When I was very young, I used writing to create a place where grown-ups couldn’t go. Life with my family was tumultuous, often violent, and always seemingly one step away from financial and emotional disaster. Into my stories I put my fears and shame about the way life was and my hopes for what it might someday be. Those stories—and nearly all of what I wrote until Cloud Dancer was published in 1994 by Scribner’s Sons—remained a secret.
In high school and college I met other young people who wrote fiction, and I shared some of my stories—but never the ones that reflected the life I knew and the lingering challenge of sorting it all out. It wasn’t until I was an adult, with two children of my own, that I began to share those stories with other writers and submit them for publication. Since then my fiction has appeared in many literary journals and I’ve discovered that my writing often touches the hiding places in people—even those who’ve grown up under very different, more fortunate circumstances.
As adults we can look back on events in our lives and come to terms with them. Kids don’t have that luxury. That’s why so much of my fiction is about teens trying to make sense of the chaos grown-ups create. The mayhem appears in many forms: families who can’t pay their rent, fathers who drink and terrorize their wives and children, adults who hate anyone who isn’t the same color as them, and parents who keep dark secrets. That was the world I grew up in. Today many young people face turmoil just as bad—or worse. For them, the consequences of poverty, addiction, and violence are not make-believe. Those are the kids I write for, the ones in hiding—even if they’re not so young anymore.
The characters in my fiction—especially YA—are afraid to reveal their secret selves and risk rejection. They have good reason to be wary. People can hurt and betray us. But secrets have a cost. The scariest risk for me came when I chose to stop hiding—even under the cover of fiction—who I was and how I’d grown up.
In return has come lasting friendships, an easier acceptance of myself—and others—and more authentic stories. I’m hardly the first writer to draw from events they’d rather forget. I try not to sentimentalize the past. But I do—even in my adult fiction—look for ways to reveal and celebrate the human spirit, the core in each of us that isn’t defined by what’s happening around us, however ugly it may be.
For example, in “Shelter”—a story that originally appeared in North American Review and later in my collection, “Pieces” —a desperate mother flees with her three youngest children from a violent husband and seeks shelter at her oldest daughter’s apartment. Fearful of her own husband’s wrath, the daughter turns them away. Blame and anger follow and the true extent of the damage becomes clear: the torch has been passed. Though there are no heroes in this story, the mother’s resolve not to return to her husband makes room for the possibility of ending the cycle of victim-hood.
MY YA fiction is often brutally realistic. But even as my characters struggle with abusive, alcoholic parents, or the ravages of poverty, or the alienation of feeling “less than,” I introduce a way of making things turn out differently for them.
“Where You Belong”, a finalist for the National Book Award, takes place in the Bronx in the early 1960s, a time when interracial friendship was not accepted. Thirteen-year-old Fiona and her family have been evicted. Fiona flees with her brother to their father’s place, despite the risk of getting beaten. The beating does come and Fiona flees again, this time in terror, eventually wandering into an all-black neighborhood, where she finds Yolanda, a classmate whose friendship had been off-limits. As the day unfolds, two girls who don’t feel they belong anywhere find a special place to belong—with each other.
Grown-ups often look back and wish they’d done things differently. I suppose my fiction—especially my young-adult fiction—is my way of doing that, of refusing to give up when there’s nowhere to turn. My writing helps me believe in miracles, and that’s why I keep doing it. Maybe, if I get it right, it can help young people—even the ones who’ve grown old—do the same.
About the Book:
Eileen hates her defeated, joyless family and their poverty. She wants a guitar more than she’s ever wanted anything—badly enough to believe her shiftless father when he says he’ll get her one. Her sister, Deirdre, laughs at her for believing his tired promises. Her mother has no patience for selfish dreams. Life means only struggle for her: raising her daughters and eight-year-old Neal, whose stuttering has become something forbidden to mention.
When Eileen and Neal meet Liz, a college student, Eileen plays her same old game, pretending she comes from a normal, caring family, from a good neighborhood. Liz offers her lessons, a chance to buy a guitar on easy terms, and a way to help Neal overcome his stuttering. It becomes harder and harder for Eileen to lie about her family, about the job she took to pay for lessons, about her mother’s refusal to accept that Neal needs help. Then one cataclysmic day, the truth catches up with her.
Unless she can summon the courage to trust someone, Eileen may never see that she has a self worth believing in—and the right to have a dream and make it real. But for Eileen, trust is a dangerous thing.
Mary Ann McGuigan’s young adult novels have received recognition from the National Book Foundation, the Junior Library Guild, the New York Public Library, and the Paterson Prize. Her short fiction appears in literary journals. McGuigan taught English in New Jersey and makes author appearances in schools throughout the state.
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