Looking for your next gripping read? We’ve found the answer. Billed as Puberty Blues meets Lolita for the digital age, Kirsten Krauth’s debut novel just_a_girl is a lyrically written but tough-minded exploration of what it means to be a teenage girl in the age of selfies, sexting and social media hook-ups. Set in the lower Blue Mountains and in western Sydney, it’s the story of 14-year-old Layla, a seared but sensitive soul who’s trying to define herself and understand the girls and women, boys and men orbiting around her.
Interspersed with our heroine’s first-person accounts, Krauth also gives us a borderline-manic stream of consciousness from Layla’s frazzled born-again Christian mum and a moody depiction of a lonely Japanese man whose odd romance with a sex doll has strange intersections with Layla’s journeys both physical and metaphorical.
Yen talked to Krauth about the evolution of her novel – and asked for her advice to aspiring authors.
Did just_a_girl evolve from an image, question or character flash? I guess ‘character flash’ would be most accurate. Layla’s voice emerged when I started playing around with hypertext. I was doing some experimental writing that I hoped would become a digital literature project. I’d start with a paragraph, choose a word to use as a link, and then play around that word in the next paragraph, and so on. Layla’s disjointed voice started to filter through. I really enjoyed this riffing with words but I stopped the project after a while. When I began a Masters in Creative Writing, Layla started coming to life again; I couldn’t let her go.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing a novel? Structure and pace are the two things I find most challenging. I enjoy writing at the word level, concentrating on rhythm, the sentence, the paragraph. I’m what everyone seems to call a ‘pantser’ these days and I don’t plot at all before I write. When I’ve read and done a number of drafts I find it difficult to step back and see where the dull patches are. And working on your first novel, it’s all pretty new anyway. But that’s why it always helps to bring in an editor; they spot these things immediately, and can give you a fresh perspective.
And the most rewarding? I love those first drafts, where I’m pumping out the words, getting to know my characters, wondering where they are heading, trying to find the connections that will draw them together. I like the energy of the early writing, where I am pouring emotion and action onto the page. I think [Aussie author] Emily Maguire calls it the ‘writing hot’ part (you ‘edit cool’).
You’re not a 14-year-old girl — how did you get into Layla’s head and stay there? I think I am a 14-year-old girl, really. I don’t know how much any of us really ‘grow up’. We perhaps just get better at concealing things. Like Layla, I was a bit of a precocious teen. Unlike Layla (probably fortunately), I did not have home access to computers or the internet or email or mobiles when I was growing up in the 1980s. As an adult I used to commute four hours a day from Springwood in the Blue Mountains (where Layla lives) to work in Kings Cross. I had a lot of time to listen to girls on the train. I was interested in how things had changed (and how they had stayed the same). I started noting down conversations. Once I got Layla’s frenetic style, and some of her word-tics, I found it easy to get into character. She is full of contradictions and that’s great for a writer to explore.
Did you get girls from the age group to read it as you wrote? As it was very clearly an adult novel (even though it has a young voice), I was reluctant to show it to younger readers. I spent a lot of time on MySpace and Facebook at the time researching how girls chatted, presented themselves, what info I could glean about them. I showed it to a couple of girls a bit older, and they enjoyed it. I think most people remember what it was like to be a teenager.
There’s also an older mum character: is there much of you in her… and you in Layla? Margot and I are pretty different. She was a difficult character to write, because she is quite passive, and the book depends on this for some of its machinations (involving Mr C). I have two small children and I wrote her character before I had kids, and then had to rewrite once I gave birth, because the details of the experience made things so different. Margot is a woman struggling with being a single mother. I found being a mother challenging at times (and it’s not something people talk about often) so I gave some of those thoughts to Margot (in a more extreme version). There is more of me in Layla. While I was more nerdy than cocky at high school, I shared some of her situations: the child of divorced parents, having some painful first boyfriends! I tended to have a cynical take on things too.