panic, Dex and Lacey’s friendship begins to take a decidedly dark turn.

Wasserman, who was educated at Harvard and UCLA, spoke to The Times via telephone from her home in Brooklyn.

See Wasserman at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on the panel Fiction: Girls with Dangerous Friends on April 22 at 12:30 p.m. »

This book felt so contemporary, even though it's set in 1991. How did you decide on that year?

I originally really wanted to write something that was shaped by the Satanic panic, this moment in time when people in this country started to go kind of wild with panic about what their teenagers were getting up to. The Satanic panic in the ‘80s was fixed on discussion of what was being done to the children, and entangled with the day care centers, and this idea that women were going back to work and children were being left to the forces of evil. And at the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s, those concerns shifted toward discussion of what was happening to the teenagers, and this big concern about music and video games warping young minds.

Once I started thinking of that time period, I started thinking about grunge and Nirvana and my own teen years. The plot and the theme all dovetailed together and became inextricably linked with that early ’90s moment. I realized that a lot of what I want to write about had to do with this idea of building a persona for yourself, wearing a mask and stripping away the mask, and questions about authenticity, what it meant to be your authentic self. And grunge ended up being this perfect metaphor for exploring that, this idea that we're going to strip away all artifice and just be our true selves. That moment in the early ’90s as [Nirvana’s album] “Nevermind” comes out, it's a pivotal moment shifting from an obsession with authenticity to an act of authenticity. I really loved this idea of these two big forces coming together, this rise of adolescent rage and determination of expression of adolescent stuff at the same moment that the country is sucked up in this question of what are the adolescents becoming.

Do you see any parallels between the early 90s and the present day?

Oh, yeah, completely. Both in terms of general politics, and specifically the politics of young women, I do think there are a ton of unexpected resonances. I've been reading old Bill Clinton stump speeches, and it's remarkable how similar the rhetoric is to the rhetoric from this most recent election. There's actually a speech where Bill Clinton talks about making America great again. He was traveling the Rust Belt, promising them he was going to stop outsourcing and bring their jobs home. The economic messaging of the time is way more similar than I'd realized because I was spending those years watching sitcoms.

But I think it’s also true that 1991, ’92 was a moment that, much like our present moment, paired both female empowerment with a backlash against female empowerment. 1992 was deemed by Time magazine as the “year of the woman,” because so many women were elected to Congress, but at the same time, it's the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and the original rise of the war against Hillary Clinton. This was the moment that the conversation about date rape becomes very prominent in the media, but it's also the moment that you see this huge backlash against the idea that date rape is something we should have a problem with.

It felt to me like a moment where society was really consumed with this question of what to do about the teenage girl. The book “Reviving Ophelia” [by the psychologist Mary Pipher] came out right around then. There was this idea that young women were victims and were vulnerable and were a problem to be solved. And that's a framing that I have a lot of problems with, and one that you see a lot of today as well. I think that all the concerns that we have now about "Are adolescent women being too sexualized? Are they too much at risk?" is a lot of the same conversation people were having in the early ’90s. It's a conversation that's really important to have, because there are real dangers, and young women are really vulnerable and victimized in ways that enrage me. But I think one of the reasons I wrote this book is that I think it's equally important to talk about the power that young women have, and allow them to be at the center of their own stories, making their own choices.

The friendship between Lacey and Dex is at the heart of the novel, and it feels really true to life. What do you think people tend to get wrong about friendships between young women?

I've certainly been taken with and inspired by a ton of female friendships as depicted in pop culture and literature.

What I'm not sure there was, out there, representation that felt true to me and my experience of friendship, which I guess is the whole reason to write one's own story. If I had to explain what I thought was missing, or what I thought didn't quite feel true to my own experience, I think it might be the relevance of men to the friendship. For me, teenage friendship was this very female-centric space where we were not performing our friendship for boys, we were not juggling our friendship with our relationships with boys, we were just not emotionally engaged with the question of boys and love and romance and sex in the way that we were engaged with each other. And I think that probably that's not true for most teenage girls, probably because the question of sex and questions of romance are more relevant for most teenage girls, I think the majority of fictional relationships of friendships allow that in. Whereas I really wanted to write a female friendship where that friendship was the biggest and really only priority in these girls' lives, where the question of guys was there, but basically irrelevant.

Are there any authors who you feel get young women's friendships right?

One of the narratives that most inspired this book is the movie “Heavenly Creatures,” which I think does a remarkable and terrifying job of depicting that intensely claustrophobic relationship between two girls. I have read recently two books that tackle the same kind of idea: “Innocence and Others,” by Dana Spiotta, and “The Animators” [by Kayla Rae Whitaker]. Both of them are about adult friendships for the most part, but they both take on a similar dynamic that you find in “Girls on Fire,” where you have the loud girl and the quiet girl. Both of them do a really remarkable job of trying to answer the same question that I was trying to answer for myself in this book, which is what do two women like this get out of each other? How much of that friendship is built on taking something from the other and using the other, how much of friendship is knowing the other person versus imagining the other person into this perfect self that you need them to be, and what is the gap between that fantasy and the reality?

Music obviously plays a huge role in the book, especially Kurt Cobain. Was that an important part of your life in high school?

Oh, God, no. [Laughs.] I had kind of infamously bad taste in music. I listened almost exclusively to Broadway musicals and Billy Joel when I was in my teen years. The most accurate to myself musical taste in "Girls on Fire" is the moment that Dex admits that she enjoys R.E.M. because it is pretty, but she secretly finds Nirvana to be nothing but noise. Part of the challenge for me with this book was not just figuring out what music a person might be listening to and why, but trying to figure out what it would mean to be a fan, a true capital-f fan.

That surprises me!

[Laughs.] No compliment pleases me more about this book than when people think I must have been a huge Nirvana fan. I think of myself as kind of the younger sister of Generation X. I watched “Reality Bites” and “Singles,” and I thought, "This is what it means to be a grown-up. This is the world that must exist beyond my suburb. Somewhere, people are being cool.” But I didn't live that, I just watched that on television. I dressed exactly like Angela on "My So-Called Life" but not because there was some deep, essential part of me that listened to Kurt Cobain and needed, for soul-nurturing purposes, to wear flannel shirts.

I got really excited about exploring this idea of these two teenagers who were isolated in the middle of nowhere, just trying to figure out what it even meant to be a fan of this music. And the very fact that grunge had traveled from there all the way to their tiny little Pennsylvania town suggested that it was already over. There's a line I had to take out because it was just extraneous, but that sort of compared the whole thing to a supernova, that by the time the light gets to you, the star has been dead for a really long time. What I really wanted to do with this book was try to replicate the experience of growing up in the early ’90s, surrounded by the commercial vision of the early ’90s, that feeling like you were coming of age at a moment where the world was really eager to tell you what it meant to come of age and what that should look like for you.

Was the writing process for this different from the YA novels you wrote?

With this one, a couple chapters in, I had decided that I wasn't sure what this novel was going to be and I would let it be whatever it wanted to. But the first draft that emerged wasn't markedly different from anything else I had ever written. It became in some ways a repository for all the feelings and thoughts I had about adolescence from having dwelt in it for the last decade. I have spent so many years thinking about teen narratives and thinking about the role of the teen narratives in our culture and all of these things. And as I revised and wrote subsequent drafts, it became more evidently a book that was going to be marketed for adults. It gave me the freedom to step backward from the teen experience and really think about adolescence from a distance. It's like I took this gigantic step back and I suddenly saw exponentially more than I had been seeing before, and for me that's why the book feels different, is that it just has this much wider perspective than I had ever written.

In the future, do you think you're going to write both YA and adult novels?

I would say never say never, but for the moment, I am so excited to write about adults. The new thing I'm working on now is about adults. I really do feel like I took everything I could possibly think and feel about teenage girls and I put every last shred of it into this book. It’s like I hollowed that part of myself out. I'm sure there will be someday more where that came from, but right now I am looking forward to writing a novel that is about adults. As somebody who's been an adult myself now for an unthinkable number of years, I think I have a lot to say on it. [Laughs]

Schaub is a writer in Texas.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times