National Book Award finalist Elana K. Arnold shares a note to What Girls Are Made Of readers and an excerpt from the book.
Author note from Elana K. Arnold
What Girls Are Made Of is my fifth young adult novel, and my ninth published book. It is also the hardest book I have ever written.
There are many factors that made this true. First, this book does not follow a linear plot structure. I think of this book’s structure as cyclical; it loops back again and again to the summer Nina was fourteen. This means that the story is not told in strict chronological order, and it’s actually the first book I’ve written that I took into pieces after completing a draft and worked to re-order it over the course of several months.
Alix Reid, my editor, was instrumental in helping me see where the book wasn’t working and helping me to reevaluate why all the disparate elements needed to stay—the virginmartyrsaints, the high kill animal shelter, Planned Parenthood, the interstitial stories . . . all of them mattered to me, all of them belonged, even when I couldn’t be clear about why. Intense revision and the wise input of my writer friend Martha Brockenbrough helped me get clear on why the various meats of this story had to stay.
This book was also hard because it was so intensely personal, and was born out of deep-seated feelings of shame, disgust, and fear. Those aren’t nice things to think about or examine. It really did feel like writing this book was the act of reaching into my throat and gouging out a tumorous owl pellet growth, then picking it apart to see teeth, hair, tiny bones, blood clots . . . all of my own making.
When people tell me that they are reading What Girls Are Made Of, I can’t really say, “I hope you enjoy it,” or “I hope you like it,” because I don’t think this book is enjoyable to read, as it wasn’t enjoyable to write. I say, “I hope the book is meaningful to you.” It is intensely meaningful to me, and I am grateful to each reader who spends time with it.
I hope What Girls Are Made Of is meaningful to you.
What Girls Are Made Of excerpt
When I was fourteen, my mother told me there was no such thing as unconditional love.
“I could stop loving you at any time,” my mother said.
We were folding laundry. A sheet, her on one end, me on the other. Together, like old-fashioned dancers, we brought our hands together to bisect the long white sheet, then stepped toward each other, the fabric collapsing inward, and then again, then once more, until the long, tangled mess was sorted into a sleek, flat rectangle. It was warm from the dryer and smelled like chemical flowers.
“No one loves without conditions,” she said.
I nodded and set aside the sheet, reached into the basket for another. I snapped it out and she caught the far end.
“Your father’s love for me is conditional,” she continued. “His love is contingent on lots of things. My willingness to listen to him talk about his day. My cooking.”
We came together. At fourteen, I was now as tall as she was. “And my beauty.”
“Love for a woman,” my mother said, “is always conditional on her beauty. That,” she said, my fingers grazing hers on the final fold, “and sex.”
She was sorting out the truth of things for me, much as we together smoothed the wrinkles from the sheets, taking something lengthy and burdensome and rearranging it into a neat package.
“Of course,” she said, “My love for your father has conditions, too.”
I knew without her telling me what some of these conditions were. The money he made in real estate. His deference to her preferences, like the new car purchased every three years, whether the last one needed replacing or not. His donning of the black-and-white striped apron each Sunday afternoon, then going into the backyard to light the grill in the outdoor kitchen. The way he cooked her meat—soft in the middle, dripping red.
“What could make you stop loving me?” I asked.
“Oh, any number of things,” she said. “But you would never do any of them, so it doesn’t matter.”
I wanted to know what they were, the unlisted cardinal sins. But she would not tell me.
“It’s a ridiculous question,” she said, stacking the folded sheets into the basket and thrusting it toward me.
The basket was heavy. I took it.
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To read editor Alix Reid’s note about editing What Girls Are Made Of and why we need “unlikable” female protagonists, click here.
To find out how Elana found out she was a finalist, click here.