The final guest post in “About the Girls” this year is from EK Johnston. After reading Exit, Pursued By A Bear, her most recent novel, I had expressed a few questions that felt left open for me as a reader. They weren’t criticisms, but rather, threads of thought I wanted to toy with. She reached out to me to answer them — and thus, here’s a really thought-provoking post about power, about girls, and about how sometimes realistic fiction can be the most fantasy of fiction.
E.K. Johnston had several jobs and one vocation before she became a published writer. If she’s learned anything, it’s that things turn out weird sometimes, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Well, that and how to muscle through awkward fanfic because it’s about a pairing she likes.
E.K. Johnston is represented by Adams Literary.
There’s a thing that I keep saying: this book is the most fantasy that I have written. The worst part is that it’s true.
I have unleashed a plague of dragons across the globe, turned a girl into a god so that she could save the world, and I’m in the process of re-writing history from the Victorian Era onwards, and yet Exit, Pursued By A Bear is my fantasy novel.
To write it, I imagined a world where a girl is believed and supported; a world where adults do their jobs and children are gracious; a world where a bear of a girl can heal, and then save herself. And it’s the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever done.
It’s made slightly less fantastical by the setting. Canada, particularly southwestern Ontario, is a much easier place to access abortion clinics, therapists, and necessary medication, but it’s not perfect. Hermione has access to a car, which not every rural teenager would – especially if they didn’t have their parents’ support. Other Canadian places, like PEI, which has no clinics at all, and the Territories, need attention and funding.
I don’t regret writing any of it the way I did.
I didn’t set out to write a different kind of rape story. Or, rather, I did, but I don’t want to set books like SPEAK, ALL THE RAGE, FAULT LINE, SEX & VIOLENCE, etc, etc, aside. Those books are important. Those books are real. BEARS!!! is a “how it could be” book, a “how it should be” book. It’s the world I want for children who have been violated.
I think what I ended up with was Polly Olivier in book form; the girl who will hold your hair while you vomit and your flower when you duel. The VERONICA MARS comparison was deliberate on my part: this is a Veronica who never had to build that shell, and, more importantly, Lily and Meg don’t have to die to kick-start the story.
Because that’s what I want too: stories for girls that don’t revolve around what they are to their families, teachers, and boyfriends, where their reactions aren’t dramatic fodder. I wasn’t able to do this entirely in BEARS!!!, but I could have my characters be aware of the roles they played in other people’s lives, and redefine themselves accordingly.
I tend to view writing YA less as coming-of-age stories, and more as deciding who you want to be with who you are, but both of those imply a certain level of arrested development. We love to tell stories, especially tragic ones, and lock the protagonists into that narrative as if they can never be anything else, but that’s not how life works.
The world expects so much of girls, with no guidance and a myriad of contradictions. Hermione learns to give herself permission to live outside of that, despite what happened to her and how people want to view her as a result. I give you permission to do the same thing.