Back in May, I had the opportunity to interview Bennett Madison, author of September Girls. September Girls is a book in which the main character goes through so much personal growth that I almost set the book aside after the first couple of chapters but ended up completely devoted to it. I often talk about a book in terms of whether or not it “stuck”, and the dreamlike quality of this book, and the bittersweet relationship between the main characters, has stayed with me in a powerful emotional way for months.
The narrator, Sam, is a teenage boy who goes with his father and older brother to a beach town where he meets a group of mysterious and beautiful teenage girls – all of whom seem drawn to him. Sam develops a crush on Dee Dee, one of The Girls (not a typo – that’s how they are referred to in the book). A major theme of the book is identity. Sam’s crush on Dee Dee is largely based on her being mysterious. He develops a whole new relationship with her, one that’s much more real and mature, when he gets to know her as a person instead of a fantasy. Although this book isn’t a “romance novel”, it has a lot to say about love (romantic and familial) as the recognition and acceptance of another person as a human being as opposed to a fantasy or a prize. You can find my review of the book at Geek Girl In Love.
A lot of September Girls is told from the first-person narration of a straight teenage boy and some of it is told from the point of view of teenage girls. Could you talk a little bit about how were able to use those voices so convincingly?
I am curious about how many people go into the book knowing that I’m a guy and how many know that I am not this character, and how that affects their reading of the book. There was a little bit of controversy when this book first came out, and I think part of that was that some readers were conflating me with the character. And some of them might have had a different response if I had added to my bio on the back cover, “And he lives with his boyfriend in New York City”. I think it’s hard for people to separate the author from the character.
This is my first book with a male narrator. My first three novels were all told from the first-person perspective of young women. And that was something that I didn’t really think about until much later. The reason I started writing in that voice was partially a practical thing. I heard that publishers were looking for girl detective stories, and I thought, “I like girl detective stories!”
I think that this book, September Girls, which is told from the viewpoint of a guy, was definitely the hardest narrative voice to write. Part of it was I was trying to write in the voice of a horny straight guy who is, you know, sort of obnoxiously fixated on girls. And that was something I had not actually experienced.
On the obnoxiousness of the narrator in the early parts of the book:
I actually toned it down a lot, because I think I was over-compensating to some extent in my first draft. That said, I also think that it had to do with the layers of what you show to the world, what you show to yourself, and what the world tells you to be. It has to do with the way the world tells you should conform to your gender and the way you choose to be.
The narrator is trying to be who he thinks he is supposed to be, and he’s trying to show that to his brother and his horrible friend who’s not there but who people REALLY hated [the best friend shows up in flashbacks and on the phone].
All the characters, but especially Sam, are trying to feel their way in the dark toward “What does the world want you to be and what is the right way to be, and how do you unify those two things? Because they aren’t always the same. The world wants you to be an asshole sometimes. Sam is trying not to be an asshole but also to have this macho thing and trying to relate to women but not understanding them.
I think it’s important that even though some of his inner speech and the way he talks to his friends is obnoxious, a lot of times his actions and speech toward women themselves isn’t offensive at all. He’s not insulting women or girls or trying to take advantage of them for sex.
Yes, in fact the opposite is true. He turns down sex several times because he’s freaked out. To me, that was pretty important. Because there is this prevailing narrative in which guys want sex and it’s women’s job to wave their fan in front of their face and say “Oh no, I can’t”. And in my experience, that is not the way things usually work. Teenage guys are horny, but sex is scary! For everyone! And there’s a ton of pressure and a lot of guys would bide their time if they can. And we’re taught that that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We are taught that if you’re a sixteen-year-old boy, you should do anything to get lucky. And that isn’t fair to men or to women.
Most of my work has some theme about the way we create identities for other people and project identities onto other people and the damage that does. The way we idolize someone can take away their humanity.
A lot of this book has to do with this, and also with how people create their own identities. The mermaids are literally creating themselves – they have to choose their own forms and their names. It was important to me that by the end, Sam and Dee Dee acknowledge that they don’t know each other that well. Because so much of what had come before has to do with projecting an identity onto a person.
That can be a good thing, too, because we often learn about ourselves. The way I see myself has a lot to do with how I perceive other people seeing me, and the narratives that they create for me. But in the end, you have to choose your own identity. You can’t let other people do it for you. And I think that’s what I was trying to get at in this book.
So, the whole time I was reading the book, I had the song, “September Girls” by The Bangles stuck in my head. Coincidence, or were you thinking of the song when you wrote the book?
I had a really hard time trying to choose a title for the book, and all the time I was writing the book, I was obsessed with that song and listening to it on repeat. So finally I was like, “Well, duh, it’s been staring me in the face all along”. My publisher almost didn’t let me use the title because the book came out in May and they thought it would confuse people. The funny thing is I actually got asked to do a couple of events that year in September, I assume purely because the book had “September” in the title. The song had a lot to do with the title, but the lyrics didn’t have anything to do with the text.
How long is Sam on the island? Does time move differently there, or does it just feel endless because of the pattern of the days?
It’s hard to answer that because it’s hard to speak too literally about the book because nothing’s literal. I kind of mapped it out in terms of when they came and when they left so that I could space out events, but for the most part I wanted it to feel like they were in a space out of time. There’s probably more than one place in the book where Sam says, “Time became meaningless”. That’s how summer felt, especially when I was younger. Both my mom’s family and my dad’s family used to spend entire summers at the beach. That’s pretty much unheard of today – I mean, who can take an entire summer off to go to the beach? But I wanted the book to have that feeling of stepping into another universe where everything is different. They can’t receive phone calls, they don’t have Internet.
My family has gone to the Outer Banks since I was a little kid. That’s where the book is set. You have to cross a bridge to get there. It’s difficult to come and go. I wanted the book to be true to the beach that I know to exist, and also have a very fantastical aspect to it. Perversely, that’s very realistic to me, because I think there is a fantastical feeling to it in real life.