Can you say more about what inspired you to write this novel? Was there a particular scene that it all grew from, or a particular character?
A story about a Russian boy who’d lost his hands to frostbite after stowing away in the wheel well of a Moscow-bound plane in an attempt to escape the poverty of his village; a story of a boy in my hometown who passed out drunk in a snowbank and lost all his fingers; a radio interview with a father who forced his son’s amputated arm into a dish-filled sink—a scene that appears in the novel—in an effort to get the boy to come to terms with his altered physicality: this is where the novel began. I was interested in exploring privilege as it relates to loss and whether violence ever has a place in recovery—to test the premise that “Sometimes softness works, sometimes you need a shakeup,” as Michael says in the book.
This is your second novel, after the award-winning Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet. The two books are quite different in tone and structure. Was your writing process different for each of them? What drew you to such a different story?My writing process, my five days a week plus Sunday morning schedule, didn’t really change. And in both novels, I wrote to try to make sense of the world. Just after starting
Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, my sister was given six months to live—this as the US was preparing to invade Iraq. I kept thinking about the thousands of families who, like my family, were about to be devastated by the loss of a loved one and the ultimate madness of war. Writing We All Love the Beautiful Girls, I was troubled by the seeming rise in violence against women as Fifty Shades of Grey climbed the bestseller charts. So while the two novels are very different in tone and structure, they both explore what connects and what divides us, the role of violence on a personal and global level, and acts of love as salvation—if that doesn’t sound too flower-childish. That said, Anthem is all seventeen-year-old self-deprecating smartass Luke Hunter; he makes me laugh. Beautiful Girls is a more serious novel, told in one teen and two adult voices; imagining Mia’s, Michael’s, and Finn’s takes on the same event reinforced how difficult it is to ever truly know another person, even those closest to us.
What was the most surprising thing for you in the writing of the novel? Did any of the characters turn out differently than you’d expected?
I am not a big plotter. My stories unfold as I write. About a year into the novel, when I realized what was going to happen, I was devastated, unable to continue until I imagined the scene where Finn comes and comforts Frankie after the assault. As well, I was surprised by how much empathy I had for Dirk—the chapter where Michael finds him in the shed near the end of the book was hard to write. Like Don, he is such a lonely character, unable to connect in a meaningful way with others, “an outsider even among outsiders,” the ultimate tragic figure.
Have there been any authors who have influenced your work, in this novel or in AnthemI love Don DeLillo’s sentences. I love Alice Munro’s quiet brilliance. I love Miriam Toews’ comedic touch when dealing in tragedy. I love Margaret Atwood’s prescient storytelling. I love Raymond Carver’s big, minimalist heart. I love Ali Smith’s mind. I love Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny. But while writing Beautiful Girls, I felt most influenced by Richar Yate’s Revolutionary Road, a gorgeously crafted book that takes a hard look at suburban life in 1950s America, something I tried to do in Beautiful Girls in a present-day setting.
What are you working on next?
I’m researching my next novel, Invincible Summer, a dystopian-utopian tale of female strength and friendship in a hostile future.