Interview by Victoria
V: There’s been a spate of social media bullying cases in the news these past few years; was there any one particular event that sparked the idea for this novel, or did it arise simply out of those changing ways that adolescents communicate?
Sarah: In my freshman year of college, I wrote a short piece for a writing class about a group of girls watching cheerleader try-outs. The assignment was to describe an “event” and it had to be non-fiction: in my high school in Alabama, we voted on our cheerleaders, and they were the most beautiful and popular girls in our class. My friends and I wanted to be them, I think at least subconsciously, but we also judged these girls brutally. Probably because we were jealous or threatened or insecure. All of the things that teenage girls can feel. I wrote the piece fairly quickly and the voice that naturally emerged was the first person plural: “we watched them as they came out in groups of three.”
When I began the Faber Novel Writing course in 2010, I returned to this piece. I couldn’t find a copy of it – I think it was saved on a floppy disk – but I remembered it relatively clearly, or at least I remembered the voice. The voice had stayed with me.
During this same period, I’d been reading a number of articles about online bullying among teenagers. In particular, I was haunted by the very sad and tragic story of Phoebe Prince, an Irish girl who moved to Massachusetts when she was 15. She was relentlessly bullied. She eventually took her own life.
My own experiences of high school and this story, along with the extensive coverage of it – which revealed a much more complicated picture than was originally reported – formed the kernel of the idea for the story for WEIGHTLESS. I started to create the character of Carolyn Lessing, a girl who was talented and troubled, loved and loathed. A girl who was wildly different from her new peers in a new community.
V: The mindset of the adolescent girl is brilliantly portrayed – how did you get into it?
Sarah: Sadly, I didn’t find this particularly difficult…I think I’m still very in touch with my adolescent self!
Recently, I’ve read a lot about memory and how it operates. We tend to remember our adolescent and young adult years more acutely than we do other stages of our lives. Scientists call it a ‘reminiscence bump.’ During young adulthood your brain is undergoing through a high number of changes, and so you’re wired to remember things more vividly. It’s also a time of lots of “firsts” – your first kiss, your first date, your first heartbreak, your first drive. We remember firsts more than other things, because the experiences are novel and unique. And, finally, it’s during these years that you start to form your sense of self-identity. So you remember things about yourself that tally with who you think you are. Or the person you would like to be.
On a purely practical level, I have teenage cousins and nieces and nephews that helped me with brand names and contemporary teen preoccupations (less Myspace and more Instagram, please!). And one of my sisters is a high school English teacher in California, and she gave me some great advice.
V: I loved the narrative voice – it felt as if it came from a sort of modern day Greek chorus. What drew you to that particular perspective on events?
Sarah: Weightless actually started with the voice. This voice in my head. Which I just couldn’t shake.
A group of girls, sitting in bleachers at a football field, watching another group of girls – the cheerleaders – and analysing anything and everything about them. They know every girl’s waist size, her bra size, her relationship status, and the “watchers” are fascinated by the girls they are watching. But also envious. And judgemental. And then, in the distance, the girls see something – someone – new. The new girl. And they can’t look away. Their attention is drawn towards her, and they think that she’s perfect.
And on the surface, she is. But as the year progresses, as they get a closer look, and as they interact with her and watch others interact with her, they see a girl who is in many ways troubled. And rather than help her, or try to really get to know her, they stand back and observe.
I know that passivity from my own high school experience. I was neither popular nor was a social outcast. I was somewhere in the middle, and I had no desire to do anything to challenge the status quo.
I found the “we” voice almost eerily easy to access. It had its own rhythm, its own register, its own very distinct point of view. Once I landed on the voice, it was difficult to break out of it.
The first person plural comes with lots of limitations: it’s difficult to have a sense of interiority of the narrators and they also have a very limited perspective. But I wanted to create this effect. I wanted to tell a story through the eyes of a pack, through the eyes of a group who are dominated by doubt and rumour, and who have very little pity or empathy. The fact that the narrators are young adds another layer: they are unreliable in their assessment of their emotions. And they’re cobbling together a set of memories, in a way, to avoid blame.
V: Throughout the novel, I had the impression of Brooke as the über-mean girl, but by the end there’s a plea for the reader to understand her. Does Brooke deserve our sympathy, do you think?
Sarah: I didn’t write the novel with a sense of judgement of any of the characters. Nor did I want to let any of them off the hook.
At that start of the novel, the reader meets Brooke in all of her cheerleading glory. And she’s beautiful and confident and dating Shane Duggan, a popular senior. But she’s put on weight over the summer and everyone – the narrators, the teachers, the other students – are extremely judgemental about that. And, reading between the lines, we can see that her mother is not a particularly nurturing force, and that she sees Brooke’s value purely in terms of her physical appearance. So she’s a character with a lot to lose with the arrival of somebody new and pretty and intelligent and talented. Brooke’s whole life is Adams High and being popular and pretty and admired. It’s difficult to remain supreme.
I think we meet people like this throughout our lives: things seem amazing for them at the moment, they seem to have everything going for them. But we also have a sense that this is as good as it’s going to get for them. Carolyn has money and intelligence and sophistication. Brooke has her appearance and her history in the town. It’s not surprising that she’s threatened by Carolyn. I think it’s important to try to understand what motivates people. What makes people who might otherwise be good do terrible or thoughtless things.
V: And I’m so curious how you came to create the character of Carolyn, whose very perfection and admirability seems to produce the circumstances for her victimisation. What really provokes her downfall?
Sarah: I guess that’s ultimately as a question for the reader, but I think it’s a variety of factors.
At one point in the novel the narrators relate that Carolyn’s handwriting is so perfect it looks like a font. She’s perfectly groomed, she’s perfectly poised, she’s almost unbearably thin. And you can’t help but wonder how hard it is to maintain that kind of perfection, and why she feels the need to do it. As the novel progresses, we see that Carolyn has difficulties of her own: her parents are separated, her mother seems to hold only a passing interest in her. Carolyn is a girl whose life is in many ways outside of her control. So she puts in measures to try to control things, and not very many of those measures are healthy or sustainable.
Carolyn’s environment also plays a role in her downfall, obviously. One of the primary reasons bullying happens is because people are trying to maintain a social order that they think is right or important. So Carolyn’s entrance into the Adams High is disruptive to what the school, and the town, have come to value. Her very existence challenges what the school, and the town, think of themselves. And people very rarely like change.
V: Why do you think boys get off so lightly, compared to girls, in the social jungle of adolescence?
Sarah: I’m not sure the boys in Weightless get off quite so lightly. But if that impression is there, I think it’s probably because the narrators themselves are female. Weightless is in many ways a female war.
But the boys have their own difficulties, even if the narrators are less attuned to them. Shane Duggan and Andrew Wright begin the novel as best friends and by the middle they are threatening to fight one another in the parking lot. Shane, in some ways like Carolyn, is placed in the role of ‘boy wonder’. Everything he does is meant to be perfect. The school’s obsession with football may be exciting for him while he’s in high school, but where does that leave him when school is over? Is this as good as it will ever get for him?
Certainly there are double standards around sexuality for the boys and girls. I think that’s age-old but the internet is pushing this double standard into our faces. In Weightless , when a video of Carolyn and Shane goes viral, Carolyn is ostracized and Shane is applauded. Or at least he’s not reprimanded. As a society I think we’re fairly confused about what we think about female teenage sexuality. There’s an expectation that girls should be pure and perfect, and then there’s the feeling that ‘boys will be boys.’ I wanted the book to shine a light on that hypocrisy, at least in a small way.
V: Do you think that life for adolescents is significantly different in America (where this novel is set) to life in the UK?
Sarah: For better or worse, distinct areas have become more global. The novel is set in a town called Adamsville, and I named it that to imply that this could happen anywhere. The story of the book is, in many ways, timeless. A stranger comes to town. Unsettles the community. A drama unfolds.
Adamsville is very contained. It’s wary of the outside world. But it’s a town of contrasts: old and new parts of town. Slow cooking, fast food. Kids quoting bible passages on Facebook and then circulating pornographic material in the next instant. It’s a town that wants to retain its sense of identity but seems unaware of how influenced it is by global culture. It’s a community that feels under vague threat. It’s economically deprived. There are few opportunities for kids after school. This may be the best time of their lives. And that’s actually a depressing thought.
I imagine the problems of Adamsville are similar in small towns and suburbs up and down the UK. I imagine city life is slightly different. I think the diversity and pace of cities makes teen dynamics slightly different, but not any less frightening.
V: There’s such a strong sense of dislocation between teens and their parents in the novel. Do you think that’s an inevitable experience, or would the lives of the characters have been easier, better, if they’d had strong family bonds to rely on?
Sarah: Adamsville is a place that prides itself on its family values. Yet the definition of what those values actually are is hard to get your head around. It’s all very superficial. You get the sense that none of the adults actually want to really know what’s going on. Most of the parents in Adamsville believe that if their kids go to church, they’ll be instilled with strong values. But their emphasis is on appearance only, and there’s no point in the novel in which the young people are encouraged to be kind to one another. There’s lots of judgment and talking about right and wrong. But not so much talking about how we treat our neighbours. How to turn the other cheek.
The parents and the faculty of the school seem overly concerned with achievement, rather than character formation. And I think that’s a flaw in how we raise kids today, and the values we take with us into the workplace. Into our own communities. I was part of the ‘self-esteem’ generation, so I got a ribbon for everything. And that was great, I think, in that I left school with confidence. But it was also all about the individual. On individual achievement. I think it would be nice to think of us going through a ‘character’ generation. Where kids are encouraged – by the adults in their lives – to form strong character and a sense of empathy.
V: I found this an obsessive book to read – I couldn’t put it down and it filled my head while I was reading it. Was it like that to write? Did you need a mental detox by the end of the writing day?
Sarah: I have a full-time job and I had a daughter when I was writing Weightless …so my detox was just getting on with laundry and cooking and groceries (and catching up on Netflix, if possible!).
But, yes, I found certain scenes very hard to write, emotionally, and I take lots of walks in any day that I’m writing. I do a lot of running, too, and that’s always good for clearing my head. Those types of activities, though, are also excellent for spurring creativity, so sometimes I would go out with the intention of clearing my head and come back with it full again!
V: I’d love to know which authors have been the most inspirational to you – and what are you reading right now?
Sarah: So many writers have been inspirational to me. And there are so many whose work I admire and whose approach to writing has inspired me…the long list, at the moment, consists of:
Jane Austen, Chris Binchy, John Boyne Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Jeffrey Eugenides, Claire Kilroy, Colum McCann, Paul Murray, Tom Perrotta, Curtis Sittenfeld, Meg Wolitzer.
And in terms of what I’m reading now….
Early this year I got a proof copy of Anne Enright’s new novel The Green Road, which is out in May. I loved every word. Like all of Enright’s work, it’s sharp and wise and witty and beautifully written, sentence by sentence.
I also just read Lia Mills’s novel Fallen – it’s one of these books that people kept pressing into my hand, and now I’m doing the same to others! It’s a remarkable story, superbly written. A love story set against the backdrop of the First World War and the Easter Rising.
I was blown away by Anne Tyler’s latest, A Spool of Blue Thread. It’s absolutely wonderful. Stunning story, fully formed characters, incredible sense of place.
Right now, I’m re-reading Louise O’Neill’s dystopian YA novel Only Ever Yours because we’re doing an event together next month, and it’s a haunting, beautifully constructed novel. And a total page-turner.
And next up for me will be Gavin Corbett’s new novel, also out in May, called Green Glowing Skull. His first novel, This is the Way, was brilliant and he’s a seriously talented writer.
V: Thank you Sarah.
Sarah Bannan, Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus: London, 2015) 978-1408856420, 352 pp. hardback.